Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: Samurai Zen, by Trevor Leggett

Collections of Zen koans - those bizarre riddles developed to inspire a breakthrough into an awakened state of mind - have been translated into English for many decades now. Perhaps the most famous is the 13th Century Chinese classic Mumonkan, or 'Gateless Gate,' which includes the well-known koan 'Mu.' This collection, however, is reconstructed from various fragments originally making up a purely Japanese work dating from the 16th Century, called Shona-katto-roku, or the 'Warrior Koans.' With it, the translator Trevor Leggett has supplied the English-speaking world with an invaluable treasury of rare Zen wisdom.

There are two main parts to the book, the introductory material, and the koans themselves which are accompanied by the comments of Zen masters. The book starts with an introduction by Leggett, which explains the origins of the koans, their relationship to the samurai that they were developed for, and their uniqueness among Zen documents. This is followed by two more introductions by Imai Fukuzan, the Japanese scholar that reassembled these koans from various incomplete sources in 1925. In these accounts, we are given the history of 'samurai zen,' and its relationship to both Chinese & Japanese forms of the religion. The importance of the koan in Zen development is also explored, used asa device to lead to a breakthrough from the usual fear of death, which explains its popularity with the samurai. The city of Kamakura was a centre of Samurai Zen, and Leggett writes the following:

"The warrior pupils of the early period of Kamakura Zen had no bent for scholarship and could not be taught by means of the classical koans from the Chinese records of the patriarchs. The Zen teachers of the time trained them by making up koans on the spot, in what came to be called skin Zen or on-the-instant Zen."(Samurai Zen, p.21)

In his two introductions, Imai Fukuzan goes into more detail about the history of the samurai koans and those that invented and used them. This gives a real sense of the lineage of the masters and samurai that were involved with them, and reveals how an originally Chinese technique was adapted to the peculiarities of the Japanese warrior class. Through Fukuzan's writing, the reader becomes aware of how close these unique koans came to becoming lost forever, and how fortunate modern Zennists and scholars are that they were saved in the nick of time. Indeed, by the early modern period, many masters from the Rinzai sect of Zen which had formally used these koans, thought that samurai Zen had consisted of reciting the name of Amida Buddha. The heart of this book are the 100 koans themselves and the commentaries on them by Zen masters, however, and the true flavour and value will be best served with an example or two of these:


At the beginning of the Kencho era (1249), ‘Old Buddha’ Daikaku was invited from Kyoto by the shogun Tokiyori to spread Zen in the East of Japan. Some priests and laymen of other sects were not at all pleased at this, and out of jealousy spread it around that the teacher was a spy sent to Japan by the Mongols; gradually more and more people began to believe it. At the time the Mongols were in fact sending emissaries to Japan, and the shogun’s government, misled by the campaign of rumours, transferred the teacher to Koshu. He was not the least disturbed, but gladly followed the karma which led him away.

Some officials there who were firm believers in repetition of the formula of the Lotus, or in recitation of the name of Amida, one day came to him and said: ‘The Heart Sutra which is read in the Zen tradition is long and difficult to read, whereas Nichiren teaches the formula of the Lotus which has only seven syllables, and Ippen teaches repetition of the name of Amida, which is only six. The Zen Sutra is much longer, and it is difficult to get through it.’

The teacher listened to all this and said: ‘What would a follower of Zen want with a long text? If you want to recite the Zen sutra, do it with one word. It is the six- and seven- word ones which are too long.’


Master Setsuo used to present his pupils with this story as the riddle of Daikaku’s One-word Sutra. He would say to them: ‘The golden-faced teacher (Buddha), it is said, in all his forty- nine years of preaching never uttered a single word. But our Old Buddha (Daikaku) declares one word to lead the people to salvation. What is that word, say! What is that one word? If you cannot find it your whole life will be spent entangled in creepers in a dark cave. If you can say it, with that leap of realization you will pervade heaven and earth.’
(Imai’s note: Those who were set this riddle over the years tried the word ‘heart’, and the word ‘Buddha’, or ‘dharma’, ‘God’, ‘mantra’, but none of them hit it. When the pearly sweat runs down the body, coming and going for the interviews with the teacher, the one word will be met directly.)

This became a koan in Kamakura Zen at the interviews of Setsuo, the 151st master at Kenchoji.


In 1299 when Fukada Sadatomo came to Kenchoji for a ceremony, he met the teacher in a room where there happened to be a picture of the contemporary Sung dynasty beauty Rei Shojo. He asked Master Saikan, ‘Who is that?’
The teacher replied, ‘It is said it happens to be Rei Sho ̄jo.’
Sadatomo looked at the picture admiringly and remarked, ‘That picture is powerfully painted and yet of the utmost delicacy. Is that woman now in the Sung country (China)?’
The teacher said, ‘What do you mean, in the Sung? Now, here, in Japan.’
The noble said, ‘And where is that?’ 
The master said loudly, ‘Lord Sadatomo!’ 
The noble looked up. 
‘And where is that?’ said the teacher. 
Sadatomo grasped the point and bowed.

What did Lord Sadatomo grasp?

This became a koan at Kenchoji from the time of Doan, the 105th master there."

Samurai Zen by Trevor Leggett is a wonderful insight into a bygone age of Buddhism in Japan. It allows its reader to gain valuable insights into the development of Zen in that country, and how the unlikely figures of samurai warriors benefitted from the wisdom of wise Zen masters. Moreover, in the 100 koans that it contains, can be found 100 Dharma-gates to enlightenment, each waiting for the correct 'key' to be opened. And in such an opening is found the openness of Zen; a unity of experience that brings together the Buddha, the master, the reader, and a long-dead samurai, all smiling in the void.

Title & Author : Samurai Zen: Warrior Koans, by Trevor Leggett
Publisher        : Routledge Books
Page Count    : 216
Price               : £14.99
ISBN               : 0-415-28465-1
Web Link        : Samurai Zen at Routledge Books

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ajahn Chah: Seeing the Body in the Body

The wonderfully-wise Ajahn Chah

THE BUDDHA TAUGHT to see the body in the body. What does this mean? We are all familiar with the parts of the body such as hair, nails, teeth and skin. So how do we see the body in the body? If we recognize all these things as being impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self, that’s what is called ‘seeing the body in the body.’ Then it isn’t necessary to go into detail and meditate on the separate parts. It’s like having fruit in a basket. If we have already counted the pieces of fruit, then we know what’s there, and when we need to, we can pick up the basket and take it away, and all the pieces come with it. We know the fruit is all there, so we don’t have to count it again.

Having meditated on the thirty-two parts of the body, and recognized them as something not stable or permanent, we no longer need to weary ourselves separating them like this and meditating in such detail. Just as with the basket of fruit – we don’t have to dump all the fruit out and count it again and again. But we do carry the basket along to our destination, walking mindfully and carefully, taking care not to stumble and fall.

When we see the body in the body, which means we see the Dhamma in the body, knowing our own and others’ bodies as impermanent phenomena, then we don’t need detailed explanations. Sitting here, we have mindfulness constantly in control, knowing things as they are, and meditation then becomes quite simple. It’s the same if we meditate on Buddho – if we understand what Buddho really is, then we don’t need to repeat the word ‘Buddho.’ It means having full knowledge and firm awareness. This is meditation.

Still, meditation is generally not well understood. We practice in a group, but we often don’t know what it’s all about. Some people think meditation is really hard to do. “I come to the monastery, but I can’t sit. I don’t have much endurance. My legs hurt, my back aches, I’m in pain all over.” So they give up on it and don’t come anymore, thinking they can’t do it.

But in fact samadhi is not sitting. Samadhi isn’t walking. It isn’t lying down or standing. Sitting, walking, closing the eyes, opening the eyes, these are all mere actions. Having your eyes closed doesn’t necessarily mean you’re practicing samadhi. It could just mean that you’re drowsy and dull. If you’re sitting with your eyes closed but you’re falling asleep, your head bobbing all over and your mouth hang- ing open, that’s not sitting in samadhi. It’s sitting with your eyes closed. Samadhi and closed eyes are two separate matters. Real samadhi can be practiced with eyes open or eyes closed. You can be sitting, walking, standing or lying down.

Samadhi means the mind is firmly focused, with all-encompassing mindfulness, restraint, and caution. You are constantly aware of right and wrong, constantly watching all conditions arising in the mind. When it shoots off to think of something, having a mood of aversion or long- ing, you are aware of that. Some people get discouraged: “I just can’t do it. As soon as I sit, my mind starts thinking of home. That’s evil (Thai: bahp).” Hey! If just that much is evil, the Buddha never would have become Buddha. He spent five years struggling with his mind, thinking of his home and his family. It was only after six years that he awakened.

Some people feel that these sudden arisings of thought are wrong or evil. You may have an impulse to kill someone. But you are aware of it in the next instant, you realize that killing is wrong, so you stop and refrain. Is there harm in this? What do you think? Or if you have a thought about stealing something and that is followed by a stronger recollection that to do so is wrong, and so you refrain from acting on it – is that bad kamma? It’s not that every time you have an impulse you instantly accumulate bad kamma. Otherwise, how could there be any way to liberation? Impulses are merely impulses. Thoughts are merely thoughts. In the first instance, you haven’t created anything yet. In the second instance, if you act on it with body, speech or mind, then you are creating something. Avijja ̄ (ignorance) has taken control. If you have the impulse to steal and then you are aware of yourself and aware that this would be wrong, this is wisdom, and there is vijja (knowledge) instead. The mental impulse is not consummated.

The above quotation is from 'Everything Is Teaching Us,' (pp.549-550-)which is available as part of a free PDF book here: The Teachings of Ajahn Chah

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: Early Buddhist Discourses, by John J. Holder

"Early Buddhism declares a way to liberation and happiness despite the precarious and changing nature of the world, and does so without falling back on a transcendental realm of security or a saving God. Instead of metaphysics or theology, early Buddhism focusses on the training of human character in terms of moral conduct, mental culture, and wisdom."
(Early Buddhist Discourses, p.xii)

Early Buddhist Discourses by John J. Holder is a fine introduction to the teachings of the Buddha found in the Tipitika, or Pali Canon. It contains twenty discourses attributed to the Buddha and found in the Sutta Pitaka section of the Canon. (The Pali words sutta & pitika approximate to 'discourse' & 'collection,' respectively.) With these texts, which Holder has translated & edited, the basic ideas of early Buddhism are introduced, including the four noble truths, the three characteristics, dependent arising, and no-self. An interesting thread that runs through these translations and Holder's comments on them, is the early Buddhist understanding of consciousness as an impermanent phenomenon, dependent upon the senses for its existence. 

The author begins the book by setting the scene for the composition of the Pali Canon, which he does with clarity and brevity. He notes the prevailing Brahmanical culture in which Buddhism arose, and the life of the Buddha as described in the Tipitaka. Moreover, he discusses the Buddha's teachings in philosophical terms, focusing on Buddhist empiricism, the four noble truths and a succinct account of the noble eightfold path. He contrasts these elements of Buddhist thought with that of Brahmanism, showing how radical early Buddhism was in its teachings of no-self and dependent arising. On this subject, Holder writes the following:

"The doctrine of dependent arising directly challenges the metaphysical worldview of the Brahmanical tradition. Whereas the sages in the Brahmanical tradition agreed with the Buddha that the world of normal human experience is changing and ephemeral, they posited a transcendent, changeless, monistic, Ultimate Reality (Brahman) that stands behind the changing world. The highest spiritual truth in Brahmanism - what the sage tries to realize - is that all existence ultimately has its source in the changeless One, and that the essence of the person (atman) is identical with this One.
The Buddha explicitly rejected the Brahmanist transcendental metaphysics. According to the Buddha, all phenomena are dependently arisen. Everything that exists is a nexus of causal factors. Thus, all phenomena are impermanent; they arise at some point in time and cease to be at another point in time. In light of this, the Buddha did not resort to transcendental or unchanging realm beyond this world of change."
(Ibid. p. xv)

Holder puts much focus on dependent arising (paticcasamuppada), choosing to include several discourses that focus on it. This is because, as he states in the quotation above, it is the Buddha's response to traditional religious answers to questions about what life is & what we are. In his introductory notes to Chapter 3: The Great Discourse on Cause (Mahanidana Sutta), Holder explains how dependent arising explains that there is no-self (or no-Self as he chooses to render the Pali term anatta). He remarks that it is a middle way between the extremes of "Absolute Reality (e.g. the Hindu "Brahman") and metaphysical nihilism." (Ibid. p.26) He also notes something not found in most works on the subject, that two aspects of dependent arising condition each other, whereas all the other elements in the chain are conditioned in a sequence. The two are psycho-physicality (mental and bodily processes) and consciousness, as explained in the words of the Buddha:

"Thus, dependent on psycho-physicality, there is consciousness, and dependent on consciousness, there is psycho-physicality; dependent on psycho-physicality, there is contact, dependent on contact, there is feeling; dependent on feeling, there is craving; dependent on craving, there is attachment; dependent on attachment, there is becoming; dependent on becoming, there is birth; dependent on birth, there is aging-and-death; dependent on aging-and-death, there is sorrow, lamentation, pain, despair, and distress. Thus there is the arising of this whole mass of suffering."
(Ibid. p.29)
This review is not the place to go into an in-depth discussion of dependent arising, but hopefully the reader is now are of the import that both the Buddha and Holder give it. Another aspect of the Buddha's teachings highlighted in Early Buddhist Discourses is Buddhist empiricism. This is illustrated in Chapter 2: Discourse to the Kalamas (Kalama Sutta), in which the Buddha teaches the people of the town of Kessaputta not to believe religious doctrines simply because they come from tradition, a report, scripture, logic, a priest or monk. Instead, only when they know certain things are unwholesome and lead to suffering, should they abandon them. Again, Holder also emphasizes the importance of this aspect of the Buddha's teaching found in the Pali Canon. He suggests that the Buddha is perhaps alone amongst the world's major religious figures in this undogmatic approach to religious truth and doctrines.

Chapter 7 contains five short discourses from the Samyutta Nikaya division of the Sutta Pitika, each of which Holder carefully chose to illustrate a specific aspect of the Buddha's teaching. The first of these is the Discourse to Kaccayana (Kaccayana Sutta), which Holder believes may be the most important metaphysical discourse in the entire Tipitika. In it, The Buddha describes the middle way between the extremes of "eternalism" and "annihilationism," which is, again, dependent arising. Another sutta in this chapter is one that does not feature the Buddha, but instead has an enlightened nun, Sister Vajira as the teacher. Here, she rejects the attempts of Mara (the Buddhist personification of evil or ignorance) to get her to admit that there is a Self. Instead, the nun declares:

"Just as the word 'chariot'
Refers to an assemblage of parts,
So, 'person' is a convention
Used when the aggregates are present."
(Ibid. p.87)
In such declarations, the reader is presented with the opportunity to reflect on their reality, seeing for her or himself whether they are true. In such investigations, there is the opportunity for awakening or enlightenment, especially if accompanied by meditation practice. Although none of this is stated by Holder, it is inherent in the translated texts themselves. Therefore, Early Buddhist Discourses is not only a fine introduction to the basic teachings of the Buddha as found in the Pali Canon, but it is also a sourcebook for the reader's reflection, leading to the development of wisdom. 

So, in conclusion, John J. Holder's book Early Buddhist Discourses is an important work. From both scholarly and philosophical views, it supplies the reader with all the material required to understand the basic Buddhist concepts such as the four noble truths, no-Self, and dependent arising. This is due to the skill and knowledge of the author, and in doing so he has produced translations of clarity and significance, accompanied by his relevant and insightful comments. This work comes highly recommended, for scholars, philosophers, and the general Buddhist reader. What's more, if we are attentive enough, it is possible to apply the teachings contained in it and realize enlightenment:

"If one feels a pleasant feeling, one feels it as a person who is detached from it. If one feels a painful feeling, one feels it as a person who is detached it. If one feels a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, one feels it as a person who is detached from it. This is called a noble disciple who is detached from birth, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, despair, and distress. I say that this is one detached from suffering "
(Ibid. p.93)

Title & Author : Early Buddhist Discourses, by John J. Holder
Publisher        : Hackett Publishing Company
Page Count    : 240
Price               : $13:95
ISBN               : 978-0-87220-792-9

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: The Heart Sutra, by Red Pine

"The Heart Sutra is Buddhism in a nutshell. It covers more of the Buddha's teachings in a shorter span than any other scripture, and it does so without being superficial or commonplace."
(The Heart Sutra, p.5)

What a wonderful little book this is! With The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas, Red Pine has not only translated the pithy sutra itself with sensitivity and insight, but also includes extensive commentaries of several Chinese Zen masters, as well as supplying an evaluation of each section of the sutra himself. There is also an excellent glossary of terms at the end of the book…and all this in just ? pages! Moreover, the book is presented in a way that although mainly scholarly in tone, also directs the attention of the reader to examine their own true nature, which is the hallmark of a really brilliant Buddhist work.

The Heart Sutra is one of the most famous and beloved of Buddhist scriptures, summing up in just 35 lines the essence of Mahayana buddhist doctrine. It is also one of the most translated Buddhist sutras, with commentaries by such luminaries as Master Xuan Hua, Edward Conze, and the current Dalai Lama. The sutra's brevity is obviously part of its appeal, but the succinct manner in which it crystalizes Buddhist teachings must also be recognized as a reason for its enduring popularity:

"Here Shariputra,
form is emptiness, emptiness is form;
emptiness is not separate from form;
form is not separate from emptiness;
whatever is form is emptiness,
whatever is emptiness is form"
(Ibid. p.2)

Basically, the Heart Sutra is a brief account of emptiness (sunyata in Sanskrit), as understood in the Mahayana philosophy of prajnaparamita ('perfection of wisdom' or 'transcendent wisdom'). Put simply, all phenomena, whether mental or physical, are empty of any separate, eternal substance. Moreover, because all things are at heart empty, they are all expressions of that very same emptiness; Buddha-nature (this emptiness that is form) lies at the heart of all things, and if we realize this, we will be enlightened and free from the delusion of being a suffering self. Also, the sutra contains a mantra which it claims will enable its reciter to achieve awakening through its recital. This mantra is well known amongst Mahayana Buddhists, and goes, "Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi sate!" ('Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond - hail awakening!')

Red Pine's translation of The Heart Sutra is a worthy addition to those mentioned above; indeed, in this reviewer's opinion, it is the definite version to possess. This is quite a claim, but hopefully the reader will see why such a statement is no mere hyperbole, but is based upon a careful reflection of Red Pine's work. For, not only is there a clear translation and explanation of the sutra itself, going down to the mintiest detail giving different translations for many words and phrases in the sutra, but there are many, many reflections by Chinese Zen masters giving their understandings of the text, also, including Fa-tsang (643-712), Chih-shen(609-702), Chen-k'o (1543-1603), Ching-chueh(683-750), Hui-ching (578-650), Hui-chung (d.775), and Yin-shun(1906-present). Here are the wise words of Pao-t'ung (732-824) regarding the famous "form is emptiness, emptiness is form" declaration in the sutra:

"Form and emptiness are the same. From the buddhas above down to the smallest insect below, every creature is basically empty. This form cannot be seen by the eyes. Only true emptiness can see it. And this form cannot be heard by the ears. Only true emptiness can hear it. The myriad things we know and feel all depend on our six senses. But form and emptiness are not separate."
(Ibid. p.78)

In the Introduction, which runs to 24 pages in length, Red Pine describes the history of the Heart Sutra, its mysterious origins and the various translations of it into Chinese by successive commentators. He also explores the various controversies regarding the text itself, and explains some minor points of contention that have vexed Buddhist scholars and philosophers for centuries. There's even a neat little map showing the possible places that could have been the womb of the Heart Sutra, as such. But, as Red Pine points out throughout the book, the origins of the sutra aren't what's really important, but its meaning and its implications. And this aspect of the Heart Sutra is explored with equal zest.

The main body of the book is divided in to four parts that Red Pine believed best reflects the structure of the text itself; and his arguments for this division are convincing. He sees the sutra as a reaction to the teachings of another school of Buddhism that no longer exists, but which was spread across Asia when it was composed. This sect is known as Sarvastivada Buddhism, and Red Pine argues that the Heart Sutra was created to combat what was seen as errors in its interpretation of Buddhist teachings, based on knowledge rather than wisdom.

"My guess is that the use of heart in the title [of the sutra] was in response to the series of Sarvastivadin texts that began with Dharmashri's groundbreaking Abhidharma Hridaya Shastra (Treatise on the Heart of the Abhidharma), composed in Bactria (Afghanistan) around 100 B.C. This was followed by a text of the same title (and much the same material) written bu Upashanta around A.D. 280 and another by Dharmatrata around A.D. 320 entitled Samyukt Abhidharma Hriddaya Shastra (Commentary on the Heart of the Abhidharma Shastra)."
(Ibid. p.36)

The protagonists in the sutra are Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra. The former is a Mahayana bodhisattva representative of compassion, the latter an arhat from the earliest scriptures that personified Buddhist ideals of wisdom, including for the Sarvastivadins. Avalokitesvara evaluates the Sarvastivadin philosophy in light of the Mahayana understanding of prajnaparamita, revealing that all things, including the Buddhist teachings themselves, are empty. As Red Pine presents it, this was a radical reinterpretation of basic Buddhist ideas, but this was not to revise what the Buddha had apparently taught, but to understanding it better, with wisdom rather than the intellect.

The four parts of the book are entitled Prajnaparamita, Abhidharma, The Bodhisattva Path and The Womb of Buddhas. This division forms a progression from a description of prajnaparamita, a critique of Sarvastivadin philosophy, a description of the bodhisattva path, and ending with a presentation of the sutra's mantra. In a step-by-step approach, Red Pine scrutinizes each line, squeezing out much meaning than would meet the eye at first. This he is able to do through years of study of the Chinese land Sanskrit languages, as well as having lived in China for many years, and having practiced with Buddhist masters from the Chinese tradition. He has produced published accounts of his travels in China and meetings with sages under his real name of Bill Porter. Here's a snippet of his eye for detail:

"As for the word nirvana, there are several explanations of its origin. The usual derivation is to interpret it as a combination of nir (a negative prefix) and either va, meaning 'blow', or van, meaning 'desire.' Thus, nirvana means 'the cessation of breath' or 'the cessation of desire.' Sanskrit etymologies, however, have dug much deeper and have extracted such diverse meanings from van as the 'path' of transmigration, the 'stench' of defilement,the 'forest' of the skandhas, and the 'thread' of karma…Another common derivation was to understand nirvana as a combination of the negative prefix nir and the root vri, 'to cover,' 'to restrain,' or 'to obstruct.'"
(Ibid. p.138)

If all the above is not enough reason to own a copy of Red Pine's The Heart Sutra, the following will surely convince the 'serious' Buddhist to want to buy the book - and owning it is important, for simply borrowing it and reading it once will not benefit the reader as would many readings and reflections over many years. So, what is this convincing reason to own this book? It will enlighten you! Not only in the sense of being enlightened about the Buddhist understanding of emptiness, but also in actually experiencing it! Now, Red Pine himself may or may not have experienced the awakening he describes so well in this book, but his words - and those of the Heart Sutra itself - can certainly assist their reader in doing so. If you have doubts concerning this view, please buy the book and spend a few months with it - it can assist you to see your true nature…for sure!

Here are the details of the book:

Title & Author: The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas, by Red Pine
Publisher       : Counterpoint Press
Page Count   : 201
Price              : $10:17 (Amazon)
ISBN              : 978-1-59376-082-3

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Satori Haiku


Without satori, according to the great Japanese author D.T. Suzuki, there is no Zen. In other words, it is the raison d'ĂȘtre for practicing Zen Buddhism, and as such is the focus of so many wonderful Zen stories, many promoted in the books of Dr Suzuki. Furthermore, satori is not the sole possession of Zen Buddhists, for it is not sectarian, and although described in different ways, it is the heart of all Buddhist teachings. Indeed, as it is wholly natural, it is found in teachings outside Buddhism, such as those of D.E. Harding, the late British philosopher. If we can have but a glimpse of satori, we are truly fortunate, and if lived from, this vision frees us from the prison of self.

The first satori, upon reading the words of D. T. Suzuki:

Reading this
Words merge with mind

The second satori, when looking out of a window:

Wind-blown bag
Catches awareness

The third satori, using the methods of D. E. Harding:

Pointing here
No-one can be found
*Satori is a Japanese word meaning enlightenment. It is used a lot in Zen Buddhism to refer to the experience of seeing true nature (kensho in Japanese). Despite being found in many Japanese Zen texts, it isn't a word to be used lightly, and isn't here. Neither is it a word to be used as some kind of self-promotion, as the realization that it indicates is itself the antithesis of egoistic outbursts. Nevertheless, at the risk of being accused by some readers of being either frivolous or self-promoting - or both - here, the author feels its use is justified so's to give a flavor of satori to the reader. Poetry can be better at this than prose, for where the latter can tend to get tied up in verbosity or overcomplicating matters, the former's succinctness can hint at a lot more than is actually said. This is especially true of haiku, that wondrous poetic form born of the Zen-influenced Japanese heart. Please forgive the author any indulgences! 

For more on both D.T. Suzuki & D.E. Harding, check on the tabs above.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Review: Mud & Water, by Bassui & Arthur Braverman

Bassui Tokusho (1327-1387) is not a very well known zen master - but he should be! Arthur Braverman has done Buddhists the world over a great service by translating & editing Mud & Water: The Collected Teachings of Zen Master Bassui, for in it, we have the words of an enlightened monk that are as relevant today as they were when first produced over six hundred years ago. Moreover, in his words Bassui instructs us with a directness that can inspire more than just intellectual appreciation at his rhetorical skills. He pushes us to realize enlightenment right here, right now. When he addresses his followers on his deathbed, his words reverberate through the centuries, teaching us in the twenty-first century:

"Look directly! What is this? Look in this manner and you won't be fooled."
(Mud & Water, p.10)

The book is divided into five main sections: four parts consisting of translations of Bassui's teachings preceded by the wonderful introduction, written by Braverman. In the introduction, he relates the basic facts, as far as we have them, about the life, enlightenment, death and teachings of Bassui, putting the following four parts of the work into perspective. Not that this is necessary to grasp the essential meaning of the book - seeing our true nature -  for this shines forth from Bassui's words as clearly as it can. But more on this a little later. As far as the introduction goes, we discover that Bassui was an extraordinary zen master, one that was both rebellious enough to reject empty rituals and philosophizing, but also wise enough to emphasize the importance of the Buddhist precepts. Braverman writes of Bassui:

"Cautioning against thinking of the precepts as mere warnings against inappropriate outward behavior, he continues: 'The true meaning of the precepts is that one should refrain not only from drinking alcohol but also from getting drunk on nirvana.' Although he found this deeper meaning in all the precepts, he was strict about keeping these precepts outwardly, too. With this restriction against alcohol, Bassui went so far as to have a shrine built at Kogakuan with a deity called Basshushin: the God of Retribution for Drinking Alcohol."
(Ibid. p.13)

The focus of Bassui's life was to find out who was actually living it. He travelled across fourteenth century Japan - a time of military conflict & political upheaval - meeting zen masters that might help him to discover & deepen his understanding of his true nature. In his childhood he began this search when seven years old at his father's funeral, later discovering an answer in meditation. Early in his monastic life he refused to wear monk's robes and did not take part in the daily rituals of the temples, preferring to live in hermitages, focusing on meditative practice. At the age of thirty-one, he had an enlightenment experience when hearing the sound of a trickling stream, a realization later confirmed by the zen master Koho Kakumyo (1271-1361). Being unconventional and unconcerned with the continuance of lineages, Bassui retained his hermit lifestyle, eventually gaining many followers that came to study Dharma with him. He became their master, until his death at the hermitage at the age of fifty.

The book contains a complete translation of Enzanwadeigassui-shu (A Collection of Mud and Water from Enzan), a partial translation of Kana hogo (Dharma Talks in Japanese), and Kambun hogo (Dharma Talks in Chinese), which are predominately Bassui's replies to questions put to him in the later part of his monastic career. His responses are often witty and to the point, but never flippant or evasive. Indeed, when responding to queries requiring more detailed answers, Bassui does so with a keen mind. The last part of the book are letters written by Bassui to his followers, advising them on various areas of Buddhist practice, but always with his familiar emphasis on seeing true nature. To give a flavour of this wonderful zen master's style of wisdom, we will end this review with a series of extracts from the book; one from each part. Suffice to say, Mud & Water is thoroughly recommended by this reviewer, not only as a source of Buddhist teachings, but as a Dharma gate to enlightenment. Read and be awakened!

"Someone asked: 'To the mundane world, fasting is refraining from eating for periods of a week, two weeks, up to one hundred days. Is this a way to Buddhahood?'
Bassui responded: 'Fasting does not mean refraining from the formal eating of food. It means refraining from feeding on the roots of delusional. Fasting means looking into your own nature and illuminating your consciousness, cutting off deluded feelings arising from analytical thinking, remaining apart from external phenomena and unattached to the internal void, completely purifying yourself so that things with no more than a thread of meaning become nonexistent in your life.'"
(Ibid. p.48)
"If you truly want to read the sutras, you first have to awaken the mind that reads. All formal readings from the sutras are ultimately destructive. The wonderful Dharma of one's mind does not change through successive aeons; it is the essence of all the sutras. If you want to comprehend this essence, you should know that the voices of frogs and worms, the sound of wind and raindrops, all speak the wonderful language of the Dharma, and that birds in flight, swimming fish, floating clouds, and flowing streams all turn the Dharma wheel. When you see the wordless sutra only once, the sutras of all the heavens with their golden words, which fill one's eyes, clearly manifest. If you read the sutras with this kind of understanding, you will never be idle throughout endless aeons."
(Ibid. pp.104-105)
"Questioner: 'When we listen to all kinds of sounds, we are supposed to look penetratingly into the one who is listening. What if there isn't even one sound?'
Bassui: 'Who is it that doesn't hear?'
Questioner: 'I have no doubt as to the one who is listening to the Dharma.'
Bassui: 'What is your understanding?'
The monk was silent.
Bassui spoke reprovingly: 'Don't spend your life sitting in a ghost cave.'
(Ibid. p.163)
(To a Dying Man)
"The wondrous mind-nature is not born and it doesn't die. It neither exists nor is it nonexistent. It is neither formless nor does it have form. It feels neither pain nor pleasure. Though you want to know what it is that suffers now, in this way, it is something that can't be known. If you just question what is this mind-body that suffers, thinking of nothing else, wishing for nothing else, and asking for nothing else, like a cloud disappearing form the sky, your mind will empty and you will cease transgressing the world of life and death and be immediately liberated."
(Ibid. p.200)

The above book is published by Wisdom Publications, and is available from their website at:
Mud & Water