Select Page
Provocative Zen Teachers
The Empty World

A commentary on Zen Master Lin-chi’s teaching.
Quotations are from Chapter 11 of The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi, translated by Burton Watson (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993)

The Master instructed the group, saying: Those who study the Dharma of the buddhas these days should approach it with a true and proper understanding. If you approach it with a true and proper understanding, you won’t be affected by considerations of birth or death, you’ll be free to go or stay as you please. You don’t have to strive for benefits, benefits will come of themselves.

If you approach the study of the Truth with true and proper understanding, you will already be enlightened. Isn’t this a paradox? How do we get to that true and proper understanding in the first place? Trial and error? Striving and striving until we finally find ourselves unaffected by considerations of birth or death – free to go or stay as we please?

Let’s assume that being unaffected by considerations of birth or death, or free to go or stay as we please, are some of the benefits Lin-chi speaks of. He says don’t we have to strive for them, and therefore we do not even have to strive for true and proper understanding. He cannot be saying no effort is required, or that there is no truth, no Dharma, and no benefits. He paints us into a corner and doesn’t let us go about things our usual way, and he doesn’t let us rest. What can we do? This isn’t about giving us answers, but about awakening in us the vital question of how to engage our lives. Naturally this will not be simple.

Followers of the Way, the outstanding teachers from times past have all had ways of drawing people out. What I myself want to impress on you is that you mustn’t be led astray by others. If you want to use this thing, then use it and have no doubts or hesitations!

We are in need of being drawn out… but we mustn’t be led astray by others. Lin-chi is not talking about choosing the right teacher, or being skeptical about teachings. These things need to happen, but they are not the most important thing. Once we have been drawn out of our waking dream, whether it is by a teacher, a disaster, or a falling leaf, the rest is up to us. Anyone who encourages you to look for ultimate satisfaction outside of your own body-mind is leading you astray. So, in a sense, anyone leading you is leading you astray. You find your own way through your inner landscape, a path no one can find for you or walk with you.

Given that we’re on our own with this, how can we have no doubts or hesitations? It may help to consider what it is Lin-chi is referring to when he says “use this thing.” This translator Schloegel suggests it is “genuine insight.” Shimano Roshi translated this as, “If you want to act, just act.” Perhaps in the Chinese it is not so clear what “it” is, and this is not surprising. Something needs to be used without doubt or hesitation – what is it? We are left with another open question. What is ours to work with? Whatever it is, no doubts or hesitation means taking the risk of being wrong or making mistakes. No one cherishes the experience of disappointment, frustration, or looking stupid. But are we going to let these petty concerns keep us from exploring what we need to explore?

When students today fail to make progress, where’s the fault? The fault lies in the fact that they don’t have faith in themselves! If you don’t have faith in yourself, then you’ll be forever in a hurry trying to keep up with everything around you, you’ll be twisted and turned by whatever environment you’re in and you can never move freely. But if you can just stop this mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something, then you’ll be no different from the [ancestors] and buddhas. Do you want to get to know the [ancestors] and buddhas? They’re none other than you, the people standing in front of me listening to this lecture on the Dharma!
Students don’t have enough faith in themselves, and so they rush around looking for something outside themselves. But even if they get something, all it will be is words and phrases, pretty appearances. They’ll never get at the living thought of the [ancestors]!

The self we need to have faith in has nothing to do with our skill or knowledge. If we rely on any of the details of who we are, we will fall short at some time and our faith in ourselves will be compromised. Or we will conclude we do not have enough skill or knowledge to take the ultimate leap. Then we’ll keep looking around for the things that will complete us, so we can be up to the task of claiming our birthright. As Lin-chi says, we’ll be “twisted and turned by whatever environment” we’re in. We’ll go rushing around moment by moment looking for something.

The mind that has passed its koan, the mind that has claimed its birthright, the mind of enlightenment, goes nowhere when queried or tested. When it is asked, “Where is your true nature?” it does not waver for a moment. It does not think about teachings. It does not think about past insights. It does not think about theories or philosophy. It does not mine science or nature for analogies. It has utterly given up looking anywhere other than here. Actually, it does not even look here. It is just open and alive.

This being who does not look elsewhere is the same being as has manifested as each ancestor and each buddha. It is only our own doubt that keeps us dancing about, seeking for assurances outside of our own direct experience. Lin-chi may sound harsh when he warns that students who rush around looking outside of themselves will “never get at the living thought of the [ancestors]!” This may sound like a judgment passed on all of us who are guilty of rushing around looking outside of ourselves, but Lin-chi is just saying that we won’t find what we’re looking for that way.

Make no mistake, you followers of Chan. If you don’t find it in this life, then for a thousand kalpas you’ll be born again and again in the three-fold world, you’ll be lured off by what you think are favorable environments and be born in the belly of a donkey or a cow!

Is this a Buddhist version of fire and brimstone? You might say so, in that it is supposed to be motivating. But we do not get condemned to the fire by someone or something outside of ourselves, we simply experience the results of our own choices. We keep getting lured off by what we think are favorable environments – situations that we think we make us happy and secure. We settle down into our nests and fall asleep again. But life keeps moving on… if we are born in the belly of a donkey or cow because of our negligence, we will end up being incapable of practice. Basically: you can practice now, but you may not be able to practice in the future.

Followers of the Way, as I look at it, we’re no different from Shakyamuni. In all our various activities each day, is there anything we lack? The wonderful light of the six faculties has never for a moment ceased to shine. If you could just look at it this way, then you’d be the kind of person who has nothing to do for the rest of his life.

What does it mean to “be the kind of person who has nothing to do for the rest of her life?” If we try to think about it rationally or philosophically it may not make much sense, but in our gut we know what this means. To have nothing we have to do for the rest of our lives – to be free to do, or not do, and just to be. To be sufficient, without anything we have to achieve or prove in order to earn our place in this world. A person who has nothing to do for the rest of his life may be very busy, or he may live very simply, but in neither case is he compelled.

Fellow believers, ‘There is no safety in the threefold world; it is like a burning house.’ This is no place for you to linger long! The deadly demon of impermanence will be on you in an instant, regardless of whether you’re rich or poor, old or young.

In the Lotus Sutra, the world is compared to a burning house, and we are compared to children playing in the house, so wrapped up in their toys and play that they are oblivious to the flames. This may seem like a grim, pessimistic view of the world, but it points to the delusion all human beings share – that somehow our life will just keep going on. Things are not going to crumble down around us. Maybe they’ll change a little, we figure, but we cannot get our minds around the reality that we will lose absolutely everything. Outside the burning house is a whole world, and the opportunity to practice, so we are not doomed. But we have to be careful not to get so wrapped up in our toys that we forget what is really happening.

If you want to be no different from the patriarchs and buddhas, then never look for something outside yourselves. The clean pure light in a moment of your mind – that is the Essence-body of the Buddha lodged in you. The undifferentiated light in a moment of your mind – that is the Bliss-body of the Buddha lodged in you. The undiscriminating light in a moment of your mind – that is the Transformation-body of the Buddha lodged in you. These three types of bodies are you, the person who stands before me now listening to this lecture on the Dharma! And simply because you do not rush around seeking anything outside yourselves, you can command these fine faculties.

The Buddhist teaching on the three bodies of buddha is generally considered very profound and advanced. It is an attempt to describe different aspects or layers of reality – how the absolute becomes manifest in form. It is too complex to describe here. Suffice to say that such a teaching can pull you very far aware from yourself, while Lin-chi says the three types of bodies are you, right now. Teachings provoke us out of our complacency – they are ways to draw us out, as Lin-chi mentioned at the beginning. But then they can lead us astray if we start to look for their meaning outside, or even inside. Their meaning is found in your listening to the Dharma right now – they are nothing abstract, they cannot be grasped or located. They can only be manifested in this moment, a constantly moving target.

…But never at any time let go of this even for a moment. Everything that meets your eyes is this. But ‘when feelings arise, wisdom is blocked; when thoughts waver, reality departs,’ therefore you keep being reborn again and again in the threefold world and undergoing all kinds of misery. But as I see it, there are none of you incapable of profound understanding, none of you are incapable of emancipation.

Lin-chi actually said this to his assembled students, who were sitting and listening to the Dharma just as we are today. Just like his students, our thoughts waver. This is not a reason to feel inadequate, it is a reason to arouse the courage to stop looking anywhere else.

…The way I see it, we should cut off the heads of the Bliss-body and Transformation-body buddhas. Those who have fulfilled the ten stages of bodhisattva practice are no better than hired field hands; those who have attained the enlightenment of the fifty-first and fifty-second stages are prisoners shackled and bound; arhats and pratyekabuddhas are so much filth in the latrine, bodhi and nirvana are hitching posts for donkeys. Why do I speak of them like this? Because you followers of the Way fail to realize that this journey to enlightenment that takes three asamkhya kalpas to accomplish is meaningless. So these things become obstacles in your way. If you were truly proper [persons] of the Way, you would never let that happen.

Zen sacrilege! Committed out of compassion for us. Anything that causes us to look outside of ourselves gets in the way. And yet, what if there were no teachings at all? We would still be asleep. So we use teachings and practices like medicine, applying them as necessary, and giving them up when they become poisonous to us.

…Fellow believers, time is precious! You rush off frantically on side roads, studying Chan, studying the Way, clinging to words, clinging to phrases, seeking Buddha, seeking the patriarchs, seeking a good friend, scheming, planning. But make no mistake. Followers of the Way, you have one set of parents – what more are you looking for?’ You should stop and take a good look at yourselves. A man of old tells us that Yajnadatta thought he had lost his head and went looking for it, but once he had put a stop to his seeking mind, he found he was perfectly all right…’

Yajnadatta looked in the mirror one day and thought he had lost his head. He temporarily lost touch with reality, and when he came back to clarity and saw he had his head, it was not that he had found his head. It had, of course, always been there. As Zen practitioners, we try to avoid running around looking for our heads, even though we are experiencing the discomfort and worry resulting from having lost track of them. We take the counsel of people we trust who assure us our heads are still there, and we sit as still as we can. The delusion of being headless eventually wears off if we do not keep getting agitated by running about searching. This is hard practice. We really, really want to find our heads. And we should want to find them.

Provocative Zen Teachers
The Empty World