The Ceasing of Notions - Selections

An Early Zen Text from the Dunhuang Caves with Selected Comments


128 pages, 5 x 8 inches


ISBN 9781614290414

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1a The Great Way is without limit, fathomless and subtle, beyond comprehension, beyond words.

Master Nyuri (whose name means “Entrance into the Principle”) and his disciple Emmon (“Gate of Affinities”) are discussing the truth.

Thus at the very outset two statements are made about the Way that may be difficult to understand. It is said that the way is “fathomless and subtle.” What does that mean? In order to clarify this, the Japanese term innen needs to be explained. In means the direct inner cause, the reason why; en are the conditions of in.

This may seem abstruse, but it can be illustrated by the analogy of a bell. Its ability to make or emit a sound is in; what brings forth the sound, the clapper for example, is en. Only when bell and clapper, in and en, come together, do they give rise to sound; that is, a phenomenon comes to be, appears, or manifests. In this way all phenomena, without exception, come to be and cease to be. All are dependent on in and en for their formation, hence they are without a separate self.

Now, all in and all en exist in the Great Way, not as discrete, independent, continuous entities, but fathomless and subtle, constantly changing.

The two persons who are talking about the Way are Master Nyuri and his disciple Emmon. The name Nyuri is composed of two Chinese characters: nyu means going in, entering, or coming in, and ri is truth, principle, reason, or the fitness of things. Thus Master Nyuri is one who has entered truth, has awakened.

The disciple’s name, Emmon, also consists of two characters and is made up of em, which means affinity or connection, and mon, which is the character for gate. So Emmon is the one who in his search for enlightenment has arrived at the gate but has not yet entered.

1b The Master was silent and said nothing.

Emmon suddenly rose and asked, “What is called the heart? And how is the heart pacified?”

The Master answered, “You should not assume a heart, then there is no need to pacify it. That is called pacifying the heart.”

Bodhidharma (circa 470–543) is the twenty-eighth Indian patriarch in the line after Sakyamuni Buddha, and the first Chinese Zen patriarch. In the transmission of Zen Buddhism, the Dharma is handed on to disciples whose realization is of a depth equal to that of the master. Hence, Bodhidharma’s primary goal would have been finding one disciple able to receive the transmission of the Dharma, rather than spreading and popularizing Buddhism.

When Bodhidharma arrived in China from India, he found that Buddhism there was considered a subject for scholars only and that it was moreover extremely formal and ceremonious. In contrast, his way of teaching was unusual and fresh. This line or school, which began with Bodhidharma, is called the Dharma School, the Buddha Heart School, or the Zen School. It is best illustrated by the account of his meeting with the monk Taiso Eka (in Chinese, Dazu Huike, 487–593).

Though Eka was a scholar of both Confucianism and Buddhism, his heart was not really at peace and he was restless and worried. So he went to see Bodhidharma who was residing nearby and asked for his teaching. But Bodhidharma was sitting in meditation and did not even turn round. This continued for some time. Then on the eighth of December it began to snow. By the next morning Eka, who had been standing at the gate throughout the night, was knee-deep in snow. Bodhidharma, seeing him thus, addressed him for the first time. Eka, with tears in his eyes, said, “Please show compassion for me and teach me the Dharma that opens the gate of peace.” Bodhidharma responded, “For long eons, all the buddhas have for the sake of the Dharma endured what cannot be endured, completed what cannot be completed. How can you, of fickle heart and small purpose, of shallow insight and little virtue, expect to see the truth? Training with a conceited and lazy heart is indeed laboring in vain.”

Eka, as proof of his desperate determination, cut off his arm and presented it to Bodhidharma. (Do not mistake Eka’s deed for gruesome self-torture! Hacking off his arm was his gesture of separating himself from all his past insufficient experiences and limited understanding; it was to empty himself to be ready to receive Bodhidharma’s teaching.) He then asked Bodhidharma, “My heart is not at peace, please put my heart at rest.” Bodhidharma countered, “Put your heart before me and I shall bring it to rest.” At that, Eka tried to do so, but he had to admit, “My heart does not stop for one moment, it moves about freely and I cannot find nor get hold of it.” “There, I have put your heart at rest for you,” replied Bodhidharma, nodding. Eka, inheriting the transmission from Bodhidharma, became the second Chinese Zen patriarch.

The only way for truly putting the heart at rest is seeing into the nature of one’s own heart. This seeing into its nature, kensho in Japanese, is the sole purpose of Zen. In A Treatise on the Ceasing of Notions, too, the first question is on the problem of putting the heart to rest. Bodhidharma merely pointed out to Eka what he should look for, and Eka obeyed. He did not waste his time with idle questions about the heart, but saw immediately. Zen training is just such a direct pointing, and consequently later generations in China called it a “direct pointing at the human heart, seeing into its nature, and becoming Buddha.”The pointing is done by the teacher, but the seeing is entirely the affair of the disciple. Emmon, however, tries for a long while to grasp the heart by means of Nyuri’s explanations without trying to see himself. So he puts question after question and keeps on asking. And yet from the first question it is already obvious that he is somehow trying to fit the heart into this world of discrimination and phenomena; the absolute, however, does not allow itself to be arranged into any system. What Emmon wants is to define and pin the heart down, hence the “peace” he aims for is in fact stopping and blocking the heart. Master Nyuri answers him with kindness and patience. The free activity of the heart is peace.

2 Emmon: “But if there is no heart, then how can we learn the Way?”

Nyuri: “The heart cannot conceive of the Way; so why should the Way depend on the heart?”

For an understanding of the text, and especially so for Master Nyuri’s answers, it is important to recognize the misconceptions and delusions out of which Emmon’s questions arise. It will often seem as though Master Nyuri’s answers do not respond to Emmon’s questions. But Master Nyuri seizes Emmon’s delusions right at the root. His answers are prompted from there. Emmon’s second question shows us that he already differentiates between heart and the Way. Master Nyuri’s response informs Emmon that the Way and the heart are not two separate things.

3 Emmon: “If the Way cannot be conceived of by the heart, how can it be conceived or thought of?”

Nyuri: “As soon as a thought arises, there is also heart. Heart is contrary to the Way. No-thought is no-heart. No-heart is the Way of the Truth, or True Awakening.”

Having a notion means that the heart is blocked and bound. And having no notions or thoughts is no-heart or empty heart (in Japanese, mushin): free, unrestricted functioning of the heart. No-heart, this free activity of the heart, is already the Way, and the Way is the truth.

4 Emmon: “Do all sentient beings have this heart or not?”

Nyuri: “That all sentient beings really have this heart is a mistaken view. To set up a heart within no-heart, in empty heart, only serves to create erroneous ideas.”

It is obvious that one of Emmon’s deep-rooted delusions is the notion of a heart as a constant, permanent, and unchanging entity. This is one of the four erroneous views of phenomena, or shitendo in Japanese:

1. The view that what is in constant change is lasting and permanent. This means to not realize that all phenomena are subject to constant change and rather to hold them as lasting and permanent.

2. The view that suffering is happiness. This is to assume one’s own notions to be self-evident and to understand happiness as the fulfillment of these. This, however, means not realizing that reality—our life from birth through sickness and old age to death— does not obey our own wishes and is not subject to our control, but rather is the activity of a power that is beyond all possible conceptions.

3. To take as “I” or “self ” what in fact is No-I or no-self.

This means not to see that all forms are devoid of a permanent, unchanging self and rather to assume an inherent and everlasting self in all forms.

4. To see as pure what is impure, to set up arbitrary distinctions between beautiful and ugly, and not to realize that what is called beautiful now (for instance a beautiful woman) with time changes into what is called ugly. This is actually two mistakes: the first is to differentiate what is beautiful and what is ugly; the second, consequent on the first, is to then become tied to beauty and thus be unaware of the ugly, which is already the other face of beauty. This results in clinging to beauty and ignoring or refusing the ugly.

5 Emmon: “What exists within no-heart?”

Nyuri: “No-heart equals no-thing. No-thing equals True Nature itself. And True Nature is the Great Way.”

6 Emmon: “How can delusions of sentient beings be eradicated?”

Nyuri: “As long as one sees delusions and their eradication, one cannot shed them.”

Originally there are no delusions. But if we arbitrarily assume them, that is take for real something that does not exist—and then want to eradicate it—that is delusion.

7 Emmon: “Is it possible to be at one with the Way without having eradicated the delusions?”

Nyuri: “As long as one thinks of being at one with and not being at one with, one is not free of delusions.”

Emmon asks whether it is possible to be at one with the Way while still harboring delusions—that is, he still takes the existence of delusions for granted.

8 Emmon: “What should one do then?” Nyuri: “Not doing anything—that’s it!”

Not-doing does not mean doing nothing but rather means doing without the dualistic split into subject and object—that is, without a self that does the doing. This is then the intentionless doing that naturally and of itself responds (accurately and fittingly) to the situation.


How to cite this document:
© Zen Trust, The Ceasing of Notions (Wisdom Publications, 2012)

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