Zen stories are full of curious anecdotes, contradictions and illogical statements. They can even sound frankly irreligious although a Zen temple is full of Buddhist piety and ritual. How paradoxical!
It would be difficult to understand Zen without looking at the influence Taoism had in Chinese Zen. Mahayana Buddhism was introduced in China in the 6th century AC. It revived the original insights of Lao-tzu and was transformed into Zen (Chan in China). As J. Wu says in The Golden Age of Zen, ‘If Buddhism is the father, Taoism is the mother of this prodigious child. But there can be no denying that the child looks more like the mother than the father.’ Zen or Tao rejects all systematic elaborations, complex religious and philosophical systems to get back to the pure experience. Experience of what? To life itself, to the ‘I’ exist, to who is this ‘I’. What is the difference between authentic and illusory awareness? Zen does not seek to get involved in dialectical exchanges but tries to grasp the naked reality of existence. In this context Zennists mistrust words as Zen is fundamentally inexpressible found only by direct experience. The words of the masters are only meant to provoke the awakening of the intuition. Here are some Zen exchanges:
A monk asked, “Who is the Buddha” the Master fired back, “Who are you?”
A new arrival said apologetically to the master, “I have come here empty-handed”, “Lay it down then!” said the master. “Since I have brought nothing with me, what can I lay down? asked the visitor. “Then go on carrying it!” said the master.
We may persist in understanding Zen but in fact the only and wise thing we can do is to embrace it and realize it like the fish in the ocean who wanted to know what water was. In this sense Zen teaches nothing, it just points.
“You wish to know the spirit of Zen? Look at the lake in front of the gate. When the sun shines, it radiates light and brightness. When the wind comes, there arise ripples and waves.”
This pointing meant to stir and awaken our mind often uses very vivid, dramatic or even disrespectful language like in the following story. Master Fo-yen said, “There are two diseases in the practice of Zen. The first is to ride an ass in search of the ass. The second is to ride the ass and refuse to dismount.” It is easy to see the silliness of seeking the ass you are riding. As your attention is turned outwards, you will never look inside. So many troubles in the world have their origin in keeping this position! Ma-tsu said’ “You are the treasure of your own house”. The second disease is even more difficult to cure. You know you are riding your own ass. You have tasted some degree of interior peace but the danger is that you become so attached to it that you are bound to lose it altogether. Thomas Merton said, “The situation of the soul in contemplation is like the situation of Adam and Eve in Paradise. Everything is yours but on one important condition: that it is all given. There is nothing we can claim, demand or keep. As soon as we try to take something as if it were our own, we lose Eden. So Fo-en’s final counsel is “Do not ride at all. For you yourself are the ass, and the whole world is the ass. You have no way to ride it… If you don’t ride at all the whole universe will be your playground.”
If you wish to hear more poetic, puzzling and delightful Zen stories come to the meditation retreat at Dhyana-Ananda in the Laurentians, Quebec, on September 1-3. Please check the web page at dhyana-ananda.ca