October 15th, 2014

Simplicity And Difficulty In Zen

The Threefold Question in Zen

D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966)

 " Zen is a kind of self-consciousness. I see a table before me. I know that I am the one who sees it, and I am fully conscious of myself experiencing the event. But Zen is not here yet, something more must be added to it, or must be discovered in it, in order to make this event of seeing really Zen. The question is now: what is this something?

It is in all likelihood that which turns my eye inside out and sees itself, not as a reflection, but as a kind of super-self which is hidden behind the moral and psychological self. I call this discovery spiritual self-consciousness. It unfolds itself from the depths of consciousness. No hammering at the door from outside will open it—it opens by itself from within.

In spite of this fact, we must do some hammering from outside, although this may be of no avail as the direct and efficient cause of opening. Yet it must be somehow carried on, for without it there will be no opening. Perhaps the door remains wide open all the time, open to welcome us in, and it is we who hesitate before it; someone is needed to push us in.

The entering may not be due to the pushing, but when one sees somebody halting before the door, one feels like pushing him in.

D.T. Suzuki

Excerpted from The Awakening of Zen

The Unborn

Zen Master Bankei (1622-1693)

Your unborn mind is the Buddha-mind itself, and it is unconcerned with either birth or death. As evidence that it is, when you look at things, you're able to see and distinguish them all at once. And as you are doing that, if a bird sings or a bell tolls, or other noises or sounds occur, you hear and recognize each of them too, even though you haven't given rise to a single thought to do so.

Everything in your life, from morning until night, proceeds in this same way, without your having to depend upon thought or reflection. But most people are unaware of that; they think everything is a result of their deliberation and discrimination. That's a great mistake.

The mind of the Buddhas and the minds of ordinary people are not two different minds. Those who strive earnestly in their practice because they want to attain satori, or to discover their self-mind, are likewise greatly mistaken.

Everyone who recites the Heart Sutra knows that "the mind is unborn and undying." But they haven't sounded the source of the Unborn. They still have the idea that they can find their way to the unborn mind and attain Buddhahood by using reason and discrimination. As soon as the notion to seek Buddhahood or to attain the Way enters your mind, you've gone astray from the Unborn—gone against what is unborn in you..."

Zen Master Bankei (1622-1693)

excerpted from The Unborn The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei translated by Normal Waddell 1984


These two selections seem to stretch the boundaries a bit. They almost seem to contradict each other, but such is the flavor of different teachers. In reality they are talking about the same phenomenon, something so natural to who we are and how we function when we don't complicate things, it is easy to overlook it. And in fact is a challenge for us.

Both these men reveal the utter simplicity of Zen, or the Unborn as Bankei refers to it, and both of them also acknowledge the difficulties in truly seeing, barriers we mostly put up for ourselves.

Perhaps it comes down to relaxing our grip a bit; when we squint to see something in the distance or periphery, our vision narrows. Maybe we should soften our vision, trust in the Way, and discover a relaxed mind to work from. Not to give up our efforts all together in discouragement, but to go forward into the darkness gently feeling our way through.

Walking side by side,


Dionysius the Areopagite - from The Doctrine of Infinite Growth

Lead us up beyond unknowing and light,
     up to the farthest, highest peak
          of mystic scripture,
     where the mysteries of God's Word
          lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
          in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
     Amid the deepest shadow
          they pour overwhelming light
          on what is most manifest.
     Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
          they completely fill our sightless minds
     with treasures beyond all beauty.

-- from The Essential Mystics: Selections from the World's Great Wisdom Traditions, Edited by Andrew Harve
Poetry Chaikhana | Dionysius the Areopagite - from The Doctrine of Infinite Growth

Isaac of Syria, 7th Century Universalist.

"When giving, give magnanimously with a look of kindness on your face, and give more than what is asked of you.

Do not distinguish the worthy from the unworthy. Let everyone be equal to you for good deeds, so that you may be able to also attract the unworthy toward goodness, because through outside acts, the soul quickly learns to be reverent before God.

He who shows kindness toward the poor has God as his guardian, and he who becomes poor for the sake of God will acquire abundant treasures. God is pleased when He sees people showing concern for others for His sake. When someone asks you for something, don’t think: "Just in case I might need it, I shall leave it for myself, and God — through other people — will give that person what he requires." These types of thoughts are peculiar to people that are iniquitous and do not know God. A just and generous person would not compromise the honor of helping and relinquish it to another person, and he would never pass up an opportunity to help. Every beggar and every needy person receives the necessary essentials, because God doesn’t neglect anyone. But you, having sent away the destitute with nothing, spurned the honor offered to you by God and thereby, distanced yourself from His grace.

Through God’s providence, he who respects every person for God’s sake, privately acquires help from every human being."
Isaac of Nineveh - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia