By John Lee Pendall
Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that focuses on meditation and sudden awakening.
There are thousands of Zen doctrines, hundreds of rituals, and dozens of meditation methods that vary from school to school. It’s a lineage of practice that can be traced back to Song-era China (all the lineages before then are probably made up).
That said, Zen isn’t any of that all. To really get the full flavor of Zen, we’ve got to see through the myth and look at the evidence. By the mid-Tang, Bodhidharma‘s verse was basically Zen dogma:
A separate transmission outside the teachings
Not established by words and letters
Pointing directly to the human heart
Seeing nature, becoming a Buddha.
Odds are, Bodhidharma never said that. Actually, Bodhidharma probably never even existed. But that verse gives us a trace of what Zen was before it became, well, Zen. It’s a nod back to its proto-Zen roots.
Prior to the monastery built on East Mountain, Zennists didn’t have their own meditation methods, precepts or scriptures. They were Buddhist monastics practicing in whatever tradition they were ordained in. Some weren’t even Buddhist at all—a few were Taoists and Confucians (no Legalists, though. Bureaucrats can’t practice Zen).
Among all those traditions, every now and Zen (haha) someone would unexpectedly experience what was later called silent illumination. In the parlance of Bodhidharma’s verse, it’s called chuan, or passing the light along.
This usually happened when a person’s heart was open and they had a simple chat with someone else who experienced illumination. After that experience, the freshly broken person feels the need to pass the light along to someone else, because it’s something to be shared.
The thing is, Buddhism doesn’t have a monopoly on illumination.
Mystics from all religions and philosophies throughout that ages have experienced it as well. It just so happened that the Buddhists who experienced it eventually got together and formed a school around it, complete with their own set of robes and monastic precepts. They even created a mostly fictional lineage, tracing transmission all the way back to the Buddha. They invented a story where Buddha held up a flower in front of a congregation, which was enough for Mahakashyapa to experience it, actualize it and pass it on to Ananda.
I’m not gonna say that that’s entirely a steaming load of donkey shit, because I have personal experiences that seem to say that there is some truth to it. I will say that, apart from Siddhartha’s name on that list, most of the others probably didn’t experience “Zen.” I’m 100% positive that Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna didn’t, because they were both voracious writers, so I doubt that they could’ve prevented themselves from bringing it up, at least in passing.
Actually, Nagarjuna would’ve probably scoffed at the idea of Dharma transmission, and Vasubandhu would’ve said, “It’s all in the mind, dude.”
I can only say that whomever wrote Trust in Mind, Song of Mind, and the Platform Sutra clearly experienced Dharma transmission, because those texts are so luminous that they practically melt your face off when you read them. If you’re practicing your practice well, and you pick up one of those books, I guarantee you’ll experience it too.
Regarding Zen Buddhism as a school, the only teaching I have any trust in is the verse from above, and the only method I cherish is chatting with people. My main seated meditation method isn’t even Zen Buddhist, it’s Taoist zuowang (sitting and forgetting) practice.
And that’s alright because, beneath it all, Zen is about the One Heart (wuxin), the one spark that we can share with each other. Everything else—all the teachings, rituals, and methods—are just ways for us to trust in that One Heart, which is the same as the Buddha’s.
So if you can trust that 100% right away, then BAM, you’ll be luminous on the spot. If not, then the teachings and methods are there to give you a reason to trust that. Most of us need a reason—I know I did. I still do at times.
The beauty of this is that it vibes with the Bodhisattva ideal.
When we see Zen as that passing along of the One Heart, then we can work with everyone wherever they are. My grandma is a lifelong Roman Catholic, so I’m sure as shit not going to talk to her about Buddhism. I’m gonna talk to her about God and Catholicism and throw in a few curve balls that try to open her mind up for that luminous moment. I’m Buddhist as Buddhist can be, but I’m still going to go to church with her this Saturday afternoon. I’ll just sit quietly whenever the priest says, “Let us pray.” And that’s fine, that’s how Zen was practiced before it became its own school.
If I’m talking with an empiricist, I’m going to be empirical as fuck and try to use science to do the same thing. Zen is Buddhism by coincidence, not by design. The coincidence is that Mahayana Buddhist schools tend to ready the mind for illumination better than, say, unhindered hedonism will. The point is that you don’t have to be a Zen Buddhist to be a Zen Buddhist. You can take the old road and practice any type of Buddhism (or, uh-hem, any religion or philosophy) you want.
Because Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist.
He was a guy who practiced several different religions until he finally sat down and let the morning star shed some light on himself. So, to truly practice Zen to its fullest potential, it’s helpful to let go of Zen Buddhism as its own thing and see that it’s something more than that.
It’s that One Heart that aches to beat in time with another.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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