Read an Excerpt
From The Mirror of Zen
There is only one thing, from the very beginning, infinitely bright and mysterious by nature.
It was never born, and it never dies. It cannot be described or given a name.
What is this “one thing”?
An eminent teacher wrote,
Even before the ancient Buddhas were born,
One thing was already perfectly complete.
Even Shakyamuni Buddha could not understand it.
How could he transmit it to Mahakashyapa?
There is one “thing” that is never born, and never dies. For this reason it cannot be named in any way, or expressed, or depicted.
The Sixth Patriarch of Zen once addressed the assembly thus: “I have something that has no name and no form. Do any of you see it?” Zen Master Shen-hui immediately replied, “It is the essence of all Buddhas, and also my buddha-nature.” Due to this answer, Shen-hui cannot be considered a legitimate heir and descendant of the Sixth Patriarch.
Zen Master Nan-yueh came from Mount Seung Sahn to see the Sixth Patriarch, who asked, “What is it that comes here like this?” Nan-yueh was completely stuck, and could not answer anything. After eight years of practice, he finally attained enlightenment and said, “If you even call this a ‘thing,’ it is not correct.” This answer is why Nan-yueh thus became the premier Dharma heir and successor of the Sixth Patriarch.
The sages of the three great teachings
Can be found in this phrase.
Who dares express it must be careful—
Your eyebrows may fall out!
The appearance of all Buddhas and Patriarchs in this world can be likened to waves arising suddenly on a windless ocean.
The word Buddha refers to Shakyamuni Buddha, and Patriarch refers to the Venerable Mahakashyapa. Their coming into the world means that, out of great kindness and great compassion, they appeared in order to save all sentient beings from suffering.
In view of “the one thing,” however, everyone’s original nature is already complete, just as it is. Why have we come to depend on others, always wanting to dress up this simple matter with more powder and rouge? Therefore their coming into this world can be viewed in just the same way you would if waves were to somehow arise on a sea without wind. This is the reason why the Maha Sunyata Sutra says, “Words on a page are demon-karma, names and forms are demon-karma, and even the Buddha’s own speech is demon-karma.”
All of this is just to say that when you correctly attain your original nature, both Buddha and Patriarchs are no longer of any use to you.
Light fades away in heaven and earth,
When the sun and moon grow dark.
Yet, dharma has many depths of meaning, and people have different capacities to receive it. Therefore it is necessary to adopt different kinds of skillful means.
Dharma refers to the one thing, and people refers to all sentient beings. Dharma has two aspects: it never changes, and yet it also follows conditions, cause and effect. People also have two kinds of capacity: they always have the ability to awaken to themselves in an instant, while there is the constant need to refine themselves through gradual practices as well. Therefore it is necessary to adopt different kinds of skillful means employing words and speech. There is an old adage that goes, “According to official policy, even giving so much as a needle tip as a bribe is strictly prohibited. Yet in actual reality, horse-drawn carts laden up with bribes endlessly come and go.”
Sentient beings’ original nature is already complete, but they do not open their wisdom eye, and thus, of their own free will, fall into the cycle of rebirth (samsara). Without the gleaming sword of Wisdom transcending worldly matters, who could cut through the heavy veil of ignorance? Owing to the Buddha’s great kindness and compassion, we are enabled to cross the ocean of suffering and arrive on the other side. Were we to sacrifice our life as many times as there are sands in the Ganges River, it would still be difficult to repay even the tiniest portion of this debt.
All of this demonstrates how much we should truly appreciate the blessings of the Buddha and the Patriarchs and redouble
our efforts anew to attain our original nature.
The king mounts the royal throne.
An old man in the countryside sings a song.
You may call it “mind,” or “Buddha,” or “sentient being.” Yet you should neither become attached to the names nor make distinctions or understanding. The essence of things is just-like-this. If even one thought appears, that is already a mistake.
Sutra teachings rely on words such as these three names (“mind,” “Buddha,” “sentient being”) to express the one thing. Zen meditation teaches that you must not become attached to any words or speech.
Picking it up or putting it down. Creating or destroying. These are the actions of a Free Person who is without any hindrance.
The selection above demonstrates how Buddhas and Patriarchs have freely used myriad expedient means to convey their teachings.
It’s like sweet rain falling after a long drought;
Like encountering an old friend in a faraway,