Zen Road
Zen Road
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The method of non-method

Short history of the transformations of the practice and the teaching

during the voyage from India to Japan.


First method


After the death of Shakyamuni

a council of the longest standing disciples was held during which the content of the teaching (Dharma) and the rules of conduct for the monks (Sila) were formally established. The States and the regents back the Buddhist community and build monasteries generously provided for by donations of all sorts from the authorities and the population.


More and more often monks tend to reside in the monasteries and progressively abandon the nomadic life advocated by Buddha. A century and a half after the death of its founder, the community splits into two movements, each, in the aftermath, giving birth to several schools of interpretation.




In China, most Buddhist literature from the different schools is translated into Chinese

between the second half of the last century before our era and the fifth century of the latter. Under the control and protection of the political powers, five schools develop following the different Indian scholastics.


In the year four hundred and sixty, at the court of the Emperor, the monks repeat the same argument as that which erupted a few centuries earlier in India under the reign of Asoka. Some argue that the attainment of awakeningis sudden, others that it is gradual. This will be a recurring controversy in the history of Chinese Buddhism, offering many heated debates mediated by political power, and which continued later in Japan.


Return to the essential Usedom02012010


Also in China, from the fifth century, an informal movement of monks emerges. They do not belong to any established school, focus their practice on sitting dhyana1, and lead a nomadic life by practicing ritual begging. Perfect knowledge of the teaching of the sutras does not prevent them from claiming a “special transmission outside the scriptures, not dependent on words and ideograms,” which is to “show directly the heart of man, contemplate his own nature and awaken (become Buddha).”


They haven’t the slightest leniency towards the powerful and until the eleventh century will do without any support whatsoever from the political authorities. Wanting nothing and having nothing to lose, they laugh in the face of the questioner, answer with a brusque shout or by short, stupefying phrases, or else by a grimace, tear up the rolls of sutras, burn the statues of Buddha. In short, they allow all sorts of amazing antics which, if not an exemplary rigor in their religious behavior, could show them as true iconoclasts. It is from this movement that came forth what is today called the school of Ch’an or Zen.


New intrusion of political power and new method


The great persecution of the year eight hundred forty-five
left all Chinese Buddhist schools moribund, except that of Ch’an, which unlike other schools, had not compromised with the secular powers and had primarily developed outside urban centers.

Pinien_am_Achterwasser 02.01.10- 10.10


Two centuries later, the political powers legally recognize one of the two main lineages of Ch’an, give it a privileged position which ensures it greater prosperity, but at the price of State control. To cope with the large influx of new followers, the practice is formalized. However, as Heinrich Dumoulin has so aptly said in his “Geschichte des Zen-Buddhismus”, “strong institutionalization can only harm the fresh spontaneity of Ch’an,” and it is indeed the beginning of the slow decay of this movement in China.




Buddhism enters Japan from the sixth century and by the thirteenth, seven schools are already well established, among them the two main lineages of Zen. As in China, one of these lines, the same incidentally, enjoys the privileges of the Shogun military government, providing in exchange economic and political support.



But early in the seventeenth century the Shogun government takes full control of the religious life: it imposes a hierarchical classification of all temples and monasteries, and elaborates a frame for a monk’s career, fixing the length of each stage of his ascension to the highest responsibilities. It also decides the content and duration of special studies the monk must abide by according to his school.


No progress, no appointment can be made without prior consultation with the Shogun temple office. Moreover, by Shogun decree each Japanese family must be registered at and belong to a Buddhist temple. Thus the Buddhist clergy obtained a power of civil servants and a guaranteed income for funeral rites and other religious ceremonies.


Not to be outdone by other schools, the Zen lineages that hitherto had largely neglected rituals and ceremonies began to incorporate them into their practice. For temples this is surely a more efficient way to attract and retain a large number of laymen, who in return provide their material and financial support to the community, thus contributing to the advancement of the temple in the government hierarchic classification, than the austere practice of zazen.


All this has the effect of encouraging sectarianism and causes competition amongst the monks. For their career most of them will seek to belong to a temple of a higher grade because it will be more advantageous for their advancement.


The restoration of Emperor Meiji in 1868 will complete this work of secularism: allowing all Buddhist monks to marry will make the role of temple superior a hereditary social function, and the temple a part of the family heritage of its superior. For this heritage to remain in the family, the son of a superior must follow the career of a monk, or one of the superior’s daughters must marry a monk who will then, himself, have to take his wife’s family name.



In this way, there developed in Japan a veritable caste of priests
most of whom will only lead a religious life during the few years of their training in the monasteries of their schools. After Shakyamuni rightly criticized this institution of a caste of priests in India, the fact that some two thousand five hundred years later, precisely his spiritual descents reinstate this practice, is not without irony.



In saying all that, I am not judging the virtues or the short-comings of the ancients.
Besides, who would find pleasure in counting the treasures of others? But Shakyamuni had expressly warned his monks of the danger of a sedentary lifestyle. He said in substance: he that lives long in one place accumulates property, begins to worry about prestige, and increases his social obligations. Connecting with the secular powers, engaging in scholastic controversy, proselytizing in favor of a school, advocating the superiority of a particular measure, or other such abominations, are surely justified by so-called good intentions. But do we not say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions? And the Buddha, does he not teach that to be awake is to be free of any intent?


Tommi_et Robin HoodAs a preliminary conclusion


We have the habit of enrolling our actions in a process tending toward an objective more or less consciously predetermined. That is what is meant by intention. One way or another, it is always related to our future, to our own well-being.


This mechanism is deeply embedded in the psyche. It participates in the formation of the social personality, and therefore affects the identity of the self, the ego.


Faced with such determinism, ending the production of suffering by the extinction of passions within oneself, the very ideal of the path of Buddha, singularly lacks attraction, and, even if one is a little interested, in the midst of all the turmoil of existence it is quickly put on the back burner without our even noticing it.


In these circumstances it is all the more remarkable that from time immemorial the way has been transmitted from master to disciple until today. But do not conclude that on one side there are good teachers and good disciples and on the other the contrary. Going astray is in human nature and no one escapes it.


My father, a manual worker, used to say there are no bad tools, only bad workers. Paraphrasing him, I would say there are no bad masters, only bad disciples: things being what they are in this floating world, a” master” can himself only be a disciple assuming more or less opportunely the role of private tutor vis-à-vis another disciple.


To illustrate this, an anecdote:

In Obaku’s time, in ninth century China, the disciples were accustomed to traveling around the country to see many masters. One day Obaku entered the hall and turning to his disciples said:



“You are all scum gluttons! You mock the world with your travels. Everything seems easy to you, and yet, where will you find this day today? You know that in China there are no Zen masters . . .”


A monk interrupts him:


How can you say there are no Zen masters when we see everywhere renouncers with crowds of disciples?”


To which Obaku replies:


“I’m not saying there is no Zen, only that there is no master.”


This is a fine example of Zen language. Obaku has the benevolence of a grandmother for the disciples. Seeing that they are content with the residue of the way, the sediment of means, and failing to experience awakening, he admonishes them. The ultimate truth of things can only be experienced by oneself, in the silent intimacy of watchful contemplation, in the silence of Zen thus.


No so-called master can do that for you, therefore, no need to race about gobbling words. Life is uncertain; at any moment death can occur. Reveling in the means, putting off indefinitely the realization of the ideal, one runs a serious risk of ruining one’s life irreparably. Each instant is propitious to awakening. Useless to make it depend on any circumstances whatsoever.


Again, Obaku, the grandmother:


« When every day we don’t back away from anything we are living, and without being seduced by objects, then can we be called a “free man.” From moment to moment, with no opinion on any particular character whatsoever, we no longer find a boundary between past, present, and future. The past does not withdraw, the present is not fixed, and the future does not approach. Sitting up straight, calmly we abandon ourselves without restraint: this is liberation.”


The sole purpose of the Buddhist way is, by waking up to the emptiness of all things, to induce the extinction of passions within oneself (Nirvana) and thus stop the production of suffering in the world. All the resources used by disciples to realize this ideal have meaning only in terms of its realization. But, awakening (Bodhicitta) is absence of any search (Upeksa) and therefore, everything undertaken (Karma) in view of its realization defers it irremediably.


Used in this perspective, these means are only measures which, if they allow a momentary solution, do not however solve the problem, in a word, short-term measures. But since they are used toward awakening, and the energy of the disciples thus diverted from harmful ways, they are also called skillful means. As awakening is the absence of any seeking, any means used to reach this is in itself out of the question. That’s why, apropos of the implementation of awakening, the path of Buddha, we speak of the method of non-method.


Dokai Bernard Poirier



In transcription into Chinese, dhyāna became Ch'an-na, and from Chinese into Japanese Zen-na, shortened to Zen.


dhyāna [dhyā-na]

dhyā [related to dhī1 : thought, meditation, intelligence, understanding; knowledge, wisdom] :

to perceive, reflect, meditate, contemplate.

na : suffix for neuter nouns

dhyāna : contemplation


In the sutras, samādhi is systematically defined by the description of the four contemplations (dhyāna) :

“And what is right concentration (samyak samādhi)? There is the case where a monk – withdrawn from sensory pleasures, withdrawn from unskillful tendencies – enters and remains in the first contemplation (dhyāna) : rapture and joy born of withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation.

With the stilling of directed thought and evaluation, he enters and remains in the second contemplation (dhyāna): rapture and joy born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought and evaluation – internal assurance.

With the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous (upekṣā), mindful and alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters and remains in the third contemplation (dhyāna), of which the Noble One declares, 'Equanimous and mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.'

With the abandoning of pleasure and pain – as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress – he enters and remains in the fourth contemplation (dhyāna): purity of equanimity (upekṣā) and mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This is called right concentration (samyak samādhi). ”


samādhi [sam-ā-dhā]

sam : entirely, completely, complete, entire, total, whole; in harmony with, together, mutual.

ādhā : to place, put down; to settle, cease, stop, suspend; to put, place.

samādhā : to place, make, hold or fix together; to place, put together; repair, arrange, to

rebuild, straighten, erect, remake; to collect oneself, collect one’s thoughts.

samādhi : union, totality; accomplishment, achievement; contemplation accomplished in

such a way that the subject is absorbed in the object. Realization of non-duality.


upekṣā : in everyday language, negligence, imprudence, indifference; but also equanimity, level-headedness; constancy, calmness, impassivity.

The sutras define upekṣā as the state "of total indifference to all kinds of becoming,"

which is perfectly logical since one is completely immersed in the present moment,

continuing from moment to moment: there is no place there for any thought of what is to

come …

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