Zen (Ch’an) Master Yuanwu: The Sure Way to Enlightenment, The Way of Zen


zen letters yuanwu koan

The following is a letter written almost 1000 years ago by the great Chinese master Yuanwu  (1063-1135). Yuanwu is perhaps best known for compiling the Blue Cliff Record, a classic zen text which comprises a collection of stories and sayings famous for their ability to arouse enlightenment in those who pondered them, together with advice on how to best approach them.

In Yuanwu’s letters, he reveals precise instructions in the ways of Zen that are written with a heartfelt tenderness for his student. This letter is taken from a compilation called ‘Zen Letters’ (translated by JC Cleary and Thomas Cleary). The letters in this compilation are all written by Yuanwu, and they cover a variety of subjects including how to teach and how to appoint a successor, but in this letter we find a clear and thorough overview of the path, perhaps the clearest within the entire compilation, with a focus on how to actually attain enlightenment: a description of the fundamental ground, how to approach it, how to realise it, and how to practice thereafter.

I hope the reader doesn’t mind that I have taken the liberty of interspersing my comments in italicised red and I have also bolded some lines for emphasis. Yuanwu starts by introducing the reader to the ‘fundamental ground’ that is inherent in each and every one of us. Here starts the letter:

Fundamentally, this great light is there with each and every person right where they stand – empty clear through, spiritually aware, all-pervasive, it is called the scenery of the fundamental ground.

He then describes the characteristics of this ‘ground’, stating that it is the basis of everything including the body and perceived world, but that it remains untouched and still nonetheless:

Sentient beings and buddhas are both inherently equipped with it. It is perfectly fluid and boundless, fusing everything within it. It is within your own heart and is the basis of your physical body and of the five clusters of form, sensation, conception, motivational synthesis, and consciousness. It has never been defiled or stained, and its fundamental nature is still and silent.

Then Yuanwu describes how realisation is obscured (ie. the nature of ignorance, avidya) , first through false thoughts or conceptual beliefs, and then how this conceptualisation leads to grasping which in turn leads to suffering or ‘the toils of birth and death’.

False thoughts suddenly arise and cover it over and block it off and confine it within the six sense faculties and sense objects. Sense faculties and sense objects are paired off, and you get stuck and begin clinging and getting attached. You grasp at all the various objects and scenes, and produce all sorts of false thoughts, and sink down into the toils of birth and death, unable to gain liberation.

In order to disillusion you of any fantastical and fanciful notions of enlightenment, in his compassion Yuanwu informs us that all Buddhas merely woke up to this essence (here called ‘fundamental basis’), that very essence that is within us all, and therefore Buddhahood is within all our reaches:

All the buddhas and ancestral teachers awakened to this true source and penetrated clear through to the fundamental basis. They took pity on all the sentient beings sunk in the cycle of birth and death and were inspired by great compassion, so they appeared in the world precisely for this reason. It was also for this reason that Bodhidharma came from the West with the special practice outside of doctrine.

Next, how to ‘clearly awaken’ to this fundamental ground/essence/basis/mind:

The most important thing is for people of great faculties and sharp wisdom to turn the light of mind around and shine back and clearly awaken to this mind before a single thought is born. This mind can produce all world-transcending and worldly phenomena. When it is forever stamped with enlightenment, your inner heart is independent and transcendent and brimming over with life. As soon as you rouse your conditioned mind and set errant thoughts moving, then you have obscured this fundamental clarity.

Before a single thought is born, that essence is already here, shining, untouched, unscathed, and in this way it is ‘independent and transcendent’. Therefore still your mind, quieten your mind, and see.
This essence is also not apart from life, so here Yuanwu describes it as ‘brimming over with life’. This essence is the basis of all perceived worldly phenomena. However, he warns that by buying into and believing in mental concepts (‘rousing your conditioned mind’), we have already made the cardinal mistake, entered into the world of suffering, and seemingly obscured that which cannot be obscured.

If you want to pass through easily and directly right now, just let your body and mind become thoroughly empty, so it is vacant and silent yet aware and luminous. Inwardly, forget all your conceptions of self, and outwardly, cut off all sensory defilements. When inside and outside are clear all the way through, there is just one true reality. Then eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and conceptual mind, form, sound, smell, flavor, touch, and conceptualized phenomena – all of these are established based on that one reality. This one reality stands free of and transcends all the myriad entangling phenomena. The myriad phenomena have never had any fixed characteristics – they are all transformations based on this light.

The method is to let everything go, let go of body and mind, forget everything so the mind is ’empty and vacant and silent’. However we are not to fall asleep. The mind should remain awake, ‘aware and luminous’.
To elaborate and be more specific, we are instructed inwardly to ‘forget all conceptions of self’. This is to remove the basic error of belief in separation. We are to forget about the distinction between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’, or between ‘me’ and ‘the world’, both of which depend on a concept of self.
Outwardly we are instructed to ‘cut off all sensory defilements’, which essentially means the compulsive or ego-driven desires which Yuanwu will touch upon later in this letter. These sensory defilements are themselves contingent on ‘conceptions of self’, but it is important to cut these off too as due to force of habit they may persist even when the illusory separation is seen through. Hence the need for practice.
Yuanwu now beautifully describes the fruit of this practice and in having faith in what is realised:

If you can trust in this oneness, then with one comprehended, and with one illuminated, all are illuminated. Then in whatever you do, it can all be the indestructible true essence of great liberation from top to bottom.

Thus far Yuanwu has instructed the reader how to realise the all-pervading yet unchanging essence, and also to realise that perceived life if non-separate from this essence. Now he goes further to explain what we should do once this essential mind has been realised.
Note that so far he has used the words ‘fundamental ground’, ‘fundamental basis’, ‘mind’, ‘inner heart’, ‘true reality’, ‘oneness’, and ‘essence’ all as synonyms to beautifully point to that-which-has-no-name. Here, in the next passage he refers to it as ‘mind’:

You must awaken to this mind first, and afterward cultivate all forms of good. Haven’t you seen this story? The renowned poet Bo Juyi asked the Bird’s Nest Monk, “What is the Way?” The Bird’s Nest Monk said “Don’t do any evils, do all forms of good.” Bo Juyi said “Even a three-year-old could say this.” The Bird’s Nest Monk said, “Though a three-year-old might be able to say it, an eighty-year-old might not be able to carry it out.”

This is a classic teaching of insight first, followed by cultivation or purification. Realisation of the fundamental essence which remains untouched is good as a start, but without purifying the mind or ‘cultivating goodness’, the enlightenment is not complete. The age-old habitual afflictions may otherwise continue. At worst they can wrestle away the realisation resulting in a ‘I got it! I lost it’ syndrome where the seeker goes back and forth wondering why their realisation of yesterday is not firm and secure, and at best the afflictions continue and this causes suffering and discomfort in the relative phenomenal world, both to the seeker and those around him/her.
Purification or ‘cultivation of all forms of good’ can occur prior to and/or after realisation of the fundamental essence (a part of the insight teachings, as I teach them), but can only gain deeper fruition post-realisation when the illusion of separation is starting to be seen through.
Yuanwu continues:

Thus we must search out our faults and cultivate practice; this is like the eyes and the feet depending on each other. If you are able to refrain from doing any evil and refine your practice of the many forms of good, even if you only uphold the elementary forms of discipline and virtue, you will be able to avoid sinking down to the of animals, hungry ghosts and hell-beings. This is even more the case if you first awaken to the indestructible essence of the wondrous, illuminated true mind and after that cultivate practice to the best of your ability and carry out all forms of virtuous conduct.

Yuanwu reiterates the same point again, stating that we should actively find our faults and seek to remedy them. This is the case prior to awakening-to-essence, but even more effective once awakening has occurred.

Let no one be deluded about cause and effect. You must realize that the causal basis of the hells and the heavens is all formed by your own inherent mind.

Here Yuanwu is talking about karma, or cause and effect, stating that it is nothing but our own minds and our afflictions (or lack of them) that will create our future ‘hells and heavens’.
Next Yuanwu goes into more details on how to cultivate this good, or how to purify the mind:

You must keep this mind balanced and in equanimity, without deluded ideas of self and others, without arbitrary loves and hates, without grasping and rejecting, without notions of gain and loss. Go on gradually nurturing this for a long time, perhaps twenty or thirty years. Whether you encounter favorable or adverse conditions, do not retreat or regress—then when you come to the juncture between life and death [the last moment of your life], you will naturally be set free and not be afraid. As the saying goes “Truth requires sudden awakening, but the phenomenal level calls for gradual cultivation”.

This instruction is similar to Krishna’s injunction to Arjuna in Chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita when he states that ‘yoga is evenness of mind’. Yuanwu reiterates the importance of being equanimous and again not to engage in concepts of self (and others), and the outward manifestation of this as love/hate, grasping/rejecting, loss/gain.
Whilst awakening to the essence is sudden, changes on the phenomenal level take time. Therefore ‘go on nurturing this for a long time’.
This last line, which I have bolded, is one of my favourites. Yuanwu nicely captures in words something I have often struggles to articulate: ‘Truth requires sudden awakening, but the phenomenal level calls for gradual cultivation’. Beautiful!. 
Next Yuanwu goes on to warn against an intellectual egoic approach that he sees all too commonly. In his other letters he also warns against an overly sentimental or emotional approach too, and recommends ‘forgetting thoughts and feelings and finding independent realisation’ (Letter entitled Leaping out of the Pit, p. 78). Again, the solution is to remain inwardly quiet in mind and not to just dabble in conceptual understanding:

I often see those who are trying to study Buddhism just use their worldly intelligence to sift among the verbal teachings of the buddhas and ancestral teachers, trying to pick out especially wondrous sayings to use as conversation pieces to display their ability and understanding. This is not the correct view of the matter. You must abandon your worldly mentality and sit quietly with mind silent. Forget entangling causes and investigate with your whole being. When you are thoroughly clear then whatever you bring forth from your own inexhaustible treasury of priceless jewels is sure to be genuine and real.

Next is a summary: awaken to essence, then cultivate good: arouse compassion, have no (inward) concept of self/others, remove (outward) attachments. Then wisdom will manifest.

So first you must awaken to the Fundamental and clearly see the true essence where mind equals Buddha. Detach from all false entanglements and become free and clean. After that, respectfully practice all forms of good, and arouse great compassion to bring benefits to all sentient beings. In all that you do, be even and balanced and attuned to the inherent equality of all things – be selfless and have no attachments. When wondrous wisdom manifests itself and you penetrate through to the basic essence, all your deeds will be wonder-working. Thus it is said, ‘Just manage to accept the truth – you won’t be deceived.”

Implicit in this is that ‘wondrous wisdom’ has not yet manifested when the Fundamental Essence has been realised. The ‘wondrous wisdom’ requires both realisation of the Fundamental essence (what in my teachings I call insight) together with a removal of all that is not good (what I call purification in the way I teach).

Make enlightenment your standard, and don’t feel bad if it is slow in coming. Take care!

Here ends this wonderful letter from Yuanwu!
He reminds the student not to desire anything less than full and complete enlightenment. Yes, it may take time, but do not be disheartened and get to work now!
My gratitude to Yuanwu, his student, the translators who made the reading of this text in English possible, and to all other beings and objects that contributed towards this wonderful expression. I hope you have found it, and my commentary, of benefit.
Wishing you peace.

Zen story: a cup of tea

zen tea cup chan

As some of you know, I love a good zen story, and this one is one of my favourites – not to mention that it is a classic.

Since I’ve started teaching and sharing this realisation, I can doubly appreciate how important this teaching is. So many seekers come loaded with their preconceived ideas, and it makes the simple essence difficult to pierce through. This version of the story is taken from the wonderful book ‘Zen Flesh, Zen Bones’ compiled by Paul Reps, and is the first of the Zen stories given – and with good reason too. Here is it:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. ‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’

‘Like this cup,’ Nan-in said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’

Empty your cup completely, then insight can arise by itself, naturally and spontaneously. Empty yourself completely.

The ‘middle way’ between eternalism and nihilism

nagarjuna buddhism tibetan
Nagarjuna as depicted in Tibetan Buddhism

In Mahayana and Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism, our True Nature (also known as Buddha nature, Reality, Mind, Ground, Knowledge, Awareness, etc.) is said to be beyond all concepts and all definitions. Typically this is expanded upon as follows:

Mind/True Nature is beyond all concepts or philosophical notions:
1. It cannot be said to ‘exist’
2. It cannot be said to ‘not exist’
3. It cannot be said to ‘both exist and not exist’
4. It cannot be said to ‘neither exist or not exist’

As far as I’m aware, the first Buddhist commentator to put it in these terms was Nagarjuna, who wrote a much more comprehensive analysis along these lines in around 200 years BCE in his text Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mula-madhamaka-karika). Since Nagarjuna, countless other Buddhist schools including most of the Tibetan Buddhist schools, have also adopted this phrasing in order to help steer themselves away from the danger or wrong/false conceptual views.

If we adopt this understanding, we are safeguarded against wrong views and the suffering that results from that. Many philosophical or spiritual systems fall into one of more of these traps. For example, by positing some kind of True Nature that definitely exists (ie. point 1), we can fall into the trap of eternalism in which we (the ego) cling to a concept of (belief in) an eternal permanent essence or self. Or we can go to the opposite extreme and say there is no essence of Mind or True Nature (point 2), which is nihilism, saying that there is no ‘me’ or ‘essence of me’ at all.

…we can fall into the trap of Eternalism in which we cling to a concept of an eternal permanent essence or self…Or we can go to the opposite extreme of Nihilism and say there is no True Nature…that there is no ‘me’ or ‘essence of me’ at all.

However, the analysis does not stop there. It goes on to warn about those who cling to the concept that ‘our True Nature/Mind is beyond both existence and non-existence’ (point 3). This is really a belief in a type of transcendence, which is really just believing in another type of existent permanent self, and so we have unwittingly fallen back into eternalism again.

Lastly Nagarjuna says you also cannot cling to the view that the true nature is ‘none of the above’. Basically Nagarjuna leaves us with nowhere to stand at all. The ego-mind is constantly trying to find a conceptual position on which it can lay its hat, but Nagarjuna has removed all the pegs from the hat-stand!

Basically Nagarjuna leaves us with nowhere to stand at all. The ego-mind is constantly trying to find a conceptual position on which it can lay its hat, but Nagarjuna has removed all the pegs from the hat-stand!

Nagarjuna called this the ‘middle way’ between eternalism and nihilism, or Madhamaka, and a new Madhamaka school of Buddhism was founded upon this work. Note this is different from the middle way of the original Buddha whose middle way between extreme asceticism/self-mortification and addiction to indulging in sense pleasures.

Nagarjuna also warns us that this ‘middle way’ itself should not be lent upon as some kind of truth where the ego can safely hang its hat.

Nagarjuna also warns us that this ‘middle way’ itself should not be lent upon as some kind of truth where the ego can safely hang its hat.

The purpose of this exposition is to allow us to see how we cling to concepts and then remove these false views/beliefs. Like all Buddhist teachings, when the job of the teaching is done, in this case when the false beliefs have been seen for what they are, we should also let go of the teaching and not rest on this either: ‘The essence of mind is beyond all concepts and definitions’.

The subject (the Witness/ Awareness/ Pure Consciousness) is an inference

All we know are objects. The existence of a subject (eg. the witness or consciousness/awareness) is an inference, a belief.

Some versed in advaita-speak then counter by asking ‘Who/what is it that knows this?’. The problem is that the very question ‘who knows’ is based on the belief that there must be a subject, a knower.

It’s similar to an argument for the existence of God in which people say look at all this marvelous creation, who is the creator? Of course, the assumption is there must be a creator, a subject who creates, and this is a false assumption (ie. it is based on false logic).

Inference does not always work as a way of understanding and knowing things, as it is only as good as the logic that underpins it. We could go on with other examples of this faulty logic in which the notions of a subject is unnecessarily believed in: Who blows the wind? Who quakes the earth? Who grows the trees?

Now strictly speaking, we are not saying there is no subject, just as we are not saying there is no God. We are just saying there is no evidence for either of these, and therefore no need to believe one way or the other in a subject.

What we are left with is ‘what is’ or ‘life’ or ‘experience’. It all just happens. It’s already happening. Everything is a part of IT.

So simple, direct, and already fully known (seen), but in essence it is mysterious and uncapturable by words.

There is a great freedom in seeing this.

A complete teaching: Relax. Listen to the beat of the drum.



Listen to the beat of the drum.

There’s no-one here!

Tom Das

This pithy statement actually encapsulates the entire teaching. How? Let me explain:


This refers to generating peace, and relaxation primarily of the mind. Like a dense fog clearing in the heat of the morning sun, allowing the mind to calm and thoughts to lessen gives rise to the conditions in which clarity of seeing-understanding can arise.

As we practice being peaceful, we naturally become happier: a warmth in our heart naturally blossoms as our addictive pleasure-seeking desires weaken and fade. We learn to be happy where we are, and then we pass beyond the need for the body-mind to even be happy or at peace. Gradually compusive desires fall away and we no longer suffer if we do not receive what we want. Our compulsive desires fade, and only preferences remain.


This refers to the insight part of the teaching, the essence of the teaching. It is clear seeing-understanding. As the morning fog clears, things can be seen for what they are, as they are, brightly illuminated by the sun of knowledge/insight/understanding.

…to the beat of the drum.

What do we listen to? What are we looking at? The drum can represent the body-mind entity, an object in the world, or just a simple drum. The point is to see things as they are. As the drum beats, we can watch it, hear it, follow its mechanism.

We can see how there is nobody inside the drum making a noise. We can see how the sound is an automatic  reflexive response when the skin is struck with the striking implement. We can see how the drum is empty, and the resonance within the empty space (full of air) creates the reverberating sound.

We can see how this is true of all things, how all things act and function without there being a separate doer-entity that initiates and creates its actions. Rather there is a natural spontaneously self-expressing interdependence and non-separation.

There’s no-one here!

Like the drum, we are essentially empty, meaning there is no trace whatsoever of a separate individual doer/self. This is the essential realisation of freedom.

It is not that the appearance of the body-mind goes or changes, or that you lose the experiential perspective of being a particular body-mind. No. Perception from the apparent perspective of the body-mind remains.

The term ‘no-one’ refers specifically to no-doer. It is the seeing that there never was a separate doer-entity. It is seeing that this doer was created by thought, it was imagined by thought and believed to exist by thought.

A summary

Through generating peace (Relax…) the grip of thought was loosened, through observing (Listen…) things were examined with the intention of seeing things (…the drum…) as they are. Comparing what is seen against the content of our thoughts, it is revealed that the concept of doership does not accurately reflect the reality of what is perceived: there is no doer.

The concept of doership has been operating for so long within most of us. It is this concept that causes our suffering. The understanding that there is no-doer can then act to root out the concept of doership and remove suffering.

What we are left with is what was always here: this. It doesn’t have to be named, you don’t have to put it in words, you don’t have to carve it up using the knife of concepts (although you can if yo want). It’s just whatever’s happening, spontaneously arising, however it arises.



Buddha: How to approach the teachings


Going back to the Pali suttas, the Buddha also repeatedly warned against being attached to any particular teaching or teaching tradition:

‘Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘This ascetic is our teacher.’
AN 3.65 Kesaputti [Kālāma] Sutta

This really is quite a stark warning, and we could see this as a very ‘modern’ and scientific way of approaching this search for freedom from suffering.

The above text is an except taken from a larger article: Buddhism: How enlightenment happens

Buddhism: How enlightenment happens

Buddha statue.jpg

If you read the earlier Buddhist texts (the Pali Suttas) you get a very different feel of the Buddha’s teachings compared to the systematised versions of Buddhism that are often more prominently on display today. It becomes apparent that the Buddha taught in different ways to different people and that the true Dhamma (teaching) cannot be grasped.

The eight-fold path that we most often hear about was very probably a central and important part of the Buddha’s teaching, and a truly wonderful teaching in my view, but it is clear that many people came to enlightenment in various ways according to the suttas (Buddhist texts).

We read that some attained enlightenment without practising, and some attained enlightenment simply upon hearing the Buddha speak. Some had a great awakening before practice, and then a practice naturally developed afterwards. Others followed the more traditional way of engaging with spiritual ppractiss first and then attaining arahantship (full enlightenment) afterwards. The fact that arahantship was preceded by many years of practice for the Buddha himself may have affected the way he taught. However the suttas indicate that the Buddha realised that not all came to the Dhamma in the same way. In the Yuganaddha Sutta, Ananda explains the 4 main ways arahantship can arise:

Venerable Ananda said: “Friends, whoever — monk or nun — declares the attainment of arahantship in my presence, they all do it by means of one or another of four paths. Which four?
“There is the case where a monk has developed insight preceded by tranquility…He follows the path, developing it & pursuing it — his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.
“Then there is the case where a monk has developed tranquility preceded by insight…He follows that path…his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.
“Then there is the case where a monk has developed tranquility in tandem with insight…He follows that path…his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.
“Then there is the case where a monk’s mind has its restlessness concerning the Dhamma well under control. There comes a time when his mind grows steady inwardly, settles down, and becomes unified & concentrated. In him the path is born. He follows that path, develops it, pursues it. As he follows the path, developing it & pursuing it — his fetters are abandoned, his obsessions destroyed.”
“Whoever — monk or nun — declares the attainment of arahantship in my presence, they all do it by means of one or another of these four paths.”

You can see here that two aspects of the teaching become very prominent, namely that of achieving tranquility and that of insight. The key is that both are required, but the order in which they are achieved varies. Some naturally are drawn towards becoming more tranquil and insight comes later. Others are more drawn to understanding and insight first and it is this insight that leads to tranquility as ‘fetters are abandoned’ and ‘obsessions destroyed’.

I explain in more detail what is meant by tranquility and insight here, but briefly insight is seeing there is no separate self (anatta in Pali), specifically that there is no separate doer entity. Tranquility when it is cultivated before insight usually refers to the lessening of thoughts and increasing of peace which in turn paves the way for insight. Tranquility after insight usually means a purification of the mind which naturally happens after insight; rather than reducing thoughts, this is the tranquility of freedom, of not being bothered by thoughts or circumstances and not depending on the mind, body or world (ie. anything) for one’s happiness.

In later Buddhist developments many schools developed ‘enlightenment first, practice later’ schools of teaching, notably in the Mahayana traditions, a prime example being Korean Zen master Chinul (1158-1210):

‘There are many avenues of entry into the Way…Sages since time immemorial have all first awakened then cultivated practice, attaining experiential proof based on practice.’
Chinul, Secrets of Cultivating the Mind, verses 19-20
‘If a real teacher points out a way of entry for you, and for a single instant you turn your attention around, you see your own original essence. This essence originally has no afflictions; uncontaminated wisdom is inherently complete in it. Then you are no different from the Buddhas; thus it is called sudden enlightenment.
As for gradual practice, having suddenly realised fundamental essence, no different from Buddha, beginningless mental habits are hard to get rid of all at once. Therefore one cultivates practice based on enlightenment, gradually cultivating the attainment to perfection, nurturing the embryo of sagehood to maturity. Eventually, after a long time, one becomes a sage; therefore it is called gradual practice. It is like an infant, which has all the normal faculties at birth, but as yet undeveloped; only with the passage of years does it become an adult.
Question: By what expedient means can we turn our minds around instantly to realise our inherent essence?
Answer: It is just your own mind; what further expedient means would you apply?’
Chinul, Secrets of Cultivating the Mind, verses 27-30

Chinul talks about the importance of first recognising your true original essence first (insight) before using this insight to purify the mind (tranquility after insight). As a slight aside, this line of thought is prevalent in Mahayana Buddhism and was later incorporated into Vedanta by Gaudapada and Shankara, giving rise to Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta, which in many ways is more similar to Mahayana Buddhism than to other schools of vedanta which are more firmly footed in the Upanishads, the source texts of vedanta.

Going back to the Pali suttas, the Buddha also repeatedly warned against being attached to any particular teaching or teaching tradition:

‘Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘This ascetic is our teacher.’
AN 3.65 Kesaputti [Kālāma] Sutta

This really is quite a stark warning, and we could see this as a very ‘modern’ and scientific way of approaching this search for freedom from suffering. Again in the Atthaavagga, perhaps the earliest of all the Buddhist texts we know of, the Buddha warns about having any fixed views:

Atthaavagga, Chapter 6
5. Having abandoned what was acquired, not taking up anything, he would not be in dependence even upon knowledge. He truly is not a partisan among the schoolmen; he does not fall back on any view at all.
Atthaavagga, Chapter 10
7. He does not train himself through desire of gain, and he is not upset at lack of gain. He is not opposed to craving, nor is he greedy for savory stimulations.
8. An indifferent onlooker, always mindful, He imagines nothing in the world to be equal, nor superior, nor lower. For him there are no distinguished positions.
14. He for whom there is nothing his own in the world, and who does not sorrow over what is not there, And who does not go by philosophies— He truly is said to be “at peace.”

The Buddha stresses non-clinging, including non-clinging to doctrines, teachings, knowledge and points of view. In fact the Atthaavagga goes even further. Most of the very earliest Buddhist texts do not even mention the four noble truths, let alone the eight-fold path (which is the fourth truth of the four noble truths).

The Atthaavagga appears to go further here by denying much of what is commonly taught. We are not to find this deeper ‘truth’ through seeing, hearing or by any kind of knowledge. We are not to cling to morality or purity, nor their opposites. We are to depend on nothing. Of course, reading the following lines and having insight into them reveals a core ‘truth’, a more sublime Dhamma that is not opposed to the classic eight-fold path at all:

3. [The Buddha said:] There is nothing of which I say, “I declare this,”…But looking among the views, not taking hold of anything, examining, I saw inner peace.
4. [The questioner responds:]…This “inner peace,” whatever it means, How is it made known by the wise?
5. [The Buddha said:] Not by what is viewed, not by what is heard, not by inner knowledge…nor by morality and observances is purity said to be; by absence of what is viewed, by absence of what is heard, by non-knowledge, by amorality, by nonobservance—also not by that. So having let go of these, not taking hold of anything, A peaceful one, not being dependent, would not have longings for existence.
6. [The questioner responds:] Then I imagine that to be a confused philosophy indeed. Some do rely on purity by view.
7. [the Buddha responds:]And having depended upon view, enquiring…you have become confounded by what you have seized upon; And so you have not seen the slightest sense in this. Therefore you hold it to be confused.

So where does this leave us? Should we practice according to a path, or instead cultivate insight and wisdom? I answer this in more detail in this article, but for now, let’s go back to the Korean Zen Master Chinul for the last word:

To practice spontaneous concentration and insight is the sudden approach, using effortless effort, both operative yet both tranquil, spontaneously cultivation intrinsic essence, naturally fulfilling the Way of Buddhas.
To practice formal concentration and insight is the gradual approach taken before enlightenment by those of lesser potential, using curative work, striving to direct each thought toward cutting off confusion and grasping quietude.
…Among those who are suited to the sudden approach, there are also those whose potentials are superior and those whose potentials are inferior. Thus their practice cannot be judged by the same standard.
As for those whose afflictions are slight, who are light and easy in body and mind, who are detached from good in the midst of good and detached from evil in the midst of evil…they rely on spontaneous concentration and insight, which they cultivate simultaneously without effort, naturally real and uncontrived, always in meditation whether active or still, and fulfill the design of nature. Why should they pursue formal practices for curative purposes? When there is no illness, one does not seek medicine.
As for those who, in spite of having first realised sudden awakening, have deep afflictions and rigid mental habits…it is appropriate for them to make provisional use of formal concentration and insight.
Chinul, Secrets of Cultivating the Mind, verses 88-92

Poetry: no way to talk about this

crescent moon.jpg

When this is seen,
It is seen there are so many ways to talk about this,
So many ways to guide others to this,
So many helpful ways,
– yet all of them false.

All ways are false,
All descriptions are false.
The Truth cannot be contained in words:
The best teaching is whatever works.

No self, True self, or just Self?
Freedom, Enlightenment or Bliss?
Emptiness, Fullness, or Infinite?
Personal, impersonal, or no story at all?
Duality, non-duality? Both, neither?

All can be helpful concepts pointing the way,

The proverbial finger points at the moon,
Don’t cling to the finger!


Buddha: Why do spiritual people fight with each other?

buddha side.jpg

“Why is it that, Master Kaccana, that ascetics fight with ascetics?”
“It is, brahmins, because of attachment to views, adherence to views , fixation on views, addiction to views, obsession with views, holding firmly to views that ascetics fight with ascetics.”
Anguttara Nikaya

Today’s spiritual scene is in many ways the same as it has always been: while some people wake up to things as they are and go beyond words and scripture, others stay fixed in their views, cling to their scriptures and concepts, and in doing so remain stuck in suffering and samsara.

So, why are so many spiritual people arguing with each other? Master Kaccana was one of the Buddha’s main disciples and was said to be the most skilled in espousing the dhamma (the teaching). He says it simply: people are wedded to their concepts, their views, their scriptures and their ideas, and that is why they fight with each other.

The true dhamma cannot be spoken. The true teacher knows their words are ultimately untrue and that words are merely conceptual pointers, indicators, and not descriptions of what is. The true teacher is not wedded to a particular teaching method, or a particular form of words, and naturally adapts the teaching to the situation at hand. A single word, a prescription for practice, a gesture, a glance, a lecture: the teaching comes to us in many forms.

If we truly listen, the living teacher constantly teaches the living teaching. The teaching is inseparable from our hearts and the life we find ourselves living: it is none other than daily life.

The teaching is here, already. Are we open to it?