DHARMA TALKS BY ZEN MASTER SENSHIN
Don't stop there!
There is a wonderful story that brings the immediacy of Zen teaching into clear focus. The story involves Zen Master Lin Chi who lived and taught over 1400 years ago, in China. In those days, Zen not only influenced how people practiced, but shaped social, cultural, and political decisions as well. Zen had been firmly implanted in China by Bodhidharma in the late 5th, early 6th century. Since then, and even though the tradition of Zen has been spread throughout the world, we have not seen that kind of flowering and fruition again. There has been no other period during which Zen has shifted the depth and breath of conscious-awareness as it did at its apogee during this time in China. Throughout his tenure, Lin Chi revitalized the Zen tradition, which in turn, influenced our Korean Zen tradition, and also remains vibrant in Japan today.
Lin Chi had given a Dharma talk to his students. In Lin Chi’s time, students and supporters stood during a talk (unlike today, where people sit), and Lin Chi sat on a high rostrum to deliver his Dharma talk. After he finished, Lin Chi asked for questions. One student named Ting stepped forward and asked, “What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?” Lin Chi stepped down off the rostrum and walked swiftly towards Ting. He grabbed Ting by robes, then slapped him, open-handed, across the face! Ting just stood there not knowing what had occurred. As Lin Chin turned and walked back to his seat, one of Ting’s fellow students chided him saying, “Master Lin Chi just gave you his teaching, why don’t you bow?” As Ting placed his hands together and bowed, he realised the essence of Zen.
Later, Ting was walking into town and he crossed a bridge that spanned a large river. Suddenly, he came upon three scholars who were engaged in an intense discussion. When the scholars noticed the robes of a Buddhist priest, they immediately invited Ting to participate. A scholar put to Ting, “The river of Zen runs deep, and needs to be sounded. What does this mean?” Ting responded by grabbing the scholar and dragging him over to the railing. He was just about to throw the scholar in when the other two scholars intervened, and implored Ting to let their friend go. Readily, Ting let the fellow go and said, “Had you not interceded, I would have thrown him in the river so that he could have sounded the depth himself.”*
Let’s return to the first part of the story. Ting asked Lin Chi, “What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?”
Really, what he was asking was, what is Zen? In answer to this question, Lin Chin stepped down from the rostrum and slapped Ting across the face. Why did he do that?
Lin Chi was renowned for cutting through students’ conceptual barriers by shouting KATZ! or hitting them with his stick. Thus, he responded to Ting in a direct and spontaneous way. There was no attachment in his response. Beyond the mere slap of Ting’s flesh, Lin Chi struck Ting’s mind directly. Ting was stunned into silence. He didn’t know what had happened. He didn’t know who he was. All that he thought he was, or wasn’t, completely disappeared.
Interestingly, Ting did not dig into his reserve of resistance, or other egoistical defenses. He did not raise his hand in anger. Ting had no sense of unfairness or fairness. The timing of Lin Chi’s slap was so precise that all of Ting’s dualistic conceptions dissolved. There was no need to defend himself, as the self that he knew, could not be found. Ting experienced for himself the unknowable.
When Lin Chi turned and walked back to his seat, a fellow Sangha member chided Ting, “You have just received a teaching from the Master, why don’t you bow?” Such a perceptive, compassionate question! Someone else might have been standing next Ting and sympathized, “Don’t take it personally, I got slapped yesterday.” Or judged Ting, “What a stupid question, stop wasting our time!” Or competitively suggested, “He should have slapped you 100 times, not just once!” But this is not what happened. Ting had the good fortune of training with fellow Sangha members, whose commitment to awakening included his awakening too. The direction of the community, and every person in it was to encourage the awakening of all beings. That clarity of mind was actualised in the question: “you have received a teaching from the Master, why don’t you bow?”
Let’s consider our day-to-day life for a moment: how frequently we feel knocked off our centre, lose our awareness of truth, and invest our energy in an array of self-created delusions. Perhaps something is said, and we are upset. Or we experience a loss, perhaps a death, and we are shattered. Even extreme heat, or freezing cold can leave us feeling confused. We are shocked by our body, which seems to continuously let us down. Or, at the opposite end of a linear perspective, we have a sense of pride in the strength and endurance of our body. We allow ourselves to be seduced by our self-image or our image of another. That is, of course, until we feel let down. When the image of who we are does not line up with the truth of who we are, we get a real shock!
Naturally, when we have physical issues, we engage specialists we can work with to correct the body in which we inhabit. Similarly, when we have psychological problems, we seek out help and address our concerns. This is our basic human responsibility. To tend to what needs to be attended to – when we feel hungry, we eat. When thirsty, we drink. And yet, we stop there! How often do we stop there! How seductive to think that if my body is fixed I am fixed – to mistakenly focus on a concept of what appears to be broken, rather than perceiving the essential mind that is unbreakable. When openly observed, the fundamental emptiness of our concepts serve as a catalyst in a deeper experience – a not knowing mind. Don’t stop there! What is this essential mind, with which all sentient beings are endowed and how does it function?
In Ting’s fellow Sangha member’s query, “You have just received a teaching from the Master, why don’t you bow?” the profound responsibility for all Sangha members of fellowship is underscored. To practice Zen is not a solo venture. Supporting, and being supported by a community with the uncontestable priority of awakening is paramount. Further, to practice with a teacher provides the opportunity to go beyond who we think we are. Sadly, we often flounder in self-conscious uncertainties and the depth of a teacher – student relationship is not sounded. To place your trust in your teacher is to deeply trust in your essential mind that is free from dualistic concepts such as “Did I get that answer right?” or “Did I make a fool of myself?” Ting’s profound experience naturally extended beyond his relationship with Lin Chi. At his fellow student’s prompting, Ting placed his hands together and bowed. In the moment of bowing, his consciousness shifted irrevocably. This is the functioning of the Dharma – truth had been revealed.
In the second part of our story, Ting is walking across a bridge and encounters three scholars engaged in a debate. On the surface, the disparity between an academic approach to Zen or a practitioners’ approach is exposed. On the one hand, the scholars are exercising their discipline in a debate about the depth of the river of Zen. On the other, across the bridge walks a person of training who has experienced his essential mind. While both disciplines are equally valid, if there is any attachment in either approach, the immediacy of truth fades and the potential of conflict sparks. The moment the scholars saw Ting, they seized the opportunity to fuel their dialogue, and to explore new dimensions. So, one of the scholars asked Ting, “The depth of the Zen river is deep and needs to be sounded. What does this mean?” Ting grabbed the questioner and dragged him over to the bridge’s railing, and is about to toss him in when his fellow scholars interceded. Appropriately, Ting was able to hear their intercession, and released him.
When we are attached to our experience or our concepts, there is a potential for conflict. Each of you knows well, how extreme attachments can play out. For example, we sense Ting imposing a position on the scholar – the scholar was terrified! Or, at a subtler level, we withdraw into self-imposed limitations, and stop paying attention to our deep-knowing mind, and how it functions. In our story, Ting let go but not before stating, “had you not interceded, I would have thrown him in the river so that he could have sounded the depth himself”. Why explain himself? Experiencing essential nature is not enough – don’t stop there! We need to endlessly clarify our minds so that our functioning, too, is clear. In other words, Zen is to experience the depth of essential mind and in so doing, perceive how that mind functions.
Additionally, Ting is also showing us that in awakening to essential mind, our life direction also becomes clear. We have a choice; to honour our Great Vow to become a Bodhisattva and save all beings from suffering or rely on a constructed ego to make our decisions. In our Great Vow, we work to continually test the depth of our understanding, while not succumbing to the habitual belief that there is an enduring some one to test, to analyse, or to compare to others. In the moment that Ting bowed, that opening was unfathomable. Not only did Ting’s mind open, but also his life direction became clear. Ting’s purpose was crystal clear as we have heard in Ting’s engagement with the three scholars. Had Ting decided to avoid engagement, he would have compromised his essence, his vow. Instead, Ting stopped, and engaged. Had you been there at that time, how would you respond?
Until we fathom, for ourselves, our complete and essential mind, our life direction will remain vague. Until we experience our original mind, we cannot use our body, our psychological make-up, use our scholarly capacity; use all that we are for the benefit of all beings. When we awaken to our essence, our life direction is clear. When our life direction is clear, functioning with and for all beings also is clear.
As we sit here together today, there will be ample opportunity to observe our self-created delusions in their myriad manifestations. Don’t stop there! Even as the onslaught of extraneous concepts slow down and cease, don’t stop there! Even as we become absorbed in a deeply quiet state of mind, don’t stop there! Use your kong-an to probe and to clarify each and every mind state. It is not enough to experience peace or agitation – one more step is necessary.
*Zen Buddhism: Selected writings of D. T. Suzuki. Edited by William Barrett. New York: Doubleday, 1956.
Special thanks to Shim Kwang and Dae An for transcription and editorial assistance.