Although the words ‘C’han’ and ‘Zen’ have their roots in the Sanskrit word Dhyana, [formal-meditation practice], they are rebelliously original children of the Dharma.
And no extant formal tradition has so dedicated its purpose, approached as close to the truth of the Prajñā-Pāramithā as Chinese C’han and its magnificent offspring, Japanese Zen.
Chinese, and later Japanese culture, as it did with the German-invented motor-car, improved on their Indian import to the point where aspiring Indian gurus today find it fashionable to drop spectacularly misinterpreted Koans as part of their weekly homilies.
Bodhidharman [who most likely carried with him the Lankavatara, a less austere and inexorable text than the Prajna Paramita.] defined the ends of Zen Practice as follows:
‘A special transmission outside the scriptures; no dependence on words and letters; seeing into one’s Self-Nature, and the attaining Buddha-hood.’
What was the ‘Self’ that this ‘Self-Nature’ belonged to?
This idea of ‘Self-Nature’ becomes the central Chinese expression ‘Hsing’ which finds such liberal use in later Zen texts [Fo-Hsing, Buddha-Nature; Fa-Hsing, Dharma-Nature; and so on].
There are examples aplenty [certainly so in the regressed level of contemporary Sangha Teaching] where ‘Hsing‘ ends up being an exact parallel to the Vedanthic ‘Self’.
The dominant East-Asian [Sino-Korean-Japanese] flavor of C’han-Zen was given to it by its 6th Chinese patriarch, Hui-neng [638-713 CE] and his ‘Platform-Sutras’ [T’an-cheng]. [And an important Mentor to me in his writings].
With Hui-neng, the old symbol of ‘K’an-ching‘, to keep an eye on purity, became ‘Chien-hsing‘. The former symbol was that of ‘hand and eye’, the separated observer, while Chien-hsing, an eye alone, was pure un-bifurcated ‘Seeing’.
Unbifurcated Seeing then was true ‘Seeing’ into Self-Nature’, a phrase Bodhidharma had used to define the end of Zen-practice itself. It becomes a principal name for Satori [‘Enlightenment’] the state later described in the tradition as ‘Seeing into one’s Self Nature’.
And it lifted C’han-Zen above the common [and lethal] pitfall of practice as solitary passive contemplation, a reverenced quietism so widespread in ‘Hinduism’, many forms of the Mahayana and much of Theravada Buddhism.
‘From the first, Nothing is!’ roared Hui-neng. The evolution of Zen has been the story of whether the ‘Nothing’ in this expression is interpreted as ‘True Nothing’. Or whether it enters the familiar and predictable distortions of a reified Concept of Nothing, reduces to a variant of ‘Being’, and finally settles erroneously as The ‘Self’.
Zen is aplenty with examples of both, although the latter miscue is much more common in contemporary teaching.
Hui-neng, from his Platform-Sūtra:
‘The Buddha-Nature knows neither decrease nor increase..when it is within the passions it is undefiled…when meditated upon it does not become more pure. It is neither abiding nor annihilated; it neither comes nor departs; it is neither at the middle nor at the end; it neither dies nor is born. It remains the same all the time, unchanged in all changes… let the mind move on as it is in itself and perform its inexhaustible function. This is the way to be in accord with Mind-Essence.’
But words like ‘Essence’ and ‘Self Nature’ are not words which are best friends with Shūnyam. Nor are such phrases as: ‘It remains the same all the time, unchanged in all changes’. And the ‘Unconscious’ sounds very much like the Vedanthic Self, where in fact very similar language can be found.
But Zen in its highest expression never lets you off the knife’s edge of alternate possibilities as in the following verse, again attributed to the masterful Hui Neng:
”Wo-luan wrote: ‘I, Wo-luan, know a device
Whereby to blot out all my thoughts;
The objective world no more stirs the mind,
And daily matures my Enlightenment’.
And Hui Neng replied: ‘I, Hui-neng, know no device,
My thoughts are not suppressed;
The objective world ever stirs the mind,
And what is the use of maturing Enlightenment?”
Or these lines by Kyogen [circa 800 CE] from his Satori-Ge [Gatha]:
‘One stroke has made me forget all my previous knowledge,
No artificial discipline is at all needed;
In every movement I uphold the ancient way,
And never fall into the rut of mere quietism;
Wherever I walk no traces are left,
And my senses are not fettered by rules of conduct;
Everywhere those who have attained the Truth,
All declare this to be of the highest order.’
Yet, I have sat-in on enough talks where the Koan ‘Finger pointing at the Moon’, is kneaded and stretched by aspiring monks to mean quite the opposite of it’s original intent, and worse.
I cite Ch’ing-yüan Wei-hsin [circa 850 CE] from the records of authentic Zen [a difficult find]:
‘Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.’
With its bare, tested methods, its much-imitated and richly absurd vocabulary, C’han-Zen has kept secure the original truth better than any other of the ancient lineages. And yes, it will survive contemporary Sangha Culture just as it has the numerous other short-stops in its long history.