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Zen Essence

Zen Essence

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by Thomas Cleary

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Drawn from the records of Chinese Zen masters of the Tang and Song dynasties, this collection may surprise some readers. In contrast to the popular image of Zen as an authoritarian, monastic tradition deeply rooted in Asian culture, these passages portray Zen as remarkably flexible, adaptive to contemporary and individual needs, and transcending cultural


Drawn from the records of Chinese Zen masters of the Tang and Song dynasties, this collection may surprise some readers. In contrast to the popular image of Zen as an authoritarian, monastic tradition deeply rooted in Asian culture, these passages portray Zen as remarkably flexible, adaptive to contemporary and individual needs, and transcending cultural boundaries.

The readings contained in Zen Essence emphasize that the practice of Zen requires consciousness alone and does not depend on a background in Zen Buddhism and Asian culture. The true essence of Zen resides in the relationship between mind and culture, whatever that culture might be. This unique collection of writings creates a picture of Zen not as a religion or philosophy, but as a practical science of freedom.

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Perception and Understanding

People who study Buddhism should seek real, true perception and understanding for now.
If you attain real, true perception and understanding, birth and death don't affect you—you are free to go or stay. You needn't seek wonders, for wonders come of themselves.

I point out to you is only that you shouldn't allow yourselves to be confused by others. Act when you need to, without further hesitation or doubt.

People today can't do this—what is their affliction? Their affliction is in their lack of self-confidence.

If you do not spontaneously trust yourself sufficiently, you will be in a frantic state, pursuing all sorts of objects and being changed by those objects, unable to be independent.

There is no stability in the world; it is like a house on fire. This is not a place where you can stay for a long time. The murderous demon of impermanence is instantaneous, and it does not choose between the upper and lower classes, or between the old and the young.

If you want to be no different from the buddhas and Zen masters, just don't seek externally.

The pure light in a moment of awareness in your mind is the Buddha's essence within you. The nondiscriminating light in a moment of awareness in your mind is the
Buddha's wisdom within you. The undifferentiated light in a moment of awareness in your mind is the Buddha's manifestation within you.


It is most urgent that you seek real, true perception and understanding, so you can be free in the world and not be confused by ordinary spiritualists.

It is best to have no obsessions. Just don't be contrived. Simply be normal.

You impulsively seek elsewhere, looking to others for your own hands and feet. This is already mistaken.

Mind Ground

The mind ground can go into the ordinary, into the holy, into the pure, into the defiled, into the real, into the conventional; but it is not your
"real" or "conventional," "ordinary" or
"holy." It can put labels on all the real and conventional, the ordinary and holy, but the real and conventional, the ordinary and holy, cannot put labels on someone in the mind ground. If you can get it, use it, without putting any more labels on it.


When followers of Zen come to see me, I have already understood them completely. How can I do this? Simply because my perception is independent—externally I do not grasp the ordinary or the holy, internally I do not dwell on the fundamental. I
see all the way through and do not doubt or err anymore.

Just be autonomous wherever you are, and right there is realization. Situations that come up cannot change you. Even if you have bad habits, you will spontaneously be liberated from them.


Zen students today are totally unaware of truth. They are like foraging goats that pick up whatever they bump into. They do not distinguish between the servant and the master, or between the guest and the host.

People like this enter Zen with distorted minds, and are unable to enter effectively into dynamic situations. They may be called true initiates, but actually they are really mundane people.

Those who really leave attachments must master real, true perception to distinguish the enlightened from the obsessed, the genuine from the artificial, the unregenerate from the sage.

If you can make these discernments, you can be said to have really left dependency.

Buddhist clergy who cannot tell obsession from enlightenment have just left one social group and entered another social group. They cannot really be said to be independent.

Now there is an obsession with Buddhism that is mixed in with the real thing. Those with clear eyes cut through both obsession and Buddhism. If you love the sacred and despise the ordinary, you are still bobbing in the ocean of delusion.

Labels and Objective Truth

Because you grasp labels and slogans, you are hindered by those labels and slogans,
both those used in ordinary life and those considered sacred. Thus they obstruct your perception of objective truth, and you cannot understand clearly.

If you want to be free, get to know your real self. It has no form, no appearance,
no root, no basis, no abode, but is lively and buoyant. It responds with versatile facility, but its function cannot be located. Therefore when you look for it you become further from it, when you seek it you turn away from it all the more.

Just put thoughts to rest and don't seek outwardly anymore. When things come up,
then give them your attention; just trust what is functional in you at present,
and you have nothing to be concerned about.


There are blind baldies who, after they have eaten their fill, do zazen and practice meditation, arresting thoughts leaking out to prevent them from arising,
shunning clamor and seeking quiet. This is a deviated form of Zen.


You take the words of these ordinary Zen teachers for the real Way, supposing that
Zen teachers are incomprehensible and as an ordinary person you dare not attempt to assess those old timers. You are blind if you take this view all your life, contrary to the evidence of your own two eyes.


Zen centers they say there is a Way to be practiced and a religious truth to be realized. Tell me, what religious truth is realized, what way is practiced? In your present functioning, what do you lack?

What would you fix?

Younger newcomers, not understanding this, immediately believe these mesmerists and let them talk about things that tie people up.


The six supernormal faculties of the enlightened are the ability to enter the realm of form without being confused by form, to enter the realm of sound without being confused by sound, to enter the realm of scent without being confused by scent, to enter the realm of flavor without being confused by flavor, to enter the realm of feeling without being confused by feeling, to enter the realm of phenomena without being confused by phenomena.

Perception and Understanding

If you want to perceive and understand objectively, just don't allow yourself to be confused by people. Detach from whatever you find inside or outside yourself—detach from religion, tradition, and society, and only then will you attain liberation. When you are not entangled in things, you pass through freely to autonomy.


have no doctrine to give people—I just cure ailments and unlock fetters.

Mud to Dirt

There are Zen students who are in chains when they go to a teacher, and the teacher adds another chain. The students are delighted, unable to discern one thing from another. This is called a guest looking at a guest.

I say there is nothing outside, students who do not understand me interpret this in terms of inwardness, so they sit silent and still, taking this to be
Zen Buddhism.

This is a big mistake. If you take a state of unmoving clarity to be Zen, you are recognizing ignorance as a slave master.

Movement and Stillness

If you try to grasp Zen in movement, it goes into stillness. If you try to grasp
Zen in stillness, it goes into movement. It is like a fish hidden in a spring,
drumming up waves and dancing independently.

Movement and stillness are two states. The Zen master, who does not depend on anything,
makes deliberate use of both movement and stillness.

Meet the Author

Thomas Cleary holds a PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University and a JD from the University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law. He is the translator of over fifty volumes of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and Islamic texts from Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Pali, and Arabic.

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