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