Zen Master Huang Po: the true teaching

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Q: Up to now, you have refuted everything which has been said. You have done nothing to point out the true Dharma [the true teaching, the true way] to us.

Huang Po: In the true Dharma there is no confusion, but you produce confusion by such questions. What sort of ‘true Dharma’ can you go seeking for?

Q: Since the confusion arises from my questions, what – will Your Reverence’s answer be?

Huang Po: Observe things as they are and don’t pay attention to other people. There are some people just like mad dogs barking at everything that moves, even barking when the wind stirs among the grass and leaves.’

Taken from The Zen Teaching of Huang Po (Chun Chou record no. 28)

Tom’s comments:

The questioner appears frustrated at not being able to obtain anything tangible from Huang Po. ‘What is the true teaching? What is The Way?’, he asks.

The master replies: you yourself create the confusion, the questions being evidence of this. Is there even a ‘true Dharma’ to be sought?

The answer? Just be with what is, see things as they are, don’t worry about the words and ideas of others caught up in their own illusions and fears.


4 things you (may) need before you can be enlightened

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Over the centuries, the lives of countless enlightened and self-realised sages have been studied and investigated, contrasting how they were prior to and after enlightenment, searching for clues as to what may aid other seekers in reaching total and complete liberation. Through this investigation several common qualities have been found which, if developed, aid the spiritual seeker to reach their goal.

In Vedanta, traditionally, there are four qualities (sadhana catustaya in Sanskrit) that a person should cultivate prior to engaging with the higher teachings of vedanta. These qualities, or qualifications,  are deemed necessary to have, at least in some degree, before enlightenment can subsequently be achieved.

A similar notion that a certain level of attainment or qualification is required before higher teachings are taught are found throughout spiritual traditions, including many ‘no-path’ schools such as Dzogchen, Mahamudra and Zen (all types of Buddhism).

The idea is that without these qualities being present the seeker may have many insights and epiphanies, but the results will be unstable, with insights often coming and going, the results being a continued sense of lack and frustration. In a more mature seeker this may result in so-called ‘flip-flopping’, when the seeker has repeated experiences of being enlightened only to find, much to their dismay, that these experiences also end and suffering resumes.

The idea is that without these qualities being present the seeker may have many insights and epiphanies, but the results will be unstable, with insights often coming and going, the results being a continued sense of lack and frustration.

Conversely, when a seeker has developed these qualities, when exposed to the higher teachings of vedanta they make quick progress and quickly attain moksha (Freedom), which does not come and go.

Below Shankara, that great proponent of advaita vedanta (non-duality), tells us that these qualities are more important than other factors in attaining moksha. This quote is taken a text attributed to Shankara called vivekachudamani, one of his most famous texts and one of my favourites when I was a seeker:

Ultimate success in spiritual endeavours depends chiefly upon the qualifications of the seeker. Auxiliary conveniences such as time and place all have a place indeed, but they are essentially secondary.
Vivekachudamani by Adi Shankara, verse 14

The 4 Qualities (sadhana catustaya)

Here are the 4 qualities, sometimes known as the ‘4 Ds’, (with the Sankrit word in brackets):

  1. Discrimination (viveka): being able to tell the difference between what is permanent and what is transient
  2. Dispassion (vairagya): not desiring what is transient/impermanent; turing away from the impermanent towards what is permanent
  3. Discipline (samadisatkasampatti): dropping trivial activities and turning towards the teaching and what is permanent.(Samadisatkasampatti  more literally refers to the six treasures, each of which will be discussed in later posts).
  4. Desire for freedom (mumuksutvam): this helps overcomes the ups and downs that life may bring and enables the seeker to overcome obstacles along the way.

There are several texts that outline these 4 qualities, perhaps the most succinct being Shankara’s Vivekachudamani which I have already mentioned above:

17. He alone is considered qualified to inquire after the supreme Reality (Brahman), who has discrimination, detachment, qualities of calmness etc., and a burning desire for liberation.
18. Great sages have spoken of four qualifications for attainment which, when present, succeed in the realization of Brahman and in the absence of which the goal is not attained.
Vivekachudamani by Adi Shankara, verses 17 & 18

Risk Factors vs qualifications

Before we look at each of the qualities in turn (in forthcoming articles), I would like to give my view. I don’t think these qualities are definite prerequisites for Freedom or self-realisation, important as they are. I think of them more as risk factors – ie. there may be an increased risk of enlightenment if these qualities are cultivated. Having the qualities does not guarantee enlightenment, and not having them does not bar one from Freedom.

It should be obvious really, but just because a particular tradition states something is necessary, doesn’t mean it is so – that’s my take on things at least. For me this Freedom is so simple, beyond simple actually, as it already is, that the whole notion of qualifications seems a bit arbitrary.

That being said, I do think they are of importance, and understanding and practising them will benefit many seekers, both in terms of increasing their day-to-day happiness, and in  terms of realising Freedom.

It has been said that this knowledge of the four qualities required for enlightement has come about by looking at and studying the lives of hundreds of spiritual seekers and knowers-of-Freedom (Jnanis) and seeing if they had anything in common. When we go through each of the four qualities I hope that you will be able to see, in a commonsense way, how these qualities work together and the principles that underlie them, and how they can indeed aid the attainment of moksha (the realisation of Freedom).

At the same time I feel it is important that we bear in mind that there are also inherent problems with the notion of qualifications which must also be understood if one is to engage with them effectively, namely that the very idea of a progressive path to Freedom (implied by the need for qualifications) can itself be an obstacle to realising that-which-already-is.

I will explore each of the above 4D’s in turn in forthcoming articles.

Zen Buddhist Master Yuanwu: Ordinary everyday enlightenment

yuanwu letters

There are no mundane things outside Buddhism,

and there is no Buddhism outside mundane things


Tom’s comments:

Before we are spiritual seekers, there is just ordinary life. Whilst we are seekers, we learn about and may experience wonderful supernatural things such as mystic visions, psychic phenomena, other-worldly states of consciousness and bliss. We may seek transcendence and escape from the things of everyday life. When the truth is seen, all we are left with is this, just this, completely ordinary, ‘mundane’.

Sure it’s wonderful too, but there’s no getting away from the ordinariness of it all: wherever we look, wherever we go, whatever we do, it is here/there, always. What is more ordinary than that!

The ordinariness of my ‘enlightenment experience’:

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.

Crystal clear: Zen practice instructions from Yuanwu

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Just do not give birth to a single thought: let go and become crystal clear.

As soon as any notions of right and wrong and self and others and gain and loss are present, do not follow them off.

Then you will be personally studying with your own true enlightened teacher.

Yuanwu (1063-1135)

Taken from ‘Zen Letters: The Teachings of Yuanwu’ p. 50

Shunryu Suzuki: How to achieve perfect calm

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The following is an excerpt from the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki:

If you want to obtain perfect calmness in your zazen, you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come, and let them go. Then they will be under control. But this policy is not so easy. It sounds easy, but it requires some special effort. How to make this kind of effort is the secret of practice.

Suppose you are sitting under some extraordinary circumstances. If you try to calm your mind you will be unable to sit, and if you try not to be disturbed, your effort will not be the right effort. The only effort that will help you is to count your breathing, or to concentrate on your inhaling and exhaling. We say concentration, but to concentrate your mind on something is not the true purpose of Zen. The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes. This is to put everything under control in its widest sense.

The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes.

Zen practice is to open up our small mind. So concentrating is just an aid to help you realise ‘big mind’, or the mind that is everything.

If you want to discover the true meaning of Zen in your everyday life, you have to understand the meaning of keeping your mind on your breathing and your body in the right posture in zazen.

You should follow the rules of practice and your study should become more subtle and careful. Only in this way can you experience the vital freedom of Zen.

Tibetan Buddhism: Free and Easy by Gendun Rinpoche

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This is a beautiful and profound ‘vajra poem’. It was given spontaneously by Gendun Rinpoche, a late Tibetan Buddhist rinpoche (‘precious teacher’), during a talk to his disciples. A book of his teachings called Heart Advice from a Mahamudra Master is highly recommended and teaches all the essentials of Tibetan Buddhism from someone who has a genuine experience of the truth that lies behind the words. Sometimes expositions of Tibetan Buddhism become overly structured and conceptual, but Gendun Rinpoche has a way of not only teaching the concepts, but also of indicating that which is beyond concepts and is also immediate and vital.

Happiness can not be found
through great effort and willpower,
but is already present,
in open relaxation and letting go.

Don’t strain yourself,
there is nothing to do or undo.
Whatever momentarily arises
in the body-mind
has no real importance at all,
has little reality whatsoever.
Why identify with,
and become attached to it,
passing judgement upon it and ourselves?

Far better to simply
let the entire game happen on its own,
springing up and falling back like waves
without changing or manipulating anything
and notice how everything vanishes and reappears, magically,
again and again, time without end.

Only our searching for happiness
prevents us from seeing it.
It’s like a vivid rainbow which you pursue
without ever catching,
or a dog chasing its own tail.

Although peace and happiness
do not exist as an actual thing or place,
it is always available
and accompanies you every instant.

Don’t believe in the reality of good and bad experiences;
they are like today’s ephemeral weather,
like rainbows in the sky.

Wanting to grasp the ungraspable,
you exhaust yourself in vain.
As soon as you open and relax
this tight fist of grasping,
infinite space is there –
open, inviting and comfortable.

Make use of this spaciousness,
this freedom and natural ease.
Don’t search any further
looking for the great awakened elephant,
who is already resting quietly at home
in front of your own hearth.

Nothing to do or undo,
nothing to force,
nothing to want,
and nothing missing –

Emaho! Marvellous!
Everything happens by itself.

Not mine


Nothing is mine.
I did not create
This world,
This body,
Or this mind,
With its thoughts.

They were all given to me.
Yes – even my thoughts were given to me.

None of it has anything to do with me.

Then I look at the ‘me’:
There is no me.
Only this,
None of it mine,
All of it moving.

Tibetan Buddhism: The Mind Instructions of Khenpo Gangshar


Above is an excerpt from a text called ‘The Concise Mind Instructions Called Naturally Liberating Whatever You Meet’ by Khenpo Gangshar, as found in the book Vivid Awareness by Khenchen Thrangu.

In this short text Khenpo Gangshar goes on to say:

Directly, whatever arises, do not change it – rest naturally. This fulfils the essence of all creation stages, completion stages, mantra recitations, and meditations.

This is the heart of the highest Tibetan Buddhist teachings: to rest naturally and be vividly aware. Just be. I would add that in this no sense of self is being created, and this is the practice. To simply be, and not to take yourself as being a ‘self’ or ‘doer’. To use a commonly used phrase in vedanta: do not take yourself to be ‘this or that’.

Khenpo Gangshar goes on to give advice on how to deal with difficulties along the way:

You must take sickness as the path, afflictions as the path, the bardo as the path, and delusion as the path. The heart of all these applications is to rest naturally in the essence.

This advice is very much in line with most of traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachings, but here it is stated in very concise form. When difficulties come along, just rest in your natural being. Don’t identify as being ‘this or that’, don’t start to create or believe in the concept of being a doer. This is the false concept that is rooted out and seen through in this practice.

When life throws us a challenge, don’t simply fall back into your old habits of self-identification. It is from this creation of an imaginary doer/self that all other afflictions and suffering follows. Instead, just rest, just be. Let your awareness shine, let it shine brightly. If the thought ‘I’ arises, let it, notice it, notice that it is empty and does not describe or pertain to any reality. There is no ‘I’, there is no self. Only the bright expanse of phenomena.

One final thought from me, a question:
Does any of this have anything to do with Freedom? Does Freedom depend on any practice? Does Freedom depend on any of this?