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A week ago, I had an online meeting with a group of senior Buddhists. I used the occasion to talk about The Song of Enlightenment(證道歌), which is attributed to Master Yung Chia(永嘉玄覺). The Song of Enlightenment is a Zen classic. It opens with the following statements:

During my presentation, I asked my audience a few questions: Why is the man of Tao so leisurely? Why doesn’t he seek to rid of fantasies and illusions? Why doesn’t he want to know the Truth? Isn’t the point of the Zen (Ch’an) practice to seek enlightenment? No one could answer my questions, at least not on the spot.

In the West, very few Zen practitioners have studied the Zen classics. Most of them practice some kind of sitting meditation (zazen). Many of the American meditation centers follow the Japanese Zen tradition. There is a historical reason — Zen was introduced in the US mostly through Japanese Zen masters. For many American Zen practitioners, to practice means to sit in a formal manner. But what is the point of practicing if one does not understand what one is doing? One can better understand Zen by reading the Zen classics. They include, but not limited to the Song of Enlightenment, Xin Xin Ming and the Platform Sutra. The English translations of these Zen classics are not readily available. But even among the Chinese Buddhists, true understanding of these texts is very rare.

My presentation that night was well-received. But after a few days, my Buddhist friend of thirty years, a very senior Buddhist teacher himself, posted an article to criticize what I presented. He said that “the practice of Buddhism is not to do nothing.” He criticized my “laziness.”

This is very interesting, for it raises a few follow-up questions. What does it mean to “practice”? What does wu-wei or “doing nothing” really mean? Throughout Chinese history, the authentic Zen people have been criticized as being heretic, antinomian, crazy or lazy. This is quite typical of the treatment the mystics receive from the orthodox people, and it is true in any religious tradition. Why? The primary reason is that the “orthodox” or the mainstream people do not understand the deep spiritual teachings. By definition, deep spiritual truths are difficult to grasp by the majority of the people. It is for the same reason that the Buddha himself hesitated to teach after his enlightenment. He knew that he was going against the current. Perhaps this happened to many spiritual masters. I have a theory that Jesus was crucified, partially because his fellow Jews could not understand his “mystical” teachings. They thought that he had committed blasphemy.

Note that the Song of Enlightenment uses the term “man of Tao.” Many Americans think that Zen is a branch of Buddhism. Very few know that Zen is Taoism in its core; only the exterior looks Buddhist. This should not be a big surprise. Zen or Ch’an is Buddhism assimilated into Chinese culture. The word wu-wei came from the Tao Te Ching. It does not really mean doing nothing. Rather, it means that whatever you do, do it without ego, without seeking gains and without expecting some kind of return. This is how Mother Nature operates. She gives herself and nurtures all things without looking for something in return. Is the practice of meditation a means to enlightenment? If you have read and understood the Heart Sutra, then your answer should be “No.” The sutra clearly says that “there is nothing to attain.” The practice is not another form of ego trip, albeit a glorified one.

Very few people know that Zen (Ch’an) is divided into two schools — the Northern School and the Southern School. The two schools are like diametrically opposed to each other. The split came around the time of the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng. You can have a sense of this history if you read the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng. The controversy is best illustrated by a Zen poem competition between Hui Neng and a senior monk, Shenxiu. When their master, the Fifth Patriarch, Hongren, asked each of them to compose a poem to show their insight and understanding, Shenxiu wrote the following:

When Hongren read this, he was not satisfied. His comment was that the poem reflects a mind of someone who has not seen self-nature. He also said, “If one does not understand self-nature, then all the practice is futile.” Hui Neng’s poem is quite different. It is as follows:

When Hongren saw Hui Neng’s poem, he was pleased. For it reflects true understanding. Hongren said, “Who would have guessed that self-nature is fundamentally pure? Who would have guessed that there is no birth or death with self-nature? Who would have guessed that self-nature cannot be shaken? Who would have guessed that self-nature can produce the ten thousand things?” This is how Hui Neng became the Sixth Patriarch of Zen.

In my experience, most Buddhist Zen practitioners have not reached such understanding. They believe in the existence of various defilements and impurities. This is also what many Theravada Buddhists believe. Further, the Pali Canon is full of talk about the impurities and defilements. That is why they feel the need to constantly clean, wipe and polish their “mirror,” lest dust will cover the mirror’s brightness. They don’t understand that this notion of impurity or defilement too is the creation of the mind, of thought. It too is the product of our imagination. Mazu Daoyi said, “The Tao does not need to be practiced. Just don’t imagine defilements.”

So, what is the true practice of Zen? I have been a Zen practitioner for more than three decades. I find Lao Tzu’s teaching most helpful. He said, “The nature of learning is accumulation; the nature of the practice of the Tao is decumulation.” There are only two essential things in the practice of Zen: (1) See the bondage of our conditioning. (2) Deprogram, deconstruct and unlearn. There is no real liberation until we see where we are bound. Note that there is no fixed method or boilerplate for awakening. Just as Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “Truth is a pathless land.” If you believe that you can become awakened through the repetition of some method, be it sitting meditation or chanting, then you are mistaken.

Most Buddhists think that enlightenment is the result of repeated practice of some method. The various schools of Buddhism, be it Theravada, Mahayana or Varjayana, offer ten thousand methods and techniques. Many Buddhists believe in the virtue of diligence and determination. They trust that with unwavering daily practice, they will “get there” someday. Very few of them notice that there is one fundamental contradiction. In Buddhist teaching, there is the Three Marks of Existence. One such mark is the mark of “no self.” This is also referred to as the teaching of Anatta. Buddhism is unique among the world religions in its teaching that there is no independent self. It says that the notion of self is an illusion, a product of our imagination. Why are some of us so obsessed with the repetition of some daily practice? The real reason is that they believe that there is a self which needs to be enlightened and delivered from suffering. Back in the 90s, when I was giving regular dharma talks in New York’s Chinatown, an old lady who was a Pure Land practitioner asked me a question: “How could I be sure that I can maintain my clarity of mind to chant Buddha’s name at the point of death, so that I can be reborn in the Western Paradise?” Don’t you see that such kind of practice reinforces the notion of self and increases attachment to the ego? Verily, it is such ego-attachment which creates suffering.

Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “Awareness is not the result of practice, for practice implies the formation of habit. Habit is the denial of awareness.” It is crucial for us to understand that not only that a practice cannot enhance awareness, it is actually detrimental to it. There is a cute poem which illustrates the point:

The centipede cannot tell which leg moves first and which leg moves second. It cannot tell because the movement of its legs are on “auto-pilot.” As such, it is subconscious and not a matter of conscious will. There is also a Zen story about a monk entering the temple to meet with the master. The master asked him which of his feet entered first. The monk could not answer. You too would be at a loss if I asked you how exactly you washed your face or how you brushed your teeth this morning. You wouldn’t be aware of the exact steps. Such daily rituals are on auto-pilot.

The point is that any habitual practice has a tendency to dullen. It does not make us sharper or more awake. Habit is the nemesis of awakening. There is a Zen saying, “The ordinary mind is the way.” Zen is nothing special. It is not a heroic pursuit to become a spiritual superman. Awakening is spontaneous, unplanned and unexpected. There is no need to practice some special method. Every day in our mundane life, there are valuable lessons that can help our awakening. We just need to pay attention. Don’t dismiss the little things.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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