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Thread: Zen and Buddhism

  1. #1

    Zen and Buddhism

    Undoubtedly this question or some variation has been posed before, since I cannot imagine that my experience is unique, but I've looked for it and haven't found it. I apologize for the redundancy.

    To begin with a hopefully comprehensive caveat, this isn't an attempt to figure out what is "right" or "wrong," but comes from my desire to understand which is right or wrong for me. Any time you put two systems up beside each other, though, they're usually perceived as being against each other. On the contrary, I'm willing to accept that the Buddha taught quite a few paths, each depending on the mind of the student. However, ecumenism only gets you so far in personal practice - there are some points I would like clarification on before I really decide on my own practice.

    So I hold my breath and ask: How does the Zen taught here compare to the Buddhism taught in the Pali canon? I started formulating this question when I came across a quote:

    "And what, monks, is right effort? There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen. He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the abandonment of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen. He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen. He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen: This, monks, is called right effort."
    This is a very active attempt at modifying the contents of mind. This isn't the only such quote, of course. There's also the discussion of distracting thoughts in MN 20, in which the Buddha goes so far as curb-stomping distracting thoughts. There are quite a few places in which the good bhikkhu is to track down the bad parts of himself with a machine gun.

    Obviously this is not the case in all schools of Buddhist thought and maybe even anathema in Zen ("unwholesome?! desire to be different?!" *whack*). At first I understood the difference as one of emphasis and technique. Ajahn Brahm explained it as giving a wild bull a whole field to run around in, thereby calming it down over time, or lashing it down with ropes, quickly teaching it that it would have to behave. However, the more I read in both the Pali canon and Zen literature, it seems they have little tolerance for the other's technique. There is, of course, the famous poem:

    Fundamentally no wisdom-tree exists,
    Nor the stand of a mirror bright.
    Since all is empty from the beginning,
    Where can the dust alight?
    I hope I can let that one speak for itself, especially in opposition to the other monk's poem. I've read in quite a few places that attempts at modification aren't Buddhism or won't work, and yet that's all over the Buddha's own words.

    To rephrase the question, then, how is it that shikantaza accomplishes the same things, when it seems perfectly willing to let persist as long as they like the things the Buddha recommended we beat down? What is the connection between sitting and the whole body of the dharma in daily life? I understand the quotes that just sitting is the perfect fulfillment of the way itself, but that doesn't ring true from where I sit. Again, I'm not trying to imply that Zen isn't Buddhism or that shikantaza is wrong, but I do fail to see the connection between progress on the path of mental purification and just sitting, especially given the seemingly shared antagonism from each school of thought towards the other. How is Zen Zen Buddhism and how is it the Dharma?

    Again, I pray this doesn't devolve in the way it usually does. Please understand that I'm asking this for personal reasons, not to tear down the entire edifice of Zen.

    With a grimacing gassho,
    Dusty

  2. #2
    Hi, Dusty, and welcome.

    To rephrase the question, then, how is it that shikantaza accomplishes the same things, when it seems perfectly willing to let persist as long as they like the things the Buddha recommended we beat down?
    My take is that shikantaza, while the Soto's primary practice, is not the whole of our practice. The precepts wisdom, compassion, metta, etc. are all part of it too. Each component adds to the collective whole. The collective whole is Buddhism.
    Again, my interpretation.

    Shikantaza may be the motor that drives the car, but we need doors, seats, windshield, etc for us to have something that actually works to take us somewhere.

    Gassho,
    Bill

  3. #3
    Hi Dusty, I'd love to have a crack at your question.

    Bill points out a fundamental point. While doing shinkantaza we are "just sitting" - however you do not spend your life sitting on the cushion. Your daily life should be about improving yourself and being the best being you can, whether that means doing thought-labeling like in Vipassana meditation, loving-kindness, whatever. The difference is we kind of flip things on their head and do those things OFF the cushion. When we sit, we just sit. There is sitting, there is not-sitting.

    Zen is not about withdrawal or rejection of the world, it is about being engaged in the world. I find it is often helpful to approach aspects of Buddhism from a real-world perspective. Many people get confused about Buddhism in general because it is often presented in a negative formulation (life is suffering, extinguishing desire, etc). But if you put that aside and look at those generally regarded as accomplished Buddhists, are they depressed, sad, angry, bad people? No, quite the opposite. Are Zen teachers/masters worse people than those in a Tibetan or Thai lineage? I don't think so. In fact, one of the things that attracted me to Zen is the seeming acceptance that Zen teachers have with their own human foibles and striving to make that a part of their practice instead of rejecting/ignoring it.

    OK, here's a more technical discussion that might help. First let me say that Mahayana Buddhism (of which Zen and Ch'an are a part) is not really antagonistic to Therevada - the philosophy can be seen as a refinement that builds upon the previous work. In some ways, it could also be called a more modern reformulation of the same basic ideas. I'll try and summarize Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school for you since the idea of emptiness-appearance seems to be the confusing bit for you. I found the book "The Sun of Wisdom" by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso very helpful when I was moving from learning the Pali canon to Mahayana teachings, and I'll paraphrase some of it here.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nagarjuna

    Mahayanists (?) believe the Buddha taught 3 series of teachings called the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma. In the first turning, which essentially encompasses the Pali canon, the Buddha taught that life is impermanent, samsara is constant suffering, that practicing the Dharma leads to the attainment of nirvana; that positive actions lead to happiness and negative actions lead t o suffering; that appearances, that the individual, suffering, libration, delusion, Buddhas all actually exist and that one can move from delusion to enlightenment as though they are real things. He taught this in order to give rise to renunciation of samsara and longing for nirvana.

    In the middle turning of the wheel, once students gain confidence in the laws of cause & effect and develop longing for nirvana, it is then important that they reverse their clinging to themselves and these phenomena as being truly existent, because this clinging actually prevents them from gaining the liberation for which they strive. The Pali canon certainly does teach anatman (no-self) so what is gaining enlightenment? What is being reincarnated? What is accumulating karma? So in this stage, the rug is "pulled out" from under the student. "There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind," and so forth. This could be called a nihilistic point of view.

    Now that the student is thoroughly lost in the void, it is time for the third turning of the wheel, that the true nature of reality transcends both the notion of existence AND that of nonexistence. If you want to tie your mind in knots, think about this: if you can prove to yourself equanimity is true (that all things are inherently empty and therefore equivalent, such as self and not-self, delusion and enlightenment, a rock and a tree, you and me, etc) then what is the difference between the first turning and the second? Exactly....

    This is summarized in the first paragraph of the Genjo Koan (part of Master Dogen's Shobogenzo):

    As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings.

    As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death.

    The buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas.

    Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.
    We must give up our clinging to nonexistance if we are to realize the simplicity, the freedom from all conceptual fabrications, that is reality's ultimate essence. When we sit zazen, it is my understanding that this is what we are doing, experiencing freedom from all conceptual fabrications, including the fabrication that there are conceptual fabrications and that we are free from them. THIS is the meaning of Hui-neng's poem you quote, which is no-meaning.

    This is the simultaneously true perspectives. This is the thing that cannot be talked about and yet is talked about endlessly.

    From your introduction, it sounds like your practice is a bit on-and-off. It is very difficult to explain this in purely intellectual terms - there is an experiential aspect that makes it complete. I love something Jundo said recently - all reading & talking & thinking and no sitting is like reading cookbooks and never making a recipe or tasting the result. Give it a try! Do your best! Ganbatte ガンバッテ !!

    Hope that helped and I'm not too far off I'm sure someone will correct my errors.

    Skye

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by Skye
    I'll try and summarize Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school for you since the idea of emptiness-appearance seems to be the confusing bit for you.
    With respect, my question isn't at all about the different views of emptiness or the provisionality of the pre-Mahayana schools; has that ever been anything but unhelpful in discussions with those who don't necessarily accept the Mahayana view? My confusion doesn't concern the content of the beliefs, as these are fairly clear with just a little bit of reading.

    I'm asking about the efficacy of the "just sit" school in reproducing the effects of the meditations recommended in the Pali canon. As has already been pointed out, however, some who practice just sitting find that it's useful to involve some of the other practices, and these are what make shikantaza comparable to living out the Theravadin path. I can understand that, like Jundo says, there's a little more to it than "just sitting."

  5. #5
    As I mentioned, the efficacy is in the nature of Zen masters.

    Regards,
    Skye

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Skye
    As I mentioned, the efficacy is in the nature of Zen masters.
    What? I can only guess you're referring to:

    But if you put that aside and look at those generally regarded as accomplished Buddhists, are they depressed, sad, angry, bad people? No, quite the opposite. Are Zen teachers/masters worse people than those in a Tibetan or Thai lineage?
    This is why I don't like to ask. My question has always been "how?" not "why does it not work?" Merely pointing to examples that it does work doesn't give me much; it only convinces me again that you've not understood the question. And this is why I won't ask again. :roll:

  7. #7
    Is anyone else having all of these double posts?
    Bill

  8. #8
    My question has always been "how?" not "why does it not work?"
    As to the question "how?" I can honestly say, I have no idea.

    I also don't know how this computer I'm using works, but I accept that it does. Unless I want to learn to repair or build computers, knowing how it works could be viewed as a waste of effort that could be better spent elsewhere. So, I send emails; I sit, etc. Not every medicine works for everyone—just as not every school is effective in teaching everyone.

    Relatedly, my stance on all of the teachings of the Buddha (or Jesus, Mohammed, etc) is that they were situational teachings. They were meant for a specific person or a specific group of people at a specific time in a specific culture. This may be heresy to some, but I accordingly believe that the spirit of the teachings in totality are much more important than the specific teachings. Put another way, I think that many of the historical Zen masters would think we were crazy to discuss their teachings the way we do. Those methods were specific to a particular situation and to attempt to universalize them is probably erroneous. I'm sure I'm showing my postmodern colors here but that is my take on things. I love the teachings, at least all of the ones I have been taught or read, but I'm not sure that contradictions are worth a great deal of life-energy because the spirit of the teachings appear to be in accord in all schools of Buddhism.

    I could be wrong.

    Bill

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by DontKnow
    Relatedly, my stance on all of the teachings of the Buddha (or Jesus, Mohammed, etc) is that they were situational teachings. They were meant for a specific person or a specific group of people at a specific time in a specific culture. This may be heresy to some, but I accordingly believe that the spirit of the teachings in totality are much more important than the specific teachings. Put another way, I think that many of the historical Zen masters would think we were crazy to discuss their teachings the way we do. Those methods were specific to a particular situation and to attempt to universalize them is probably erroneous. I'm sure I'm showing my postmodern colors here but that is my take on things. I love the teachings, all of them, but I'm not sure that contradictions are worth a great deal of life-energy because the spirit of the teachings appear to be in accord in all schools of Buddhism.
    Bill, this is awesome. Very nicely said.

    Keith

  10. #10

  11. #11
    Dusty, you seem to be taking a rather antagonistic attitude towards this dialogue. I'm not sure where this is coming from, but its clear we're talking at cross purposes. I will step aside in this thread, perhaps someone else can engage your questions better than I can. I hope you find fruits in whatever path you follow.

    Gassho,
    Skye

    Edit: Anyway, Jundo says things much better than I:

    http://treeleafzen.blogspot.com/2008/02 ... rs_08.html

  12. #12
    Hello,

    I am in no way qualified to answer Dusty's question, but I feel compelled to comment. (uh-oh)

    It is difficult, if not impossible, to convey the subtleties involved in a practice through the written word alone. My experience has been that the "efficacy" of a practice lies within the subtleties. On the outside, I'm just sitting. Even on the inside, I'm just sitting. And yet, there's a lot more going on even though nothing is going on.

    The techniques used to move into this "subtle world", and the words used to dicuss those techniques, vary widely due to time, culture, personality and other factors.

    For most of us, the only way to understand a practice is to practice. In other words, if you want to understand shikantaza, you must practice shikantaza. If you want to understand the practices in the Pali canon, you must practice them. Without the underlying practice, all we have are words.

    With nothing to go on but a gut feeling, I say that the answer - the real answer - to Dusty's question lies within the actual practice.

    As promised, I have failed to answer the question, but I hope this is useful.

    Best wishes,
    Terry

  13. #13

    Re: Zen and Buddhism

    Quote Originally Posted by dusty
    To rephrase the question, then, how is it that shikantaza accomplishes the same things, when it seems perfectly willing to let persist as long as they like the things the Buddha recommended we beat down? What is the connection between sitting and the whole body of the dharma in daily life? I understand the quotes that just sitting is the perfect fulfillment of the way itself, but that doesn't ring true from where I sit. Again, I'm not trying to imply that Zen isn't Buddhism or that shikantaza is wrong, but I do fail to see the connection between progress on the path of mental purification and just sitting, especially given the seemingly shared antagonism from each school of thought towards the other. How is Zen Zen Buddhism and how is it the Dharma?

    Dusty
    Hi Dusty, I'm not qualified to answer your question either. I can only talk about my experience with shikantaza and reducing unskillful qualities in myself.

    I've never found that "beating down" my unskillful traits works very well. But, through sitting, I've gotten to know my mind better. And, I can see more clearly when my ego is getting in the way. I am more likely to see my ego acting out so I can avoid getting really angry. Or I recognize more clearly when I am feeling attached to something. It doesn't always work of course, but I get angry less than I used to. So, instead of "beating down" my foibles, I can let them go before they get me into trouble.

    So, for what it is worth, I don't see a contradiction between shikantaza and the Buddha's teachings.

    Gassho (hoping this helps),

    Linda

  14. #14
    Well, Bill, if you're a heretic, you can come sit with me cuz I feel the same way. I move towards what feels experientially right to me (the good stuff rings an internal bell and I know to go forward). Sometimes written teachings make a lot of sense, sometimes moderately so, sometimes not at all. I don't get hung up on that as I've found over time that what does not make sense today often makes sense later and the process by which it comes to make sense has it's own time frame that I don't need to worry about.
    It works in reverese sometimes also. things that seem to make sense today become puzzling over time.
    So my thought is get the juice out of the stuff I understand now and let the rest ripen on the vine.

  15. #15
    Come on dusty. Let's see that smile.

    Zen is the actualization of the reason why the Pali Canon was written. It is what the Buddha experienced when he gained realization. Other practices use various methods to get there. Zen is Starting from the end (so to speak). No method, just sit. The end result of Zen or the Pali Canon, is hopefully the same. And of course it is called Zen "Buddhism" so some of the things that can be found in other practices can be found in Zen practice ie. lighting incense, offerings during oryoki, Chanting, the precepts etc.,

    Look around and read some more and you can get an idea of what both offer. Then do the practice. Actually I recommend you do the practice right away, but that's up to you.

    Put the books side by side and contrast The Canon (Which is so big) with Dogen's Shobogenzo.

    Ok. Hopefully this has something to do with your question and anyone please correct me.

    Gassho Will

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