The Buddha is said to have preached the dharma unceasingly, from the time of his enlightenment at the age of thirty-five to the time of his passage into nirvasa at the age of eighty. He was renowned for adapting his teachings to the interests and abilities of his audiences. After his death, it was left to his disciples to collect what he had taught and to somehow systematize it, while preserving his words as the teachings of an enlightened being who could never be wrong, who could never contradict itself. This dilemma was exacerbated in the centuries after his death by the appearance of all manner of sutras, and later tantras, which claimed to be the words of the Buddha himself. The various Buddhist schools of Asia thus devoted much scholastic effort to determining, amidst all of these teachings, which represented the Buddha’s most profound and final view. When that question was answered – and a great many answers have been provided over the history of the tradition – it then became necessary to interpret all of those statements of the Buddha that seemed to deviate from that view. In order to preserve the notion that the Buddha is an enlightened being and thus free from self-contradiction, these apparent contradictions needed to be explained, often by recourse to identifying what the Buddha really had in mind when he gave a particular teaching.
The Chan and Zen traditions of China and Japan appear at first to be immune from this endless task of exegesis by virtue of their famous ”fourphrases’attributed to Bodhidharma:
a special transmission separate from the teachings
not relying upon words and letters
pointing directly at the human mind
seeing one’s own nature and becoming a buddha
Yet, despite their fame as a special transmission outside the teachings that does not rely on words and letters, Chan and Zen generated vast quantities of words and letters in order to explain what these four phrases mean, producing, in effect, their own canon of scriptures. The irony of this did not escape the masters of the tradition, who felt compelled to explain what it truly meant not to rely on words and letters.
A particularly engaging conversation concerning this question is found in a work by the Japanese Zen master Bassui Tokusho (13271387). Bassui, a member of the Rinzai lineage, was a popular teacher among monks and nuns as well as laypeople. In 1386, some of his lectures were written down, in colloquial Japanese, by one of his disciples and published under the title Muddying the Water (Enzan wadei gassui shu).
In addition to the question of not relying on words and letters, in the selections here Bassui explains what it means for a Zen master (who, at least in Zen lore, was not known for his strict adherence to ethical codes) to follow the precepts of not to kill, steal, lie, engage in sex, or use intoxicants. In the final selection, Bassui explains the true location of the western pure land of Amitabha.
A layman came and asked: ‘Supposedly Zen consists of a special transmission separate from the teachings, one which does not rely on letters. In fact, however, visiting a teacher to inquire of the way occurs much more frequently in Zen than among those who specialize in the teachings [of Buddhist sutras]. How can Zen be called “separate from teaching”? Moreover, in reading the recorded sayings of old Zen teachers one finds that they frequently comment on the words [spoken by their predecessors]. How can this be called “not relying on letters”? [In light of these facts] this so-called “special transmission separate from teaching by directly pointing” means what?’
The master immediately called out: ‘Dear layperson!’ The man nodded his head.
The master asked: ‘From what teaching did you acquire that [gesture]?’ The man bowed down in respect.
The master instructed: ‘When you wanted to come, you yourself came. When you wanted to ask, you yourself asked. You did not depend on another person’s power. You did not rely on the teachings of the buddhas and Zen ancestors. That mind [which acted of itself] is the entire essence of “a special transmission separate from the teachings, which does not rely on letters”. That mind is none other than the Tathagata’s pure Zen. This Zen lies beyond the reach of secular wisdom and investigation, written words and language, logic and principles, or analysis and understanding. Only if you actively get to the bottom of self-nature (jisho) without becoming ensnarled by words, without being tainted by the scent of the buddhas and ancestors, and walk the one road that leads to the beyond without falling into cleverness will you attain it. Moreover, it is certainly not the case that the study of letters and mixing up the phrases of the buddhas and ancestors is what is referred to as “the teachings”, nor is it the case that not knowing letters is what is referred to as “the Zen of the special transmission separate from the teachings, which does not rely on letters”. This doctrine of “a special transmission separate from the teachings” is not a dharma that was first established by the buddhas and ancestors. From the very beginning, it has been possessed by all people. Perfected in each one, it is the original guise of all buddhas and of all living beings. A newborn baby moves his hands and feet due to the marvellous functioning of his original self-nature. Likewise, birds flying, rabbits hopping, the sun rising, the moon waxing, winds blowing, clouds moving, and all things undergoing transformations consist of the turning of the true dharma-wheel that is originally possessed by each and every living thing’s self-nature. It is not the preaching of someone else’s teaching nor does it rely on another’s power. My own preaching in this way just now is the turning of my true dharma-wheel. The fact that all of you listen in this way is the marvellous [functioning] of your buddha-nature. Buddha-nature in its totality resembles an enormous fireball. If you awaken it, then gain and loss, right and wrong, life and limb, all disappear. Samsara and nirvasa become yesterday’s dream. The great universe of worlds as numerous as grains of sand becomes foam on the sea. And the wordy teachings of the buddhas and ancestors become as a flake of snow landing on a red-hot hearth. At that very moment, there is neither dharma bonds binding nor dharma liberation. Rather, like a wooden puppet thrown into a fire, though your whole body is ablaze you yourself seemingly cannot feel the heat. Only when you have thoroughly penetrated in this way, without leaving behind any traces of cultivation or realization, will you be called a Zen person. People who become intimate with Zen teachers resemble those who lose their spirits in a conflagration and then regain life. Being incinerated in the cave of ignorance causes an extraordinarily great functioning to arise, just as dull steel placed in a forge suddenly becomes a jewelled sword. Herein lies the usefulness of Zen people visiting Zen teachers to inquire of the Way. How could this be known by theorists?’…
Question: If all the dharmas preached by the Lord Sakyamuni can be reduced to the one practice of becoming a buddha by seeing nature [kensho jobutsu], then would not the practice of conforming to the appearance of morality become superfluous?
Answer: Regarding the distinction between conforming to or violating the moral power of the precepts [kaitai], [know that] principle [ri] and phenomena [ji] are not two, and both nature [sho] and appearance [so] provide the same vehicle of salvation. A person who has not yet seen nature drowns in a sea of thinking, thereby killing his own mind-buddha. Of all forms of killing, this is the worst. Therefore, true observance of the precept [against killing] is seeing nature and awakening to the way. When confusion arises, it damages dharma assets and destroys merit. That is theft. When confusion arises, it cuts off buddha-seeds and furthers the karmic causes of transmigration in samsara. That is improper sexuality. Because the dharma-body – our venerable and auspicious body – is obscured by confused thoughts, one forgets it and designates mirages as being one’s own body. That is false speech. Because one’s innate great wisdom is rent asunder by confused thoughts, one loses it and becomes crazy. That is consuming intoxicants. The meaning of the remaining moral precepts can be explained similarly.
For these reasons, when you delude your own mind, you violate all the precepts. When you see nature [kensho], then all the precepts are simultaneously perfected. When the power of seeing nature eliminates confused thinking and thereby animates buddha- nature, it [i.e., that power] is the precept against killing. When the power of seeing nature makes you forget confused thinking and purifies the six senses so that the six traitorous [modes of perception] cannot arise, it is the precept against stealing. When the power of seeing nature illuminates confused thoughts so as to interrupt the continuity of [rebirth into] the realm of living beings, it is the precept against improper sexuality. When the power of seeing nature illuminates confused thoughts so that your innate great wisdom arises and you thereby stop referring to secondary techniques as real vehicles of salvation and stop referring to phantom bodies as your real body, it is the precept against false speech. At the moment you attain insight into self-nature, the wisdom of prajnd becomes clear and you sober up from the intoxication of ignorance and mental afflictions. In this respect, it is the precept against consuming intoxicants.
Therefore, buddha-nature is the moral power of the precepts, and morality is the function of buddha-nature. If the moral power becomes complete, then its function cannot be lacking. If you wish to ascend the real precept platform [for ordination], then you should stand on your own innate ground. This is the meaning of the story [in the Chinese Zen histories] that once the novice Gao became a buddha he did not [want to] become ordained with the precepts. This is why an ancient poet [Yongjia Xuanjiao, 675-713] wrote: ‘The moral pearl of buddha-nature is the seal of the mind ground.’ If you receive and obey this precept, then in accordance with the doctrine that ‘once obtained it can never be lost throughout the infinite future’, you can never violate it. If you wish to obey this indestructible vajra [diamond] precept, then you should merely examine self-nature. To clarify self-nature, you must first focus your meditative power. Firm meditative power in which one does not engage in miscellaneous knowing or miscellaneous understanding can be likened to observing the precept against eating after noon. [The activities of] sometimes knowing and sometimes not knowing are both like eating snacks. Obtaining even the scent of buddhas or the scent of ancestors is violating the afternoon fast. The true afternoon fast is embodying the way of no-minding [mushin] so that [outside and inside are] smashed flat together. Therefore a sutra says: ‘Eliminating both false thoughts and the appearance of proper precepts is the precept of purity.’
For disturbing one’s ability to attain trance and for causing the commission of sins, nothing is worse than consuming intoxicants. Therefore, we are taught: ‘Intoxicants are causal conditions for the arising of sins.’ A sutra says: ‘A person who hands a cup of alcohol to another person for him to drink will be reborn five hundred times without hands. But for one who drinks it himself, the retribution will be far more [dreadful].’ Therefore, you should outwardly refrain from consuming physical intoxicants and inwardly transcend the currents of transmigration in samsdra without becoming drunk on nirvdna. That is the precept against consuming intoxicants.
Regarding the distinction between conforming to or violating morality [kairitsu], it encompasses both outside and inside, both body and mind. Therefore, no matter what, if thoughts do not arise there can be no violation of any physical precepts. If your physical body commits a sin, it is because your mind became active. When mental activity occurs, every kind of dharma [i.e., reality] occurs. If every kind of dharma occurs, then you are not applying concentrated effort [kufu] [in your practice of sitting Zen]. If you do not apply concentrated effort, then it will be impossible to clarify buddha-nature. If you do not clarify buddha-nature, then you cannot escape from transmigration in samsara, and eventually you will fall into the Hell of No Interruption [Avici]. Never say, ‘I violate all kinds of precepts without experiencing any obstructions to my concentrated effort [i.e., to my practice of sitting Zen].’ If you truly lack obstructions, then why are you still not awakened?
Conforming to moral precepts occurs two ways. Some people remain among laypeople who have not abandoned secular afflictions. While living amidst the evil affairs of the world, by applying concentrated mental effort inwardly, they awaken selfnature. With the power of seeing nature [kensho], they thereupon eliminate false thinking until eventually they become people who both inwardly and outwardly embody the purity of the moral pearl of the precepts. Other people who are born stupid and dull will not begin with concentrated effort to see self-nature. Yet through the firm power of faith, as a result of their determination to conform to the moral power of the precepts, their inward mental concentration eventually collapses [outward and inward] and they become awakened. These two orientations – precepts being the basis for one’s awakening to the way or awakening being the basis
for one’s adherence to morality – differ in direction, but upon awakening both follow the same path….
Question: The Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra [Japanese: Amidakyo] says: ‘West of here, a hundred billion buddha-lands away, there is a world-system called “Supreme Bliss” [Sukhavati]. In that land there is a buddha named “Amitabha”. At this very moment he is there, preaching the dharma.’ In this passage there are several items I do not understand. [First, concerning why this buddha should be unique:] Among arhats there are distinctions between the four levels of attainment. Among bodhisattvas there are distinctions between the ten stages of awakening and even bodhisattvas at the stages of equivalent awakening and marvellous awakening have yet to attain full buddha wisdom. Based on these distinctions in awakening, a bodhisattva’s virtue may be greater or lesser, his wisdom higher or lower, and his compassion shallower or deeper. But among buddhas there are no distinctions of superior and inferior. For this reason the Lotus Sutra says: ‘Only buddhas together with other buddhas can exhaustively fathom the true appearance of all dharmas.’ Why, then, is it essential to avoid stopping at any of the other hundred billion buddha-lands? Why must one seek deliverance to the western pure land? How can this sutra suggest that there is superior and inferior among buddhas? [Second, regarding the location of the pure land:] If that place is west of here, then for people living further west of Amitabha’s pure land it should be called an eastern pure land. Likewise, for people who live south of there it should be a northern pure land. If people in all the worlds of the ten directions should seek a western pure land, then that is a relative term and does not refer to any one particular location [i.e., it cannot exclusively designate Sukhavati]. If it is a term used only for the benefit of people in the east, then where can people in the north, west and south seek deliverance? If people in the north, west and south are not included, then Amitabha’s vow to save [people in] all worlds is not being fulfilled….
The master instructed:. ‘West of here’ refers to the mind ground of living beings. ‘A hundred billion buddha-lands away’ refers to ending the ten kinds of evil thoughts and transcending the ten stages of bodhisattva awakening. ‘Amitabha Buddha’ refers to the buddha-nature of living beings. The ‘holy host of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta’, and so forth, refers to the marvellous functioning of self-nature. ‘Living beings’ refers to the mind of ignorance and affliction which engages in petty knowledge and discrimination. ‘The moment when one faces death’ refers to the moment when thinking consciousness is extinguished. As consciousness is extinguished, the mind ground becomes pure. Then it is known as the western pure land. Deluded minds are called ‘defiled lands’. Thus, the Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra says: ‘If you want to purify the buddha-land, first purify your own mind. As one’s mind becomes pure, so the buddha-land becomes pure.’ Exhausting mental discrimination so that primordial selfnature appears – when one is single-minded without distraction – is named ‘the appearance of the tathagata Amitabha’. Accordingly, when you awaken self-nature, then the eighty thousand afflictions are transformed into the eighty thousand qualities [of awakening] and become named ‘holy host of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and the bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta’. Therefore, ‘western pure land’ does not refer to any one particular location. Because ‘west’ is relative to the location of the sun, moon and constellations, the mind and body being depleted of all relative discrimination and petty knowledge is named the western pure land. For this reason, long ago it was said: ‘[Differences among types of buddha]-lands are posited based on embodiment. [Distinctions between types of buddha]-bodies are posited in accordance with meaning.
[Regarding the dharma-nature of bodies and lands, know that both are merely reflections.]’ When we regard our own mind as the three types of buddha-body, then the dharma-body is Amitabha and the two bodies of reward and transformation are the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and the bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta. In reality, however, they all are just one mind.
Translated by William Bodiford from Ichikawa Hakugen, Iriya Yoshitaka and Yanagida Seizan (eds.), Enzan wadei gassui shu in Chusei Zenke no shiso, Nihon Shiso Taikei, vol. 16 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1972).
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.