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Here is the inimitable Master Sheng Yen at his best, illuminating the ancient texts of the Chinese Zen tradition to show how wonderfully practical they really are, even for us today. The texts, written by two of the founders of the Ts’ao-tung sect of Chan Buddhism, are poems entitled Inquiry into Matching Halves and Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi. Both emphasize the Chan view that wisdom is not separate from vexation, and both speak of the levels of awareness through which one must pass on the way to ...
Here is the inimitable Master Sheng Yen at his best, illuminating the ancient texts of the Chinese Zen tradition to show how wonderfully practical they really are, even for us today. The texts, written by two of the founders of the Ts’ao-tung sect of Chan Buddhism, are poems entitled Inquiry into Matching Halves and Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi. Both emphasize the Chan view that wisdom is not separate from vexation, and both speak of the levels of awareness through which one must pass on the way to realization. Both are also works of Buddhist philosophy that can serve as guides to spiritual practice for anyone.
From Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi
Several Buddhist works have been written in the form of songs or poems. Perhaps the most famous is the Song of Enlightenment. A teaching written in verse is easily communicated to others. Verse helps the reader absorb material quickly and thoroughly.
In the Ts'ao-tung sect, the Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi was used to transmit the Dharma from master to disciple. People who wanted to follow the teachings and practice the methods of the Ts'ao-tung sect were given this song to study and memorize.
Now we will enter the song. The first two lines:
It is this very Dharma
The Buddha and Patriarchs secretly
The first two lines state that the Dharma is transmitted in private. It is not a public announcement. It is similar to two people having a code that they and only they understand. The first historic transmission occured between Sakyamuni Buddha and his disciple, Mahakasyapa. After giving a sermon to his senior disciples, Sakyamuni Buddha picked up a flower and held it silently before the assembly. All the monks except one were mystified. Mahakasyapa alone understood the Buddha's meaning, and he smiled in response. Thus, Sakyamuni transmitted the Dharma to Mahakasyapa, the first patriarch. In turn, Mahakasyapa transmitted the Dharma to his successor, and so on, generation after generation to the present.
The Dharma that is transmitted is precisely this precious mirror samadhi - true nature. It is secret in that it is known only by enlightened Buddhists, patriarchs, and masters. Only the master and the disciple to whom it is being transmitted are aware of it. Those who do not fully understand the Dharma have no idea of what is happening. Sakyamuni lifts a flower, Mahakasyapa smiles, and the Dharma is transmitted. No one else understands.
According to the sutras, however, Buddhadharma is innate in all sentient beings. It does not have to be given to us by the Buddha. It does not have to be passed from master to disciple. The Ch'an sect maintains that nothing is transmitted. Dharma is within us, so there is no need for transmission. What, then, is the transmission referred to in the first two lines of the Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi? It is true that there is a formal ritual, where something is given or transmitted, but it is only a ritual. Nothing is really given by a master to his disciple. The ritual is simply an affirmation that the master and disciple have come to the same understanding. The master is giving his seal of approval.
An analogy would be the diploma a student receives upon graduation. It represents the student's education: it affirms that the student has attended school for a certain period of time and has passed the examinations. But the diploma has no intrinsic value. It is not knowledge. It is a symbol. During the T'ang dynasty, a scholar wrote an article about teachers and masters, which said that their functions are to transmit the path or the truth, to teach the students the proper course of work and study, and finally, to help students in their removal of doubt. Later, during the Ming dynasty, Master Ou-i, a Buddhist monk, commented on the article. He said that a teacher does indeed possess the latter two functions, that of teaching a proper course and removing doubt, but one person does not transmit the Buddha path to another person. The path exists everywhere: in ashes, in clay, in hair.
Where then is this path, this Tao? Is it in clay pots and fireplaces? Is it in your hair? Does it mean the path shrinks when you get a haircut? What about me, I'm bald? If you went beyond hair and cut off your head, would you succeed in removing the Tao? No, this is all foolishness. Cutting off your head is nothing more than suicide. It does, however, raise an interesting question. Can killing be the Tao? If we understand it as a way of doing something, or getting somewhere, then killing cannot be considered a path. But if we understand the Tao as the ultimate reality, then in that sense there is no such thing as killing or not killing.