Q: Roshi, can Zen help me see my true self? Can it liberate me?
A. No! How can you liberate what was never unfree? From Bodhidharma onward, Zen has been just "seeing the self-nature directly." Zen and "seeing the self-nature" are synonymous. So are Zen and liberation. Whether the Zen takes the form of sitting, standing, walking, or lying down it's all "seeing the self nature," it's all liberation. That's what Ma-Tzu said, and Huang-Po and all the others.
It is impossible to deceive oneself about this. If you haven't seen the self-nature directly and aren't yet liberated, you know it. So you come rushing to an online Zen forum or Twitter or whatnot and people give you sophisms about how there's no such thing as satori. If there's no such thing as satori, it is strange indeed that there is a whole Ch'an/Zen/Seon genre called "the satori poem." It is strange that Tokusan "suddenly experienced great awakening" when the candle was blown out, or however you'd like to translate the Chinese text. The point is, something changed. He woke up -- that's how the Chinese Zen people put it.
Maybe all the Masters were just faking satori as part of a literary or political game? That would be extremely perverse.
If there's no seeing it directly and waking up, and if there's no liberation, why even talk about Zen?
"All dharmas are Buddhist teachings; all dharmas are liberation. Liberation is true Suchness, and not one thing is separate from this true Suchness. Walking, standing, sitting, and reclining are all inconceivable actions."
So is there anything at all to do? Or is it all just "chop wood, carry water"? "Chop wood, carry water" is excellent, if you can do it with any thinking. That's liberation. Let's take another look at Master Ma-Tzu's famous speech:
"A single thought of the wandering mind is the root of birth and death in the world. Just don't have a single thought and you'll get rid of the root of birth and death."
Is this what Hui-Neng meant also? It sounds impossible. How can you not have a single thought? Maybe what Ma-Tzu means that if one doesn't fixate on a single thought, one doesn't "have" it, so even if a thought appears it doesn't create any problems for you.
Huh! Let's take a look at what Hui-Neng says in The Platform Sutra:
"No-thought" means "no-thought within thought." Non-abiding is man's original nature. Thoughts do not stop from moment to moment. The prior thought is succeeded in each moment by the subsequent thought, and thoughts continue one after another without cease. If, for one thought-moment, there is a break, the dharma-body separates from the physical body, and in the midst of successive thoughts there will be no attachment to any kind of matter. If, for one thought-moment, there is abiding, then there will be abiding in all successive thoughts, and this is called clinging. If, in regard to all matters there is no abiding from thought-moment to thought-moment, then there is no clinging. Non-abiding is the basis.
Explosive, no? One must give rise to a mind that doesn't cling to anything or abide anywhere. Master Takuan Soho talks about how to do this in his manual on swordsmanship. And Master Huang-Po says that one must produce a mind that does not apprehend even a single dharma, and that this mind will be certain of its non-apprehending in the full awareness of the root-Bodhi of all beings.
Q. I am mystified. How does one give rise to such a mind?
A. How do you give rise to a sword? You forge it in fire & you fold it & hammer it. True, the mind is subtler than this. Where is it? Point to it anywhere in space. I wonder how you can produce a cool spring breeze in the middle of summer!
One effective way to do what the Zen teachers advise is to "Cast away all things, instantly becoming without thought and without mind." (Hakuin). Just toss out all your thinking like a pail of dirty water. The brass rooster crows, the tin man laughs. Mushin, no-mind, allows your Bodhi mind to function perfectly, without a seam between intention & activity, minding & doing. What's the problem?
Another is to "work only on keeping your mind motionless at all times, whether sitting, standing, &c." (Huang-Po). This one takes tact & a lot of control. Eventually you break through.
Then there is "To attain this subtle realization, you must completely cut off the way of thinking. If you do not, you will become like a ghost clinging to grasses and weeds." (Mumon Ekai)
Sit down now & cut off thinking. Why not try what the great Masters insist upon, rather than running it all through your reasoning consciousness? Reason is mechanical, not intuitive. Rely on it & you become a ghost to yourself.
Why does any arising ever occur at all? you ask.
It doesn't occur, so the question is senseless. Arising is a concept. Point to some "thing" that's arisen, anywhere. Nothing ever has or ever will. It's all just a matter of words and concepts.
Thoughts seem to arise, but can Mind really ever arise? Can the Source appear in and as its productions? Maybe it's all an unfortunate error in translation. Chinese is an ambiguous language, Japanese even more so.
Is the wind moving, or is it the temple banner? Only your mind is "moving." Yet there is no movement. Nothing has ever arisen or occurred. Look deeply into that.
Q. What Zen practice should I do, then?
A. Pictures of rice-cakes don't fill your belly. Hearing the word "water" doesn't make your mouth wet. Talking about fire doesn't warm you. Here I am flapping my lips again, giving you a lot of words.
So on the matter of "practice" I usually suggest becoming very alert to sensations and space as a way of ridding oneself of the "internal chatter"; sometimes just staying in "open awareness" so that when a "thought" rises you don't follow it but let it go (that's a Tibetan method, also a Zen one).
Seiza is a strong posture to take, and if you sit like this regularly you'll soon experience a sort of "sinking into infinity" wherein self consciousness just disappears without having to be cut off. One of the reliable signs that this has happened is that sights, sounds, tastes &c. become extraordinarily clear and vivid and one becomes capable of going for many minutes without any constructed thought, often without even the appearance of an internal image. (What do you call internal, what do you call external?) Another sign is that all forms and sounds just appear marvelous, as if spontaneously generated from a deep space. Amazing! Another sign is that one starts to laugh for no reason, just from joy. Another is that one's eyelids feel slightly charged, and there is almost the feeling of "seeing" not with the eyes but with the eyelids. There is a blissful feeling of lightness, as if "a piece of iron suddenly floated." All these are just signs and one doesn't fixate on them.
Try to clearly see that nothing has ever arisen anywhere or at any time at all, either from so-called emptiness or from any combination of so-called "other" things. Those who misunderstand this point misunderstand Zen and Buddhism both.
Understand that the mysterious realization I talk about here is intrinsic to Zen from the very beginning, ever since Mahakasyapa smiled (as soon as Buddha held up the flower on Vulture Peak). Kyoge betsuden. Huang-Po calls it "a mysterious tacit understanding." Hui-Neng calls it "sudden illumination." Mumon calls it "mysterious (subtle, exquisite) awakening." Yuanwu calls it "your inner light instantly penetrating the ten directions." The Chinese term for it is Wu. The Japanese term for it is Satori. It is also called "the Transmission of Mind Outside Teachings." It is attained by leaping over, cutting off, or completely detaching from all conceptual thinking. It is the very substance and marrow of Zen.
Kensho, seeing the self nature, is not seeing any "thing" at all. "Seeing" of this kind is done with the mind when it sees itself. But in seeing itself it doesn't see a single thing. (Though, as many yogins have said, it does have a vivid impression of "brilliance" and also of "spaciousness." It's like the jade woman dancing, the stone man playing drums.)
Master Huang-Po once boldly summed it all up like this:
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? . . . 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.
See how Huang-Po hammers away at the truth? Clang, clang. He is relentless, but also unmoving like a mountain in the sky. Be like him. Take the bullshit by the horns. Stop your mind and see it directly. Leap right over the bull. Then you won't have any of these "mental clinging" problems. Thoughts will slide off you like raindrops off a duck's beak.
Q. So you say that satori isn't a myth? It actually happens? And can be provoked?
A. So far as I know, up until quite recently (up to the turn of the 19th century), every renowned Ch'an/Seon/Zen Master in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan had a "satori-experience" story, and usually a poem to go with it. This is just how it was done. Zen is "poetic" in that it values the experience of awakening itself, the bliss of awakening, which Tibetans generally don't.
For a recent example, Seung Sahn had a satori (sudden awakening) story, and so did his disciple, Chang Sik Kim. Yet, so far as I know, none of the hundreds of American students (many certified to teach) of these two Korean Masters has a satori anecdote to tell us. Weird.
Shunryu Suzuki didn't have a satori or a satori poem and didn't ask it of any of his students. So you can forget that.
The various Japanese Rinzai Masters in North & Central & South America don't have anything to say about satori and don't require it of their students. That's a pity! Isnt it? But we aren't here to talk about the tragedy or travesties of modern Zen. Just follow Master Huang-Po's lucid instructions & you will break through. Grab a tiger's whiskers & hear him roar!
Q. I am skeptical. How do you personally know all of this?
A. Here is my answer. Because I just do. There is no other answer. How do you know how you know anything appearing in your field of experience right now, or even if anything is appearing at all? You can't say.
At the beginning of so called Western philosophy, Socrates proved that nobody ever "knows" how they know anything at all. They just do, or they just don't.
To a similar question, Master Yunmen replied, "Heaven and earth blacked out." Where's the knowing in that? You shiver when you hear a cold wind blowing in the pines.
Satori isn't intellectual content, so it can't be taught. But the conceptual mind that obscures it can be shattered.
"Shatter thinking, see the Starry Sky at noon."
When you are free of the "thinking consciousness," totally devoid of interior chatter, not recalling the past and not worrying about the future, then chopping wood and carrying water is itself the Great Seal of Buddha's Samadhi, the unbelievable clear bliss, miraculous, which is why Layman Pang went around laughing and dancing.
Note that Layman Pang didn't just say, "Chop wood, carry water." He said, "I chop wood, I carry water -- how miraculous! What awesome spiritual powers are these!"