The Roots of Zen Buddhism
Journal of Chinese Philosophy
V. 8 (1981) pp. 451-478
© 1981 by Dialogue Publishing Company
Zen Buddhism often appears to be "anti-intellectual,'' "illogical" and "trivial." These have puzzled many students of Buddhism. How can Zen be so "irrational"? By what Buddhist doctrines, tenets or philosophies did Zen masters develop their unconventional and dramatic teachings and practices? The aim of this paper is to show that main San-lun Maadhyamika doctrines, such as Emptiness, the Middle Way, the Twofold Truth and the refutation of erroneous views as the illumination of right views, have been assimilated into Zen teachings and practices. Maadhyamika philosophy seems to provide a major "theoretical" foundation for Zen as a "practical," "anti-intellectual," "irrational," "unconventional" and "dramatic" religious movement.
Maadhyamika Buddhism was founded by Naagaarjuna in the second century A. D. in India. It was introduced to China by Kumaarajiiva (334-413 A.D.). This Buddhist school was known as the San-lun Tsung (the Three Treatise School) in China, Korea and Japan, for it is based upon three main texts, namely (1) the Middle Treatise, (2) the Twelve Gate Treatise and (3) the Hundred Treatise. Chi-tsang (549-623 A.D.) was the most eminent Chinese San-lun master.
Most scholars who are familiar with Zen Buddhism know that Zen was influenced by Taoism and Yogaacaara Buddhism. But few people realize that San-lun Buddhists had made great contributions to the formation and development of Zen Buddhism. Those who talk about the influence of Maadhyamika Buddhism upon Zen have not given the sufficient and adequate attention it merits. They often assume that the Maadhyamika "`Suunyataa" has a definite meaning by itself and stands for Absolute Reality, and their dialectical negation is for the affirmation of this Reality, and hold that Zen is the application of those teachings. Maadhyamika Buddhism is said to lead Zen Buddhism to be "Illogical Zen." But actually, the word "empty" or "emptiness" has no meaning by itself but acquires various meanings in the process of salvation, and the Maadhyamika negation is not intended to affirm any ontological reality. Zen is, in fact, not so "irrational" as is ordinarily supposed. San-lun Maadhyamika thought can help us to clear away certain "absurdities," "contradictions" or "inconsistencies" in Zen teachings and practices.In what follows, there will be first a brief presentation of Maadhyamika teachings from Chinese sources. This will provide the reader with an overview of Maadhyamika philosophy and help people to have a better understanding of Maadhyamika thought. Then, it will be shown that essential Maadhyamika doctrines have been assimilated into Zen Buddhism. This will investigate how the former may have inspired the latter to emphasize the practical rather than the purely theoretical aspect of Buddhist religion, and why Zen Buddhists have employed "senseless," "trivial,"or "ridiculous" statements to display their understanding of Dharma or to awaken people to Zen.
According to Chinese San-lun masters, the main teachings of Maadhyamika Buddhism focus on (a) Emptiness (k'ung). (b) the Middle Way (chung tao,). (C) the Twofold Truth (erh ti kuan), and (d) the refutation of erroneous views as the illumination of right views (p'o hsieh hsien cheng). These doctrines are inter-related and aim at showing that all things are empty. "Emptiness," for the Maadhyamika, is not a descriptive name. It does not stand for any definite object or reality, and has no meaning by itself. It obtains a meaning only in the context of salvation. The Maadhyamika doctrine of emptiness is not a metaphysical theory, but a soteriological device for purifying the mind so that one may be "empty" of emotional and intellectual attachments to objects of desire and knowledge. This doctrine is believed to be the central message of Buddhism and was first expressed as the doctrine of the Middle Way by the Buddha in his First Sermon. The Buddha was said to have advised the five mendicants not to live a pessimistic ascetic life nor to live a hedonistic worldly life, but to go a bove the two extremes; only then they could attain true peace.[l0]
Naagaarjuna accepted the Buddha's teaching of the Middle Way and extended it to deal not only with the problem of the way of life but also with all philosophical and religious issues. He found that philosophers and religious men often have a dualistic way of thinking; they tend to describe an event as "appearing or disappearing," "permanent or impermanent," "similar or dissimilar," and "moving hither or thither." For Naagaarjuna all possible metaphysical and religious attempts to describe and explain reality were extreme views. He asserted that the "Middle Way" doctrine of the Buddha advised the avoidance of all extremes in order that a person might become free from the concept "is" and "is not." The Middle Way rises above "affirmation" and "negation." It is the path for removing the dualistic way of thinking. Naagaarjuna opened the Middle Treatise with these words:
This Middle Way of eightfold negation is not just eight negations but a wholesale negation of all attempts to characterize things. The negation is undertaken by means of a dialectic in the form of reductio ad absurdum. The dialectic is a kind of conceptual analysis: it purports to show that all concepts or categories through which we construct experiences are unintelligible. Naagaarjuna examined each traditional non-Buddhist and Buddhist theory which attempted to describe the true nature of reality and displayed that every theory led to certain contradictions or absurdities. He used the same principles of reasoning used by his opponents and aimed to lead them to see that their theories involved contradictions. If the concept or conceptual system led to contradictions, it could not depict reality, for freedom from contradiction is accepted by the advocate himself as a necessary condition in order for a theory to be true. Moreover, the unintelligible is the unreal, and the incapacity to explain is sufficient reason to deny the reality of a thing.
Through the dialectic method and conceptual analysis, Naagaarjuna refuted all possible conceptual attempts to depict reality and advocated the doctrine of `Suunyavaada (emptiness). This doctrine claimed that the true nature of things cannot be ascertained by intellect and described as real or unreal, mental or non-mental. That which is real must have a nature of its own (svabhaava) and should not be produced by causes or be dependent on anything else. To say that a certain "being" or "becoming" is real, would contradict the fact that all phenomena are bound by the relations of cause and effect, subject and object, actor and action, whole and part, unity and diversity, duration and destruction, and relations of time and space. Anything known through experience is dependent on certain conditions. So it cannot be real. On the other hand, whatever one perceives cannot be conceived as unreal either, since that which is unreal can never come into existence. Thus, the Maadhyamika doctrine of emptiness, which is the refutation of all attempts to describe things as real or unreal, is the same as the Middle Way.
Emptiness as the Middle Way is the provisionary name (chia ming) for the indeterminable, indescribable and incomprehensible real state and nature of things. The real state of dharma is like nirvaana, indescribable, incomprehensible, without birth or death. It is beyond the reach of thought and language. Things appear to exist, yet when one attempts to rationally understand the real state of their existence the intellect is baffled. Things should therefore be declared to be inexplicable. `Suunyataa here means the rejection of the intellect or the intellectual explanation of reality.
`Suunyataa also means the wholesale negation of ascribing any assignable essence (hsing), characteristics (hsiang) and function (yung) to anything. Things appear to have certain essence, characteristic and function, but after a careful examination they cannot conceivably have any of them and hence are empty. A thing which is devoid of essence, characteristic and function is not a real entity. So Naagaarjuna said:
Material form, voice, taste, touch, smell, and the various factors of existence are all merely like an imaginary city in the sky, a mirage, and a dream.According to the Maadhyamika, one should understand the doctrine of `Suunyataa by means of the Twofold Truth, namely, the conventional truth (su ti, sa^mv.rtisatya) and the ultimate truth (chen ti, paramaarthasatya). Naagaarjuna's idea of the Twofold Truth reflects a difference in the manner in which one may perceive things and the point of view from which he looks at them. The worldly or conventional truth involves certain emotional and intellectual attachments to what one perceives, and hence the objects of knowledge are considered to have fixed, determinate and self-existing natures. However, one may see what he perceives from a different point of view, namely, the standpoint of the transcendental or ultimate truth, whereby he reevaluates things of this phenomenal world without attachments. And one can know that things perceived are "empty" of any fixed, determinate or self-existing nature.
The Twofold Truth is essentially a pedagogic device (Chiao ti). According to Chi-tsang, the main reasons why this device is established are these: (1) it is set up for the purpose of defending Buddhism against possible charge of nihilism and absolutism; (2) it is given in order to help sentient beings to know Buddha's Dharma; and (3) it is to explain away certain obscurities and inconsistencies in the teachings of the Buddha.
People may easily interpret "empty" or "emptiness" as "nothingness" or "non-existence" and consider the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness as a form of nihilism, proclaiming that the whole universe is nothing, or that nothing exists. For Naagaarjuna, those who see `Suunyataa as "nothingness" or "non-existence" fail to know the profound significance of the distinction between worldly and transcendental truths. They assume that there is "only one" universal standpoint from which one should examine all things. But actually the Buddha's teachings are presented by means of the Twofold Truth. Worldly. truth has to do with the conditions of this phenomenal world which are causally inter-dependent upon one another. Naagaarjuna acknowledges that, from the standpoint of worldly truth, objects of the conventional truth appear as if they had an existence independent of the perceiver. This truth classifies objects as "chair," "table," "I," "mind,"or other sensible things and, in this manner, is used to carry on everyday affairs. What Naagaarjuna wants to deny is that empirical phenomena are "absolutely real." From the transcendental standpoint all things are devoid of fixed, determinate and self-existing essence, substance or reality. But to say that nothing is absolutely real does not mean that nothing exists. It does not nullify anything in the world. It is not the denial of the universe, but merely the avoidance of making any essential differentiation and metaphysical speculation about it.
Naagaarjuna's Twofold Truth has sometimes been considered to represent two fixed sets of truths. His distinction between two truths was taken to imply or correspond to an ontological distinction between "relative reality" and "absolute reality." Emptiness, viewed from the standpoint of the ultimate truth, must stand for a certain absolute essence or reality, and Madhyamika thought should be called Absolutism. But actually, Maadhyamika philosophy is not Absolutism either. For Naagaarjuna, all concepts, including the term "`suunyataa," are incomplete symbols or provisionary names. They do not stand for definite entities, and by themselves, they have no meaning. "Emptiness," as used by Naagaarjuna, is not something in itself. To emphasize that "emptiness" is not primarily an ontological concept and does not refer to any absolute reality. he warned that "In order to refute all erroneous views, the Victorious One teaches emptiness. He who holds that there is an emptiness will be called incurable by all Buddhas."
Naagaarjuna's teaching of the twofold truth is simply an expedient device to explain away ignorances and delusions. The so-called conventional truth and ultimate truth are only two different ways of looking at the "same" things and can be found in anything. For example, when one sees a chair from the ordinary standpoint, he may be applying a worldly truth that there is before him a chair, not a table. Should the same chair be seen from the higher standpoint, one will realize that it is as empty as a table. These two truths are not exhaustive of all truths. Nor are they two fixed sets of truths. If the higher truth is considered to stand for certain determinate or absolute essence, it would become a "lower," or "ordinary" truth. One has to re-examine it from "another higher" standpoint so that he can understand the emptiness of all things. So a truth can be higher or lower, and whether it is high or low depends upon one's mental conditions. This doctrine of the twofold truth is well expounded by Chi-tsang in his twofold truth on three levels (san tsung erh ti or erh ti san kuan).
(1) On the first level, ordinary people believe that what appears to us through the senses is the true nature of things. They affirm the reality of all things and hold that dharmas, all things, are real and possess being. But saints or the enlightened do not accept this naive realism and know that dharmas are empty in nature.The former is regarded as worldly truth and the latter as ultimate truth.
(2) The second level explains that both being and non-being belong to worldly truth, whereas non-duality (neither being nor non-being) belongs to ultimate truth. Both worldly and ultimate truths of the first level, when viewed from a higher standpoint, can be ascribed only to the sphere of worldly truth on the second level, for the affirmations of either being or non-being are two extremes. The Middle Way is to refute these extremes and hence non-duality is ultimate truth.
(3) On the third level, both duality and non-duality are worldly truth, whereas neither duality nor non-duality is ultimate truth. The two truths of the previous level are two extremes from the standpoint of this level. The avoidance of them is regarded as the Middle Way or ultimate truth.This dialectical process is often called the Middle Way of the Twofold Truth (erh ti chung tao). Like the Middle Way, the Twofold Truth is essentially a way of emptiness as it is a path of eliminating extreme views so that one may be "empty" of attachments. Different levels here represent the degree of one's spiritual maturity and accomplishment. The advance from one level to another is the process of salvation or transcending the world. The doctrines of "the Middle Way of Eightfold Negation," "a distinction between the conventional truth and the ultimate truth," and "Emptiness" should be examined and comprehended from different levels. The Middle Way is not just a refutation of a pair of extreme views, but a negation of all extreme views wherever they occur. The conventional truth and the ultimate truth do not stand for two definite truths or realities. They have different connotations and implications on each level. The dialectical process is not limited to three levels. It is a means of purifying the mind, which can be employed progressively to infinite levels until one is free from all conceptual attachments. When all attached things and views are completely eliminated, "Emptiness" means "absolutely non-abiding."
It should be noted that to obtain the ultimate liberation from ignorance and delusions one does not have to go through three levels or the infinite stages of the gradual progression; for one can achieve enlightenment instantly. Emptiness is like a medicine: some people may have to take the medicine many times before their diseases are cured, but others may take it just once and be instantly healed. Also no matter how one obtains salvation, he should know that, as with medicine, emptiness is of use to him only so long as he is ill, but not when he is well again. Once one gets enlightenment, emptiness should be discarded.
Like Emptiness, the Twofold Truth is a good soteriological device for the Bodhisattva "to save" or to help himself and others to obtain enlightenment. The Bodhisattva is a person who has wisdom (praj~naa) and knows that conventional truth depends upon words and names and that, from the ultimate stance, all conceptualizations should be eliminated and only silence reigns. However, he is also a person who has great compassion (karunaa) to help ignorant beings, who knows only discursive knowledge, to attain Nirvaana. The preaching and exposition of Buddhism must depend on words and concepts. So the Bodhisattva cannot be silent. But how can he both "be silent" and have unattached praj~naa, and "be open" and show great karunaa at the same time? For Naagaarjuna, this can be done by means of the Twofold Truth.
Since nothing experienced in the phenomenal world has a fixed, determinate and self-existing nature, no description of any phenomena can be said to be unconditionally true. Yet conventional truth is not entirely useless, for "without conventional truth, ultimate truth cannot be obtained. Without obtaining ultimate truth, Nirvaana cannot be obtained." Transcendental truth is explained by speech, and speech is conventional and conditional. The Bodhisattva knows and practices this teaching of the Twofold Truth. He uses words and concepts, but realizes that they neither stand for, nor point to, anything substantial. He employs reason and empirical facts to refute extreme views, and recognize that they are all empty. It is this "skill-in-means" (fang-pien, upaaya-kau`salya) which enables him to live in conditional and transcendental worlds simultaneously, and hence to save and benefit himself and others equally.
There seems to be certain ambiguities and even contradictions in the verbal expressions of Buddhist Dharma. For example, the Buddhist text sometimes states that all things are causally produced and impermanent. But at other times it states that causal production and impermanence cannot be established. The scripture said that enlightenment (vidyaa) is contrasted with ignorance (avidyaa), yet all dualistic thinking should be rejected. How can all these "inconsistent" teachings be true? Why are there such "contradictory" statements? Which one is really true?
The Maadhyamika doctrine of the Twofold Truth serves as an exegetical technique; it is used to explain away the contradictions in Buddhism and make the Buddha's teachings "all true." The Buddha was a practical teacher. His teachings were given according to the intellectual and spiritual conditions of the audiences. Different messages were delivered from different standpoints. Each of them has no meaning by itself, but has to be known from a certain appropriate standpoint. No truth is "true" by itself, but is recognized as "true" in a certain context. So-called conventional and ultimate truths designate two main contexts or standpoints. All Buddhas presented their teachings by means of these truths. From the conventional stance they may claim that all things are causally produced and impermanent and that enlightenment is contrasted with ignorance. As far as conventional truth is concerned these teachings are "true." Yet Buddhas may examine things from the transcendental stance and say that causal production and impermanence cannot be established and that all dualistic thinking should be rejected. When one tries to understand Buddhist teachings, he should examine them by means of the Twofold Truth. If he can do so, he will find that there are no contradictions in them and that all Buddha's Dharma is true.
However, ultimately no truth for the Maadhyamika is "absolutely true." All truths are essentially pragmatic in character and eventually have to be abandoned. Whether they are true is based on whether they can make one clinging or non-clinging. Their truth-values are their effectiveness as a means (upaaya) to salvation. The Twofold Truth is like a medicine;it is used to eliminate all extreme views and metaphysical speculations. In order to refute the annihilationist, the Buddha may say that existence is real. And for the sake of rejecting the eternalist, he may claim that existence is unreal. As long as the Buddha's teachings are able to help people to remove attachments, they can be accepted as "truths." After all extremes and attachments are banished from the mind, the so-called truths are no longer needed and hence are not "truths" any more. One should be "empty" of all truths and lean on nothing.
To understand the "empty" nature of all truths one should realize, according to Chi-tsang, that "the refutation of erroneous views is the illumination of right view." The so-called refutation of erroneous views, in a philosophical context, is a declaration that all metaphysical views are erroneous and ought to be rejected. To assert that all theories are erroneous views neither entails nor implies that one has to have any "view". For the Maadhyamikas the refutation of erroneous views and the illumination of right views are not two separate things or acts but the same. A right view is not a view in itself; rather, it is the absence of views. If a right view is held in place of an erroneous one, the right view itself would become one-sided and would require refutation. The point the Maadhyamikas want to accentuate, expressed in contemporary terms, is that one should refute all metaphysical views, and to do so does not require the presentation of another metaphysical view, but simply forgetting or ignoring all metaphysics.
Like "emptiness," the words such as "right" and "wrong" or "erroneous" are really empty terms without reference to any definite entities or things. The so-called right view is actually as empty as the wrong view. It is cited as right "only when there is neither affirmation nor negation." If possible, one should not use the term. But
We are forced to use the word 'right' (chiang ming cheng) in order to put an end to wrong. Once wrong has been ended, then neither does right remain. Therefore the mind is attached to nothing.To obtain ultimate enlightenment, one has to go beyond "right" and "wrong," or "true" and "false," and see the empty nature of all things. To realize this is praj~naa (true wisdom).
The main Maadhyamika texts, such as the Middle Treatise, the Twelve Gate Treatise and the Hundred Treatise, had been translated into Chinese and were well known among Chinese Buddhists more than a hundred years before Bodhidharma (470-543 A.D.), the First Patriarch of Chinese Zen Buddhism, went to China in 520 A.D. Hui-neng (638-713 A.D.) is regarded as the real founder of Zen Buddhism, although he was the Sixth Patriarch. He lived more than a hundred years after Chi-tsang, who developed and systematized Chinese San-lun Maadhyamika philosophy. A study of Maadhyamika teachings has been an academic discipline of Buddhist monks in China and Japan since the sixth century A.D. Naagaarjuna was in fact regarded as the venerable patriarch by Zen Buddhists. Both Bodhidharma and Hui-neng, and also their followers must have known and accepted Maadhyamika teachings. In fact, some Zen masters, such as Niu-t'ou Fa-yung (594-657 A.D.) and Nan-chuan P'u-yuan (748-834 A.D.), were San-lun Buddhists before they became Zen teachers.
Zen literature shows that the main Maadhyamika tenets, such as Emptiness, the Middle Way, the Twofold Truth and the refutation of erroneous views as the illumination of right views, have been absorbed into Zen Buddhism. In many respects, Zen appears to be a practical application of Maadhyamika thought.
IV. EMPTINESS AND ZENMany Zen writings and stories indicate that Zen Buddhism accepted the doctrine of `Suunyataa. This can be seen in the following alleged conversation between Bodhidharma and the Emperor Wu-ti (502-549 A.D.):
The Emperor: "Since my enthronement, I have built many monasteries, copied many holy writings and invested many priests and nuns. How great is the merit due to me?"
The ultimate and holiest principle of Buddhism, according to Bodhidharma. is the doctrine of emptiness. It means that all things, including merits, nobility, a knower and knowing, are empty. It is said that Hung-jen, the Fifth Patriarch residing at Yellow Plum in Chin-chou, made an announcement that any one who could prove his thorough understanding of Buddhism would be given the patriarchal robe and proclaimed as his successor. Hui-neng is alleged to inherit the robe by making the following poem:
This poem suggests that the teaching of emptiness is the essence of Zen Buddhism. It states not only that evils. passions and physical objects are empty, but also that enlightenment and religious training to get rid of delusions are empty. Although Zen was influenced by Yogaacaara idealism and claimed that the mind is the Buddha, the so-called mind, for certain Zen Buddhists, is really empty. The Zen teaching of the emptiness of mind is well illustrated in the following conversation between Tao-kwang, a Yogaacaara Buddhist. and a Zen master:There is no Bodhi-tree,
Tao-kwang: "With what frame of mind should one discipline oneself in the truth? "Like the Maadhyamika, the Zen master refused to make an ontic commitment to any mental or non-mental reality. As mentioned previously, there are several different meanings of the word "empty" or "emptiness" in Maadhyamika Buddhism. One of the most important meanings is the total negation of conceptualization. For the Maadhyamikas, any attempt to use concepts or conceptual systems to describe the true state of things involves contradiction or absurdity and hence should be refuted. Zen seems to accept this teaching of emptiness and subsequently rejects any conceptual way of thinking. Like the Maadhyamikas, Zen Buddhists claim that men are slaves to concepts, and that enlightenment is to be liberated from conceptual thinking. The intellect appears to be useful tool to find truths, but actually is the worst enemy of religious experience. Tsung Kao, a Zen master, said that "conceptualization is a deadly hindrance to the Zen yogis, more injurious than poisonous snakes or fierce beasts... Brilliant and intellectual persons always abide in the cave of conceptualization; they can never get away from it in all their activities. As months and years pass they become more deeply engulfed in it. Unknowingly the mind and conceptualization gradually become of a piece." Anyone who wants to obtain salvation should eliminate conceptualizations.
The total negation of conceptualization, for the Maadhyamikas, means "no-thought" and "no-abiding." Hui-neng and his followers seem to follow this model of teaching and "set up no-thought as the main doctrine, non- form as the substance, and non-abiding as the basis...No thought is not to think even when one involves in thought. Non-abiding is the original nature of man." To achieve "no thought" and "non-abiding" is to realize that the true nature of things is unintelligible and incomprehensible, and not to use any verbal and written statements to depict reality.
Like the Maadhyamikas, Zen Buddhists use the word "empty" or "emptiness" not as a descriptive name referring to any reality, but merely as a convenient device to purify one's mind so that one may be "void" of delusions and passions. Tao-chien asked the Master Fa-yen: "Does the Void contain the six phenomena? " The Master responded: "Void." Tao-chien was immediately awakened. After he had made a bow to express his heartfelt gratitude, the Master asked him, "How did you become enlightened? "Tao-chien answered: "Void." The word "Empty" or "Void" here performs the function of stopping any further intellectual pursuit, thus awaking the devotee.
The Zen acceptance of `Suunyataa as the total negation of intellectual speculation and as a soteriological device for purifying one's mind seems to lead Zen Buddhists to develop a non-speculative approach to the attainment of enlightenment. It seems also to lead them to emphasize the practical rather than the purely theoretical aspect of Buddhist religion. For when men discover that all intellectual or conceptual reasonings are really unintelligible and that theoretical speculation cannot give us true wisdom, they would tend to pursue a "non-intellectual" way of obtaining salvation and be practical or non-theoretical in dealing with religious problems. In fact, Chinese San-lun masters often considered Naagaarjuna as a man of dhyaana (meditation) rather than a man of the intellect. So, it is not surprising that Naagaarjuna was later accepted as a patriarch by Zen Buddhists. This seems to explain the Zen Buddhists' preference for practical meditation to conceptual understanding of the Buddha's Dharma and their teachings appear to be "non-rational" and even "anti-intellectual.''
When one studies the history of Buddhism, he will find that many or even most Buddhists deify the Buddha and mythologize his teachings. They think of him as supra-mundane and transcendent and give him a special ontological status. For them, the term "Buddha" or "Tathagaata" denotes or refers to the absolute essence (or deity), which is both the Ultimate Reality and a loving person. But the Maadhyamikas considered this as a misrepresentation of the teaching of the Buddha. Their doctrine of emptiness is the denial of making an ontological commitment to any thing, not even to the Buddha. They explained away all theological and philosophical speculations of Buddhism as erroneous or extreme views. This teaching of emptiness seems to have exercised an influence upon the development of the Zen view of the Buddha. Like the Maadhyamika, certain Zen Buddhists neither deify the Buddha nor offer any special ontic status to the Buddha. For instance, when Gautama Buddha was born, he is said to proclaim that "Above the heavens and below the heavens, I alone am the Honoured One!" Yun-men (? - 966 A.D.), a Zen master, commented on this story by saying, "If I had been with him at the moment of his uttering this, I would surely have struck him dead with one blow and thrown the corpse into the maw of a hungry dog." Other Zen Buddhists also considered him as nothing more than "a stick of dry dung," or "three pounds of flax." "When you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha; when you meet the Patriarch, kill the Patriarch."
Zen masters follow the Maadhyamika not to allow themselves to become attached even to the Buddha and Buddhism. It seems that the only main difference between Maadhyamika and Zen concerning this is that the former used logical tools and presented arguments to show that all speculative theories are unintelligible and should be discarded, while the latter did not engage in arguments but simply accepted the conclusion of the Maadhyamika reasonings and put it into practice.
V. THE MIDDLE WAY AND ZEN
According to the Maadhyamikas, the reason for rejection of all speculative theories is not merely that subjectively one's mind may be deluded by concepts or abstract speculation, but also that objectively, all conceptual ways of thinking are the dualistic ways of thinking, which lead to contradictions or absurdities. The Middle Way, for them, is a convenient tool to refute the dualistic ways of thinking. It holds that to assert that something is so and so is wrong and to assert that something is not so and so is also wrong. To avoid all erroneous views, one should adopt the Middle Way and eschew the "is" and "is not" ways of reasoning. It is very likely that under the influence of the Maadhyamika teaching of the Middle Way, Zen Buddhists have rejected the dualistic way of thinking through the negation of all conceptualization.
Actually, Zen Buddhists even paraphrased the Maadhyamika statement in examining the dualistic way of thinking. For instance, Hui-neng made the following statement to deny the concept of "is" and "is not":
The true nature of an event is marked by
This denial of the dichotomous ideas of permanence and impermanence, arrival and departure, exterior and interior, and origination and extinction, as essential marks of anything, is almost identical with Naagaarjuna's statement of the Middle Way of Eightfold Negation: they are similar to each other not only in philosophy but also in words.
Like the Maadhyamika Eightfold Negation, the Zen negation is not merely eight negations, but the wholesale negation of all views. Zen Buddhists undertook more than eight-negations. The process of negation will not stop until all intellectual and emotional attachments are expunged from the mind. Thus the Middle Way for Zen as well as Maadhyamika is a tool to empty one's mind. It helps people not to be attached to all things, including Emptiness. Fa-yung said: "Do not abide in the extremity of the Void, but illumine the non-being in the being. It is neither out of the Void nor out of being. Void and being are not conceived of as two. This is called the Middle Way."
According to the Maadhyamikas, all verbal statements are the expressions of the dualistic way of thinking and involve contradictions or absurdities. Yet, the Buddha made certain verbal statements in order to help sentient beings to know his message and to gain enlightenment. So, what is really contradictory or absurd can function as a "good" convenient means to assist people in the attainment of enlightenment. The Maadhyamika doctrine of emptiness and the middle way is to show this "paradoxical" nature of the techniques used by the Buddha in his teachings and practices. This may have inspired Zen masters to employ certain "inconsistent," "senseless," "trivial" or "ridiculous" statements to display their understanding of Buddhism or to awaken disciples to Zen. For example, when Tung-shan asked Pen-chi: "What is your name, monk? " The terse reply was "Pen-chi." Tung-shan said: "Say something more." The response was, "I won't." Tung-shan persevered, "Why not? " The answer was, "My name is not Pen-chi." A monk asked Chao-chou (778-896 A.D.),"All things return to oneness. Whither does oneness return? " Chao-chou replied: "When I was staying at Chin chou, I made a robe of cloth weighing seven pounds." How illogical Pen-chi's statements are and how odd Chao-chou's answer is! They seem to be out of reason. But Zen literature abounds with such "irrationalities".
This approach may puzzle and even shock many students of Buddhism. But for Zen as well as for Maadhyamika, all instructions and techniques are empty. The so-called "logical" or "rational" statements, when viewed from the higher standpoint, are really as "absurd" or "contradictory" as those statements which appear to be illogical or irrational. The former can be useful, why not the latter? After all, they are all merely convenient means to help people to gain enlightenment, and eventually have to be declared useless and discarded. Actually, to make a clear-cut distinction between "logical" and "illogical," or "rational" and "irrational," is a dualistic way of thinking and should be ruled out. Herein resides the explanation for Zen's seemingly illogical and irrational appearance.
Zen Buddhists Should not have any "extreme" or determinate position; there is no definite method and instruction for them to follow. The great Zen teachers seldom stuck to any "fixed" pattern in expressing themselves and in educating their disciples. They often exhausted every possible means, including "unconventional" and "dramatic" acts such as shouting, kicking, beating and keeping silent, to enlighten people. Their religious experiences seem to suggest that those acts may be a better way to liberate humans from delusions. The goal of salvation or enlightenment can be achieved by many different ways. It can be done even without any "formal" education or "conventional" religious discipline. Since all things are equally empty, any incident can be a "right occasion" for awakening if one's mind is ripened for the final moment. One can have satori (wu, enlightenment) in listening to a senseless remark, or in hearing an inarticulate voice, or in seeing a tree grow, or in encountering a trivial event such as drinking tea, opening a door or reading a book. This practice of Zen really embodies the conclusion of Maadhyamika Buddhism, although the premises have never been stated. It assumes the Maadhyamika claim that all things are devoid of definite nature, character and function, and hence advocates that everyone can be awakened by any event at any situation and is free to use any style to discuss truth and to employ any way to attain salvation. In this respect Zen is the practical application of Maadhyamika thought.
VI. THE TWOFOLD TRUTH AND ZENAccording to the Maadhyamikas, their teaching should be understood by means of the twofold truth. The so-called twofold truth is a convenient term for two different standpoints, namely, (a) the ordinary standpoint (worldly truth) and (b) the higher standpoint (ultimate truth). The former is to see things from the point of view of that which is deluded with ignorance, illusion and prejudice, while the latter is to see things from the point of view of that which transcends delusions and passions. In this respect, (a) is the stance of ordinary unenlightened men, and (b) is that of enlightened persons. This teaching seems to be assimilated into Zen Buddhism. Zen masters often expressed themselves through the twofold truth. Their messages and practices are supposed to be known from two different standpoints. If one can do these. many of their "paradoxical words and strange acts" (chi-yen chi-hsing) would not appear so "unintelligible" as one believes. Examine the following cases:
(1) A monk asked the Sixth Patriarch: "Who has attained to the secrets of Haung-mei [Yellow Plum, the name of the mountain where the Patriarch used to reside ] ?
(2) The Sixth Patriarch beat Shen-hui with a stick and asked: "Do you feel a pain? "
(3) The master said: "I have a thing which has neither head nor tail, neither name nor word, and neither back nor face. Does anyone know what it is? "
When viewed from the ordinary standpoint, the patriarch should be the one who understands the true essence of Buddhism. Since Hui-neng became the Sixth Patriarch, he should know Buddhism and had attained to the secrets of Huang-mei; otherwise, how would the Fifth Patriarch appoint him as his successor? But when viewed from the higher standpoint, all things, including Buddhism and the secrets of Huang-mei, are empty. So Hui-neng stated that he did not understand Buddhism. When we get beat, we usually feel a pain. However, the so-called pain and feeling a pain are really empty. Therefore Shen-hui expressed himself through twofold truth by saying, "I am both painful and painless." Ordinary belief is that whatever can be conceived to exist must have certain characteristics or marks, such as head, tail, back, face, or name. Yet, all things, when examined from the higher point of view, are "empty and without characteristics" (chen kung wu hsiang. Hui-neng's and Shen-hui's utterances in the case (3) were given from this stance. Thus one cannot comprehend Zen without understanding the doctrine of the Twofold Truth.
Many Zen paradoxes are actually the practical applications of the Maadhyamika doctrine of the Twofold Truth. The aim of these applications is to awaken people. As long as they can help people to get enlightenment, their verbal expressions, no matter how they are asserted, can be accepted as "true." For the so-called truth, according to Zen and Maadhyamika, is pragmatic in character; their truth-values lie in their effectiveness as a means to Nirvana.
Like the Maadhyamika, Zen Buddhists hold that the Twofold Truth does not stand for two fixed sets of truths, but represent various degrees of spiritual maturity. The move from the lower to the higher is a spiritual progress from the unenlightened state to the enlightened one. One may achieve enlightenment instantly, but others may take several steps to attain this goal. Zen Buddhists seem even to use the Maadhyamika idea of the "Middle Way of the Twofold Truth" or the "Twofold Truth on three levels" to explain the different stages of spiritual growth. This can be seen in the following famous statement given by Ch'ing-yuan(? - 740 A.D.):
Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it is just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.
Like Chi-tsang, Ch'ing-yuan divided the process of enlightenment into three levels. At first ordinary people accept and believe whatever they perceive by their senses are real. Naively, mountains just are mountains. But this naive view is wrong and should be refuted. For in reality, mountains are not simply mountains, the true state of things cannot be identified with sense appearances. This negation may lead one to the denial that there are any mountains or waters at all. The doctrine of emptiness would be misconstrued as nihilism and scepticism. So one should go beyond these two levels and have the stance of the middle way by rejecting extreme views (naive realism and sceptical nihilism). From this higher point of view, one see the "same'' things without delusions and passions, and realizes their true nature, and in this sense. mountains are seen once again as mountains and waters once again as waters.
According to the Maadhyamikas. the scale of enlightenment is not limited to three levels. And also one does not necessarily have to take several steps in order to gain enlightenment. For them. it is possible and even favorable if one can see that all things are empty by knowing only that one thing is empty. The opening statement of most chapters of the Twelve Gate Treatise is that "All things are empty. Why? Because something, x, is empty." This implies that if one is empty all would be empty. So. most chapters of the treatise end with the statements that "Since x is empty, all created things are empty. Since created things are empty, all non-created things are empty. Since created and non-created things are empty, how about the self? (or therefore all things are ultimately empty.)" Like the Maadhyamikas, certain Zen Buddhists hold that one may have to go through more than three levels to realize the empty nature of things. But they also believe that one can achieve enlightenment abruptly without passing through various stages. What characterizes the Hui-neng school of Zen is that satori (wu) comes upon one instantly. If the emptiness of a tiny things is known, the emptiness of all things would be understood.
Actually, since all things are empty, one, according to Zen Buddhists, may not have to practice anything, not even to obtain truth and enlightenment. It is said that once Shen-hui asked the Sixth Patriarch, "Through what practice should one work that one may not fall into a 'category'? " The Sixth Patriarch replied, "What have you been doing? " Shen-hui answered, "I do not even practice the Holy Truth! " "In that case, to what category do you belong? " "Even the Holy Truth does not exist, so how can there be any category? " Thus, like the Maadhyamikas, Zen. Buddhists also hold that truths are merely convenient means to show the emptiness of things, and in reality they are also empty and should eventually be discarded.
Ultimately, no truth-claim should be made and no word should be spoken. Chao-chou (778-897 A.D.) asked Master Nan-ch'uan (748-834 A.D.), "Please tell me what it is that goes beyond the four alternatives and the hundredfold negations." Nan-ch'uan made no answer but went to his room. Yang-shan (814-890 A.D.) asked Master Kuei-shan (771-853 A.D.), "When the great action is taking place, how do you determine it?'' Master Kuei-shan immediately came down from his seat and went to his chamber. Yang-shan followed him and entered the room. Kuei-shan said to him, "What was it you asked me? " Yang-shan repeated the question. Kuei-shan said, "Don't you remember my answer? " Yang-shan replied, "Yes, I remember it." Kuei-shan then pressed him further: "Try to say it to me." Yang-shan immediately left the room. These stories seem to show that for Zen ultimate truth is indescribable and unexplainable; silence is the answer to the questions about Dharma. Yet, these same Zen masters often "spoke out. They expounded Dharma to their disciples and even urged them to study written words such as kung-an69]. How could they be "silent" and "open" at the same time? It seems that Zen Buddhists had done this by means of the Twofold Truth. From the transcendental stance, one should keep silent about all things, including the most important issues of suffering, its origin, its cessation and the way leading to its cessation. The Twelve Gate Treatise states that when someone asked the Buddha, "Is suffering made by itself? " the Buddha kept silent and did not answer. "Master! If suffering is not made by itself, is it made by other? " The Buddha still did not answer. "Master! Is it made by itself and by other? " The Buddha remained silent. "Master! Is it then made by no cause? " The Buddha still did not answer. Thus as the Buddha did not answer these questions, one should know that all things are empty. This Maadhyamika idea of the silence of the Buddha seems to encourage Zen Buddhists to emphasize "a special transmission outside the scriptures; no dependence upon words and letters." It gives them wisdom (praj~naa) to keep silent. However, the Maadhyamika teaching of Emptiness as the Twofold Truth urges Zen Buddhists to use words and concepts to explain Buddha's Dharma so that all sentient beings, who know only discursive knowledge, can be awaken to Buddhism. This enables them to display their compassion (karuna) and live in transcendental and conditional worlds simultaneously so as to love themselves and others equally. Thus due to their wisdom and compassion, Zen masters may have seemingly "inconsistent" or "paradoxical" teachings and practices.
REFUTATION OF ERRONEOUS VIEWS AS THE