Filed in Zen (Chan), Devotion

The Zen of Confidence

For many Korean Zen practitioners, Chinese Zen master So Sahn's compendium of teachings The Mirror of Zen is second in importance only to the Buddha's teachings. Here, he comments on the importance and risk of self-confidence.

So Sahn

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Mirror #22My hope is that all practitioners of the Way completely believe in their true self. You should neither lack confidence nor give rise to pride.

Mind is fundamentally equal and the same, and thus there is no real distinction between "ordinary people" and "sages." Nevertheless there are, in reality, those who wander in darkness and those who have been awakened to their true nature, thus distinguishing "ordinary people" from "sages." Following the instruction of a teacher, a practitioner may attain, in an instant, his true self, thereby realizing that he is ultimately no different from the Buddha. Hence it is said, "Originally, there is nothing," which means simply that one must not underestimate oneself, and lack confidence. This is the teaching of "sudden enlightenment."

Even after attaining some realization, however, one must always strive to cut off lingering mind-habits so that one can be fully transformed from an "ordinary person" into a "sage." This is the teaching of "gradual cultivation," emphasizing that we must "polish the clear mirror from moment to moment." This is why pride can be such a hindrance. Lacking faith in one's own nature is the sickness of those attached to scriptural authority, whereas pride is the disease of those who practice only Zen meditation. People who are attached to sutras and a scriptural teaching of words can lack faith in the living, mysterious experience of meditation that leads to a sudden insight. They are usually too caught up in the expedient means of words and speech, attached to the stubborn habit of distinguishing between "true" and "not true." Believing only what is written in holy texts, they are conceptually mesmerized by the treasures of others, instead of digging inside to discover the priceless gems of their own, lying deep within. As a result, such people retrogress spiritually of their own accord.

Zen students, on the other hand, often lack proper faith in the sutras, and so disregard the scriptural teachings on gradualist cultivation and eliminating harmful mind-habits. They are not ashamed even when these defilements and karmic habits arise in their mind. Foolishly proud of their so-called "dharma" long before their practice can be said to have truly matured, their speech can be seen only as pure arrogance.

Therefore, those who practice correctly must not lack confidence in their true nature, nor should they give in to pride.

Capping Word:

In the beginner's mind—the basic wish for enlightenment—is contained the seed within the fruit: one need only believe in one's primary point, our true nature. For this reason practitioners need not lack confidence. However much one believes in this seed, the fruit that is bodhisattvahood develops through fifty-five stages. There is a gradual cultivation of any seed into a fruit. For this reason practitioners must not overestimate themselves, giving in to feelings of pride.

From The Mirror of Zen by Boep Joeng © 2006 by Paul Muenzen. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.,

Image: Mirror #22, Jeannette Montgomery Barron, 2001 gelatin silver print. © Jeannette Montgomery Barron, courtesy of Clampart, New York City

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johnmarder's picture

I have been reading this discussion with interest and just wanted to ask Safwan; if the 'true nature' (or whatever we want to call it) is implicit in the language, then does it matter what language we use?
Do we have to chant in a particular language?
I've been reading a book recently on Tien Tai philosophy, which strongly influenced both Zen and Nichiren Buddhism. It comes over very strongly, that Chih-I believed the ultimate truth is beyond verbalisation and conceptualisation.
Meaning, I suppose, is beyond language, since several languages can mean the same thing. I'm wondering if truth is beyond meaning........... If you know what I mean. Would appreciate any thoughts on this. Thanks.

sallyotter's picture

It's one of the Four Seals of Buddhism:
All compounded things are impermanent
All emotions are pain
All things have no inherent existence
Nirvana is beyond concepts
I understand that to mean that it can't be described in words, it has to be experienced.

jjwalker7730's picture

The essence of kung-fu, “You can do anything if you don’t set arbitrary limitations on your mind; and Single minded pointedness is the key to success.” Sifu Ma

safwan's picture

I couldn't oppose the urge to refer to your expression above:
"Again, that's ok, Zen isn't for everyone". This is very true : Zen's ways are not for all individuals to parctice. The way of Zen has its conditions, which exclude many people wiling to attain Buddhahood in their reality - but cannot follow Zen ways (for various reasons).

The Lotus Sutra refered to the "Great Desire" of the Buddha: to find a way for ordinary people, all people regardless, to quickly attain Buddhahood, and this is possible through the vehicle of chanting, even if you are a mother working at the kitchen and her baby on her back, or a farmer exhasted in the field, with no exclusiveness, no master's intellectual interview....

And why - for reason's sake - why "a good medicine would not work for everyone" as you said? Why this exclusiveness? Where did the Buddha say that his meicine is not for all humanity? No where, so maybe that's why Zen does not find its ideas in written sutras.


Sanki's picture

It is said in the Lotus Sutra that the Dharma rain falls equally on all. A Japanese Rinzai Zen national teacher in the middle ages used this metaphor to explain the different forms buddhism has taken: "The Dharma rain falls equally on all, and like the gentle spring rains, it is taken up by different plants that develop differently." Shunru Suzuki (Soto Zen) said, "some take a plane, some a bus, some a taxi, but they are all going to the same place."
What is the difference between dependence on self (Zen) and dependence on other (Pure Land)? From the absolute perspective, there is no difference. As buddhists we say we are not separate, we don't think dualistically. Amitaba Buddha is my own true nature. As Hakuin taught us in the Song of Zazen: "This earth where I stand is the Pure Lotus Land, and this body, the very body of buddha." Understanding this, Zen and Pureland have coexisted peacefully in many monasteries in east Asia for millenia. Why do I practice Zen rather than chant the Lotus Sutra? My friend, some take a plane, some a bus, some a taxi.

safwan's picture

Thank you Sanki for your reply.

From what you presented I see not a single difference between the practice of chanting the Dharma in clear vocal vibrations (and also extracting the beneficial truth hidden "within the words" of hunmanistic teachings) - no difference bewteen this way of practice from the results that you mentioned about Zen practice. Such as: realising that this actual moment is the manifestation of the eternal Dharma, the life of Buddha state, having unlimited potentials of ichinen sanzen, the experience of this unity of emptiness-nirvana being the world of samsara, not two in essence....and I can sincerely go on in conveying the message.

All these wonderful experiences of the mind of enlightenment are attainable through other ways of practice than Zen.

Please note the difference between Nichiren's perspective about te truth:
- the truth implicit "within the words" of wisdom,
and Dogen's perspective:
- the truth being "beyond" the words.

Can we examine these two approaches of "within: and "beyond"?
Well, a truly enlightened human mind is free, capable and not inhibited. It can encode the state of Buddhahood it experienced , and declatres it through (and within) vocal and written words. This may seem extraordinary, but think of it: the state of - for example -; love, or fear - these states of life are huge in dimensions, huge in experiences, effects and implications, yet they can be encoded "within words". And when communicated to others, others can understand the existence of these worlds (of love, or fear...).

Zen is limiting the world of "Enlightenment of the Mind" as being incapable of expressing (in the language of ordinary people) that state of "infinite dimensions of enlightenment", Buddhahood. Why is that? Because of a hidden Zen assumption that the "physical aspect" of word (vibrations or recording in writting) - this physical aspect is incapable of encompassing the unlimited world of Buddhahood, which is the "mental and intellectual aspect" of the mind. This is a Zen duality. Separation of "the physical expression" from "the intangible-inherent essence". Simply, it is the separation of word from its meaning.

Spirituality and language are inseparable. Spirituiality emerged at the dawn of humanity from the contemplation of the mind on life's phenomena. In the same time - vocal transmission of recorded wisdom, language, developed aslo at the dawn of humanity. Spirituality, language, communication ...all these phenomena are inseparable. Dogen says that Buddhas are those who experience realisation in the midst of dellusions of dailylife, and probably he'd agree with Nichiren's addition to that that Buddhas discover that all phenomena of daily life are expressions of - or contain within - the true entity of the Dharma. This word 'all phenomena" include also voice, chanting and words, - not just silent lock-up.


Sanki's picture

I also need to say something quickly about Zen, at least Soto or Dogen Zen, "rejecting" practices such as chanting and reading. Just isn't so for us, we do both. However, Dogen did privilege zazen or sitting upright in meditation as the "true gate" of the dharma. Most of the distinguished commentators in our tradition have interpreted this to mean that zazen is the most expeditious and therefore best means of achieving buddhahood. These same commentators say Dogen does not mean to say it is the "only" means of getting there (although there is no where to "get"--words getting in the way again). I understand that your take is different. Again, that's ok, Zen isn't for everyone--though I wish everyone would try it. Personally, I feel great joy whenever any person takes refuge in buddha, dharma, sangha, regardless of their vehicle, tradition or lineage. Gassho, my friend.

Sanki's picture

Zen isn't about picking and choosing. I wish you well on the path you have chosen. It may be that the same medicine doesn't work for everyone. Concepts, like the 52 stages, are means teachers use to move Zen students to realization, something that takes place in experience that, while it can be talked about, is far beyond words. Most of us read the sutras, including the Lotus Sutra, but we understand sutras as pointing to a reality that exists "beyond' words. There are different schools of Zen (Chan in China) and they are sometimes grossly over-simplified and divided into "sudden enlightenment" and "gradual" schools. In reality, realization can be "sudden" or "sudden" following a long period of cultivation on the cushion. As a Dogen Zen practitioner, I don't distinguish between zazen, or the practice of sitting meditation, and realization. But my practice is not limited to sitting meditation but is part of everday life. Dogen says buddhas are those who experience realization in the midst of delusion, while ordinary people experience delusion in the midst of realization. In other words, we are already buddha, the majority of people just don't realize it, we Zen practitioners sit to achieve this realization, in the midst of samsara. The understanding is that samsara and nirvana are one, the experience of this unity (emptiness-nirvana) in difference (form-samsara) is the experience of realization. Neither is rejected, the experience is not-two/not one. If these ideas appeal to you, you may investigate them, not only intellectually but in meditation practice at any of the Zen Centers scattered here and there across the world. If not, I wish you and those you care about happiness and the conditions that produce happiness, on the path you have chosen.

safwan's picture

Receiving today that short statement from Tricycle's page has prompted me to click on the article which generated it, and I find here this previous article posted last year! Did Tricycle run out of new ideas? Ok I'll give the following challenge to the received statement about Zen experience:

/1/ The statement mention how to get to a “mysterious sudden insight “ - as a state in Zen enlightenment.
How? It is by the practice of: /a/ discarding written or vocal forms (of teaching), and /b/ of practicing silent meditation - and that this way of practice creates a certain feeling [in essence: of being the correct practice].

But the groups of Buddhism , Nichiren Buddhism for example, based on reading and chanting - assert exactly the same statement of a wonderful feeling that their practice is rather the correct one, and that it generates immense. So?

/2/ If that state of Zen-enlightenment is complete, then it has to have the properties of Compassion, Wisdom and Action in reality. To have only the mental qualities of mind and heart without the physical form of action to manifest them in reality - this casts doubt about the described level of Zen satori. Why?

Because: if this level of mind is characterized by profound wisdom and great compassion then it would have proved this by manifesting - in reality of life - in a decalartive manner of care and sincerity - a way of teaching that is a simpler way of practice (which is more accessible to many people than silent meditation). The humanistic capacity of such Mind of supreme insight, would have helped and attracted the whole spectrum of suffering people.

Zen ignors the fact that a "direct path to enlightenment" - based on chanting and reading - can be legitimate and deeply helpful. This means that: the described state of Zen personal insight is incomplete and that other level of higher-capacity practice presents a warmer and wider inclusion.

/3/ There is no justification, no reason of sound wisdom, to support Zen thinking that discarding written experiences, texts, values of Buddhist heritage and teachings, that this way (of avoiding written wisdom of the Buddha) is the "proper", "clever" or whatever beneficial - way. There is no record that the Buddha said ”Don’t read written documents if they contain beneficial teachings!”. Did he?

Zen does not find the essence of its own ideas anywhere within written documents or vocal expressions of the Dharma, and that’s why it is unable - of course - to rely on them.


Sam Mowe's picture

Hi safwan,

Just wanted to let you know that we often quote articles from the Tricycle "Wisdom Collection" (which just means the best pieces from the archives) in our Daily Dharma emails. Sometimes the quotes are from articles from 20 years ago! Fortunately, the wisdom contained in the quotes doesn't usually have a short shelf-life.

Kind wishes,
Sam Mowe
Associate Editor's picture

The Wisdom Section is profound, but that does not validate the authenticity of the source who quotes it or who submits an opinion

safwan's picture

Thank you kindly for your comment.

pwoodall's picture

WOW! I want to thank you for all the invaluable insight given by all of these articles.

safwan's picture

I want to thank you for the insight I received through your article (being a written text, though) in which the following is stated:

" the fruit that is bodhisattvahood develops through fifty-five stages. There is a gradual cultivation of any seed into a fruit".

Here comes the necessity of listening carefully to the recorded texts of sutras and explore a new vision, which surpasses the "gradual development of many stages from Bodhisattva (cause) to Buddha (effect)".

The Lotus Sutra explains the Principle of Oneness of Cause and Effect - as evidently is gloriously manifest in the Flower of the Lotus, which exhibts the whole stages of seeds (cause), maturity and flowering (effect) in one pure expression. So, here is a fact that not all fruites exhibit gradual stages. Maybe that was the meaning of the Flower Sermon?

Nichiren explains that there is no need for 52 Bodhisattva stages (cause) to reach Buddhahood (effect) - if you practice the teaching of the Dharma of the Lotus, based on the Oneness of Cause and Effect. As an example, the pre-Lotus teachings - separating Bodhisattva and Buddha - are valuable and useful, as candles used at night, but when the sun rises with a new light (of oneness of Bodhisattva-Buddha), it is wisest to enjoy the benefit of the emerging new light.

The insight I arrived to here is that: if the Bodhsiattvahood is separate from Buddhahood by 52 or whatever stages, then a gradual plan of practicing over many lifetimes would be required. Christianity promises believers heaven after death, but pre-Lotus Buddhism promises Buddhahood after unknown and unverified periods of lifetimes after lifetimes. The question here is that: if you really believe in your Buddha nature as inherently existing since birth, then what stands against its emergence now? Why do you need stages and lifetimes after lifetimes?

A powerful enough practice suffices to revreal it in this lifetime - without gradual stages. This is the Lotus teaching of attaining Buddhahood in one's current form, and the practice is simply calling forth the Buddha nature, an act of fusion of the subjective self and the objective reality (Dharma).


safwan's picture

While it is important to explore the inner universe of enlightenment, one cannot deny or discard the wisdom encoded and recorded in various sutras. The essence of Buddhist principles, such as Impermanence, the Primordial Buddha nature, the Ten Worlds of Mind... were all recorded in sutras and conveyed also by voice. Words are produced by the mind, they are extension of the mind of Buddha.
Words are inseparable from the mind, be it enlightened or deluded.

To seprate (and hence disregard) written text (and voice vibrations) from the core meaning conveyed by these phenomena, is a result of separation of the physical (word) and mental (meaning). Dualism would make one think that the perception of music - for example - is separate from the audio vibration which made the perception possible.

To disregard sutras is like an overconfident student of Physics disregarding the recorded principles and natural laws - the result of genuine achievement of giants in the field - and insists on inventing the wheel anew through personal speculation and silent meditation.

An article about Zen in the Mirror of Reality: (and a further comparison between silent meditation and chanting the Dhrama) point to the central matter, the discovery of one's Buddha nature: is it through silent meditation (thoughts only) or through behaviour (the three Buddhist causes of: thought, speech and action).