Zen & The Conundrum of Words

Zen is…

“A special transmission outside the scriptures,
not founded upon words and letters.
by pointing directly to one’s mind,
It lets one see into one’s own true nature
and thus attain buddhahood.”

The above statement from Zen Master Bodhidharma is an interesting one. It alludes to what most people believe is the fundamental essence of Zen: That Zen cuts through the intellectual, conceptualizing, thinking mind to show us our true potential.

That this potential, most often referred to as Buddha Nature is inherent within us. And that thinking about or reading Dharma books and scriptures will not lead us to discover this potential that’s hiding in plain sight.

The belief is that scriptures, concepts and words actually cover over the clear light nature of consciousness.

And this statement that the truth – that zen is “a special transmission outside of scriptures and not founded upon words” upsets us somewhere deep inside. It does. It triggers something in us because we love words. We feel safe in words and at some point in our lives something we read has touched us deeply, inspired us and has even helped us heal in some way.

I remember the first time I read the following two zen stanzas:

The body is like a bodhi tree
the mind a mirror bright
at all times wipe it clean
and let no dust alight.
~ Shen-hsiu

There is no Bodhi tree
Nor a mirror bright
Buddha Nature is empty and clean
So where can dust alight?

~ Hui-neng

My whole world stopped, or really I should say that my mind stopped and “I” disappeared.

This experience happened because of words – words written on paper.

And this experience presents us with a conundrum…

Can we really gain true insight from words and speech?

Seung Sahn, a famous Korean Zen Master who was instrumental in bringing Zen to the West admitted his love for words in the introduction to his book, The Mirror of Zen. In it he said that,

Although I am truly lacking in ability, I have cherished the old writings, and consider the sacred writings from the great sutras to be my greatest treasures.

But then at the end of the introduction of The Mirror of Zen he goes on to say that we can study words and phrases but,

…it would be far better to attain that single word that is beyond all writings.

So what can we make of this?

It’s a conundrum…

To say something about it and you break your precepts. To not say something about it and you break your bodhisattva vow.

Words can point the way, they can give us a glimpse of our own potential, they can lead us to profound discoveries, but can they ultimately help us fully crossover to nirvana?

My teacher the Venerable Zen Master Hwasun Yangil Sunim and all the great masters say “No” that words and study cannot fully help us to realize our ultimate, original Buddha Nature.

So how can we attain this single word that is beyond all writings?

And how do we reconcile the love and debt we owe to the words we’ve heard and read. To the words that have inspired us on the way?

How many books have you read and you still haven’t broken through to the freedom found in the empty luminosity that is the root essence of your own mind?

How many concepts have you chewed over in your mind for days and you’re still not happy, calm and free?

We have to see this clearly.

The mind is a hungry ghost.

No amount of books will ever fill its belly.

It’s only when we put it all down can we discover the latent wisdom that is the basis of each and every one of us.

This is why we put so much emphasis on sitting silently and clearly in zen.

Before I met my teacher I had gobbled up hundreds of dharma books. And even after all that reading and studying I still wasn’t free.

Words can be helpful and inspire us. Words can be a raft of sorts that can help to carry us a bit of the way to realization-awakening. Zen Master Chinul talked about this knowledge and learning based wisdom as understanding-awakening.

This type of awakening is usually how most people enter into the way. But this understanding awakening will only get a person so far.

Realization-Awakening goes beyond all words and concepts and drops us at the heart of enlightened existence itself.

The silence of suchness speaks in such a way that it appears that even our toes are preaching the truth.

Master Chinul should know – he was an avid scholar and primarily practiced in solitude using the sutras to help him on his journey of awakening.

Understanding-Awakening can inspire us, point us in the right direction, give us a new perspective then Realization-Awakening can bloom.

Realization-Awakening is a fully embodied realization of truth.

Eventually you’re gonna have to muster up the courage to let it all go. To let go of your understanding-awakening and dissolve into the ocean of eternity.

Then and only then can you discover the essential truth that’s outside the scriptures, not founded upon words and letters. A wisdom that can only be discovered when one looks directly at mind.

Realization-awakening happens in an instant. All thoughts, concepts and even “you” drop away and there is only the luminous void.

Every master throughout time has discovered this truth in their own lives. They have pierced the veil of their thinking mind and discovered a boundless and wordless way. And this has not happened because of books.

It has always come from practice. From going past the safe harbour of the small mind. Setting out into the boundlessness of being. And what once seemed like a terrifying idea – to let go of mind, concepts and ideas – then becomes a field of freedom that is such a welcome and refreshing relief compared to all the busyness they used to be up to.

All Masters have, “Looked directly to their mind. This lets one see into one’s own true nature and thus attain buddhahood.

This is just the way it is.

You have to see that you’re addicted to the safe feeling of being clothed in concepts. But eventually you’ll realize that all these concepts are a cancer like the Buddha said and that no-thought is the way.

Construing is a disease, construing is a cancer, construing is an arrow. By going beyond all construing, he is said to be a sage at peace. He has been stilled where the currents of construing do not flow. And when the currents of construing do not flow, he is said to be a sage at peace.

The Buddha: Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Properties

Yes, word medicine is needed just like a baby needs a soother. Words can help the baby stop crying for a little while. Then when the baby’s mind has settled then it can discover the innate clear stability and joy that is there beyond all our thinking.

We must truly know and see that words can never be the ultimate cure for your belief in a self and your inability to see directly your first face. These both happen after you’ve put it all down and that includes all these clever words and concepts you’re using to help make you feel special. That help make you feel spiritual. We have to see that being a spiritual person is another form of mental slavery.

Just be free.

And to become free we have to look to the source and that source is not found in books. It’s found within your mind. Within your own immediate experience.

The potential for full awakening is always here – waiting for us to discover it.

For some it may come quickly and for others it may take a little while.

That reminds me of a time when my teacher gave me a new Koan,

Keep a mind that alights on nothing whatsoever.

I said to him, “But Master what if this is already attained?

In an instant he turned to me in a raging ball of fire, scoffed and barked, “Already attained! You? It took Shakyamuni six years of hard practice and Bodhidharma looked at the wall for nine years.

I smiled and shrugged saying, “I don’t know about them. Some people are quick and some people are slow.

But this truth of “A mind that alights on nothing whatsoever.” would have been gibberish to me if he had given me this teaching earlier.

I would have been lost in a sea of thought and confusion. My mind was addicted to turning pages. I devoured book after book. Concept after concept. But still I wasn’t free. I hadn’t put it all down yet. And was terrified of looking at my own mind and living experience.

But in that moment, when he gave me that teaching, “Keep a mind that alights on nothing whatsoever.” I had already been living it for years without knowing it. In that moment he gave words to my own truth. The teaching made the truth apparent.

And I had been searching for truth for over 25 years by that point so can I really say that I came upon it that quickly? It had taken years and years of calming my karmic energies. It took years upon years of sitting. Years upon years of resting in the radiance. And it took me to finally have the courage to put it all down. To let go of all books, words and concepts. To plunge myself fully into the wordless way.

This was the hardest part for me. I used to devour book after book. I was covered in concepts from head to toe. I was a mess and my master, through great compassion and wisdom cleaned me up. But he was only able to do that because I listened to him and I “Threw it all away.” like he told me to do.

By all accounts if we look at my path it was a long and winding road to come back home to my true self. I wasted so much time reading books and chewing on concepts.

Please just stop.

Please just put it all down.

Please just chew the koan and rest in the radiance.

There is no quicker way to discovering your destiny. To realize your Buddha Nature.

We can read about chocolate, study chocolate, even make chocolate but ultimately we need to taste the chocolate to realize it completely. So too is it with discovering our own inherent Buddha Nature.

Words and study can point us in the direction of it, give us glimpses of it, we get the scent of it, faint wisps of it on the breeze but we can never fully experience it completely without tasting it for ourselves.

As long as we are dependent on words we will never fully be able to cross-over.

We must go beyond thought constructs, beyond the thinking mind. We must go beyond words and discover the wordless way from which all words have their source.

Once you discover the source then all sounds become mantras. Every book is a sutra. Every gesture a blessing.

But until you can know that truth for yourself it is best to put your books away and sit still to discover the silent source – suchness itself.

Zen is…

“A special transmission outside the scriptures,
not founded upon words and letters.
by pointing directly to one’s mind,
It lets one see into one’s own true nature
and thus attain buddhahood.”

Zen Master e
Sending you BIG LOVE!!!

master e