In one monastery, the Abbot had the habit of holding up his forefinger whenever he reached the point of a lecture.
One day, as the monks were preparing their breakfast, the Abbot noticed two young monks, ages five and ten, talking. The older of the two raised his forefinger as he spoke. Immediately, the Abbot seized a knife from a table and cut the boy’s finger off.
Wow. What a way to start the day.
Seriously, though, the story is supposed to be shocking. You’re supposed to think “What? Did I read that wrong?” Then you read it again and, sure enough, the Abbot cut the boy’s finger off. So, reeling from the sudden and apparently senseless mutilation of a child in the kitchen of a Buddhist monastery, you wonder “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” because all of the koans and stories in the Zen tradition mean something. They’re all very short, very direct and packed with meaning. Teachers would give a koan or story like this to students and have them go meditate on it for a few years, which seems pretty weird to us, for whom the reason for the Abbot’s action is perfectly obvious, but people were a little slower in the uptake 1,500 years ago.
See, a thousand years had passed since Buddhism was founded and a lot of dust had settled on the mirror. Early Buddhism was very monastically oriented. Anyone who was at all serious about seeking Nirvana had to first quit the world, shave their head and take refuge in the Sangha. The rest of the people gave their tithes, generally respected the monks and nuns and aspired to rise to their level in a few incarnations, not this one, thank you very much. After about five-hundred years, at about the same time Jesus was preaching in the Levant, somebody had the brilliant insight that since Samsara was this world of pairs of opposites and Nirvana was the state of mind of one who had gone beyond the pairs of opposites, including the pair of opposites “Samsara” and “Nirvana”, one who had gone beyond the pairs of opposites would not recognize Samsara and Nirvana as opposites, but would, in fact, see them as being exactly the same. Whammo bango, the entire thing was spun on its head and suddenly there was no need whatsoever to quit the world. Nirvana was equally accessible to anyone. Any farmer, merchant, soldier or milkmaid could aspire to Nirvana. These two early forms of Buddhism are referred to as “Hinyana”, “little ferryboat” and “Mahayana”, “big ferryboat”, respectively. Unfortunately, when one is aspiring to Nirvana, one has not attained it, or why would one be aspiring? The little ferryboat Sangha was mostly involved in memorizing Sutras, debating insignificant details of the Buddha’s biography and denouncing each other for having gotten it wrong. The big ferryboat lay community was burning up a lot of incense at roadside shrines, feeling a bit guilty for failing to adhere to the Noble Eightfold Path and sending their second sons to be raised in monasteries in the hopes that it would somehow help. Everybody pretty much assumed that Nirvana was several incarnations away.
Then, after another five-hundred years or so, somebody realized that Siddhartha Gautama Sakymuni, the historical Buddha, had attained Nirvana by sitting still. Sitting still, therefore, was really the key. All that business about incense and Sutras and gold statues and so on was missing the point. This was the beginning of what became Zen.
The First Patriarch of Zen was Bodhidharma, who entered the historical record when he emigrated from India to China. The Chinese had heard of Buddhism from traveling merchants and a few wandering monks and had the impression that it was some kind of high-minded, intellectual philosophy, which it was, in the Sangha. The scholars and philosophers were somewhat curious about it, but no one saw it as anything other than an intellectual pursuit. Then along came Bodhidharma, this big, hairy, wild-eyed Indian, intense and a bit intimidating, who sat down and stared at a wall for nine years without saying anything. That got their attention. The Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Patriarchs of Zen, whose names escape me, maintained the don’t-just-do-something-sit-there meditation, but didn’t break any new ground. Then, in Japan, an illiterate stable-boy happened to overhear someone reciting the Diamond Sutra and he got it. He was Enlightened. He immediately attempted to enter a monastery, but was not allowed to take the Vows because he was just an illiterate stable-boy and not able to read, memorize and then sit around debating the insignificant details of every shopping list Gautama ever jotted on the back of an envelope. He was taken on as a scullery lad on the assumption that after spending a few lifetimes hulling rice he might rise to the level of literacy. Why they didn’t just teach the kid to read, I don’t know. Anyway, the Abbot of the monastery decided to retire and announced that there would be a competition: whoever could compose a poem best summarizing the principals of Buddhism would become the new Abbot. There was one monk who everybody was sure was going to get it and when he wrote the following verse on the wall in the hall, it was a fait accompli:
The body is the bodhi tree
The mind is a mirror
Clean it constantly
So it doesn’t get dusty
The English is my summary. Our illiterate scullery lad, whose name was Huineng, got a friend from the kitchen to read this to him and then write his response:
The body is not the bodhi tree
The mind is not a mirror
What can get dusty?
Next morning, all the monks were standing around wondering who had written the second verse when the Abbot walked in, got angry, wiped Huineng’s poem off the wall and passed his staff of office on to the monk who had written the first one. Later, he spoke to Huineng privately, advised him not to hit people with advanced truths they were incapable of comprehending and invited him to go away. Huineng became the Sixth and last Patriarch of Zen. He established Zen Buddhism as we know it today and attracted so many followers that Zen no longer needed Patriarchs to keep it going.
One does not have to spend x incarnations waiting for Nirvana; it can happen right now. In fact, it should happen right now. There is no real reason for it not to. So, sit there and realize it. That’s really the crux of Zen, as I see it. D.T. Suzuki might disagree, but who really cares what D.T. Suzuki thinks? Same goes for Alan Watts, that limey beatnik. Another thing – Zen produces enlightened Masters at a far higher rate than any of the other Buddhisms, crotchety old coots sitting around shit-talking Siddhartha like he was a redheaded bastard at a family reunion, an irreverence which this Espresso Shaman especially enjoys. Venerating Buddhas is all well and good and it’ll get you a seat in a closed lotus in the Pure Land, but it won’t get you into Nirvana. For that, you have to realize that there is no Buddha unless it’s you.
And it is you. This is the thing that has to be understood. There is no Buddha other than yourself, which is without a self. It seems paradoxical, I know, but the reason Zen Flesh, Zen Bones hit me so hard is that I just read the black parts and where it said “all things have Buddha nature”, I took that to mean that “all things have Buddha nature”. I have Buddha nature. You have Buddha nature. The fuckin’ roaches on my kitchen counter have fuckin’ Buddha nature. We all, and everything else, have Buddha nature, so why don’t we realize it? Why do we continue to walk around thinking that we’re anything other than Buddhas? My theory is that it seems too easy. Nirvana is described in high-falutin’, flowery language and made out to be this big fucking deal, mainly because that was the writing style in India at the time. Seriously, read The Upanishads, if you can. People have a tendency to want metaphysical stuff to be a big fucking deal, wheels within wheels in the sky, multi-armed gods dancing the cosmos, stuff like that. It isn’t like that – well, not all the time. I have seen some out-there stuff even when I wasn’t on acid, but most of the time a tree is a tree, a river is a river and people are people. Nirvana is not something to be attained. Nirvana already is in you.
As I’ve stated here before, I have taken the vow of the Bodhisattva and will be sticking around, in one form or another, until all sentient beings are enlightened. I would appreciate it very much if all who read this would sit down and realize their Buddhahood. It would make my job easier. If you care to take the vow and stick around to help, that’d be cool too.