Zen (Chan) master Yuanwu: No fixed teaching

A fresco from the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves

All teachings are expedients

just for the purpose of breaking through obsessions, doubts,

intellectual interpretations & egocentric ideas

Yuanwu (1063-1135)

Tom’s comments:

If there was ever a dogma in Zen Buddhism* (and there is no dogma by the way) it is that there is no fixed Zen teaching. In Yuanwu’s letters, from which this quote was taken, Yuanwu gives us a no frills introduction and foray into the heart of Zen.

In this quote he gets straight to telling us how the Buddhist teachings work: the teachings are not necessarily  100% true in themselves, but are devices used to set us free. What is the correct teaching? It’s simply the teaching that works. This is what the word ‘expedient’ means: whatever works is the ‘correct teaching’.

And so we hear of zen teachings ranging from reading the scriptures to simply hearing the sound of a ringing bell; from seeing an object drop to the ground to the admittedly extreme physical blows that are often dished out (and received) by zen masters as a form of teaching – not a method I would advocate, I hasten to add.

So the teaching methods and expressions of truth may vary from person to person and from time and place, forged out of the cultures and characters of the moment. This is why the teaching reinvents itself from generation to generation, and varies from teacher to teacher, even when the core teaching and core ‘realisation’ is the same.

*Yuanwu was actually Chinese, so strictly speaking he is a Chan Master. When Chan Buddhism spread to Japan it became known as Zen, Zen simply being the Japanese word for Chan.

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