The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor:  Three Dharma Talks

By Sensei Deirdre Eisho Peterson

Red Rocks Zen Circle Spring Retreat in May 2019

First Day:

Good morning, everyone.  Our text for this year’s spring retreat is a Chinese text from the 7th century known as the Platform Sutra.  It is one of the most important texts in Zen, so it is good for us to have some knowledge of it.  It is part of Zen’s continuing thread with the Emptiness literature, such as the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra — classic texts on prajna, or wisdom, that speak to the Absolute, to Emptiness, to the fluid, inter-connected nature of reality that we are not separate from, and the moment-to-moment fresh arising of this. 

The Platform Sutra is an account of the oral teaching given by the Chinese Zen ancestor Hui-Neng, known as the Sixth Ancestor, and one of the most important ancestors in the history of Zen.  Much of the Sutra is the life story of HN himself, and we will be looking at that in some detail, because it is such an important part of the text.   The text also includes teachings that HN gave: first, teachings on the precepts, and second, teachings on prajna paramita, this wisdom of emptiness. 

Why is it called the Platform Sutra?  Because it is believed to have been given at a Jukai ceremony for a large group of disciples and practitioners, who would have been standing on a raised platform as part of the ceremony.   Hence a section of the Sutra pertains to the precepts and refuge vows, and HN’s unique perspective on them.

One of the things that is striking about the Sutra is its tone.  This is not like reading a lofty or formal text.  The disciple who wrote down these oral teachings really captured the unpretentious flavor of the talks, and their vitality.  HN frequently calls out to us, “Good friends!” to wake us up.  “Listen to this!”

Here’s how the text opens, how HN begins his teaching to the assembly:   “This teaching has been passed down by the ancients.  It isn’t something I discovered by myself. But if you wish to hear this teaching of the ancients, you must listen with pure minds.  So listen, good friends!  You already possess the prajna wisdom of enlightenment!  But because your minds are deluded, you can’t understand by yourselves.  You need a truly good friend to show you the way to see your nature.”  So that’s the beginning. That we already have everything we need. We just need a little guidance to see our own Buddha Nature.  And our good friend HN is going to give us guidance to see that, to realize that, to make it real in our lives.

So we’re going to look at some of the key teachings, and with this Sutra I think it is important that we also consider the implications of them – how they encourage us as practitioners, and what they convey about our human minds and our practice of Zen. As the Zen teacher Norman Fischer says, says, “The teachings in the Platform Sutra are very encouraging for us.  As we will see, HN is our good friend, and he models the way for us.  He is telling us to trust – to trust in our inherent awakeness and the inherent clear nature of our minds.   He is telling us to let go of our ideas so we can encounter the moment directly.  He is telling us to simply see the empty nature, the inter-being, that continuously unfolds.”

The translator Red Pine makes that observation that:  “Normally, readers of a spiritual teaching would expect an explanation of various concepts that appear in this text. This is what we think a teaching consists of:  concepts, ideas, constructions of the mind.  But HN’s teaching is not a teaching of concepts, in fact it is just the opposite.  It is a teaching of no-concepts.  Every word he speaks is directed at freeing people from whatever concepts block their awareness of their own nature.  The core teaching of HN is:  “See your nature and be Buddha.”  So in other words:  see the nature of your own mind …. This mind that freely flows with whatever is arising, that can be intimate with whatever is arising …. To see this and realize that this is the nature of mind is to be Buddha.

You know, sometimes we judge ourselves harshly and feel like we are not good meditators because we have thoughts arising, and our minds don’t seem calm, the way we think they are supposed to be.  But we all have thoughts arising.  Even HN.  But perhaps, as HN teaches, it’s not about fewer thoughts.  It is to see the mirror-like nature of our mind, to experience intimately the sounds and sensations, the moods – and that this is Buddha.

One of the primary themes of this text is around meditation and wisdom, and I’d like to look at that a bit this morning.  HN states that meditation and wisdom are of one essence, not two. Early on in the Sutra, he says:  “Good friends:  meditation and wisdom are like a lamp and its light.  When there’s a lamp, there is light.  The lamp is the light’s body, and light is the lamp’s function.  They have two names but not two bodies.  This teaching concerning meditation and wisdom is like this.” 

Why is this teaching significant?  For it to make sense to us, we have to look at this word “wisdom”.  In our culture, we often think of the word “wisdom” as thinking up good ideas and making insightful pronouncements.  Or wisdom as something in dusty books on the shelf from ancient philosophers.  But wisdom is something quite different in the dharma.  The “prajna” or wisdom in the dharma is considered our original mind.  It is said to be before knowledge, before there is a person who knows and some thing that is known.  There is just the arising of each unique moment. 

One way that we could see the word wisdom is as “clear seeing” – especially with a sense of clear seeing into the empty, interconnected, fluid field of reality.  Clear seeing into the self, not as isolated or fixed, separate from the rest of the universe – but as open and fluid.  Each time we sit down on the cushion we have an opportunity to see this for ourselves.  So HN emphasizes that the practice of clear seeing is what we call meditation or zazen, and the practice of zazen is the practice of clear seeing.  One does not come first, one is not an effect or result of the other – they are the same.  This non-dual viewpoint is fundamental to HN.  We also hear echoes of it 500 years later with Dogen, who will declare that practice and enlightenment are one.  These are the same truths, just expressed in different language.

On this subject of this Zen wisdom, Norman Fischer also points out that “wisdom is not knowledge.  Wisdom can’t be possessed or named.  It is not a personal characteristic.  It comes and goes freely.   It is to be free from separation.  It is a way of including ourselves in the world, so it brings us back to belonging.  In terms of how we would experience it, it would feel warm-hearted and connected.  And it is a reason we sit:  to remind ourselves that we are part of this and it is a part of us.”   ~

So to explore the Platform Sutra, we have to start with HN himself.  His story is a fascinating one, and filled with a number of rich and vivid chapters.  Scholars tell us that while the basic framework of the story is historically accurate, it has also been richly embroidered over time, to serve the purposes of Zen, into a quasi- legend. The story of HN is a kind of foundational story about the values of Zen, in much the same way that the quasi-mythic stories of the Buddha are teachings in themselves.

The essence of the HN legend is of an outsider, a lay person, said to be unlettered and uncultured, who brings an immediacy, a freshness, a clearness, and a strong level of non-conformity into the traditional and structured religious hierarchy.  He is not one of the urban or priestly people in beautiful robes or high seats.  So right from the start, he is exemplifying Zen as a direct path that does not require status or a fancy education, nor complicated rituals and religious pieties.  Bodhidharma taught “direct pointing at the mind”, and HN, centuries later, carries forward this same emphasis.

HuiNeng was born in 638, in southeastern China, and his father died when he was young.  He and his widowed mother experienced great hardship and poverty, and to survive they sold firewood in the marketplace.  We are told that HN never learned to read or write, and this illiteracy will become an important part of the HN story and of Zen lore – as it was said centuries earlier by Bodhidharma, that the essence of Zen is a special transmission outside the scriptures, not in words and letters.  Even though Zen is full of words and letters and is quite a literary tradition, it still loves this idea that it is not about words and letters, and that awakening is not about something that can be written down or transmitted in words.  So HN’s illiteracy makes him a perfect candidate, although as we will see, his illiteracy may be part of the myth and not factual.

The story goes on to say that when HN was a young man, he overheard a person in the marketplace reciting the Diamond Sutra out loud.  It is said that he heard the words, “Abiding nowhere, awakened mind arises” and then he himself had some kind of deep awakening experience.  Abiding Nowhere, Awakened Mind Arises.  And he soon makes his way to a Zen monastery, where he has a first conversation with the Master who asks him, “Where are you from, and what do you hope to get by coming to this mountain?’

HN mentions his hometown, and then proclaims that he has come to the monastery because he wants to be a Buddha.  The master then insults him, saying ‘But you’re from down south and a jungle rat – a barbarian — as well.  How can you possibly be a Buddha?”  Apparently calling HN a barbarian was a slur, and calling him a jungle rat was an ethnic slur.  It would be like a farmhand from the deep south showing up with a deep accent and saying they wanted to be a Buddha.  If we were feeling rude, we might call them a hayseed, a redneck — how could you be a Buddha?

But HN replies:  “People come from the north or south, but not their Buddha nature.  The life of this jungle rat and the life of the Master aren’t the same, but how can our Buddha nature differ?”

So HN made an impression.  Still, he was not allowed in the meditation hall and was sent to join the sangha workforce.  He was led to the milling room, where he pedaled a millstone, a way of grinding rice to remove the husks, for more than eight months.  Again, quite symbolic, since more than eight months is about the time of gestation, of a fetus in the womb.

So we’ll take a pause here in the story of the 6th Ancestor, leaving him in the milling room, and tomorrow we’ll continue with some of the dramatic events that unfold.  But as we heard earlier, those words from the Diamond Sutra were what awakened something in HuiNeng as a very young man.  Abiding Nowhere, Awakened Mind Arises.  Abiding Nowhere would mean a mind that is not stuck, not stuck in fixed ideas, not stuck in fixed ways of viewing the world.  No stuck with something that happened yesterday, or 10 minutes ago. A mind that moment after moment is intimate with what arises. This is a great thing for us to hold close and practice with today.  We’re often out there looking for Awakened Mind, but perhaps it is actually right here, in the simplicity of our direct experience.  Let’s practice that today.

Second Day: 

Good morning everyone.   So yesterday we were looking at the early life of HuiNeng, and especially this phrase that sparked something in him:  Abiding Nowhere, Awakened Mind Arises.  Since this teaching is central to HN’s dharma, I want to look a little further at it. 

The old Chinese masters taught a kind of freedom, a freedom when the mind flows easily with the moment to moment flow of experience.  This was called Abiding Nowhere.  In this context, “abiding”, or taking up residence,  would mean to be stuck.  Perhaps stuck in a particular viewpoint, stuck in conditioning, stuck in wanting things to stay as they are – or stuck in needing for things to be different.  If you have been practicing meditation for a while, you’ll perhaps have had the experience of noticing that when the mind feels peaceful and clear – we don’t want that to change!  We think we can keep that mind state around, and are disappointed when it doesn’t last, when conditions change and with it the mind.  The teachings were meant to wake us up from that.  As the great master Joshu once pronounced, “This old monk does not abide in clarity.”  Even after decades of practice, this monk doesn’t get stuck in clarity.  Sometimes clear, sometimes cloudy, flowing with conditions.

A number of koans that we study deal with this matter as well.  Here’s another teaching story involving Joshu.  It is #80 in the Blue Cliff Record.

-A monk asked Master Joshu: Does a newborn baby have the 6th consciousness?

-Joshu said:  Like tossing a ball on swift-flowing water.

-The monk asked, What is the meaning of tossing a ball on swift-flowing water?

-And Joshu replied, “Moment to moment, non-stop flow.”

So from his question, we can infer where the monk may be coming from.  He’s asking about a newborn baby.  Perhaps he has seen an infant earlier in the day, and struck by the seeming freedom of their minds …. One moment they are fussing, the next moment they are cooing and happy.  They can be totally immersed in a toy, or watching an ant crawl or staring at a bird.  Perhaps the monk feels like this would be a good mind to have for Zen practice.  The baby is free from dualistic thinking, free from concepts, free from judgements.  Perhaps a baby is the model for Zen students.  But in fact, a baby is of course not the model for us.  As for Joshu, he doesn’t answer directly about the specifics of the monk’s question, but he simply says “like tossing a ball on swift-moving water.”  There is a free play and flow of  consciousness.  And then he elaborates further:  “moment to moment, non-stop flow.”  This is the Abiding Nowhere that awakened HuiNeng. 

And so an important question for us becomes, what gets in the way of that moment-to-moment non-stop flow?  So often it is grasping …. I want more …. or aversion … I don’t want this.  It could be fear or anxiety that makes us draw back from the stream.  It is dualistic thinking, ego-centered thoughts, judgements.  So always, our practice is to notice that.  This emerging now moment is always up to each one of us.  We don’t have to reinforce old thought patterns, old conditions — we can approach it with freshness, with interest , with attention.  The clear seeing is what gradually works to free our minds from the way these states imprison us.

And HN’s teachings are certainly about how to be more free.  There is a direct, simple, intuitive nature to the kind of practice he is cultivating.  In the Platform Sutra, in one of his most well-known teaching phrases, he tells the assembly that “The Samadhi of Oneness is Straightforward Mind.”  The Samadhi of Oneness is Straightforward Mind.  What does that mean?  Samadhi is a word for meditative absorption.  When we really settle into the cushion, where we are just with the breath, just with sounds – that is Samadhi, or concentration, or meditative absorption.  All of us have experienced this, whether we recognize it or not.  The Samadhi of Oneness is a fancy term for that unity consciousness, where we are intimate with whatever arises.  The bell rings and there is no barrier, no separation between myself and the bell.  The Sanskrit literally means “Placing Together.”  Awareness and whatever is experienced, placed together, seamless merging.

And, HN tells us that Straightforward Mind, the ball flowing on a fast-moving stream, IS this samadhi.  Other translations for this word “Straightforward Mind” say that Direct Mind, or Sincere Mind, is this Samadhi.  It is the mind that simply flows, without obstructions or confusion, with whatever is arising, and meets it without separation.  So in other words, we could say that Straightforward Mind is Intimate Mind.  And Intimate Mind is Straightforward Mind.

Here’s the contemporary teacher Shodo Harada on this:  “In our essence of mind, mountains are mountains, flowers are flowers, and the sound of the wind is the sound of the wind.  We hear, we see, and we leave each thing as we hear or see it, adding nothing at all to it.  Everything else is dualistic thinking.  Changing with every moment, our mind manifests our clear nature.  This is the meaning of abiding nowhere, awakened mind arises.  In this way the 6th Ancestor teaches us.”

Perhaps this intimate mind is what HuiNeng is refining during those months that he is working in the rice shed, after his encounter with the Master at the Monastery.  So let’s turn our attention back to HN. 

So about this time, at the monastery, the Master is apparently not so pleased with his disciples, feeling that they are not understanding the heart of the teachings.  He says, “In studying dharma, you must not remain satisfied by just copying my words.  Make a poem to show your understanding and demonstrate your Zen abilities.”  If any of them are able to express the true dharma, he will make them his successor.  So it’s a challenge.

Most of the monks are too afraid to try to write a gatha themselves.  They assume that the head monk will write one, and that he is the natural dharma successor.  So in fact, he does write a gatha, and posts it on the wall – kind of like the bulletin board.  Here is his verse:

The body is a Bodhi tree

The Mind is like a standing mirror

Always try to keep it clean

Don’t let it gather dust.

So this verse is emphasizing the importance of vigilance, discipline, always polishing to keep the mirror clean.

Hearing this gatha, HN decides to compose his own verse, which one of the monks writes on the same wall for him.  Here is HN’s gatha:

Bodhi originally has no tree

The mirror doesn’t have a stand.

Our Buddha Nature is forever pure

Where is there room for dust?

So if the head monk’s verse emphasizes the need for practice and diligence, HN’s verse shows the other side.  Our Buddha Nature is already pure.  We are not lacking.  Everything is already free, totally itself and at the same time totally inter-connected with everything else.  There is nothing to obtain, there is nothing but this moment, and we are already here, part of it.  We only have to see more clearly, or wake up to what is already here.  That’s the good news of the vision that HN offers us.

So when the master of the monastery sees the HN verse, he immediately recognizes the understanding that is shown there.  But he waits until midnight to summon HuiNeng to his chambers, because he is afraid the other monks who are loyal to the head monk will be upset and jealous, and possibly try to harm HuiNeng.  Apparently Zen monasteries in ancient China were not that different from the contemporary workplace in terms of office politics and rivalries.

So we have this middle of the night ceremony, in which HuiNeng is given the master’s robe as a mark of dharma transmission.  The Master tells HuiNeng that “My dharma must be transmitted mind to mind.  You must help people awaken to themselves.”  And with that, HN disappears off into the night, after being advised to stay out of sight for a number of years before beginning to offer teachings.

So of course this entire story is quite dramatic, including the secret midnight transmission and flight.  And some Zen centers continue this tradition, with teacher empowerments often kept quiet until they are announced after the fact.  It is a little bit of a nod to HN, part of Zen culture.

But let’s turn our attention back to the two poems.  So in the story, it seems that the Head Monk’s poem is inadequate, and HuiNeng’s is the right perspective, is more profound in its understanding of the dharma.  And that suits the broader purposes of the HN legend.

The reason that the Head Monk’s poem is judged inferior is that its perspective is that we must always work very hard to polish the mirror.  That our minds will only awaken after long and arduous mirror polishing – lots of zazen, lots of atonement, lots of sutra chanting, lots of bowing, lots of study.  From this perspective it is a long slog to gradual awakening. 

In contrast, the poem of HN is pointing to the Absolute, to Emptiness, when he says that there is no stand for the mirror and no dust.  There is only this moment, always arising fresh. And all we need to do is be fully present to it.

The reality is that our Zen practice is about both perspectives.  You could say it is the perspective of the relative and absolute.  In the relative world, the world of form, we do need to practice, we do benefit from study.  We need to sit still, to cultivate clear seeing.  We need to take a few days from the busyness of our life to come together for retreat such as this.

At the same time, we don’t want to lose sight of the perspective of the Absolute that HN shows us, that everything is just as it is each moment, that each moment has its own perfection, that we are already part of it.

And, it is from this perspective of the Absolute that HN will come to give his teachings on the Precepts, as recorded in the Platform Sutra.  Usually, in Buddhism, the Precepts are seen as the guidelines for ethical conduct in the world.  And of course, they are that.

But HN understands them differently, and he teaches the assembly about what he calls “formless repentance” and “formless precepts”.  Sometimes this word “formless” is translated as “signless”.  Signless, meaning without exterior signs or indicators.  This is very much in keeping with HN’s emphasis on the nature of mind – that it is here that true morality arises. That we don’t need outside confirmation.  The concept of the hidden sage. 

Translator Red Pine says this:  “The Formless Precepts are HN’s attempt to encourage his listeners to transcend the normal interpretation of precepts, as restrictions on behavior.  To HN, the precepts are not about preventing bad deeds or even encouraging good deeds.  Instead, his interpretation is coming out of prajna wisdom.  So it is something arising from our own mind, our original mind before we “know” something, before there is a “me” who knows or some “thing” that is known.  The ancient wisdom valued that …. The clear seeing, the spontaneous seeing, before all the discriminating of the human mind begins, all the judging, and the comparisons.”

So for HN, ethical conduct is folded into clear seeing, a radical reinterpretation.

So here is his version of the Four Vows:

I vow to save all beings, no matter how numberless

I vow to end all afflictions, no matter how countless

I vow to master all teachings, no matter how limitless

I vow to attain Buddhahood, no matter how transcendent.

Those lines sound familiar to what we chant at the zendo.  Yet listen to his commentary on those lines, on how he understands the Vows:

HN says this:  Good friends, as for “I vow to save all beings”, it isn’t HuiNeng who does the saving.  Every being you can think of saves themselves with their own nature in their own bodies.  What does this mean?  Every being already possesses the nature of original enlightenment, and this saves them with right views.  Once they realize the prajna wisdom of right views they dispel their ignorance and delusion, and each being saves themselves.  The false are saved with truth.  The deluded are saved with goodness.  And the afflicted are saved with enlightenment.  Those who are saved like this are truly saved.” 

So although we do not always act from a place of awakened mind, HN is saying that we each have that nature.  When we see clearly and intimately, our ignorance and delusion is dispelled …. And we can act appropriately,

wisely and compassionately.  It is not coming from outside, but from inside.

So we’ll take a pause here for the day.  I’d like to conclude with a gatha that was written by the Insight teacher Larry Rosenberg, and with which he always ends his dharma talks.  It is very much in keeping with the teachings of HN:

May we continue to look deeply into ourselves

May we see things exactly as they are

May this clear deep seeing free us.

Third Day:

So yesterday we looked at HuiNeng’s poem and his dramatic midnight flight after receiving his master’s authority to teach.  We also looked at his teachings on Straight-forward Mind, or Intimate Mind, and the way that HN saw the Precepts arising not from external rules but as a natural orientation coming from Prajna Wisdom, the wisdom of non-duality, the inherent wisdom, or clear seeing, that is there in each of us before the arising of a sense of a separate “me”.

This morning I’d like to look at a further chapter in the life of HN.  This particular chapter also shows up as a koan in the Mumonkan, so some of you will be familiar with it from that.  It’s quite a dramatic episode, almost cinematic.

In the story, after HN leaves the monastery, he is pursued by one particular monk.  Apparently this Monk Myo was previously a military commander.  We can imagine that this man has a strong sense of hierarchy and order, and he is outraged that this newly-arrived illiterate barbarian has usurped the rightful place of his own mentor, the head monk.  Monk Myo is determined to capture the robe and bowl that were given to HN as signs of his dharma transmission, to take them away. 

So in the koan story, Monk Myo finally runs down HuiNeng.  Rather than try to hide the robe of the master or hold onto to it in some way, HN simply offers it to Monk Myo. But in a twist, Myo is unable to lift the robe.  Perhaps realizing the violent and vengeful quest that he has been consumed with, he breaks down.  He tells HN that he has come not for the robe, nor for vengeance …. But that he has actually come for the dharma.  HN then offers his well-known teaching:  “Think neither good nor evil.  At such a moment, where is the mind of Monk Myo?” 

At this, Monk Myo was awakened.  With tears he made a bow, saying, “I am like one who has drunk water and actually experienced himself whether it is cold or warm.  You are my true teacher.”

So.  “Think neither good nor evil.”  Stepping out of our judgements of right or wrong, worthy or unworthy, pure or impure …. All those concepts that people are willing to go to war over, to kill each other over. And how easy it is for us to fall into this dualistic framework in so many aspects of our life and our relationships.  So HN says: drop your ideas of right or wrong, and what is this actual moment?  What is your experience if the mind is not stuck in a rigid, conditioned, ego-centered view?  What is right here?   We are told Monk Myo had an awakening experience.  He saw something about himself and about his mind that he had not seen before. There was a dropping away of his consuming agenda, and in that space there was a moment of opening and simple presence that he had not known before.

Shibayama Roshi, a contemporary Zen master who wrote extensive commentaries on the koans in the Mumonkan, describes the encounter this way:  “Even though Monk Myo touched the robe as it lay there on the stone, in his emotional agitation he could not lift it.  Hesitating and trembling he simply stood there, petrified.  His ego-centered and enraged self was at once completely smashed.  This inner conversion , which fundamentally changed him, was the most important moment in his life.  With quite a different attitude Monk Myo now implored HN to teach him.” 

And HN cut straight to the heart of the matter with his question, “When you think neither good nor evil, what is the True Self of Monk Myo at this  moment?”

Shibayama goes on to say, “When all the dualistic oppositions such as good and evil, right and wrong, love and hatred, gain and loss, are transcended, and one is the realm of the Absolute …. where is Monk Myo?  Body and mind have dropped away.  At such a time the reality of the True Self is vividly and thoroughly revealed. “   ~

Coming to know this True Self, or our True Nature, is something that is foundational to HN’s teachings.  Over and over he instructs us: “Know your mind and see your nature.”  To see your nature, your Buddha Nature.  So it’s worth clarifying, what is this Nature?  Why is it important to HN that we see it?  What does it even mean to see our nature, our Buddha Nature?

Those of us who read Buddhist texts “kind of know” what Buddha Nature means, and we kind of don’t know.  It is confusing because the word Buddha Nature can be used to mean different things in different contexts, and it is rarely explained. 

Sometimes it is used to mean our potential for realization, for waking up, that we share the same nature & capacity as the Buddha, the Awakened One.

At the same time, Buddha Nature refers to our non-dual nature.  It refers to that state of  non-duality, when our minds are transparent, completely intimate with whatever is arising. It is sometimes called our true self, our original face, our original nature, or Mu.  It is when we experience directly, without the veil of thoughts and concepts we so often experience our life through.

You may wonder if you will ever experience this.  You already have.  Many, many times.  But we don’t recognize this state, because to recognize it, we would have to be separate from it.  Also, perhaps we expect fireworks and bells to go off, but that is not the case.  It is completely natural.  It is coming home.  It manifests in that our sense of disconnection from life and from ourselves, our sense of something being wrong, starts to shift.  We enjoy and appreciate the elements of our everyday life, whether or not our life circumstances are ideal.  We feel gratitude and appreciation.

HN’s teachings are predicated on the fact that we all have this Buddha nature.  He says early on in the Platform Sutra:  “Good friends, buddha nature isn’t different for the ignorant and the wise.  It’s just that when people wake up and see their nature, they become wise.”  Translator Red Pine comments:  “Our minds are enclosed by veritable cities of delusion.  Once we open our minds to the dharma, the light of our Buddha Nature shines through, and even the thickest walls become transparent.” 

HN’s view on Buddha Nature, on our capacity for Intimate Mind, is not some warm and fuzzy notion that all things are One …. HN is more precise than that.  He wants us to see how our compulsive thinking creates a self-conscious sense of separation.  Thoughts and mental constructs are the veil through we often perceive reality.  It is what can lead to a persistent dissatisfaction even when our life circumstances seem to be fine.  Because when we are only living through the veil of thought, we feel a fundamental disconnection from life and our ourselves.  Many of us search around through various philosophies, practices, work, relationships, social action …. When at the bottom of it is the intrinsic search for connection.  And the deepest connection is this connection with ourselves, with our moment to moment lived experience.  This is what the dharma offers us.  HN’s teachings are about allowing us to experience wholeness, and inter-relatedness, that is our true birthright, our true nature.

HN tells us that the whole of Zen is “to see our nature, without being confused.”  How do we understand this?  First, it means moment-to-moment, it doesn’t mean a permanent state of clarity or non-confusion.  Even great master Joshu says, “This old monk does not abide in clarity.”  To see our nature is to see, with transparency, just what is here, moment after moment, as it unfolds.  We allow ourselves to be filled with what each moment holds.

When we sit zazen, as we have been doing for the past three days, and as we practice each week at the zendo, we are cultivating a mind that is stable enough to see what passes through without getting too ensnared in content.  And what we see is the flow …. Sounds, sensations, thoughts, conditions of the body.  Sleepy, restless, calm, aching, peaceful.  To be the flow.  To be intimate with it all.

HN’s notion of the mind is linked with Chinese wuwei, or non-doing, “doing without a do-er”.  It is an attentive but unentangled way of being.  Not vacancy, but freedom.  An open, non-conceptual state of mind that allows us to experience reality directly, not meditated through thoughts.  In HN’s view, natural precepts and natural compassion arise directly from this mind.

In the text HN encourages us to see our nature, and this will free us.  To see that the contents of our experience are always changing and flowing with whatever arises …. And that we are this field of awareness that perceives all of it – sounds, smells, sensations, thoughts, emotions.  This field of awareness is awake, intelligent, and can be intimate with its experience.   It is pure in that it is not defiled by the contents of what arises. We could walk by a garbage can with an unpleasant smell, or walk by a garden of roses, but our fundamental True Nature is not changed.

So we’ll close with this gatha from Zen ancestor Hannyatara:

When I inhale

I don’t dwell upon things.

When I exhale,

I don’t pursue thoughts.

Thus I breathe the sutra,


Hundreds of thousands of times.

~   ~   ~