A Through-line for Zen Study and Practice

One way of thinking of the Buddha is that he was a reformer of Indian spirituality. He saw the limitations of how people of his time were practicing, and he introduced new language and insights to guide them to freedom. His gifts continue to be received, and new ways of talking about practicing his teachings have evolved, and they will continue to do so…


Ch’an or Zen at its best continues this original character of Buddhist teaching as being a necessary corrective.

The Flower Sermon

In what’s come down to us as the very first Zen discourse, it’s said that Shakyamuni held up a flower in front of the assembly, and that only Mahakashyapa understood what he was doing, and smiled. While everyone else was thinking of what the deep philosophical meaning could be, there was this immediacy of experience that was being indicated. When telling this story, Thich Nhat Hanh said, When someone shows you a flower, well, it means they want you to see the flower. The Buddha is reported to have said, ‘I have a treasure of insight that I have transmitted to Mahakashyapa’.

How Bodhidharma continued the Buddha’s teaching

Buddhism went to China in the first century of our common era. There it met and merged with Confucianism and Taoism, to produce something unique to Chinese culture and the character of the people there. By the time Bodhidharma arrived in the 5th or 6th century, there were layers upon layers that had been added to the essential teachings of the Buddha, on liberation and enlightenment. Bodhidharma’s response was to withdraw from the Buddhist scene of the time, and sit in meditation, demonstrating what is essential.

The teaching he communicated is expressed in this way:

A special transmission outside the scriptures
No dependence on words and letters
Directly pointing to the mind
and attaining enlightenment

Thich Nhat Hanh offered this translation and commentary:

After the transmission had been handed down to Bodhidharma, he came to China and recited a gatha of four lines which was to become the guideline of the Meditation school in China. The meaning of the gatha is:

You do not attain the meaning of the teachings through words,
since it is not transmitted from outside your mind.
The transmission goes directly from the heart of someone when they are able to see the true nature and become Buddha (awake)

The meaning of this is that the truth or reality cannot be described in words or sutras; the teachings are just the raft taking us across the river or the finger pointing at the moon.

To practice meditation is to point directly to the mind,
and when you see the true nature you are awakened,
will attain the Buddha nature, and become Buddha.

We can only imagine how upsetting this was to scholars, and to those who believed a person has to study for years to gain insight and to free themselves from suffering! And yet, this is what Zen at its best encourages us to prove for ourselves.

When I met one of my Tibetan Buddhist teachers for the first time, he said, very much in this same spirit as Zen, that, A scholar dies with a pile of books on his chest, when all you need is one verse to get enlightened…

Academic titles, official recognition, being knowledgeable and able to speak or write extensively mean nothing when it comes to finding freedom. Not only are they not a requisite, but they often get in the way.

What Thich Nhat Hanh said is true:

Buddhist teachers of the past have shown us Dharma doors, skillful means to help us find a way out of suffering, but if we don’t understand these well-intentioned teachings, we maybe caught in them, in words and ideas, and then these teachings can become a hindrance…

This is where Zen practice at its best, as a necessary corrective to over intellectualism, pride and ego, are so valuable. If our study of this great tradition does nothing else, it’s a treasure for this reason alone.

Unfortunately, what we often see these days when we walk into almost any Zen teaching community or bookstore, is that this original impulse, or what I take to be ‘the through-line of Zen’ is covered over. It gets lost in the profusion of obscure koans, or poetry, in the criticism one school has for another, in misunderstanding profound teachings, or in watering down Buddhism.

Just sit, then, and awaken to your original virtue…

Most of what we know in the US of Zen comes from the Japanese lineages. It’s in Chinese Zen, or Ch’an though that I can sense again the through line, this vital connection to the historical Buddha’s radical teaching on freedom from suffering, and bringing peace and health to our lives.

Twentieth century Ch’an master Xu Yun said

The goal of investigating Chan is to understand the mind and see the true nature. That is, to remove all the defilements in our minds and to actually see the image of our self-nature.

Defilements refer to false thoughts and attachments, while the self-nature refers to our inherent wisdom and virtue, which is identical to that of all Buddhas…

The Tibetan saint, Shantideva, in his classic A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, said that

All of the divisions of the Buddha’s teachings were given for the sake of wisdom

That being the case, wisdom should be highlighted, brought to the fore, extolled and encouraged at every turn. Zen’s focus is just this.

In his talk titled ‘Put everything down, Let no thought arise’, Xu Yun continues

..the first step in investigating Chan is to eliminate false thoughts. How can false thoughts be eliminated? Shakymuni Buddha taught much on this subject. His simplest and most direct teaching is the word stop, from the expression “Stopping is bodhi.”

this means, making everything still… putting everything down…

There is a teaching about this retold by Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Zen Keys:

One day Hsiang Yen said to his disciples, ‘A man is suspended by his teeth from a high branch, his hands and feet not holding on to anything. Another man, at the foot of the tree asks him, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come from India to China?’ If our man opens his mouth to speak, he will fall and crush himself on the earth below. What must he do?…

In Zen, there is great faith in our original nature, also called our Buddha nature. Sometimes, when I hear the instructions of ‘just sit’, I remind myself that this is what is being emphasized – our own innate ability to become clear, and to understand ourselves deeply. For some, this is enough to find freedom of mind. For others, like myself, some more guidance is necessary, to support the unfolding of liberating insight.

As with the approaches to wisdom through non-conceptual meditation in the Tibetan tradition, in Mahamudra and Dzogchen, the insight and resulting freedom from Zen practice should be equal to that found through vipassana, or the Middle Way, inquiry or analysis.

As the mind becomes clear, we understand ourselves more and more deeply, and this is where practice gets really interesting, and delightful. We are transformed by our understanding, and it aligns with all that the Buddha taught.

What they call the self nature in Ch’an, in Mahamudra and the Great Perfection they call the Nature of Mind. Lama Lodro says, this true nature is without ego, and without afflictions…

The Zen practice of putting everything down and letting not one thought arise, pares us back to what is essential. It is our gesture of faith in the Buddha nature we all have.

Bhante Gunaratana describes what is called papanca, or ‘conceptual proliferation’ as ‘any thought that delays your attainment of enlightenment’. The Zen practice of just sitting is ideal for those tho think too much – it can be just the right practice.

There’s a part of the calm abiding teachings they call the remedy to over application, that is contentment and non application when we have enough to practice with – enough presence of mind, and energy, understanding, faith, and patience. If we allow them to, experiences in meditation unfold naturally.

Chan / Zen points out how, by itself, ritual alone is not it, or books, or speculation, thinking about the past, or looking forward to something in the future. It is present centered practice, with faith, letting go of everything that is not essential.

Lin-Chi said

Whenever wrong thinking does not arise, there is liberation.

and Xu Yun’s disciple, the Ch’an Master Hsuan Hua, continued his tradition of teaching, saying

When not one single thought arises, one’s inherent wisdom manifests…

This is why he called Ch’an The Essence of All Buddhas.