Before the time of Hui-neng, who lived in the seventh century in T’ang China, it was thought that the experience of enlightenment could be attained only after one had practiced and attained some depth in dhyana, meditation. Perhaps some of us still think that. Hui-neng, however, maintained that prajna, transcendental wisdom, is inseparable from dhyana. Neither can be understood without the other.
There are three forms of discipline in our practice. The first is shila, moral precepts against stealing, gossiping, coveting, and so on. The second is dhyana, or Zen, and the third is prajna. Hui-neng said that for true understanding, we must know that dhyana is not different from prajna, and that prajna is not something attained after practicing Zen. When we are practicing, in this very moment of practicing, prajna is unfolding itself in every single aspect of our lives: sweeping the floor, washing the dishes, cooking the food, everything we do.
This was the very original teaching of Hui-neng, and it marked the beginning of true Zen Buddhism. Everything is teaching us, everything is showing us this wonderful dharma light. All we have to do is open our eyes, open our hearts. While we are doing, thinking, and feeling, Zen is there, prajna is there. This intuitive mind infuses everything we do. But this is not something about which we can have discursive knowledge. We cannot attain realization of this in that way. This intuitive knowledge comes from our body and our mind. We don’t sit here and think about what enlightenment is. To think “I must get enlightened” is the greatest impediment. To have some degree of enlightenment is wonderful; to think about it is terrible. “No-knowing” is what we do, as in the famous phrase of Bodhidharma. When the emperor of China asked, “Who is this who stands before me?” Bodhidharma replied, “No-knowing.” No-knowing. There is no way that we can take this intuitive mind and quantify it. We can’t say, “Here it is, I’m going to give you one month’s worth, or two months’ worth, and now your course is finished.” That’s not it. We may see it in an instant, or it may take several lifetimes. This is a practice of endurance and patience. Forgetting all about gaining anything, we are simply trying to see clearly.
What does seeing clearly mean? It doesn’t mean that you look at something and analyze it, noting all its composite parts; no. When you see clearly, when you look at a flower and really see it, the flower sees you. It’s not that the flower has eyes, of course. It’s that the flower is no longer just a flower, and you are no longer just you. Flower and you have dissolved into something way beyond what we can even say, but we can experience this. This kind of seeing, this kind of understanding is “as-it-is-ness.” This wonderful intuitive wisdom infuses everything we do, if we just open ourselves up to it, and forget about all our selfish, petty concerns, forget about what we want, what we must get, whether this is doing something for us. Forget it. We are here for the sake of all sentient beings, and we are one with all sentient beings when we come to see this as-it-is-ness. Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth-century Christian mystic who really understood this, said, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”
We all see things through the conceptualizing of color and form, and yet we do not see them in their true essence, because we separate ourselves from what we see. When we think of something as good or bad, it is our own habit of thought. It is because we have so much attachment to this discriminating mind that we do not experience Mu. Our attachment even shows in our bodies. We have something blocked somewhere, something that refuses to let go. We’re so attached, even to pain. “That is my pain!” Whose pain? When you hear the han struck, do you feel the pain of the wood? Can you let go of your own pain, give up this imagined individual self, and just dissolve into Muuuuu?
Each of us is sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, and we are endlessly thinking of things. What about paying attention to what it is that makes us think and feel this way? We train our minds by looking into them. We just look in, not allowing ourselves to be carried away by our perceptions; we just look into what is going on, and ask, “Where does this come from?” We are training ourselves in the practice and study of Buddhism so that our thoughts and emotions do not disturb our true-nature mind, so that we can sit imperturbably no matter what.
Hui-neng had an awakening when he heard the words from the Diamond Sutra, “Depending on nothing, realize your own mind.” We are so often depending on this religion or that, this “ism” or that. Don’t even think about Buddhism. The true Buddhist never says, “I am a Buddhist.” We are people who are practicing this universal principle with everybody in the whole cosmos. There is no label, no separation, no statement like “I am a Buddhist, he is a Christian.” True Buddhism embraces the whole universe, without a single label. You must have your own experience of the study and practice of Buddhism, not think thoughts that have been given to you by anyone else, including myself. Forget everything I have said. Depend on yourself. Your own experience of your inner self is what this is about.
Through clarifying our minds we can abandon our delusions and enlighten ourselves. Realizing we are a part of the whole universe, not separate, our minds become as clear as crystal, and all the dharma is revealed. So let us see clearly; let us put all the past aside and go deeply into this, moment after moment. How do we do it? Just by our own natural breathing. If we try to slow the breath down, it becomes awkward and uncomfortable. Instead, we can narrow the breath. When we exhale, we narrow the exhalation, in what is called “bamboo breath.” When we inhale, we don’t take in a great gulp of air, but just a little, just enough. By breathing like this, more air is retained in the lungs, and quite naturally the breathing slows down. The transition from inhalation to exhalation becomes smoother; sitting becomes joyful. It is an immeasurable pleasure just to breathe in zazen.
Just to breathe, just to see clearly: this is the real meaning of the precepts. To keep the precepts does not mean following a set of rules. It is giving ourselves to a way of life, a path of compassionate action that expresses itself in everything we do. Our practice of zazen purifies and warms the mind so that the precepts are not really necessary. We have certain rules of behavior, of course. We get up in the morning; we wash, we dress mindfully; we straighten our cushions, we pay attention to our posture and our breath. Zazen practice itself is a precept—one of them, and at the same time, all of them. Dhyana is prajna. Everything is contained in what we are doing. This is our zazen, and this is our everyday life, every minute. So the power of this practice we are engaged in helps us keep the precepts without self-consciously trying to follow a set of rules. If we try to do it, if we think about it, if we read the list of precepts every morning and say, “Now, I mustn’t do this, and I mustn’t do that,” it doesn’t work. If it comes from the hara, from the intuitive wisdom mind, then it can be done. We can control ourselves very well when we are without any idea of controlling at all. There is nothing to do; there is nothing to control, nothing to follow. Without trying to do something, we simply practice, in the same way as when we are hungry, we eat; when we are tired, we rest. The precepts are not some rigid formulation outside ourselves.
There are a few Buddhists sects in which very strict precepts are observed. Some Buddhist monks could not come here because I am a woman. They could not come hear a woman, let alone shake hands with her. I respect them, and they should not violate their commandments; if they find some meaning in them, that’s fine. But in our practice, our one and only commandment is the intuitive response to our lives, and if we pay absolute attention to this, it is really difficult to violate.
From Subtle Sound: The Zen Teachings of Maurine Stuart, forthcoming from Shambhala Publications, Inc. in December 1996.
Image: Fu Shiki (I know not), from Zen Word, Zen Calligraphy, text by Eido Tai Shimano, calligraphy by Kogetsu Tani. Courtesy Shambhala Publications.