(Follow this link to see the April 2021 Priory Newsletter where this was published.)
One of my favorite short pieces of Zen Buddhist Teaching is Bodhidharma’s Outline of Practice. In his opening comment to his translation of this work, D.T. Suzuki says “As long as Zen appeals to one’s direct experience, abstraction is too inane for the mind of a master.” In the study of the Zen literature, there is an ongoing process of coming to see how what is talked about applies directly to our life of practice and is not just something exotic and mysterious. Of course, there is a pitfall here: the hazard of taking a thing which points to a profound truth that we do not yet fully understand, and trivializing it.
With the effort to both keep from getting mired in abstraction and keep from trivializing (bringing the teaching down to my level), I thought it would be helpful to dig into this work.
I am going to use Red Pine’s North Point Press translation from “The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma” (copyright 1987, Red Pine ) for most of this.
Bodhidharma starts with:
“Many roads lead to the Path, but basically there are only two: reason and practice. To enter by reason means to realize the essence through instruction and to believe that all living things share the same true nature, which isn’t apparent because it’s shrouded by sensation and delusion.”
The Path here is the living Path of Zen practice; the living practice of meditation in action, not just on our cushion. Zen practice is a thing to be lived out in our day to day lives and isn’t just a nice thing to think about. To enter by reason then, is something a little different form what we usually expect from reason, expect from “what our thinking mind produces.” To enter by reason is the process of awakening to the life of practice, to our own deeper life, by applying the meditation of the Buddhadharma, the moment by moment mind of meditation, to our actual life.
To believe (I might have used the phrase, as other translators do, “to have faith” since to have faith is a little more flexible and does not require proof) [to have faith] that all living things share the same true nature is to live in faith that there is something bigger going on in this life; there is a bigger compassionate mind that permeates and embraces all beings, all of existence. We come to know this directly through the life of meditation. Because we get distracted by sensations and our accumulated confusion, we don’t yet see this bigger mind.
“Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who meditate on walls, the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason. Without moving, without effort, they enter, we say, by reason.”
Meditating on walls is, we say, the facing of the self: there is nowhere to hide. We sit quietly and look at what is there, not fighting with the “wall” in front of us, just sitting quietly with it, with whatever arises. Facing and accepting the self is to let it be there; the mind of Zazen lets whatever arises be there, neither grasping after nor pushing away. This is not necessarily particularly comfortable. It is not particularly comfortable, but, as we sit still, we might notice that the self, the “whatever arises” also shifts and changes; our relationship to it changes; it passes away.
The meditating on the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage is the letting go of our dualistic preoccupations from moment to moment; just noticing and dropping them without trying to think about or analyze them, just dropping them. The entry by reason takes a fair bit of internal study in the sense of alertness. We have to learn to pay attention to what we are holding onto and how to drop it. This is not just the study we do on our own: perhaps unnoticed here is the one who gives the instruction. Bodhidharma had a teacher, the woman Prajnatara. She not only explained the formal aspect of the Dharma to him, but also helped him to see what his dualistic preoccupations were; she helped him to see how he got distracted by sensations and what his accumulated delusions were – accumulated delusions is another name for dualistic preoccupations. In turn, Bodhidharma had students who he helped in the same way; Bodhidharma continues to offer his instruction to us, even now.
Those who live from the mind of Zazen are in complete and unspoken agreement with this special kind of reason. Living from the mind of Zazen isn’t just doing formal meditation once or twice or ten times a day. It is letting go of, turning from, dropping the activity of mind throughout the day. And, it is just getting on and living wholeheartedly the ordinary life that is right in front of us today.
To be continued ….