In the centuries after the Buddha’s death, his followers created rifts and various Buddhist schools—Theravada and Mahayana being just two of the biggest divisions—each claiming to be the authentic one. The Zen tradition (or Chan as it is known in China) officially formed when one school traveled, via the South Indian monk named Bodhidharma, to China around the fourth or fifth century ce. In China, the elaborate Indian Buddhist philosophical systems merged with the simple, grounded Confucian and Taoist philosophies, and flourished, developing into the dynamic Zen tradition whose aesthetic and literature has become so popular in the West. Zen is perhaps most famous for its vexing system of teaching stories and seemingly unanswerable questions, called koans. Many people have heard of the koans “What is your Original Face, the one you had before your parents were born?” and “What is the sound of the Single Hand?” But the following koan neatly summarizes something important about Zen:
One day, two meditation students were looking at a blowing flag and debating a philosophical point. One said the flag was moving. The other said the wind was moving. At that point their teacher, the Sixth Ancestor of Zen, Hui-neng, an illiterate wood-cutter who had been enlightened upon hearing a single line from the Diamond Sutra, said they were both wrong: “The mind is moving,” he said.
This is the essence of Zen. (“Mind precedes all things,” the Buddha said.) And though trying to intellectually grasp what Hui-neng meant in the deepest sense, at least by the likes of me, may cheapen the insight, I can only guess he was getting at the same point the modern Zen teacher Hakuun Yasutani was in using his wave metaphor: much like a wave is part of, and dependent on, the sea, our individual minds are part of, and dependent on, a larger mind, or substratum that constitutes what we call reality. And though we perceive our minds as separate from others and from the rest of reality, it is actually the case that just as a wave cannot exist apart from water, what we mistake as “our” minds are dependent on the one true mind, the Buddha mind. In one sense, as I understand it, the “objective” of Zen meditation is not to nullify or stop the functioning of our small mind in favor of some imagined “other” mind, the Buddha mind, but to recognize that the source of our mind is itself the Buddha mind, and our individualistic thinking is the very functioning of the Buddha mind. (“Waves are the practice of water,” said Suzuki Roshi. “To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves is a delusion.”)
Zen teachers all seem to say similar things about our true mind: they say it is fundamentally whole, that it is empty of inherent characteristics and yet is not nothingness. It is formless, yet takes form in everything. It is “vast and spacious,” wrote master Hung-chih, “like the sky and water merging during autumn.” And Chuang-Tzu, who was not a Buddhist but a Taoist who greatly influenced Zen, once said: “Pour into it and it is never full, dip from it and it never runs dry.”
In that way, I suppose, it’s like the sea.
Excerpted from Saltwater Buddha by Jaimal Yogis.
Image: Hui-neng. Courtesy of Cultural China.