Grand Zen Master Huang Po Describes How to Strive Correctly for Zen Realization

[Note: There was no beginning, nor will there ever likely be an end, to pompous, self-satisfied "Zen" windbags arguing and debating minute and supposedly important matters of the Dharma and regurgitating the words of the Patriarchs and Masters while completely missing the main point: namely, that the goal of Zen is direct realization. The Internet acts as a huge megaphone for such people -- the louder and more often they talk, the more they feel heard, and when a braying echo of their own voices floats on the breeze back to their donkey ears they feel thrilled to the roots of their hair by a sense of their own profundity. And this, of course, only makes them talk louder and more often: "Zen isn't a practice! It has nothing to do with striving! If you take a single step you're falling into illusion!" 

The ancient Chinese Masters carried sticks to deliver a sound beating to any student who dared to utter this type of random nonsense. To talk like an awakened person is easy; to become an awakened person is hard. 

As Master Huang-Po always insisted, so long as one is still in the grip of the "discriminatory mind" and bound to any view whatsoever, including a view of no-views, or a view of Zen and not Zen, striving -- a specific type of "self-negating" effort that Huang-Po sometimes called "forgetting everything" and "unmindfulness" --  is absolutely necessary in order to directly "see into the original nature" and actualize Buddhahood right here and now! It is not that one can attain "Bodhi" or awakening through study and practice, merely that the emotionally conflicted and phenomenally-captivated "thinking mind" is constantly blocking the sudden realization of the awake nature in all its splendor, the true reality of "suchness" without a head or a tail. 

"Getting rid of the mortal, discriminating mind is Nirvana." (The Lankavatara Sutra). But pragmatically speaking, how does one accomplish this "getting rid of the discriminating mind"? How does one leap over thoughts of good and evil, true and false, being and nothingness, effort and no-effort, Zen and not Zen, etc.?

Note as you peruse the following excerpts that the Chinese in Huang-Po's time took the acts of "learning" and "studying" very seriously. Merely to become a certified scholar-mandarin, one was locked into a hut for a three day-and-night long written exam that involved composing multiple essays and poetry, and responding to a battery of questions. So, when Huang-Po uses terms such as "learn" or "study," he is alluding to what for a modern person would constitute an almost insane feat of bravery and self-discipline roughly equivalent in terms of personal sacrifice and anguish to the training of a Navy SEAL. And that is precisely what Zen is, for Huang-Po and the other Chinese Masters, except that the object is not a positive knowledge but a supremely active "mindlessness."  

Just attempt right now to refrain from giving rise to discriminatory thoughts of any kind for as long as ten minutes and you will gain an inkling of the type of brutal and unorthodox self-training that was demanded by the Great Zen Master Huang-Po. 

To be able to still this relentlessly active grasping-clinging conceptual mind and enter into samadhi that directly realizes the essence of all dharmas is no small feat. I will not even say it is a yogic attainment of the highest order; it is the only true yogic attainment. Of course, "nothing" is attained except for a sudden awakening to the true nature and the delight and ease of liberation! Those who believe that there was no sustained, hard meditation training and no harsh "expedients" used to wake people up in Chinese Zen monasteries of Huang-Po's time are fooling themselves and perpetuating a dangerous falsehood.]

[Master Huang-Po said:] Now, you should learn only unmindfulness to wipe out all causality and refrain from giving rise to discriminatory thoughts  in order to eliminate all concepts of selfness, otherness, desire, anger, like dislike, gain, loss, etc. to recover the self-nature which is fundamentally pure and clean; this is the practice of Bodhi, Dharma and Budhahood. If you do not understand this, although you may widen your knowledge, practice austerities, live on wild fruit and nuts and cover your body with grass and leaves, you will fail to realize your mind; this is just heterodoxy practiced by heavenly demons and heretics and by ghosts and spirits in water and on land.

Ch'an Master Pao Chih said, "Our fundamental substance is the self-mind; how can it be sought in books? Now just cognize the self-mind [chien hsing, kensho] and stop your thinking process, and troubles will come to an end."


He whose mind does not differentiate is a Patriarch. If you understand (experience) this, you will leap over the Three Vehicles and all stages of Bodhisattva development (into Budhahood). For you are fundamentally Buddha, and this cannot be attained by practice.

The Buddha in the ten directions appeared in the world to proclaim only one Mind-Dharma which Shakyamuni Buddha handed down to Mahakasyapa. The substance of this one Mind-Dharma pervades all immaterial and material words and is the doctrine proclaimed by all Buddhas. How then can you understand it by means of words and letters? This is the non-creative (wu wei) Dharma-door (to enlightenment). If you really want to realize it you should know that unmindfulness can result in a sudden awakening to it. If you use your (discriminating) mind to study it you will keep yourself far away from it.

Falsehood has no substance of its own and arises from your own mind. If you recognize that mind is Buddha and is free from falsehood, how can the falsehood arise in the mind to be clung to? If you do not stir the mind and do not give rise to thoughts, naturally there will be no falsehood. Hence it is said, "When the mind arises, it creates all things; and when the mind stops arising all things come to an end."

Right now as you are aware of the rise of false thoughts, the awareness of that which is not false is awareness of the Buddha. When your false thoughts come to an end even the idea of Buddha is no more.

Where do you questions come from and where does your awareness arise? For speech, silence, motion and stillness as well as all sounds and forms proclaim the Buddha-truth. Where else do you want to seek Buddha? Do not put another head on top of your own head and do not place another mouth on your own mouth.


Question: What is the perception of self-nature [chien hsin, kensho]?

Answer: The self-nature is identical with seeing and seeing is identical with the self-nature. The self-nature cannot be used for further seeing of self-nature. Hearing is identical with the self-nature and the self-nature cannot be used for further hearing the self-nature. If you presume that the self-natured seeing can hear and see its underlying nature you will give rise to the idea of oneness and otherness. Why do you put a second head on top of your head?  As the Sixth Patriarch [exclaimed when he had kensho]: "Who would have expected that the self nature is fundamentally pure and clean, is fundamentally beyond birth and death, is fundamentally complete in itself, is fundamentally immutable and can create all things?"


If no thoughts arise, all the eighteen dhatus (six sense organs, six sense objects and six consciousnesses) are empty and your body is the flower and fruit of Bodhi and your mind is the spiritual wisdom, also called the mysterious observatory.


If you hold onto something, a seal is formed to imprint the six worlds of existence and the four types of birth. If you cling to the void, the imprint of emptiness appears. You should know that when one is determined not to stamp anything this seal is space which is neither unity nor diversity, for space, though void, is fundamentally not empty and because the seal is basically non-existent. He will see Buddhas appearing in the ten directions of space like flashes of lightning. To him even living beings that crawl and wriggle are like shadows and echoes, and all lands countless as specks of dust in the ten directions are like a drop of water in the sea. When he hears all the very profound Dharmas, they are like illusions and transformations. When the mind does not differentiate and the Dharma is beyond diversity you will see that thousands of sutras and tens of thousands of sastras deal only with your One-mind. If you can forsake all forms you can, as the saying goes, use all expedient means diligently to solemnize your One-mind.


Question: What should one do to avoid slipping into gradation?

Answer: Every day you take your meals without the idea of chewing a grain of rice, and everyday you walk without being tied up to the concept of trampling on the ground; thus you will be free from the notion of selfness and otheness. All day long, although you are in the midst of activities you do not allow yourself to be deceived by them; only then can you be a sovereign being who does not see all forms. Do not cling to the three periods of time because the past has not gone, the present does not stay and the future will not come. So you will be at ease to sit erect in a laissez-fire attitude; only this can be called liberation. Strive to realize this!

Of the thousands and tens of thousands of disciples of our sect only three to five succeed in achieving their aim. If you do not strive now you will bring calamity on yourself later. Hence it is said, "If you do not strive to settle all this in your present lifetime, who will endure for you untold miseries for endless aeons?"

-MASTER HUANG-PO (translated by Charles Luk - Lu Kuan Yu)

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