Thursday, May 13, 2010

Linji's True Eye

‘One day Linji went to He Prefecture. The governor, Councillor Wang, requested the master to take the high seat.
At that time Mayu came forward and asked, “The Great Compassionate One has a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Which is the true eye?”
The master said, “The Great Compassionate One has a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Which is the true eye? Speak, speak!”
Mayu pulled the master down off the high seat and sat on it himself.
Coming up to him, the master said, “How do you do?”
Mayu hesitated. The master, in his turn, pulled Mayu down off the high seat and sat upon it himself.
Mayu went out. The master stepped down. 

The above dialogue comes from the Record of Linji, a book containing the teachings of the Ninth Century Zen master Linji Yixuan (died 866), and who is the founder of the Rinzai Sect of Zen, as it is known in present day Japan. (Rinzai is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese name Linji.) At first glance, it may look as if the two monks involved in the discussion are either mad or having a laugh – they are not. Linji and Mayu are involved in the most serious of matters which questions the very essence of our existence, albeit in a way that can be most baffling. Here, we will attempt to cut to the chase and see exactly what it was these men of Zen are getting at.

On a visit to a temple, Linji was requested to take the high seat, that is, the chair from which a Zen master gives a Dharma talk and takes questions from his audience, which normally comprises predominately of fellow monks, but which often also has interested laypeople such as Councillor Wang present. In this setting, Mayu asks about the Great Compassionate One, which refers to the so-called ‘Goddess of Mercy’ Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit – thankfully Chinese is so succinct!). She is believed to come to the aid of devoted followers whatever their predicaments, whether they are caught in a fire, desirous of fertility, or seeking enlightenment, for instance. If you’ve ever seen Oriental representations of Guanyin, you may well have seen her represented with many hands to assist those in distress, and many eyes to see those in need of help, which stand in for the thousands talked of by Mayu. 

Mayu, however, is only interested in one aspect of Guanyin – her true eye. This eye is the gateway to the ultimate objective of the Buddhist life which we call enlightenment. To help Mayu in this quest, Linji uses a common trick of the old Zen masters in turning the question back on the questioner. Swiftly adding, “Speak! Speak!” he jolts Mayu to come up with spontaneous response, denying the intellect time to intervene and give some inappropriately intellectualized answer. (The true eye is beyond the grasp of the intellect.) Mayu does something unimaginable to many meeker monks when he evicts Linji from the high seat and takes up residency there himself, apparently announcing that this is the answer to the question of what is the true eye. And, if coming directly out of the clarity that is the true eye, Mayu has indeed responded correctly. Linji is not satisfied with this, however, and challenges Mayu further by giving him a traditional greeting, here translated as, “How do you do?” The other monk is dumbfounded at this point and cannot answer Linji, at which he is ejected from the high seat (which he does not now deserve to occupy) and walks off. Mayu’s inability to reply reveals that he is not looking with his true eye after all, and is not worthy of Linji’s congratulations and is therefore disposed from the high seat. Following this, Linji decides that enough questions have been asked for the time being and ends the meeting by departing himself. What bizarre behaviour! 

The above interchange between two Zen monks may well appear most peculiar to a conventional mindset, but hopefully it has begun to dawn to the reader that this is no ordinary conversation, and that seeking out the true eye is something that everyday attitudes are unlikely to realize. Therefore, it is common in these old records to find Zen Buddhists breaking out of the confines of everyday logic into a wonderful and (logically) nonsensical world. And all this elaborate verbal dancing in aid of seeing with ‘the true eye.’ Thankfully, for those of us that find such dialogues more exasperating than enlightening, there are other ways to achieve this, and below we will explore an alternative to Linji’s answer to Mayu’s question.

Douglas Harding (1909-2007) was a wonderfully British mystic, for want of a better term, and his method of answering Mayu is typical of his homeland in its empirical flavour. Rather than use the mind to transcend the mind in a kind of intellectual suicide that leads to spiritual awakening, Douglas had a much less painful approach to seeing with the true eye – to look. Here again, the aim is to put aside the mind’s attempts to define and categorize, whilst instead seeing directly into the nature of things as they are in this present moment. But, being British, Douglas’ way is much more down to earth and pragmatic. To see what is meant by this, please conduct the exercise below with sincerity. (For more on Douglas Harding’s approach please go to the Headless Way link found to the left of this page under Weblinks.)
Point at whatever is in front of you. Notice its size, shape, colour(s), and relation to the rest of your surroundings. Now, turn your finger around and observe what you see at your end of that somewhat rude digit. What, exactly, do you see? Does ‘it’ have any size, shape, or colour(s)? And what is ‘its’ relationship to the environment? Is it true that the true eye is without discernable size, shape, or colour(s), and that ‘its’ relationship to the world is equally impossible to define? Taking down your finger, what do you notice about this spacious true eye and the world that it perceives? Are they one or two, or neither?

To see with the true eye is to see with the eye of Guanyin, that is to say, with a compassionate eye. It is also to see with the eye of Shakyamuni Buddha, that is to say, with the eye off wisdom. It is also to see with the eye of God, in the sense that the German Mystic Meister Eckhart uses the term when he says, “The eye by which I see God, is the same eye by which God sees me.” No doubt, if Eckhart had listened to Linji and Mayu, he would have been somewhat perplexed (even if their words had been translated into his native tongue!); similarly, Eckhart’s talk of God would probably been dismissed by the two Zen monks as too metaphysical. But, cultural and linguistic differences apart, it’s conceivable that Zen’s true eye is Eckhart’s eye of God, and that seeing with this eye is neither restricted to one tradition no more than it is restricted to one place.

D. T. Suzuki, ‘the man who brought Zen to the West,’ was most keen on Linji, especially understandable as Suzuki had studied in the Rinzai Sect of Zen Buddhism, but he was also a fan of Meister Eckhart, two enthusiasms he shared with D. E. Harding. In his excellent book Mysticism: Christian and Buddhism, Suzuki compares Eckhart’s eye with that of the Buddha, the Zen masters and the devotees within Shin Buddhism. Suzuki writes, “Eckhart is in perfect accord with the Buddhist doctrine of sunyata [emptiness], when he advances the notion of Godhead as ‘pure nothingness’ (ein bloss niht).” In this endeavour he reveals that the true eye can reveal itself to whoever looks with sincerity, whether Christian or Buddhist or neither. Added to this Douglas Harding’s more scientific method of enquiry shown in the above exercise and we begin to witness the dovetailing of these apparently disparate traditions into this one true eye that we are looking out of right now. 

To be true to what we see, rather than what we are told, think or belief is the heart of the meditative life, and reveals reality as it is. This revelation can be experienced as exciting, boring, agreeable or disagreeable, or any other emotional response dependent upon our individual psychological disposition. For, looking inwards with the true eye, we see the No-thing that lies at the heart of every single thing, and that is innately free of being this or that, you or me. But the mental conditions and habits that we have spent our entire existence cultivating still exists to ‘colour’ the naked experience itself. These conditions influence how we interpret this awakened emptiness that is full of the world, hence multitudinous emotional reactions and doctrinal positions.

Nevertheless, as far as we can gather from the records that we have, people from as diverse cultures and traditions as Linji, Eckhart, Suzuki, and Harding saw with the same true eye, agreeing in the essentials whilst varied in the outer expressions. Eckhart’s Godhead may well be Suzuki’s Zen as the latter (and Douglas Harding) full-heartedly believed. Even if, however, we doubt that these four men and others like them were seeing with the same eye, we can still test the efficacy of Harding’s methods and see if it holds true for us or not. Here, G is revealed as the link between everything (the universe) and nothing (the transcendent). And all of this is seen with the true eye that is without size, shape, colour or relation. I am freed from the prison of self, not that G is dead, but that he is in his place along with every other thing. He lives in the eternity of Empty Knowing, which is unconditioned and therefore – unlike everything that is conditioned – beyond death.
 Mayu seeks for the true eye with a bold act
Yet is pulled down from his ego’s perch
While Guanyin gazes on in serenity –
Where is Linji’s true eye now?


Barry said...

Quite a wonderful post! Thank you.

In the Korean Zen tradition in which I have trained, we might understand Mayu's initial question in a different way.

While it's possible that he had a genuine question about Guanyin's "true eye" it seems to me more likely that he was engaged in "dharma combat."

That is, he was testing old Linji to see if the master was awake when he took the high seat. This is quite common in the Zen tradition, especially as a student's practice deepens and the student's center becomes stronger.

This story suggests that Mayu's center is quite strong indeed. He asks his question and, upon receiving an inadequate answer from Linji, pulls the old master off his seat and sits down himself.

Curiously, Linji doesn't object to this. He, now in the role of student, asks Mayu, "How do you do?" This seemingly innocuous question catches Mayu by surprise - not so innocuous after all!

The encounter reveals that Mayu's training has deepened considerably, but he has not yet finished the great work.

In the context of traditional Zen training, this style of public dharma combat is/was quite common. When Zen Master Seung Sahn was alive, he would take question every morning during the long winter and summer retreats. Sometimes people would ask ordinary questions. But occasionally a student would try to "hit" the master - and fireworks might ensue. I never saw anyone toss him off his seat, however!

G said...

The ultimate point of Dharma combat is to see with the "true eye", as is being "awake", whether sat on the high seat or not. (In fact, we are always sitting on that high seat, but most of us are ignorant of the fact!)

As you correctly observed, Mayu clearly had insight when he challenged Linji, but wasn't yet ready to take up permanent residency in the master's seat. By the sounds of it, Master Seung Sahn had things easy - Zen students aren't what they used to be! (No offense meant, Barry!)

Barry said...

Hi Gary,
Nothing is what it used to be, of course, including Zen students.

But we're also pretty darn good in our humble (and not so humble) ways!

Thank you for your efforts!

G said...

Nothing is what it used to be - Nothing! It's the 'things' that keep changing!

Universal Octopus said...

Gosh G, what are we supposed to make of such accounts? I too, over the years have read with interest Suzuki’s books on Zen, Cleary’s translation of The Blue Cliff Records, Schloegl’s translation The Record of Rinzai, the inspirational Sutra of Hui Neng , descriptions of Pure Land Buddhism and more...

They put into relief the straightforward and refreshing coolness of basic Buddhism before it becomes mixed with other things and it becomes difficult to discern the living water of Buddhism.

It is not coincidental that the last teaching of the Buddha on the eve of his parinibbana was on how to overcome doubt on this very subject. Subhadda the wanderer asked the Buddha how could one know a true teacher or monk and the answer was “...In whatever Dhamma and Discipline the Noble Eightfold Path is found, Subhadda, it is only here that the Stream-Enterer , the Once-Returner, the Non-Returner and the Arahat is found... If monks live rightly, the world will not be devoid of Arahats, of Accomplished Ones.”

It seems that the other things that have accrued to Buddhism – cultural, ceremonial, philosophical, nationalistic additions, may well have great merit and can certainly take one ‘upstairs ’but they do not guarantee Liberation.

G said...

Nice to read the accounts from the Pali Canon in relation to the old Zen masters. In truth, they are pointing to the same 'place', which is right here and nowhere else. And, if it is remembered that the Buddha's teachings exist as skillful means to come home, stripped of the delusion that there is anyone to be liberated, then it can be realized that Zen, Pure Land, Theravada, etc. exist for one and the same ultimate purpose: to allow the No-thing to shine forth in the midst of all these things. And this is done with Linji's very own True Eye.