What is the significance of Zen?

Translated from: https://zhwhdx.ustc.edu.cn/zhwhdx/news/detail_197572.htm on deepl.com

What is the significance of Zen?
By Lou Yulie (Professor, Department of Philosophy, Peking University)

Today I am speaking on this topic mainly because I feel that there is still a lot of lack of clarity in our current understanding of Chinese Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism.

Venerable Tai Xu, a modern Chinese monk, once said that the specialty of Chinese Buddhism is Zen. By Zen, he meant Zen Buddhism. Zen is a sect of Chinese Buddhism, and there is no such specialized sect in India itself. Zen itself is just a method of cultivation, and it is not unique to Buddhism in India, it is a method of cultivation that is commonly used by all religions in India, it is a method of exercising the mind so that your mind can be stabilized and concentrated. This method is coupled with the guidance of a philosophy, such as Buddhism using the philosophy of Buddhism to guide, other sects using other ideas to guide, or even no religious beliefs, but other aspects of the spiritual pursuit of the philosophy to guide, are all possible. Through meditation as a method, to open your wisdom, to achieve a certain realization of life, or to be fit and strong. However, Buddhism has developed very richly since the addition of Buddhist concepts to meditation. In the early days, there were various kinds of meditation, and we often talk about two kinds: one is called the counting of breaths, and the other is called the impure view, which is called the “two nectar gate”, and these are all very effective methods of practice in Buddhism.

After Buddhism was introduced to China, there were various kinds of meditation in the beginning, but in the midst of this, many people became obsessed with the external appearance of meditation. For example, if we sit in meditation, we have to sit there without talking or moving, and this is an external phase. Originally, this external aspect of meditation was only a convenient guide, but as a result, some people may cling to these external aspects. Although Zen is called Zen, fundamentally it is precisely to break the attachment to the external phase of Zen. You may have heard of the Yongjia Zen master, Xuanjue, whose “Song of the Yongjia Testimony” contains the line, “Walking is also Zen, sitting is also Zen, and speech, silence, and movement are peaceful.” It means that Zen is not necessarily sitting, stillness and silence, but can also be walking, moving and speaking. This means to break away from the external phase of Zen and to grasp the fundamental inner spirit of Zen, which is what makes Zen different from ordinary sitting meditation.

Such a sect developed in China, and in the course of its development it had many deviations. For example, Zen Buddhism wants to break down external phases, and as a result some people think that there is no need to even sit in Zen. Zen believes that external appearance prevents one from grasping the inner fundamental spirit of Buddhism, so language and words are also a kind of obstacle. If you cling to words, words become an obstacle to grasping the Dharma, so you have to break the phase of words and language, and that is why Zen always says, “The path of words is broken, and the path of mindfulness is cut off. If you stop at words and don’t grasp their spirit, then words will block your path. It is good to start a thought, but this thought will also prevent you from getting to the true meaning of the Dharma. All these are corrective, and as a result, some people go to the point where they don’t chant, where no words or language are needed, and the sutras don’t need to be read. When we watch the movie Shaolin Temple, we remember only one line, “Wine and meat go through the gut, but the Buddha stays in the heart.” I say that this sentence is to have a fairly deep cultivation of kung fu, to reach a considerable realm to say, if the average person says this, that is crazy Zen, that is an excuse, through this will not need to cultivate. So there were some deviations in the development of Zen, and in the Song Dynasty, there were many Zen masters who told people not to read the scriptures, so there were many people who criticized this deviation in the development of Zen. The written word is a barrier to the path, but it is also necessary to grasp the fundamental spirit of the Buddha’s teachings through the written word, and it is important to grasp this balance. It is not possible to be completely free of words, but it is not possible to remain in words. There are many people who feel that Zen is mysterious and not easy to understand, and this is due to the deviation in the development of Zen.

Today, I will focus on Chinese Zen and its value in the history of Buddhist development. This value, I would characterize as “humanistic significance”.

Buddhism itself is a religion full of humanistic spirit. The so-called “humanistic spirit” is the spirit of putting people first. Buddhism is a religion that relies on people’s own enlightenment and wisdom to achieve liberation, so we call it a religion full of humanistic spirit. I believe that Chinese Zen Buddhism has given full play to the humanistic spirit of Buddhism. To understand this, we need to have a basic understanding of the entire historical development of Buddhism. I offer you today an outline of the brief history of the development of Buddhism from theory to practice. Of course, I can only do the briefest combing here, and then focus on exactly where Zen Buddhism has carried forward the humanistic spirit of Buddhism.

As we all know, when Sakyamuni or the Buddha founded Buddhism, the main reason was that when he observed the phenomenon of life, he realized that life was a process full of pain and suffering, and that the process of life could also be said to be a process of suffering. Why is there such a kind of suffering? At that time, in the Indian culture, there were various explanations for this phenomenon of human life. Among them, the orthodox and dominant Brahmanism believed that such a phenomenon of life was determined by God, which is what we call the “theory of destiny”. Siddhartha Gautama, thinking about this issue, put forward a different view, saying that the present state of each life, this kind of suffering, can be said to be a result, so what is the cause of this result? Shakyamuni suggested that it is the result of one’s own thoughts, speech, and behavior, the so-called “body, mouth, and mind” karma. This is the basis of Buddhism, the theory of karma, which says, “If you create your own karma, you have to suffer from it. Karma is not external, but is created by the subject of life itself, so there is such a state of life as you are now. Buddhism therefore calls for liberation, to get rid of birth and death, and to reach a pure, silent state, which is what we often call Nirvana. Nirvana means silence, so that your suffering does not arise. In order for suffering not to arise, you have to change the karma you have created. How do you change? By practicing. How do you do that? Early Buddhism put forward the so-called Eightfold Path – the correct path of practice. These are the four truths, the Four Noble Truths, that the Buddha realized under the Bibhala Tree, what we now call the Bodhi Tree: life is suffering; the cause is one’s own karma; what we are seeking is silence, silence; and the path to silence is the Eightfold Path, or to expand it a little bit, the Thirty-Seven Paths, or the Thirty-Seven Paths. Or, to expand on this, the Thirty-seven Paths. This is the truth that the Buddha first realized under the Bodhi tree, and we call it the Four Noble Truths.

How do you eliminate your own karma? What governs karma? What is it that makes people create the three karmas of body, mouth, and mind? According to Buddhism, it is mainly the human mind. What exactly are these minds? Buddhism summarizes it as greed, anger and dementia, also known as the “three poisons”. Under the domination of the three poisons, one’s body, mouth and mind create all kinds of karma. Therefore, the most fundamental thing is to eliminate the three karmas of body, mouth and mind. How to eliminate them? You have to realize what the main body of life is all about. Through the theory of karma, Buddhism shows us that the so-called “I” is nothing more than the result of various karmic gatherings, and that the main body of life is actually the five skandhas. The so-called “five skandhas” are the main body of life, which is actually a combination of your physical life and spiritual life, which are formed by various karmic factors, that is, the five skandhas of color, receptivity, thought, action, and knowledge. Since they are the five color bodies, when the karmas come together there are five bodies, and when the karmas come apart there are no five bodies. Therefore, Shakyamuni often said in the early days of the Buddha, “Gathering will lead to dispersal, meeting will lead to separation, and birth will lead to death”, which is a law. This is a law. Since this is the case, the life of any subject is not eternal, and this is called “impermanence”. On the other hand, since it is the gathering of various causes that gives rise to the subject bodies of the five aggregates, where is the subject nature of “I”? It is nothing more than color, receptivity, thought, action, and knowledge; where is there an independent “I” as the subject? Therefore, there is no real independent self-nature, which is called “no self” in Buddhism. All karmically generated dharmas are impermanent and egoless, which is what Buddhism refers to as “emptiness”. Emptiness is about the impermanence and non-self of the phenomenal world, and through this theory, it explains that the subject of life such as “I” is impermanent and non-self, so your attachment to it is a kind of obsession. With this kind of obsession, there is greed, anger, and infatuation. Early Buddhism focused on breaking the “I-obsession” – the attachment to me – and did not explore much about the external world. Is the external world outside the subject real or unreal? This question is not discussed in a very focused way, but the main discussion is that the subject life of “I” is impermanent and egoless, so one should not be attached to it. This is the core concept of early Buddhism, which is to break the attachment to self and prove Nirvana through the theory of karma.

The most important characteristic of primitive Buddhism is that it does not focus on theoretical discussion, but on actual confirmation and practice. And it emphasized that this kind of actual confirmation and practice does not depend on external forces, but on yourself, on your own strength. We can still see in many of the early Buddhist classics – for example, in some of the Southern Buddhist classics – that the Buddha repeatedly emphasized that one must seek liberation by one’s own power, that one must learn how to free oneself from this world of suffering.

He once told his great disciple, Ananda, that all bhikkhus should “take themselves as an island and return to themselves,” that they should take themselves as an island and not sink into the sea of suffering. “Apart from oneself, there is nothing else to rely on”, there is nothing else to rely on apart from oneself. This is a very important statement emphasized by early Buddhism. When the Buddha was on his deathbed, his disciples and followers were very much attached to the Buddha: what will we do in the future after you have passed away? The Buddha repeatedly told them that there will be reunions and separations, meetings and departures, births and deaths, so there is no need to be attached to me. We should “take the Dharma as our home, and apart from the Dharma, there is nothing to which we can cling” and “take the precepts as our teacher”. He once said to Ananda, “All actions, great and small, are based on the Dharma and follow the Dharma”. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra of the Southern tradition, it is said that the World Honored One told Ananda, “Look, the Shara tree has suddenly blossomed, and this flower should not have blossomed now, but it has blossomed, and it is called an untimely blossom. This flower is very beautiful and hangs all over the branches of the tree. Why? It was for the purpose of making offerings to Kṛṣṇa, and the heavens were scattered with flowers, and there was all kinds of music, and all kinds of scents coming out, all for the purpose of making offerings to Kṛṣṇa. Buddha said, “Ananda! Such is not a suitable respectful offering to Kṛṣṇa.” Such kinds of offerings are not suitable, so how is it suitable? He said, “One who holds his body upright and follows the precepts is the supreme respectful offering to Kṛṣṇa.” You are able to hold your body and act upright, and you are able to act in accordance with the precepts and the Dharma, and that is the supreme respectful offering to Kṛṣṇa. Kṛṣṇa repeatedly emphasized that not to be blindly worshipful of him, not to be dependent on him, but to rely on one’s own strength, to be self-centered, to act in accordance with the Dharma and the precepts, and this is the fundamental spirit of the Buddha.

Mr. Tang Yutong in his “History of Indian Philosophy” once said this paragraph: “Buddha is not heavy talk, nor superstition, where the Brahmin Shrine divination divination witchcraft, are often denounced by the Buddha.” All kinds of witchcraft, divination and so on, are all denounced by the Buddha. He said, “Sakyamuni is always on his own cultivation. Wisdom is to eliminate the suffering, meditation is to heal the mind and strengthen the nature, and the precepts are to hold the body and eliminate the outside world. As for the divine power, although it is the fruit of meditation, although it is admired by the common people, it is not valued by the Buddha.” Buddhism also says that meditation can produce divine powers, we often say that there are six divine powers, there is the eye of heaven, his mind, divine foot, etc., this is a result of meditation can be achieved. Therefore, Mr. Tang said, “If the Avatar is the result of meditation, although the ordinary people are pleased to see”, but also the ordinary people are very eager. But he said, “It is not valued by the Buddha,” and there are many examples of this in the early classics. Mr. Tang cites the Sutra of Strength in the Nagarjuna Sutra, which has a lot of content saying that Buddhism should not engage in these magical powers.

However with the later stages of Buddhism, there was a tendency to do this. When we look at Southern Buddhism now, we should not think that it is exactly the same as the original Buddhism, but there have been many changes in the middle of it, and in the 19th century, Thai Buddhism was still full of the practice of the Avatars. At that time, monks and bhikkhus were telling fortunes and fortunes all over the streets, and they even held women’s hands and walked together. The Thai King at the time, Rama IV, saw such a situation in Buddhism and thought it was not in keeping with the fundamental spirit of Buddhism. He searched for a variety of classics to scrutinize, and he thoroughly reformed Buddhism in Thailand, eliminating the fortune-telling and other practices. He decided that the fundamental spirit of Buddhism is that one’s own destiny is determined by one’s own practice and behavior, and that this is the true Buddhism. This is the fundamental spirit of the whole primitive early Buddhism, which, if understood, is very meaningful to our understanding of Chinese Zen Buddhism today.

The development of Buddhism was a long process, and in the 1st century AD, Mahayana Buddhism emerged. There is no question that Mahayana Buddhism deepened primitive Buddhism in many aspects of theory and practice. There were several new developments in Mahayana Buddhism. Theoretically, as we have just mentioned, early Buddhism was mainly about making us realize the impermanence and non-self of the subject of life, with the emphasis on the breaking of egoism. In Mahayana Buddhism, not only does it talk about the impermanence and selflessness of the subject of life, but it also talks about the impermanence and selflessness of all phenomenal worlds outside the subject of life. The subject of our life has birth and death, and the objective world of phenomena also has birth and extinction. Our universe is constantly changing; the living phase has birth, old age, sickness, and death, and the non-living phase of the phenomenal world also has birth, residence, and extinction; it arises, then stays in a relatively stable state, then changes, and finally disappears. Birth, old age, sickness and death, and birth, residence and extinction are common to all things, and no thing can escape such a process. Therefore, Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes that everything is empty, that is, the original “four great emptinesses” that we often talk about.

Mahayana Buddhism also emphasizes theoretically that emptiness does not come after the extinction of color; color corresponds to a phenomenon that we can see, touch, and feel, and emptiness does not come after the absence of this phenomenon; that kind of emptiness is called the emptiness of the extinction of color and the emptiness of the absence of color. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasizes the immediacy of color and emptiness, that is, the inseparability of color and emptiness. Color is the world of all the phenomena we see, and emptiness is the essence of these phenomena: one is the external appearance and the other is the internal nature. This is a big change in theory, and it goes deeper in theory around just such a question. Early Buddhist theory was very simple, as I have just said: the Four Noble Truths, the theory of karma, which pointed out that everything is a result of karmic aggregation, and that everything is related to each other. When it comes to Mahayana Buddhism, from the early Chung Kuan school to the later Yogacara school, there is a very in-depth development in the theory.

There are two main elements of the Chung Kuan school of Buddhism: one is that everything is empty, as I have just said, and the second is that color and emptiness are not separate, the so-called “Middle Way”. The second is that color and emptiness are not separate, that is, the so-called “Middle Way.” Color does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from color, color is emptiness, and emptiness is color. Through this idea of the Middle Way, it is important for us to realize that all the phenomena we see in the world are just clouds in the eye, unreal and insubstantial. It is like that verse at the end of the Diamond Sutra: “All existent dharmas are like dreams and bubbles, like dew and electricity, and should be viewed as such.” With regard to the created dharma, we should recognize it in this way. Dreams, illusions, bubbles, and shadows are not real, actual things and speak of non-self, and dew and electricity speak of impermanence, so all existent dharmas are impermanent and non-self. By recognizing it in this way, we can grasp its reality, its true phase. Therefore, Zhongguancang is about the real phase, grasping its real phase – that is, the empty phase, that is, the no-phase. In the final analysis, the key to the study of the Chinese Way of Life is to “break the phase and reveal the nature”: to break the external phase, to reveal its true nature, and to grasp the essence of the phenomenal world from the root. Therefore, the Nirvana achieved by the Middle Way is not just the Nirvana of freedom from desire.

Early Buddhism pursued the attainment of Nirvana, the pursuit of silence, which is the state of being free from desires and thoughts. There are two states of Nirvana in early Buddhism:

The first is residual nirvana, which means that the body is still there, the subject has not disappeared, but he can reach the state of being free from desire, free from thought, free from motion and free from thought, and able to maintain a kind of stillness. Who can achieve this? The most common one is the Lohan, who has attained the realm of transcendental nirvana, where they are free from birth and death. The early Buddhist classics describe this state of being reached by a Lohan in four sentences: firstly, “My life is over”; secondly, “Brahmacharya has been established”, Brahmacharya is the act of purity; “What has been done has been done”, what has to be done has been done. The first sentence is “My life is over”; the second sentence is “Brahman actions have been established”; Brahman actions are pure actions; “What has been done has been done”; “What needs to be done has been done”; and finally “There is no more afterlife”; there is no more afterlife, and life and death have been ended.

There is another kind of Nirvana, which is Nirvana without remainder. Nirvana is described in the early Buddhist texts as “the ashes of the body and the extinction of the mind”. The body dies and is cremated, turning into a pile of ashes. The body is cremated and turns into a pile of ash, and the mind is extinguished, which means that there is no more thought. Early Buddhism talked about these two kinds of Nirvana, while the Chinese School of Buddhism talked about the Nirvana of Reality. That is to say, to recognize the reality of things, to recognize the reality of the phenomenal world as being phase-less and empty, as being impermanent and selfless. Only by grasping this point can you truly reach the realm of Nirvana.

The Chung Kuan school also talks about non-residency nirvana. What does it mean to have no abiding? In the same way that the color and emptiness are inseparable, can bodhi be separated from worries? Where can bodhi and enlightenment come from without worries? Is there nirvana apart from birth and death? There is none. Since color is not separate from emptiness and emptiness is not separate from color, then bodhi is not separate from worries and nirvana is not separate from birth and death. Therefore, it is not possible to leave birth and death to attain nirvana and live in nirvana. Since one does not live in birth and death, one does not live in nirvana, and this is non-living nirvana. This is not to regard nirvana and birth and death as two things, but birth and death are nirvana, nirvana is birth and death, birth and death are not separate from nirvana, nirvana is not separate from birth and death, so how can you stay on either side? It’s certainly not right to stay on birth and death, and it’s not right to stay on nirvana, and that’s the ideal of siderealism, which is about non-duality. Because of this, the world and the worldly world are not two. When the Vimalakirti Sutra talks about non-dual dharma, it says, “The world and the world are not two, and the emptiness of the world is the world”.

Therefore, the Middle Way of Buddhism speaks of actual Nirvana and Nirvana without abode. The theoretical development of Mahayana Buddhism is therefore very extensive, in-depth, and full of dialectical thinking, and it has repeatedly criticized the shortcomings of early Buddhism for separating the two things. They often say that Hinayana Buddhism is “happy with the above and loathe the below”, pursuing the above and hating the below. What is above? Bodhi and Nirvana. What is the bottom? Sangha, death, and trouble. It is wrong in Mahayana Buddhism to separate these two things, so we should neither leave birth and death nor live in Nirvana.

It is indeed not easy to grasp such a theory of the Chinese Way of Thinking, because it is very discursive: it wants me to pursue Nirvana, but does not allow me to stay in Nirvana; it wants me to be free from birth and death, but does not want me to be free from birth and death. It is indeed quite difficult for ordinary people to understand. In Chinese Buddhism, the theory of reality has to be grasped directly, but it is difficult for many people to grasp it. For example, if you have grasped that everything is empty, but you can still see that everyone is sitting here, men and women, young and old, why do you say that these phases are empty? How did the phenomenal world come to be? You say that this phenomenal world is unreal, impermanent and selfless, and therefore empty, but how did this phenomenal world come to be? To explain this clearly, this brings us to the Yogacara school, which focuses around these phenomena and analyzes the roots from which they arise.

The core idea of Vaisnavism is summarized in two sentences: “The three realms are created by the mind alone, and all dharmas are created by the consciousness alone”. That is to say, all the phenomena we see in the world, the three realms or the dharmas, they are all products of the mind, the manifestation of the mind. Mind and consciousness is a thing, the mind is on the overall speaking, knowledge is can be said separately, there are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind six knowledge. On top of these six senses, the Yogacara school adds Māyāna consciousness and Arya consciousness as the seventh and eighth senses. The seventh sense acts as a neutralizer, and the Arya sense is the seat of a seed, the subject’s self. Māna consciousness sees Arya consciousness as the ego, and through Māna consciousness the seeds accumulated in the ego are transmitted to the first six senses, which control the action, and the manifestation of all dharmas occurs. Eye to color, ear to sound, nose to smell, tongue to taste, and body to touch. Therefore, the manifestation of all dharmas is discerned by the human consciousness. What is meant by knowledge? It is the cognitive function of your senses. People have senses, eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind, called the six roots. All six roots have the function of recognizing the external world, and this is called “consciousness”. The function of the eye is called eye sense, and its function is to distinguish various shapes and colors; the ear is the root, and the function of the ear to distinguish the external world is called ear sense, and ear sense is to distinguish the height, speed, and size of sound, and so on. Therefore, the function of knowledge is to discriminate, and all human awareness is through our sense organs. As soon as these sense organs come into contact with external things, the first thing they do is to discriminate; if they don’t discriminate, how can I recognize them? The discriminatory function of knowledge is an inevitable process of human cognition or knowledge.

However, it is also such a normal process that brings us the delusion of separation. After you have discriminated you have this is good-looking, that is not good-looking, I like this, I don’t like that, and a separate attachment arises. I’m happy when I get what I like, and I feel bad when I lose it, and I desperately want to get what I don’t get, so the delusion of separation and the delusion of reversal come. Your emotions fluctuate, you are troubled, and you even suffer. All the distinction of the external phenomenal world is actually the human subjective cognitive function to distinguish it, and the phenomenal world itself should not have any distinction. Where the external phenomenal world itself says: I am a valuable jewel and you are a broken stone worthless, there is none! But we separate them through our consciousness, and then according to our preferences we make this one valuable and that one worthless. Whether it is material or spiritual phenomena, many troubles or even all troubles are brought about by your own discrimination and separation, so there is a saying in Buddhism called “seeking troubles for oneself”. Later, Zen Buddhism says that to recognize one’s true nature is to realize that one’s true nature is originally pure and free of worries. There is no trouble in everyone’s nature, but because our consciousness distinguishes between the various phenomena of the phenomenal world, distinguishing between noble, base, high, low, beautiful, ugly, and so on, and then there is a kind of pursuit and attachment to obtaining them, then trouble arises. So, troubles are self-seeking, or you can say they are self-created. The Yogacara school is the one that analyzes that the final root of the reason why there are so many distinctions in these phenomena lies in the discriminatory function of the knowledge. This is a very paradoxical problem: without separation we cannot know, but with separation we have a separate mind, which leads to attachment, causing us endless suffering and worry. The Yoga School has a whole set of theories, such as the five positions, the three realms of selfhood, and so on, which in the end are summarized in one sentence, “Transformation of consciousness into wisdom”.

By “transforming consciousness into wisdom,” we mean to transcend the limitations of the separate consciousness. What kind of wisdom is it? To realize the wisdom of Prajna, as Buddhism calls it. Specifically, it means to transform your eighth consciousness into the “Mirror of Perfect Wisdom”. The Mirror of Perfect Wisdom is the absence of distinction, the elimination of distinction, the transcendence of the limitations of our consciousness into a wisdom of non-distinction. Why do we say that the world is undifferentiated? Because of origination. Everything is karmic, the world is a whole, all things in this world are interconnected, you can’t get away from me, I can’t get away from you. This is what the Buddhist scriptures often say, “One is all, all is one”, one is many, many is one. The world is a whole, and all parts of the whole are interrelated. The core concept of karma is “This birth is the birth of the other, this extinction is the extinction of the other. There is no absolute boundary between things. We tend to notice only the separation, the so-called boundaries. There is a boundary between two chairs, I sit on this chair, you sit on that chair. But we don’t even realize that it’s actually precisely this line of demarcation that connects these two individuals, these two positions. Therefore, there is no absolute opposition or separation between things; it is we, as human beings, who are caused by the fact that our thinking sees only the separation and not its connection. Therefore, the theory of the Law of Karma tells us that all dharmas are equal and all beings are equal.

Therefore, I would summarize the theoretical depth of Mahayana Buddhism into two points: what the Chinese koan teaches us is “to break down the appearance and reveal the nature”, and what the Yoga school teaches us is “to turn the consciousness into wisdom”. However, their theoretical structures are both very complicated, and if we stay on names and phases, some people may not be able to realize it in their whole life. While Mahayana Buddhism has deepened its theories, it has also developed cumbersome theories and dogmas that are stuck in language and text, which discourage the general public. Nowadays, those who do Buddhism say that there is no way to go about the study of consciousness, and that only those who have great wisdom go about it. If one stays with the name and the image, it is true. However, there are so many names, but as long as one grasps the phrase “to turn consciousness into wisdom,” one can say that the study of consciousness is at home, and one has grasped the essence.

On the other hand, Mahayana Buddhism has undergone a great change in practice. Color is not different from emptiness, emptiness is not different from color, bodhi is not separate from worries, nirvana is not separate from birth and death, and the world cannot be separated from the world. Therefore, the tendency of primitive Buddhism to leave the world has also changed in Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasizes leaving the world without leaving the world. In other words, Buddhism is not simply a matter of leaving the world; it is also in the world. Moreover, the most important thing about Mahayana Buddhism is that it puts forward the idea of compassion and universalization of all sentient beings. Not only self-liberation, but also letting all sentient beings be liberated; not only self-enlightenment, but also letting all sentient beings be enlightened. For all sentient beings to be saved, how can you lead, teach, and guide without entering the world? In practice, Mahayana Buddhism therefore emphasizes the need to enter the world, and Chinese Mahayana Buddhism often emphasizes the need to enter the world with a worldly mind, and of course we need to enter the world in order to bring all sentient beings to salvation. But when we do it in the spirit of Buddhism, we have to have a worldly mind.

This is a change in the practice of Mahayana Buddhism, and there is also an overall change in the increasing mythological coloration of Mahayana Buddhism. This is something that cannot be denied and something that is very difficult to avoid in the process of development. First of all, in order to survive in the environment of Indian culture at that time, Buddhism could not help but have dealings and exchanges with other religions, and in order to obtain the legitimacy of its existence, it needed other religions to protect each other. Therefore, Buddhism gradually absorbed the beliefs of other religions in the process of development and turned them into its own protective deities. Similarly, the Buddha, who is revered in Buddhism, also became the god of other religions in India, and when we go to Hindu temples now, we also worship Siddhartha Gautama, who has also become a god of Hinduism. Buddha was not originally a god, but in the overall environment of Indian culture, religions exchanged with each other, and all other gods were absorbed by Buddhism as the protective gods of Buddhism, including the four heavenly kings, the eight heavenly dragons, and so on.

At the same time, due to people’s nostalgia for the Buddha, especially in some very difficult world, when society was in great chaos and suffering, people looked forward to the Buddha’s coming into the world to rescue everyone. Therefore, the Buddha was gradually deified with the color of the Godhead. It is very interesting to examine the course of this change. Now in India you can see some of the early stone carvings where the faithful come to the Buddha to ask for the Dharma. In the stone carvings, the believers are human figures, and in the center there is no image of Buddha, but a Dharma wheel, which is called “the Dharma as a teacher”. Later, as people remembered more and more, the image of the Buddha was slowly created and the Buddha became more and more deified. Originally, only Sakyamuni was called Buddha, an honorific title given to him by his followers as the enlightened one whom everyone admired. The other enlightened beings were not called Buddhas, but in the early days they were called Arhats, Dharma Buddhas, and a general term was bodhisattva, which is a sentient being who has become enlightened. However, with the development of Mahayana Buddhism’s idea of deification, not only was the Buddha deified, but there was not one Buddha, but ten Buddhas in ten worlds; and the bodhisattva was not a general term, but there were such and such bodhisattvas. In the minds of ordinary believers, they also have a hierarchy, with the Buddha being the highest, the Bodhisattva the second, and the Lohan the third. In fact, this is not in line with the spirit of Buddhism, so the Dharma Flower Sutra says that Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Lohans are all the same, and that the so-called “three are one”, whether it is the Hearer’s Path, the Marginal Consciousness Path, or the Bodhisattva’s Path, is ultimately the Path of the Buddha. If we read the Tanjing, we can also see that it is recorded in it that a master of the Dharma Flower Sutra, after decades of preaching, could not grasp the core idea of the Dharma Flower Sutra, so he went to ask Hui Neng, Hui Neng listened to it once, and then told him that the Dharma Flower Sutra speaks of two truths: one is that the Buddha came to the world in order to open up the wisdom of the living beings, that is, the sutra says, “Buddha came to this world for the sake of the great cause of the great cause”. This is what the sutra says, “The Buddha comes for a great cause. We sentient beings are covered with ignorance, so the Buddha came to enlighten us with the wisdom of the Buddha. Another theme is that the three will be one, sound hearers, karmic consciousnesses, and bodhisattvas, all of whom are ultimately one Buddha. Therefore, our present division of them into classes is not in keeping with the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings.

In the course of practicing the cultivation of Mahayana Buddhism, there are more and more myths, about all kinds of spiritual and fulfilling things, and about reincarnation in the afterlife. At the time of the Buddha, the Buddha did not talk about his coming to life, he said that people should not expect me to come back. The Buddha once said clearly that other people would leave a handful of things to be taught, but I have left nothing to be said, I have said everything that needs to be said, those who have a destiny have already attained enlightenment, and those who do not have a destiny can attain enlightenment in the future according to the Dharma that I have preached, so don’t wait for me to come. This is very clear, yet in Mahayana Buddhism, all these things are there. I am not saying how these things go against the Dharma, but that it is just a process of development and inevitable. Due to people’s retention, yearning and trust, Buddhism developed into what it is today. And, I’ll add: the liberated people who can stand on their own feet and be self-reliant are actually a minority, what we often call people with wisdom roots, people with high levels of enlightenment. The majority of people may, in addition to self-reliance, have to resort to some other forces, that is, what we often refer to as the Buddha and Bodhisattvas’ guidance, the Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas’ blessing.

Chinese Buddhism, mainly Mahayana Buddhism, has these characteristics that I have just mentioned, one is the deepening of theory, one is the practical emphasis on consistency with the real world, and the third is that it carries quite a lot of mystical coloring. Therefore, in Chinese Buddhism, many of the sects established during the Sui and Tang dynasties were specialized in the study of theory, such as the Sanlun Sect, the Dharma Sect, the Tiantai Sect, and the Huayan Sect, all of which studied Mahayana Buddhism’s Zhongguancang and Yoga Sect; there were also those that emphasized the relief of other’s power, as was the case with the Pure Land Sect, which talked about the Western World of Ultimate Bliss, where the Amitabha Buddha, the Guanyin Buddha, and the Dasheshu Bodhisattva were on their deathbeds and led the way to the West; and there were those that were more focused on the reality of life, emphasizing self-reliance, that is, the ability to be relieved of their own power. There are also those that are more realistic and emphasize self-liberation, which is Zen Buddhism, and those that are more mystical, which is Tantric Buddhism. Of course, we should not think that Tantric Buddhism is just mysterious, it is also based on the doctrine of Zhongguancun and Vaisnavism, but only in the rituals have their differences. Tantra is about body, mouth and mind, some actions seem to people with a certain symbolic, guiding, such as the body, that is, a variety of handprints, which conveys a kind of power; the mouth, that is, mantra, but also since ancient times people worship the special power of the voice of the language; the intention of the secret, corresponding to the Dharma, with the same kind of visualization of a psychological thing. So tantric Buddhism is not mysterious, you see clearly, the three secrets are also very normal, it is people’s worship of something they are not clear, is a psychological need and guidance.

The following is mainly about Zen Buddhism. Zen in many ways restores the primitive Buddhist idea of the fundamental human being, repeatedly emphasizing the self-nature Buddha, the self-nature Dharma, the self-nature Sangha, and the conversion of the converts to the self-nature. Self-nature converts, so it’s not external. There is a saying within Zen, in the Tanjing, “Buddha is made of self-nature, do not seek outside the body.” When one’s own nature is lost, the Buddha is all living beings; when one’s own nature is enlightened, all living beings are the Buddha. In particular, Hui Hai, a disciple of Mazu Daoyi, says in The Essential Door to Enlightenment, “When you know that sentient beings are self-developed, Buddhas cannot be developed; endeavor to strive for self-cultivation, and do not rely on the power of other Buddhas.” These statements are then in perfect harmony with what the Buddha said when he was alive and on his deathbed, as we have just described. Therefore, I often say that Zen is a reversion to the humanistic spirit of Buddhism.

In fact, it is not just a reversion, but it carries it forward. Zen repeatedly emphasizes that the Dharma is in the world and is not separate from worldly consciousness; it repeatedly emphasizes that the Dharma is in daily life, that there is the Dharma in dressing and eating, in walking and sleeping, and that there is the Dharma in shitting and peeing, and that there is the Dharma in daily life. Monk Zhaozhou told us to do our duty. Learning Buddhism, how do we learn? By doing our duty. What does that mean? What you are doing now, do what you are supposed to do. Venerable Master Nebula of Taiwan once said, “Who you are, do what you do.” He said that his whole life is to adhere to this, he said I am a monk, I have to do the monk’s thing, I have to maintain the monk’s authority, I have to follow the monk’s responsibility to do a good job as a monk. In the past, we always said that a person is not progressive, doing one day as a monk and banging on the bell for one day. This is actually the duty of being a monk, and it is precisely a good thing. We are afraid of being a monk for one day and not banging on the bell for one day. Therefore, Zhaozhou monk left behind the “eat tea to go” public case. Nowadays, many places are talking about tea and Zen, and this is the case. Those who just came to learn Zen said, “Zen master, I want to learn, how do I learn? The monk Zhaozhou said, “Eat tea. Those who had been there for a long time asked him, “How can I practice? Eat tea. Why did they all eat tea? Because eating tea is one of the most ordinary things, and it is also one of the proper things to do in the temple. To sit in Zen, to eat tea, to speak in the hall, to eat tea when resting, are all things in the middle of life. The practice of Zen is not a separate thing, it is a separate thing, it is a thing in the middle of life. Zen, I think, is a complete return to this point. Moreover, Zen has put aside the kind of cumbersome dogma, allowing us to grasp the spirit directly, simplifying the theory and focusing on the practice, which is also a kind of return.

What I think is most significant is that Zen takes the deified things of Mahayana Buddhism and gives them a human culture. How does this work? Zen emphasizes that all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are manifestations, which means that all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not gods that we blindly worship, but are manifestations of the Dharma, which means that they embody a spirit of the Dharma. There are a few lines in the Tanjing that illustrate this. “Compassion is Guanyin, joyfulness is called Seraphim, being able to purify is Sakyamuni, and being level is Maitreya.” The two Bodhisattvas and the two Buddhas here are the most familiar to the Chinese people. Everyone meets all day long, “Amitabha Buddha”, Shakyamuni Buddha, needless to say, is the master. Guanyin is even more familiar, and Da Shi Jing may be a little rusty, but he is one of the three saints of the West, so if you want to worship the West and be born in the West, how can you not know about Da Shi Jing? What dharma do these two Bodhisattvas and two Buddhas represent? “Compassion is Guanyin”, Guanyin’s expression is compassion; “Joyfulness and Surrender is called Sekhara”, Sekhara’s expression is joyfulness and surrender. Compassion, joy and surrender, these are the four infinite minds that are very highly regarded in Buddhism, and infinite means boundless and vast. These four minds are boundless minds, a state that Buddhism requires to be attained. In the past, it was said that in the end, one could obtain the Four Immeasurable Minds by practicing Zen. The ultimate goal of Zen practice is to open up your wisdom, and what do you get when you open up your wisdom? You get the Four Immeasurable Minds of Compassion, Happiness and Surrender. Compassion gives happiness; compassion removes people’s suffering; joy is to be joyful with all beings; and surrender is to be able to let go of everything. Through meditation one obtains the Four Immeasurable Minds, which can be expressed through Guanyin and Sekhi. “To be able to purify is Shakyamuni.” What is Shakyamuni? To be able to purify, which is also in line with the core philosophy of Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism from ancient times to the present day, there is a “seven Buddha’s general precepts” emphasized, which all Buddhas from ancient times to the present day have to abide by. This precept was very common in early Buddhism, and we can find it everywhere in the Ahan Sutra. This precept is in four sentences: “Do not commit all evils, practice all good deeds, and purify one’s own mind; this is all Buddhism. In the third sentence, “purify one’s mind”, Shakyamuni is able to purify, able to purify one’s mind, Shakyamuni table “able to purify” this law. The third sentence, “The name of Maitreya,” is the Dharma of Maitreya Buddha. It is the Dharma of the Maitreya Buddha. It is the Dharma of the Maitreya Buddha, the Dharma of the Maitreya Buddha. To be level and straight is to be free of crookedness and slanting, as opposed to crookedness and slanting. The meaning of straightness is sincerity and truthfulness, and a straight mind is a dojo, and if you can keep a straight mind, you are Maitreya.

So I think that Zen reduces the deified Buddha and Bodhisattva back to something humanistic. In this way Zen’s emphasis on relying on one’s own power to be the Buddha of one’s own nature is grounded. Zen does not advocate going to the Western World of Ultimate Bliss because Maitreya is in your heart. It is stated in the Tanjing that people in the East who have made karma should go to the West, and where do people in the West go when they have made karma? The conclusion is that Maitreya is in your heart. The development of Zen Buddhism in China should be said to have further developed the humanistic spirit of Buddhism. The reason why Zen Buddhism has been able to develop such a humanistic spirit has something to do with the fact that it is located in a culture like China’s. Because Chinese culture emphasizes the importance of the human being. Because Chinese culture emphasizes the people-oriented culture, emphasizes that human beings are the most spiritual and precious among all things in heaven and earth, and that human beings should neither be slaves to God nor to material things, and that human beings should maintain their own personalities. To be morally conscious and self-disciplined, and to continuously improve one’s personality, this is a fundamental characteristic of Chinese culture. Buddhism advocates the liberation of man’s own self, which was heretical when it arose in Indian culture, in opposition to orthodox Brahminism, so that Buddhism has flourished and declined in its native India, with ups and downs, and has been impacted by a variety of influences, and has itself accepted many other things. However, in an environment such as China, Buddhism is precisely suited to the fulfillment of the humanistic spirit. In such a cultural environment, Zen Buddhism has revived the humanistic spirit of Buddhism, and it should be said that it has been given a suitable soil.

However, I do not agree that the Chineseization of Zen Buddhism is a Confucianization or a Taoization of Buddhism. It is precisely a combination of the humanistic spirit of Buddhism itself and the humanistic spirit of China. It has not abandoned the humanistic spirit of Buddhism itself, and many of its concepts are supported by the theories developed in Mahayana Buddhism. What is the core of Zen Buddhism? The core of Zen Buddhism is “no thought, no appearance, no dwelling”. The Diamond Sutra is about no thought, no phase, and no abiding. Hui Neng was enlightened by listening to the words of the Diamond Sutra, “There should be no abiding and no mind”. Emphasizing no-thought as the principle, no-phase as the body, and no-abiding as the essence, the principle, body, and essence all have the most fundamental meanings. Huineng adheres to the fundamental concept of Mahayana Buddhism, insisting that everyone has Buddha nature and everyone can become a Buddha, only because you do not recognize your own Buddha nature, so you have not become a Buddha. Of course, it is not enough to realize it, but you have to do it and put it into practice. Here is a story about Daju Huihai. A Zen master asked him, “The sutra says that everyone has Buddha nature, how do I understand this? Huihai told him, “To be a Buddha is Buddha nature, to be a thief is thief nature, and to be a living being is living being nature. So you have this nature, but it also depends on your behavior. It is only when you realize your mind that you can see your nature, and when you do what the Buddha says, you become a Buddha, and when you realize your mind, you see your nature, and you become a Buddha. So awareness and action have to be the same, without action you can’t know your awareness. Not through your behavior, how do I know whether you are a Buddha or a thief, you can judge once your actions come out, the so-called sex does not leave the role, to be completely unified. This is also consistent with Chinese culture, especially Confucianism. Confucianism emphasizes learning from the bottom and learning from the top, learning from the bottom and learning from the bottom, and learning from the top and learning from the sky. You can’t learn from the bottom after you have reached the top, then what is it that you have reached the top, I don’t know.

Zen is exactly in the cultural soil of China, which allows Buddhism to carry forward its original humanistic spirit. So it is not a case of replacing what is Buddhist with what is Confucian. The reason why I started with primitive Buddhism is that the humanistic spirit in Zen is all inherent in Buddhism itself. The reason why it can be exalted in China is because the Chinese cultural environment provides such a soil.

To conclude, the humanistic spirit emphasizes transcendence as the establishment of the human self. In Chinese culture, Confucianism wants to become a saint and a sage, Taoism wants to become an immortal and a true being, and Buddhism wants to become a Bodhisattva and a Buddha. Whether it is to become a saint and a sage, an immortal and a true being, or a buddha and a bodhisattva, it is all done by human beings, and it is all about human self-perfection and self-transcendence. The gods that the Chinese speak of are not the same as the gods of the West. The gods of the West transcend human beings and are not the same as human beings, which is why in the West there is the concept of the “supernatural”, but in China there is no “supernatural”, and the transcendence of the self is still in this world, in the natural world. This is the meaning of humanism, that human beings can transcend themselves, that they can become a kind of saint, an immortal, a Buddha or a Bodhisattva in your ideal.

I think Venerable Taixu has a saying that reveals this very profoundly, he said, “The only thing to look up to is the Buddha, and the completion is in the personality.” When we look up to the Buddha, we look up to the Buddha. But to attain the state of Buddha is a matter of personality. “The Buddha is accomplished when the personality is complete, and this is the true reality.” When the personality is complete, the Buddha is accomplished, and this is the true reality, something that is present, not an inferred comparison. This is why Master Taixu said that the spirit and character of Chinese Buddhism is in Zen. Because Zen is the realization of the self-fulfillment of our personality, which is the humanistic meaning of Zen that I want to talk about.

(Organized by Yu Xiaojun)

This article was published in Humanistic Religious Studies (2011), Religious Culture Publishing House.


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