Zen Buddhism

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Bodhidharma denied the existence of Good and Evil; but it was pointed out by later apologists that the Zen adept, having viewed the Absolute, is convinced of the unreality and futility of those pleasures and possessions which are the incentive to sin. The Zen practicant, though he makes no moral effort, nevertheless is certain not to sin, because he is certain not to be tempted.

Finally, Zen forged itself a tradition. Probably during the eleventh century a Scripture[5] was fabricated which recounts how once when Buddha was preaching, he plucked a flower and smiled. Only the disciple Kshyapa understood the significance of this act. Between him and the Buddha there passed a wordless communication of Absolute Truths. This communication was silently passed on by Kshyapa to his disciple, and so ultimately to Bodhidharma, who brought it to China.

The method of teaching by symbolic acts (such as the plucking of a flower) was extensively used by the Zen masters. For example, when a disciple asked Enkwan a question about[15] the nature of Buddha, he answered, "Bring me a clean bowl." When the priest brought the bowl, the master said, "Now put it back where you found it." He signified that the priest's questionings must return to their proper place, the questioner's heart, from which alone spiritual knowledge can be obtained.

The object of the Zen teachers, as of some eccentric schoolmasters whom I have known, seems at first sight to have been merely to puzzle and surprise their pupils to the highest possible degree. A peculiar "brusquerie" was developed in Zen monasteries. The literature of the sect consists chiefly in an endless series of anecdotes recording the minutest happenings in the lives of famous Zen monks and their (apparently) most trivial sayings. But behind these trifling acts and sayings a deep meaning lay hid. The interpretation of such teaching depends on a complete knowledge of the symbolism used. I am not inclined to agree with those students of Zen who assert that its written teaching are wholly devoid of intellectual content or so completely esoteric as not to admit of explanation in words. Like other Buddhist philosophers the Zen masters were chiefly concerned with the attempt to define the relation between the One and the Many, between the subjective and objective aspects of life.

The idealism of Zen does not mean that the phenomenal world has no importance. To those who have not reached complete self-realisation the urgencies of that world remain paramount and are the only stepping-stones upon which he can climb higher.

On the day of his arrival at the monastery a novice presented himself before the abbot, begging to be allowed to begin his spiritual exercises without further delay. "Have you had supper?" asked the abbot. "Yes." "Then go and wash your plate."


Let us begin with En, a master of the seventh century. He lost his parents when he was young and earned his living by gathering firewood. One day when he was in the market-place he heard some one reading the Diamond Stra.[6] He[16] asked where such books were to be had and was told "From Master Knin on the Yellow Plum-blossom Hill." Accordingly he went to Knin's Monastery in Anhui and presented himself before the Master. "Where do you come from?" "From the South." "Bah! In the South they have not Buddha in their souls." "North and South," replied En, "are human distinctions that Buddha knows nothing of."

Knin accepted him as a lay-brother and put him to pound rice in the bakery.

Knin was growing old and wished to choose his successor. He therefore instituted a poetical competition in which each monk was to epitomise in a quatrain the essence of Zen. The favourite candidate was the warden Shinsh, who sent in the following verses:

The body is the trunk of the Bodhi-tree;
The mind is the bright mirror's stand;
Scrub your mirror continually,
Lest the dust eclipse its brightness.

En, as a lay-brother, was not qualified to compete. Some one told him of Shinsh's quatrain. "Mine would be very different," he exclaimed, and persuaded one of the boys employed in the bakery to go stealthily by night and inscribe the following poem on the monastery-wall:

Knowledge is not a tree;
The Mirror has no stand;
Since nothing exists,
How could dust rise and cover it?

The authorship of the poem was discovered and the abbot Knin visited En in the bakery. "Is your rice white or no?" he asked. "White?" answered En; "it has not yet been sifted." Thereupon the abbot struck three times on the rice-mortar with his staff and departed. En understood his meaning. That night at the third watch he came to Knin's cell and was invested with the abbot's mantle, thereby becoming the Sixth Patriarch of the Zen Church. He died in 712 A.D., without having learned how to read or write.


The warden Shinsh had lost the Patriarchate and with it the spiritual headship of Zen. But as a compensation Fate[17] had in store for him worldly triumphs of the most dazzling kind. Leaving the rural monastery of Knin, he entered the Temple of the Jade fountain in the great city of Kingchau. His fame soon spread over central China. He was a man of "huge stature, bushy eyebrows and shapely ears." The Empress Wu Hou, who had usurped the throne of China, notoriously cultivated the society of handsome priests. About 684 A.D. she summoned him to the Capital. Instead of commanding his presence at Court she came in a litter to his lodgings and actually knelt down before him. The friendship of this murderous and fiendishly cruel woman procured for him temporal dignities which in the eyes of the world completely outshone the rustic piety of the Sixth Patriarch. Shinsh at the Capital became as it were the Temporal Father of Zen, while En at his country monastery remained its spiritual pope. The successors of En became known as the Fathers of the Southern School; while the courtly and social Zen of Shinsh is called Zen of the North.

Was it in sincere goodwill or with the desire to discredit his rival that Shinsh invited En to join him at the Capital? In any case En had the good sense to refuse. "I am a man of low stature and humble appearance," he replied; "I fear that the men of the North would despise me and my doctrines"—thus hinting (with just that touch of malice which so often spices the unworldly) that Shinsh's pre-eminence in the North was due to outward rather than to spiritual graces.

Shinsh died in 706, outliving his august patroness by a year. To perpetuate his name a palace was turned into a memorial monastery; the Emperor's brother wrote his epitaph; his obsequies were celebrated with stupendous pomp.

His successor, Fujaku, at first remained at the Kingchau monastery where he had been Shinsh's pupil. But in 724 the irresolute Emperor Ming-huang, who had proscribed Buddhism ten years before, summoned Fujaku to the Imperial City. Here princes and grandees vied with one another in doing him honour. "The secret of his success," says the historian,[7] "was that he seldom spoke and generally looked cross. Hence his rare words and occasional smiles acquired in the eyes of his[18] admirers an unmerited value." He died at the age of 89. On the day of his interment the great streets of Ch'ang-an were empty. The whole city had joined in the funeral procession. The Governor of Honan (one of the greatest functionaries in the State), together with his wife and children, all of them clad in monastic vestments, followed the bier, mingling with the promiscuous crowd of his admirers and disciples.

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