OPENMIND – About our community

We are a small Buddhist Monastery/Church in mid-Missouri. It was started in 1975. There have been up to 14 monks living here. We will post here some of our favorite teachings.

Teachings of Hui-neng

Huang asked “You say you come from Neng, the great master. What instruction did you have under him?”
Yung answered: “According to his instruction, no-tranquillization, no-disturbance, no-sitting, no-meditation – this is the Tathagata’s Dhyana. The five Skandhas are not realities, the six objects of sense are by nature empty. It is neither quiet nor illuminating; it is neither real nor empty; it does not abide in the middle way; it is not doing, it is no-effect-producing, and yet it functions with the utmost freedom: the Buddha-nature is all-inclusive.”
This said, Huang at once realized the meaning of it and sighed: “These thirty years I have sat’ to no purpose!

A Hopi Elder Speaks

“You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour, now you must go back and tell the people that this is the Hour.  And there are things to be considered . . .

Where are you living?
What are you doing?
What are your relationships?
Are you in right relation?
Where is your water?
Know your garden.
It is time to speak your Truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for the leader.”

Then he clasped his hands together, smiled, and said, “This could be a good time!”

“There is a river flowing now very fast.  It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.  They will try to hold on to the shore.   They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly.

“Know the river has its destination.  The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water.   And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.  At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, Least of all ourselves.  For the moment that we do,  our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.

“The time for the lone wolf is over.  Gather yourselves!  Banish the word struggle from you attitude and your vocabulary.  All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

— attributed to an unnamed Hopi elder

Hopi Nation

Oraibi, Arizona

Jed McKenna loves to sky-dive, watches sitcoms and uses slang. To think that once he ran an ashram! Not quite a New Age guru, he is what he calls ‘a truth guy’. And the title of his latest bestseller is Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing

‘‘You’ve probably heard the saying, ‘Before enlightenment a mountain is a mountain, during enlightenment a mountain is not a mountain, and after enlightenment a mountain is a mountain again.’ Well, it’s like that. Before enlightenment I believed my ego was me, then enlightenment comes along and no more ego, only the understanding reality. Now it’s after enlightenment and this ego might be slightly uncomfortable or ill-fitting at times, but it’s all I’ve got. The idea that your ego is destroyed in the process of becoming enlightened is roughly correct, but it’s not complete. Before enlightenment, you’re a human being in the world, just like everyone you see. During enlightenment you realise the human being you thought you were is just a character in a play, and that the world you thought you were in is just a stage, so you go through a process of radical deconstruction of your character to see what’s left when it’s gone. The result isn’t enlightened-self or true-self, it’s no-self. When it’s all over it’s time to be a human being in the world again, and that means slipping back into costume and getting back on stage.’’‘‘But now you know…?’’‘‘Sure, because now you’re actually in the audience, watching the drama. I could never mistake the play for reality again, or my character for my true state. Happily, I never know what my character is going to do or say until he does it or says it, so the whole thing stays interesting.’’      Jed McKenna

Alcohol & drugs as poison or medicine: comments by Chögyam Trungpa
There seems to be something wrong with an approach to alcohol that is based entirely on morality or social propriety. The
scruples implied have solely to do with the external effects of one’s drinking. The real effect of alcohol is not
considered, but only its impact on the social format. On the other hand, a drinker feels that there is something worthwhile
in his drinking aside from the pleasure he or she gets out of it. There are the warmth and openness that seem to come from
the relaxation of his usual self-conscious style. Also there is the confidence of being able to communicate his perceptions
accurately, which cuts through his usual feeling of inadequacy. Scientists find they are able to solve their problems;
philosophers have new insights; and artists find clear perception. The drinker experiences greater clarity because he feels
more really what he is; therefore daydreams and fantasies can be temporarily put aside.

It seems that alcohol is a weak poison which is capable of being transmuted into medicine. An old Persian folktale tells
how the peacock thrives on poison, which nourishes his system and brightens his plumage. . . .

Whether alcohol is to be a poison or a medicine depends on one’s awareness while drinking. Conscious drinking—remaining
aware of one’s state of mind—transmutes the effect of alcohol. Here awareness involves a tightening up on one’s system as
an intelligent defense mechanism. Alcohol becomes destructive when one gives in to the joviality: letting loose permits the
poisons to enter one’s body. Thus alcohol can be a testing ground. It brings to the surface the latent style of the
drinker’s neuroses, the style that he is habitually hiding. If his neuroses are strong and habitually deeply hidden, he
later forgets what happened when he was drunk or else is extremely embarrassed to remember what he did. . . .

For the yogi, alcohol is fuel for relating with his students and with the world in general, as gasoline allows a motorcar
to relate with the road. But naturally the ordinary drinker who tries to compete with or imitate this transcendental style
of drinking will turn his alcohol into poison. . . .

Buddhist Studies, Buddhist Practice and the Trope of Authenticity Jay L Garfield Central Institute of Higher Tibetan StudiesSmith CollegeThe University of Melbourne

  1. Introduction

In conversation, in the lecture hall, in the Dharma centre and in the public teaching, Buddhists and students of Buddhism worry about authenticity. Is the doctrine defended in a particular text or is a particular textual interpretation authentic?  Is a particular teacher authentic?  Is a particular practice authentic?  Is a phenomenon under examination in a scholarly research project authentically Buddhist?  If the doctrine, teacher, practice or phenomenon is not authentically Buddhist, we worry that it is a fraud, that our scholarship, teaching or religious life is vacuous, or at least that it is not really Buddhist studies or Buddhist practice.  It is hard for me to remember a conversation of any length with a Western or Tibetan colleague, or with a serious advanced student in which the term “authenticity” or a cognate did not arise, and in which that term did not function as a term of approbation.

I was particularly taken by one episode in which, in a response to a talk on methodology in Buddhist Studies at a major Buddhist Studies research institute, an eminent Tibetan scholar replied that Western Buddhist Studies is not even properly constituted as Buddhist Studies, and this for two reasons: first, Westerners are willing to study the traditions called “Buddhist” in such places as Sri Lanka, Thailand, China and Japan.  But only the “stainless NÂland tradition preserved without alteration in Tibet” is authentic Buddhism.  So, he concluded,Westerners are studying fraudulent traditions under the guise of Buddhist Studies.  Secondly, he argued, to study Buddhism is to study realizations, and realization requires authentic practice.  But Westerners freely adopt practices from these fraudulent Asian traditions, and adulterate the stainless NÂland tradition.  So there is no hope of any insight of any value emerging from their study.

To be sure, this response is extreme.  But it is not rare; nor is it unrelated in motivation to many more moderate worries about the scope of Buddhist Studies and Buddhist practice. Worries about authenticity have characterized Buddhist dialectics from the earliest period, and motivated the decision to commit the Pali canon to writing at the First Council.  Debates about authenticity sharpen with the rise of the MahÂyÂna and the questions that movement raises about the canonicity of new scriptures and about the very nature of buddhavacana.  With the transmission of Buddhism to China and Tibet, the activity of translation raised further questions regarding the relation of translations of texts to their Sanskrit or Pali originals.  More recently, the transmission of Buddhism to the West and the impact of modernity on Asian Buddhist cultures raise entirely new questions concerning authentically Buddhist practice, ideology, lineage and object of study.  In what follows I will argue that all of these questions are best discarded along with the very concept of authenticity.  To put it bluntly, worrying about authenticity is at best a waste of time and at worst seriously destructive.

  1. The Scope of Buddhist Studies

It is a truism that Buddhist Studies is the study of Buddhism.  But it does not follow that Buddhism is whatever scholars of Buddhist Studies choose to study.  On the other hand, despite the fact that the scope of Buddhism determines the scope of Buddhist Studies and not the other way around, we might well get clues as to what properly counts as a phenomenon of Buddhism by turning to the field of Buddhist Studies, not because scholarship, per se, permits the appropriation of authority regarding a domain of human activity from those who participate in that activity, but because scholars sometimes learn something.

As a matter of fact, if we examine the activities and domain of scholars in our field, we see pretty quickly contemporary scholarship takes under its purview a range of traditions from the earliest followers of Siddhartha Gautama in India to contemporary American or European practitioners who freely integrate practices derived from across the spectrum of Buddhist traditions and who may reject many tenets taken to be central to the traditions from which these practices are borrowed.  To be sure, the study of these diverse cultural forms reveals a great diversity among Buddhist practices, doctrines, art forms and ways of life.  But one is struck by the underlying family resemblance between these forms and the ease of communication between practitioners and scholars of these forms.  There is no prima facie reason to suspect any greater discontinuity between these disparate Buddhist traditions than we observe within any other families of religious or philosophical positions. That is, there is good reason to suspect that the apparent unity we observe is a genuine phenomenon, at least until we are given very good reason to believe otherwise.  And that suggests that there is very good motivation for the view that Buddhism is capable of diverse manifestations in diverse cultural contexts and at distinct times. This is the default position pending good reason to abandon it.

  1. The Academy and the Practitioner

The academy however, is hardly the final arbiter of reality within the Buddhist world.  For while scholars of Buddhism might propose that there is an underlying unity or at least a web of relevant family resemblances between diverse Buddhist schools, doctrines and traditions, if Buddhist practitioners themselves or leading figures within the relevant Buddhist traditions were to reject the characterization proposed by academics, it would be reasonable to suspect that the academy just got it wrong.  After all, it is the task of theory to match the object of study, not the task of the object to match the theory; when the object of study is the practice and views of individuals or groups, those individual or groups would seem to be the final arbiters of their own practice or views.

But we should not be too hasty on this terrain. For where there is a multiplicity of communities of view and practice, each claiming authenticity, the classical problem of the criterion arises.  We cannot take the criterion of authenticity proposed by any particular tradition as definitive in a contest between traditions for authenticity on pain of circularity.  The Zen roshi has her criterion, the application of which delivers the conclusion that the Zen tradition is the only authentically Buddhist tradition.  The dGe lugs geshe argues, using his criterion, that only his tradition is completely authentic.  How are we to arbitrate?  There is no neutral ground on which to settle this issue.  So, turning to Buddhist practitioners themselves seems unlikely to provide any account of what it is to be authentically Buddhist.

  1. Transmission,Transformation and Originalism

Let us return for a moment to academic considerations and reflect on the history of Buddhism.  Buddhism has, from its inception, been a missionary religious tradition, a polemical philosophical tradition, comprising a scholastic textual system and a framework for organizing the relations between lay and monastic populations. As a missionary religious tradition that has relied upon philosophical polemic and textual study, Buddhism has penetrated a number of dissimilar cultures.  It continues this cultural penetration today. In each case, from the earliest transmissions across India and into China to the most recent transmissions to the West and to Africa, Buddhism has relied upon the translation of texts from one language to another and the adaptation of its social and monastic institutions to local cultural conditions.  Each instance of translation and adaptation is an instance of transformation.

Indeed, it is the manifest fact that Buddhism has been transformed in so many ways throughout its history that engenders much of the contemporary and historical controversy about authenticity.  In the face of this transformation, there is an inevitable tendency, frequently evidenced in various ways, both within Buddhist traditions and among Buddhist Studies scholars, to search for the  “original Buddhism,” in order to validate one tradition as the legitimate custodian of that original form.  If only we could determine what the precise words of the Buddha were, how the doctrine was understood at the moment when it was spoken, what the practices of the first disciples were, then we could compare each text, each doctrine, each practice against that transcendental gold standard.

However attractive this approach sounds, it is not only impossible in practice but incoherent in principle.  It is impossible in practice simply because we are too far from the time of the Buddha to determine, even given the best textual criticism and paleography, precisely what he said to whom, and what went through his mind of those to whom his words were addressed.  Even the Pali canon was first committed to writing long after his demise and only a hagiographic understanding of the process of its construction could lead one to belief in its historical purity.

It is incoherent in principle for deeper reasons. Nobody seriously can suggest that Buddhist doctrine or practice, or the object of study in Buddhist study is exhausted by the set of historical episodes involving Siddhartha Gautama between his awakening at Bodh Gaya and his mahaparinirvana at Kushinagar.   That eliminates all of the abidharma literature, all of the philosophical, literary, artistic and ritual traditions that comprise Buddhism. That is to ignore the importance central to Buddhism’s own self-conception of lineage, and of the transmission of doctrine, practice and realization through lineage. For lineage persists through time and across space, and necessarily involves augmentation and change.  Buddhism without these textual and practice traditions would be unrecognizable as Buddhism and irrelevant to contemporary Buddhist practice. Buddhism so conceived would have ended in Kushinagar.

It is noteworthy that this appeal to origins as a basis for locating authenticity is not limited to the most conservative exponents of traditions they see as constituted by unbroken transmission of texts and insights from Õakyamuni to the present.  Even radical modernists appeal to an “original” Buddhism primordially purified of whatever “Indian” doctrines they find distasteful to modernity.  As Makransky notes (2000: 124) Batchelor (1997), in arguing for his “Buddhism without Beliefs,” argues for the inauthenticity of a host of Buddhist traditions on the grounds that they contain elements that would have been rejected by the historical Buddha.  As Makransky emphasizes, this drive to reconstruct a historical Buddha who conveniently shares our own account of Buddhism as a guarantor of the authenticity of our own practice is seriously problematic.  There are simply too many such candidate Siddhartha Gautamas to be constructed.

Moreover, particularly from the standpoint of the MahÂyÂna, such a criterion of authenticity would be inconsistent with scripture. We need only attend to the characterization of buddhavacana in the Asthaha∑rika-prajÒÂparamitÂ-s®tra to find that it comprises far more than just what Siddhartha uttered. It is anything that is inspired by the Buddha, anything in accord with what the Buddha said, anything conducive to liberation.

Whatever, ÕÂriputra, the Buddha’s disciples teach, make known, explain, proclaim, reveal, all of it is to be known as the TathÂgata’s work, for they train themselves in the dharma taught by the TathÂgata, they realize its true nature directly for themselves and take possession of it.  Having realized the true nature directly, and taken possession of it, nothing that they teach, make known, explain, proclaim, or reveal is inconsistent with the true nature of the Dharma.  It is just the outpouring of the TathÂgatga’s demonstration of the Dharma.  Whatever those sons of the family demonstrate as the nature of Dharma, they do not bring into contradiction with that nature. (trans Makransky, p 115)

So, even in the heart of Buddhist literature, the speech of the Buddha himself, the criteria of authenticity are, by many traditions’ own lights, not originalist in character. In order to determine whether a claim or text counts as buddhavacana we first need to know whether it is conducive to liberation, harmonious with doctrine, etc.  Authenticity doesn’t help us to filter doctrine; doctrine helps us to determine authenticity! It is not surprising that by its own scriptural lights Buddhism is liberal with respect to what counts as Buddhism.

Makransky urges that we adopt a “minimal understanding, that the Buddha taught the four noble truths, that he sought the liberation of persons from self-clinging and consequent suffering, that he sought their awakening to a penetrating wisdom and unconditional love free from such clinging.” [125] He urges that this minimalist basis allows us to take as authentic anything consistent with that minimal basis.  There is much to recommend this ecumenical view of authenticity, but it is unclear what is left of the notion of authenticity, or even of Buddhism, once we become so ecumenical, and it is unclear how we take as authentic traditions that deny each other’s authenticity.

Roger Jackson (2000) emphasizes this problem when, citing Borges, he says,

If Buddhism is simply a broadly construed set of ideas and ideals—the truth of emptiness, the value of contemplation, the cultivation of a compassionate heart and nonviolent action—then to “be Buddhist” in the midst of postmodernity is not difficult at all; what is more, the very generality of these ideas and ideals means that Buddhism itself becomes a virtually unrestricted tradition, such that, as Jorge Luis Borges puts it, “a good Buddhist can be a Lutheran or Methodist or Presbyterian or Calvinist or Shintoist or Taoist or Catholic; he may be a proselyte of Isam or of the Jewish religion, all with complete freedom.” [59] Conversely, to the degree that he or she values emptiness, contemplation and compassion, the Lutheran, Taoist or Jew—or for that matter, the secular humanist—may with equal conviction claim to be a Buddhist.  If that is all there is to it, if Buddhism is simply an infinitely protean postmodern philosophy, then it is little more than a cipher, bereft of distinctive content, applicable everywhere, hence nowhere. (219)

Jackson proffers an intriguing solution to this conundrum in his account of religion in general, and Buddhism in particular, as consisting primarily in an aesthetic set towards the world—a determination to see the world through the myths, images, metaphors and symbols internal to the tradition.  Whether this aesthetic turn solves the problem posed by Makransky’s avowedly infinitely protean view of Buddhism we will explore below, but let us first talk directly about other problems internal to the concept of authenticity itself.

  1. Seals of Doctrine and Characteristics of Reality

There is one common MahÂyÂna criterion for a doctrine counting as Buddhist.  A doctrine is Buddhist just to the extent that it is marked by the four seals of doctrine. One might hope that such a criterion would help us make sense of authenticity, but as we shall see, even seals of doctrine provide no comfort to those who would disparage unfamiliar or new Buddhist traditions as inauthentic.  Instead they undermine the very activity of drawing such distinctions and support a broad tent account of Buddhist practice and of Buddhist studies.

The four seals of doctrine are: (1) All conditioned phenomena are impermanent; (2) all contaminated phenomena are of the nature of suffering; (3) all phenomena are empty and selfless; (4) only nirvana is peace.  Why not simply say that any doctrine that satisfies the seals is authentic, and any other not?  The reason is that the seals are in a deep sense self-undermining, and that sense in which they are makes pretences to orthodoxy seem decidedly un-Buddhist.

Let us be authentically Buddhist about what it is to be authentically Buddhist and see where it leaves us. All conditioned phenomena are impermanent.  Conditioned phenomena never retain their identity or character even for a moment.  What we take to be coherent, persistent entities are in fact continua. Buddhadharma, Buddhist texts, Buddhist practices and even Buddhist realisations are conditioned phenomenon like any other.  They, too, then, are impermanent, constantly changing.  What we take to be a persistent, coherent institution, practice or doctrine is nothing but a continuum of constantly changing, distinct institutions, practices or doctrines.  If there is any Buddhadharma at all, it cannot be identical to one taught by the Buddha.

Now of course impermanence does not amount to nonexistence. That would be the error of nihilism.  And so the claim that Buddhism constantly changes, and even the claim that Buddhism changes differently in different cultural milieus, in virtue of different sets of conditions, is not the claim that there is no Buddhism.  It is only the claim that there is nothing permanent in Buddhism.  Any Buddhism we find now is different from any Buddhism found at the time of the Buddha.  And different conditions will yield different changes.  No single development has any claim to be any more identical to any original form than any other. That is a very Buddhist claim.

All contaminated phenomena are of the nature of suffering. Only a view according to which phenomena represented through the force of primal ignorance or confusion regarding the nature of reality can be considered a Buddhist view. Now the principal aspect of the primal ignorance that contaminates phenomena is the superimposition of inherent existence or essence on phenomena that merely exist conventionally and that are essenceless.  Suppose one thought that there is an essence to Buddhism, a feature that defines precisely the necessary and sufficient conditions of a practice, tradition or view being Buddhist. One might think that this could get one out of the predicament just scouted.  One could, one might suppose, use that essence to differentiate disparate forms of Buddhism from one another despite their common origin.   However, if one thought that, the Buddhism one thereby conceived would be a contaminated phenomenon, and therefore, according to any authentic doctrine, a source of suffering.  But Buddhism, if it is anything at all, is a path from suffering.  So no view according to which there is an essence to Buddhism must be a non-Buddhist view.

All phenomena are empty and selfless.  It should be clear by now where this is going.  Buddhism, too, must be empty and selfless. No view according to which it has a core or essence can be a Buddhist view.  But emptiness is not nonexistence.  To be empty and selfless is precisely to be dependently originated and conventionally real.  That mode of existence is the only one possible for anything real, including the Buddhadharma.  But to be dependent upon causes and conditions is to vary with those causes and conditions, to be subject to change, and to have an identity fixed by human conventions, and not from one’s own side.  No room for authenticity here, at least if we are to be authentic!

Only nirvana is peace.  Nirvana is the cessation of all fabrication.  The central fabrication is the superimposition of essence on that which is essenceless.  So, the only peace recognizable from within a Buddhist framework consists in cessation of the imputation of essences, including the imputation of an essence to Buddhism.  The search for the authentic core is antithetical to such peace.

So, the very conditions that many Buddhists take to mark a doctrine as Buddhist ensure that no Buddhism that can recognize itself as Buddhist can also recognize any conditions that mark a doctrine as Buddhist! Does this mean that Buddhism is self-undermining?  It would mean this if, and only if, one thought that these seals are meant to be the validators of the claim that something has the Buddhist essence.  In that case, since they could only validate that which asserts is own essencelessness, they would invalidate any tenet or practice as Buddhist.   But if these seals are taken not as validators of the claim that tenets have a Buddhist essence, but as indicators of the dimensions of family resemblance that connect diverse strands of Buddhist thought to one another, and as central characteristics of the roots of these traditions, they come out as pretty good descriptors of Buddhist doctrine.  Seen in this way, they satisfy the conditions of conventional authoritative cognition with respect to Buddhist theory.  But this is a far cry from a certification of the authenticity of any particular development of Buddhist theory or practice.

Luis GÛmez (2000: 367-369) nods in the same direction when he defines Buddhism on five dimensions:

  • finding diverse aspects of Buddhist traditions inspiring;
  • having sufficient respect for Buddhist doctrines and statements to take issue with them when they do not withstand scrutiny;
  • seeing the world through Buddhist ways of imagining and engaging through Buddhist ritual;
  • suspicion of fixed doctrinal systems;
  • “an ethics of acceptance that.. [takes as] desirable and good the capacity to restrain our impulse to turn disagreement into sectarian bias or into condemnation or disparagement. The question of which form or forms of Buddhism are preferable must remain open. [369]

Needless to say, none of these dimensions is either necessary or sufficient for a doctrine, practice or person counting as Buddhist.  One could satisfy the first while hardly counting as Buddhist at all.  In some traditions to satisfy the second would be apostasy.  But, like the four seals, these five conditions can be taken as marking out the regions of resemblance in theoretical space that embrace Buddhist traditions.  If we are to be faithful to the diversity we find within Buddhist traditions and consistent with the outlook that appears to most to lie at the heart of these traditions, it is hard to see how we could ask for anything more restrictive.

  1. Direction of Fit

We are now in a position to see what is really wrong with the discourse of authenticity as it functions in the domains of Buddhist practice and Buddhist studies.  The discourse rests upon a falsification of the direction of fit between authenticator and authenticated.  If I am authenticating a signature on a check or an antique coin, the direction of fit of authentication is clear.  For the signature or the coin to be authentic is not an internal fact about the signature of the coin itself, but rather an original fact. If, and only if, the origin is proper—the person whose name appears in fact signed, or if the coin was minted in the proper place—the signature or the coin is authentic. Having learned about origins, I can then discover the properties of the things that have those origins.  Your authentic signature looks just so, unlike forgeries; authentic coins of a certain kind look just so, unlike counterfeits.

In this case, the direction of fit is clear: to validate on the basis of a sample the claim that your signature looks just so requires that I first determine that the signature is authentic, and then to determine its characteristics.  Claims about the characteristics of the authentic must fit the authenticated.  We do not require that the authenticated fit claims about that which is authentic.  If I believe that your signature looks one way, and the signature you actually produce looks very different, I cannot dispute the authenticity of your signature on the grounds that it fails to fit my conception.  The conception is responsible to fit that which has the appropriate origin.

It is this direction of fit that gives the rhetoric of authenticity its punch.  We value certain items precisely because of their origins, and precisely because we can authenticate them by tracing their origins.  Coins, objects of art and relics are like that.  Two coins, two objects of art or two relics identical save that one is minted by the government and one is not; that one was created by the famous artist and that one was not; that one was once part of the body of a saint and one was not are, just in virtue of the original differences, and despite being otherwise identical, different in value and in significance.  It is this curious concern with origins that accounts for our concern with authenticity.

This cachet is borrowed when we approve of a doctrine or practice that it is authentically Buddhist, or disparage another as inauthentic. But the appropriation of this cachet is deceptive. And it is deceptive precisely because in doing so we subtly reverse the direction of fit that gives authenticity its point.  In this case we do not begin by tracing the doctrine or practice to its origins in the lips of the Buddha and then discover what the character is of things with that origin.  Instead, we determine first whether we approve of the doctrine of practice, and then decide on that basis whether or not to assert of it that it must derive from the Buddha.  We demand, in other words, that the original facts fit the internal facts, and not the other way around.

The claim to authenticity in such a circumstance is simply fraudulent. The word “authentic” in the absence of independent authentication is simply an honorific form of “approved by the speaker.”  But since our own approval counts for so little in serious religious or academic discourse, we borrow that of another, concealing the fact that we borrow that which was never lent by means of a rhetoric that draws on the presumption that the loan documents can in principle be found.  The move gains its force from the facts that the presumption is tacit, and the documents are never requested.  But since no such documents in fact exist, the rhetoric of authenticity is worse than hollow.  Disputes about doctrinal coherence, truth or history; disputes about authorship or provenance of texts; disputes about the efficacy or rituals can be prosecuted on their merits, and that is the basis on which, by the way, the Buddha at the end of his career suggested that they be prosecuted. It might be the authentic Buddhist alternative to authenticity.

  1. Buddhavacana in the Twenty-first Century

Why worry about all of this? I think about this problem because when we work to understand the shape of Buddhist practice and theory and the scope of Buddhist studies in the Twenty-first Century, we must come to grips with a new Buddhist transmission that, while it shares many features with past transmissions of Buddhism in Asia, is distinctive in ways that raise interesting questions and that stimulate disputes about authenticity.  We are in the midst of the transmission of Buddhism to the West.  Like the transmission of Buddhism to China, this transmission involves the introduction of Buddhist ideas and practices into an already highly literate and articulate set of cultures.  As a consequence, Buddhism is inevitably read through the linguistic, cultural and ideological lens of the cultures into which it is being transmitted.  Translation of Asian texts into English or other Western languages inevitably laces them with nuances and lexical resonances they never had in Asia.  Cultural forms that are natural in Asian cultures appear exotic in their new homes, and may wither, be transformed, or acquire a new salience.  Ideas taken for granted in Asia may be problematised or rejected in the West. We see each of these phenomena at work and each issues in a further transformation and adaptation of Buddhism, a continuation of the process of change that characterizes all compounded phenomena. To reject the new cultural forms of Buddhist practice and thought because of such transformations would require the rejection of all of Buddhist practice and thought as inauthentic.  Nothing we see now is just as it was at the time of Õakyamuni.

There is a further challenge posed by the current transmission. Whereas in previous transmissions one might have thought that authenticity could be recovered at least by the tracing of single unbroken lineages, however much change there might be within those lineages, this thought is inapposite in the case of the westward movement of Buddhism.  For as Buddhism moves west, multiple traditions collide.  We see the mixing of practices and ideas and the juxtaposition of texts from multiple traditions that were quite distinct in Asia.  Is a Buddhist practice that combines Tibetan tantra and Zen meditation authentically Tibetan? Authentically Zen?  Authentically Buddhist?

Things get more complex when we consider the impact of the interaction with the West on traditional Buddhist cultures and practices in Asia.  The current transmission, unlike many previous transmissions of Buddhism, proceeds not on a narrow one-way caravan track, but on a multi-lane superhighway, with a great deal of diverse traffic flowing in both directions.  Buddhist doctrine and practice in Asia is now saturated by Western modernist and postmodernist ideas.  Nobody present at the recent Kalachakra teachings in Amaravati, for instance, could miss the relentless modernism of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as he articulated the need to correct Buddhist cosmology by modern astronomy or to join Buddhist theories of mind with those of cognitive neuroscience.  And nobody who has been reading the literature of the “Engaged Buddhist” movement can miss the influence of American transcendentalism and liberalism on such thinkers as Thich Nhat Hahn,  Bikkhu Buddhadassa and Arjan Sulak Sivaraksa.  Any account of authenticity according to which these figures, the doctrines they propagate and the movements they inspire are not authentically Buddhist risks ruling out any Buddhist teacher, doctrine or movement.

As Hayes (1998) and Queen (2003) have noted, this question is particularly poignant here in India where the majority of people who identify themselves as Buddhist follow the tradition initiated by Dr BR Ambedkar.  Ambedkar and his followers offer a radically social interpretation of the four noble truths, reject rebirth, have no monastic institutions, and in general reject many of the more transcendent accounts of buddhahood, opting for a more mundane soteriology.  Nonetheless, Ambedkar Buddhists take refuge, identify as Buddhists, take the four noble truths seriously, take lay vows, cultivate the Buddhist virtues, and see the world through a lens that is decidedly Buddhist.  To claim that this form of practice is non-Buddhist would be to expel most of India’s Buddhist from the fold.  One would have to seriously question a criterion of membership that eliminates most prima facie members of a group.

Does this mean that anything goes? Is anything anyone cares to call a Buddhist doctrine or teaching thereby Buddhist? Should we follow Tweed (2002: 24) who concludes from similar considerations that “Buddhists are those who say they are?” Of course not. This no more follows than it follows from the indeterminacy of personal identity that you and I are identical. It means that the adjective “Buddhist,” like most adjectives, admits of matters of degree, and denotes a set of overlapping patterns of family resemblances, causal chains, and conventional associations.  Some things count as Buddhist because of causal connections to other Buddhist practices, doctrines or institutions; some because of ordination or textual lineages; some because of resemblances to other Buddhist phenomena; some because they conduce to awakening; some because they are connected to refuge; some because they involve certain rituals.  This might make it hard to count Buddhists, traditions and lineages, and to draw sharp lines. But reality is hard to enumerate, and contains few sharp lines.  The discourse of authenticity is nothing more than an attempt to superimpose clarity where there is none, and hence just one more symptom of primal ignorance.


Batchelor, S. (1997). “Buddhism Without Beliefs.” Tricycle 6:3, pp 18-23.

GÛmez, L. (2000). “Measuring the Immeasurable: Reflections on Unreasonable Reasoning,” in Jackson, R. and J. Makransky, eds. 2000, pp 367-385.

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Queen, C. (2003). “Dr Ambedkar and the Hermeneutics of Buddhist Liberation,” in Queen, C., C. Prebish and D. Keown, eds., Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism. London: Routledge Curzon.

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“Zen anarchy ? What could that be ? Some new variations on the koans, those classic proto-dadaist Zen “riddles” ?What is the Sound of One Hand making a Clenched Fist ?If you see a Black Flag waving on the Flagpole, what moves ? Does the flag move ? Does the wind move ? Does the revolutionary movement move ?What is your original nature—before May ‘68, before the Spanish Revolution, before the Paris Commune ?

Somehow this doesn’t seem quite right. And in fact, it’s unnecessary. From the beginning, Zen was more anarchic than anarchism. We can take it on its own terms. Just so you don’t think I’m making it all up, I’ll cite some of the greatest and most highly-respected (and respectfully ridiculed) figures in the history of Zen, including Hui-Neng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch, Lin-Chi (d. 867), the founder of the Rinzai school, Mumon (1183-1260), the Rinzai master who assembled one of the most famous collections of koans, Dogen (1200-1253), the founder of Soto, the second major school, and Hakuin (1685-1768), the great Zen master, poet and artist who revitalized Zen practice.

  1. : Smashing States of Consciousness

This is what all the great teachers show : Zen is the practice of anarchy (an-arche) in the strictest and most super-orthodox sense. It rejects all “arches” or principles—supposedly transcendent sources of truth and reality, which are really no more than fixed ideas, mental habits and prejudices that help create the illusion of dominating reality. These “principles” are not mere innocuous ideas. They are Imperialistic Principalities that intrude their sovereign power into our very minds and spirits. As anti-statist as we may try to be, our efforts will come to little if our state of mind is a mind of state. Zen helps us dispose of the clutter of authoritarian ideological garbage that automatically collects in our normal, well-adjusted mind, so that we become free to experience and appreciate the world, nature, and the “Ten Thousand Things,” the myriad beings around us, rather than just using them as fuel for our ill-fated egoistic cravings.

Zen is also the strictest and most super-orthodox form of Buddhism—and at the same time the most iconoclastic, revolutionary and anarchistic one. The roots of Zen go back to the beginnings of the Buddhist tradition—not to any founding sacred documents or to any succession of infallible authorities, but to the experience that started the tradition : the anarchic mind ! Forget the “ism” of Buddhism. It’s not ultimately about doctrines and beliefs. The “Buddha” that it’s named after means simply the awakened mind or somebody, anyolebody, who happens to “have” that kind of mind. And Zen (or Ch’an, in Chinese) means simply meditation, which is just allowing the mind to be free, wild, awake, and aware. It’s not about the occasional or even regular practice of certain standardized forms of activity (sitting and walking meditation, koan practice, being inscrutable, trying to look enlightened, etc.). Equating meditation with silent sitting is something that Zen simply will not stand for ! Zen is also intimately linked to the absurd, but it can’t be reduced to doing and saying absurd things, as in the popular caricature of Zen. Zen is not nihilism, but is (like all Buddhism) the Middle Way between hopeless nihilism and rigid dogmatism (does a dogmatist have a Buddha-nature ?).

Original Minds

Zen is also the practice of the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) philosophy. In particular, the form called prasangika, the philosophical anti-philosophy of the great Indian sage Nagarjuna (c. 150-250). It’s said that the king of the Nagas, a race of superhuman serpent people, appeared to Nagarjuna and gave him the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) sutras. Western supernatural snakes are sneaky and deceive us with dangerous knowledge, but Eastern ones are compassionate and help us poor deluded humans gain a little wisdom. Awakened by the wisdom he found in the sutras, Nagarjuna went on to demonstrate that all discourse about the nature of reality is nonsense. Actually he showed that it is nonsense, it isn’t nonsense, it both is and isn’t nonsense, and it neither is nor isn’t nonsense. Then he showed that everything he just showed isn’t true. Actually that it is true, it isn’t true, it both is and isn’t true, and it neither is nor isn’t true. Then he showed that all this stuff he just showed about truth is nonsense, etc. etc. We could go on but you get the point. Zen practitioners got it, and decided to create their own unique ways of using words and concepts to destroy our illusions about words and concepts.

Going even further back in history, Zen’s origin can be traced back to the time that Shakyamuni Buddha went to Bodhgaya, sat down under the Bodhi Tree and invented meditation. Of course he didn’t really invent it but that’s as good a point as any to mark its beginning and we have all those fantastic statues to remind us of him sitting there. You can almost hear the giant sucking sound as the void begins to swallow everything up ! Anyway, Zen is the meditation school, so its very name points back to that experience.

Another event that’s sometimes seen as the origin of Zen (can’t something have several origins ?) is Shakyamuni Buddha’s famous Flower Sermon at Vulture Peak. A huge throng assembled to hear his Buddhaship’s profound words. Many of them must have been desperate for an infallible guru to save them from all that angry karma snapping at their asses. But all he did was silently hold up a flower before the teeming multitude. (If you think this lousy article is a disappointment, imagine what they thought !). But a single person, Kashyapa, smiled, showing that at least one person got it. That there’s nothing to get ! This could also be looked upon as the point at which irony entered the history of thought, a tradition carried on fiercely by Zen, but much neglected by later deadly serious spiritual and political tendencies, including the most radical and anarchistic ones.

How Empty Is It ?

Most of the time when the Buddha did sermons he did talk, but he tended to emphasize that all things—including his own words and concepts—are empty. What he meant by that is that like everything else they’re empty of “inherent being” or substantiality. They’re nothing but a lie “in themselves.” The truth is always elsewhere—his words and everything else can only be understood as inseparable parts of an interrelated web. This web is often pictured as “The Jewel Net of Indra,” an infinite expanse of gems, each one reflecting the light of all the others. We distort the interconnectedness and interdetermination of the entire infinitely-faceted Intergalactic Net when we abstract separate objects and egos from it.

This is a very radical teaching. Blake had the same idea : that if the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear as it is : Infinite. The Heart Sutra, which is one of the most important Buddhist texts and is recited daily in many monasteries, shows the revolutionary implications of this idea of deep interrelatedness (dependent origination or pratitya-samutpada), the idea that all things open into the infinite.

This sutra says that all dharmas, the constituents of all beings, are “marked with emptiness,” and that “in emptiness there is no form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness ; No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind ; No forms, sounds, smalls, tastes, touchables or objects of mind ; No sight-organ element, . . . . No mind-consciousness element ; . . . no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance . . . . no decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. . . . no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path. . . . no cognition, no attainment and no non-attainment.” [HS 91, 97, 113] It’s pretty much no nothing, and this destroys the basis for everything, including all the most fundamental tenets of Buddhism. The central teachings, the Four Noble Truths of Suffering, the Cause of suffering, the Cure for suffering, and the Way to effect the cure are all undermined, because here is no suffering, no causality, no cessation, no way !

And Buddhism is all about the “awakened mind,” right ? Tough luck : “no mind !”

Have A Little Compassion

How depressing ! Everything’s running on empty, all our goals are pointless, and nothing we say communicates anything ! But irony strikes again. Realizing these limits is part of the therapy that we need to escape the real suffering that comes from living in a constantly-disappointing bad-dream world of illusion. A world in which we pretend that what is empty is full, that we (unlike anybody else) can literally do the impossible, and that our own personal ideas are a good substitute for reality. Though neither our suffering nor the ego that we think undergoes the suffering have “inherent existence,” there is a real experience of suffering that hits us when we succumb to these illusions. The dissatisfaction, hopelessness, anxiety and depression that follow lead us to lash out angrily at the world, and to struggle desperately to gain impossible control over it, so we end up inflicting even more suffering on the humans, cats, dogs, door frames and other beings that have the bad luck to stand in our way.

So what can we do ? Shakyamuni Buddha once said that if you find someone who has been wounded with a poison arrow, the most urgent thing is not to find out who shot the arrow, what the bow was made of, who made the arrow, etc. but to remove the goddam arrow ! Every day we observe a world of people walking around with arrows sticking out of their chests. We look in the mirror and see an arrow protruding from our very own skull. Lost in thought, on whatever irrelevantly exalted or distractingly trashy level, we somehow forget to show a little compassion for others or even ourselves and get to work on extracting those arrows.

Zen is about that compassionate action. It’s the way of negation, but it’s also the most positive and practical path imaginable. According to Hui-neng “the spirit of the Way means always behaving respectfully, universally respecting and loving all creatures, without disdain.” [SH 91] If we open ourselves to really experiencing other beings and nature, we can stop dominating and manipulating them, and begin to appreciate and even love them. This bundless care for other beings is expressed in the Shiguseigan or boddhisattva vow that’s recited at the end of zazen (sitting) practice. It begins : “beings are countless ; I vow to save them all.” Cross my Heart Sutra and hope to neither be born nor die ! If I can’t save trillions, maybe I can at least save a few billion. Zen urges us to aim our anti-arrows very high !

Living In Lotus Land

It should be clear now that Zen is not a form of mere escapism—in fact it’s just the opposite. It does promise an escape—an escape from suffering and the illusions that cause it. But it teaches that liberation from illusion and suffering can only be achieved by a more intense experience of the reality of the world and of nature. Zen, for all its ascetic practices, revels in worldliness. It’s true to the Buddhist teaching that Samsara, the crazy, bustling, dusty world of constant change is itself Nirvana, the liberation that results from complete awakening. Hui-neng says that “Seeking enlightenment apart from the world/ Is like looking for crawfish tails on a nutria.” [SH 23, slightly revised] Hakuin expresses the same idea when he says that “This earth where we stand is the Pure Lotus Land,/ And this very body, the body of Buddha !” [ZW] And contemporary Buddhist poet Gary Snyder says that “the truly experienced person,” by which he means the truly experiencing person, “delights in the ordinary.” [PW 153]

In a similar spirit, Hui-neng asks how the legacy of great masters should be “demonstrated and transmitted ?” This is pretty important, because Zen is defined as the school of “direct transmission outside the scriptures.” Hui-neng replies that “there is no demonstration or transmission ; it is only a matter of seeing nature, not a matter of meditation or liberation. . . . these two things are not Buddhism ; Buddhism is a non-dualistic teaching.” Not “transmitting something,” but seeing nature. If we allow ourselves to really experience nature we find that we are not just in it ; we are it, though even to say that distorts what we see. That old Jewish lens-grinder who worked so diligently to clarify our sight expressed it accurately : “we” and “it” are both forms of natura naturans, “nature naturing.”

Zen would add, “empty forms.”

Please Identify Yourself

Hakuin says that “it is with great respect and deep reverence that I urge all of you superior seekers who investigate the secret depths to be as earnest in penetrating and clarifying the self as you would be in putting out a fire on top of your head.” [ET 3] I’m sure we’ve all been in that situation and have probably not spent a lot of time weighing our options. Hakuin’s urgent message about the self might really be phrased : “Liar, liar, brain’s on fire !” It’s hard for us to face self-non-knowledge.

Should we look for the true self, the real self, the authentic self ? Good luck ! If you do it you’re in for a big (or more precisely, an infinitely small) surprise. Hakuin says that “if we turn directly, and prove our True Nature,/ That true Self is no-self,/ Our own Self is no-self,/ We stand beyond ego and past clever words./ [ZW]

But if there is no self, why then does Buddhism, and even Zen itself, sometimes talk of a self ? According to Hui-neng it’s not because though there is no “little self” there is a “Big Self.” It’s not because though there is no “lower self,” there is still a “Higher Self.” He sticks with the basic Buddhist view, “No Self” (anatta), but points out that “in order to liberate people, the self is provisionally defined.” [SH 125] We can give the self some slack for a while. In the end, though, we have to shoot it down. Dogen puts it as follows : “To study the Buddha is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.” [GK 36] This is from the “Genjo Koan,” a brief text that is Dogen’s most famous one. We find our self by forgetting the self.

Our enlightenment comes from everything we experience, the Ten Thousand Things. Hit the road !


Some people think that the exalted place in Zen practice accorded to the teacher or master proves that Zen is “authoritarian.” Not to mention that the poor student sometimes gets whacked with a stick. Sado-masochistic authorirtarianism, no less ! No doubt Zen can decline into a cult of personality, but it to the extent that it follows its own path of the awakened mind, it is radically and uncompromisingly anti-authoritarian and anarchistic. Neither Shakyamuni Buddha nor any Buddha, Boddhisattva or arhat, much less any master, guru or teacher has the least authority over anyone. As Shakyamuni himself said, we have to “work out our own salvation with diligence” rather than relying on him or anyone else as an authority. No gurus, no saviors. Hui-neng points out that “scripture clearly says to take refuge in the Buddha in oneself, not to take refuge in another Buddha,” [SH 40] and Hakuin echoes this, saying, “Outside us, no Buddhas./ How near the Truth, yet how far we seek !/ Like one in water crying, ‘I thirst.’” [ZW]

Open Road

The most sustained and most notorious Zen assault on all forms of authority is found in Lin-Chi, the founder of Rinzai, the most overtly anarchic branch of Zen. For Lin-Chi, “things like the Three Vehicles and the twelve divisions of the scriptural teachings—they’re all so much old toilet paper to wipe away filth. The Buddha is a phantom body, the patriarchs are nothing but old monks. . . If you seek the Buddha, you’ll be seized by the Buddha devil. If you seek the patriarchs, you’ll be fettered by the patriarch devil. As long as you seek something it can only lead to suffering. Better to do nothing.” [ZT 47] Doing nothing [wu wei] is the famous Daoist concept for natural action, action in accord with Dao, action in which we freely follow our own way and allow other beings to do likewise. Zhuangzi, the great anarchic Daoist sage, compared it to “riding on the wind.”

To do this, we have to free ourselves from our heavy load of karma, that is, the mental formations, habits, prejudices, filters of experience that are the poisonous legacy of our past egoistic strivings for domination. A lot of the burden consists of images of external authorities—gods and other higher beings, leaders and experts, teachers and gurus, sacred scriptures and other revered documents—that we use as panaceas to avoid confronting our own experience and solving our own problems. Lin-Chi says “Get rid of all of them !” As Laozi (the great donothingist) said, the wise person can travel very far without taking along any baggage ! (Maybe just a roll of old toilet paper !)

So then Zen says we should look away from the world and all external authorities, and turn inward to find our source of authority ? Far from it ! We need freedom from both internal and external authorities and principles. After all, all those external authorities control us only because they take on the form of a powerful image within our mind. So Lin-Chi says, “Whether you’re facing inward or facing outward, whatever you meet up with, just kill it ! If you meet a Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet a patriarch, kill the patriarch. If you meet an arhat, kill the arhat. If you meet your parents, kill your parents. If you meet your kinfolk, kill your kinfolk. Then for the first time you will gain emancipation, will not be entangled with things, will pass freely anywhere you wish to go.” [ZT 52] If we kill all these dominating authority-figures (images or figurations within consciousness), then we can experience the reality behind the image, the reality of mind, the reality of beings.

Lin-Chi exhorts the “Followers of the Way” not to “take the Buddha to be some sort of ultimate goal. In my view he’s more like the hole in a privy.” [ZT 76] This (like the toilet paper remark) is a typical Zen comment, and should always be looked upon as is a form of highest praise. The hole in the donut may be relatively useless, but some holes serve a very important practical purpose. Lin-Chi is harsher with boddhisattvas and arhats, who are dismissed as “all so many cangues and chains, things for fettering people.” [ZT 76] The point may beto emphasize the fact that only the free, awakened mind (“Buddha”) is beyond being turned into a new source of subjection and bondage. The Buddha is just the hole through which all the old shit (“die alte Scheisse,” as someone called it) passes when we relieve ourselves of it.

So where should we look as our source of authority. To ourselves, of course—and since there’s no self, that means we should look nowhere. “Do you want to get to know the patriarchs and the Buddhas ? They’re none other than you, the people standing in front of me listening to this lecture on the Dharma !” There’s a bit of irony in lecturing the Buddha on the Dharma ! But what’s really absurd is all these Buddhas running around looking for gurus to give them the truth. “Students don’t have enough faith in themselves, and so they rush around looking for something outside themselves.” [ZT 23]

Nothing outside, nothing inside.

Stone Buddhas

Another reproach, similar to the charge of authoritarianism, that is sometimes leveled against Zen is that it is ritualistic. Zen sometimes appears ritualistic for the very good reason that it has a lot of rituals. But it must also be seen as the most scathing attack on all forms of ritualism. Hui-neng did the best job of demolishing this distortion of Zen. For Zen, a central problem with rites and rituals is that they easily fuel what Hui-neng calls the “religious ego” : the condition of those “who understand and practice yet entertain a sense of attainment, producing a self-image.” [SH 93] None, he says, can attain “great liberation” as long as they cling to this ego that constantly gazes at itself in a spiritual mirror, admiring all the layers of merit collecting on the sacred self. A consciousness very similar to that of the political militant who glories in possessing the correct line, the sacred sectarian truth.

Hui-neng also shows how some people confuse sunyata, the emptiness of all things, including the mind, with the need to turn the mind into a vacant lot. They assume that when all the greater and lesser vehicles are on the road, wheels turning, the parking lot of the mind is finally vacant. But Hui-neng attacks this as the “wrong view” of those “deluded people who sit quietly with empty minds, not thinking of anything whatsoever, and claim this is greatness.” [SH 17] He doesn’t say that this kind of practice is necessarily a bad thing, but rather that we shouldn’t take it for “the essence of Zen” or as an occasion for great spiritual pride at having the emptiest mind on the block. It’s a bit like the well-rounded individuals who do a bit of hatha yoga at the Y, but never suspect that there could be a yoga of diligent study, compassionate action, and selfless devotion.

Hui-neng also notes the problem of making a fetish out of zazen or sitting meditation. There are, he says, “confused people who sit in meditation fanatically trying to get rid of illusion and do not learn kindness, compassion, joyfulness, equanimity, wisdom, and expedient skills.” These people are “like wood or stone, without any function,” and “are called nonthinking.” [SH 93] Hakuin learned the same truth from his “decrepit old teacher” Shoju Rojin, who said of the Zen monks of his time : “What are you really like ? I’ll tell you. Large sacks of rice, fitted out in black robes.” [ET 15] Sort of like the dummies at the end of “Zero for Conduct.”

Zen offers us a double-edged sword. One edge is the Buddha-killing edge for slaying those Buddhas, patriarchs, traditions, rituals, and revered texts that would enslave us for the name of our own liberation. The other edge is the killing-Buddha edge that cuts in the opposite direction. For those Buddhas, patriarchs, rituals and texts that might enslave us, once slain with the uncutting sword of non-discrimination, can help us annihilate everything else we hold dear.

Nothing is spared in this massacre—Lin-Chi, who said to “Kill the Patriarch if you meet him on the road” was himself a patriarch.


Let’s enter the weird world of Mondo Zendo. OK, so what is the sound of one hand clapping ? Struggling with such a koan (Japanese), kungan (Chinese), or kongan (Korean) is central to Zen practice, particularly in the Lin-Chi or Rinzai tradition, the lightening-mind school. It’s a daunting task for the beginning student of Zen : hand to hand combat with King Kongan, the million pound gorilla.

The Death of Dog

“A monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have a Buddha Nature ?” Joshu said, “Mu !” This great Zen master didn’t seem to know that the correct Buddhist answer is “yes,” since all sentient beings have a Buddha Nature. Shibayama Roshi says that “although literally ‘Mu’ means No, in this case it points to the incomparable satori which transcends both yes and no, to the religious experience of the Truth one can attain when he casts away his discriminating mind.” [ZC 21] But even as he betrays the secret of Mu, Shibayama Roshi tricks the reader. For if “Mu” transcends both yes and no, it will also transcend “any religious experience of the Truth,” which it will brutally murder along with the various Buddhas and Patriarchs that Shibayama says we slay with the Great Sword of Mu. And when we cast away the discriminating mind, don’t we cast a discriminating eye on everything we see, including the works of Mumon and Shibayama Roshi ?

Shibayama himself later says that while we are conceptualizing “transcending both yes and no,” the “real ‘Mu’ is lost forever.” [ZC 22] Another monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have a Buddha Nature ?” Joshu said, “U !” Yes ! Had Joshiu then decided to come down on the side of spiritual correctness ? Not while the sound of “Mu” is still echoing in the background.

Does a dog ever appear in this koan ? Give it a bone !

The Resurrection of the Cat

At Nansen’s temple the monks of the East Hall and the monks of the West Hall were arguing about a cat. The nature of their dispute has not been passed down. But who knows ? Maybe it was “Does a cat have a Buddha nature ?” Or perhaps even more pertinently, “Do mice have a Buddha nature ?” Anyhow, Nansen came in, held up the cat, and said “Say something and I won’t kill the cat ! If you can’t say anything, I’ll kill it !” None of them could figure out what Nansen wanted them to say, so he killed the cat. Apparently these monks were better at disputing how many fleas can dance on the back of a cat than they were at acting. The next evening, Joshu returned to the temple. Nansen greeted Joshu, telling him what happened with to the poor cat (and to the really poor monks). Nansen asked Joshu if he could have saved the cat. Joshu took off one of his sandals, put it on his head, turned around and walked out. Nansen said, “If you had been there, you would have saved the cat !”

Joshu’s action was a totally spontaneous, right ? His lightening Zen mind was not disturbed by mere logical reasoning. How Zen it is ! Or was there actually an underlying logic ? The logic of reversal. To act by not acting. To say something by saying nothing. The sandal’s place is reversed, from the toe to the head. Things are turned heals over head. Joshu puts Nansen in the place of the cat. Where was Nansen’s compassion ? Joshu puts himself in the place of Nansen, who has been placed in the place of the cat. Mumon alludes to all these reversals : “Had Joshu only been there,/He would have taken action,/ Had he snatched the sword away,/ Nansen would have begged for his life.” [ZC 109]

Shibayama suggests that the monks were engaging in “speculative religious arguments.” [ZC 110] Something similar to the speculative political arguments of today, though with the internet, political monks from east, west and every other direction can now join together to dissect cats in a million different ways. Albert Low notes that it is said that “the sword of prajna” that Nansen used to kill the cat is “a sword that cuts not in two but in one.” [WG 112] Maybe it should be said that it cuts into none ! It’s the magical sword that uncuts !

The blade that uncuts us from the cat, and from everything else.

Yo Mama A Shit Stick

“The Buddha is a Shit Stick.” “Yo Mama a Shit Stick.” The one koan with a clear solution. But Zen never lets us take the easy way out. Let us investigate further.

“A monk asked Unmon, ‘What is Buddha ?’ Unmon said, ‘A shit-stick !’ (Kan-shiketsu)” (161) There have been a lot of theories about the intriguing question of the exact nature if this famous shit stick. Shibayama says it may have been “a bamboo tool used in ancient China to pick up and take away feces from the road.” [ZC 161] Apparently if you meet the feces on the road you don’t kill it, you carry it away. Get the picture ? Catch bullshit at four. Serious Zen practice. Somebody has to do it and very few are interested.

Shibayama says that “”for Master Unmon, here, the whole universe was a shit-stick.” [ZC 161] Right, we’ve all had days like that. But no, he means that there is “no room for such an idle distinction as dirty and clean.” [ZC 161] However, as true as this might be it’s also a bit too obvious. Shibayama warns that the koan’s aim of awakening should never be subordinated to the quest for a reasonable or ingenious response. On the other hand, he adds that the shit-stick has “another role to play” that can’t be overlooked : it “roots out any possible preoccupation in the student’s mind such as ‘virtuous Buddha, inviolable holiness’ and the like.” [ZC 162]

Whatever else it might be, the shit-stick is a cure for all kinds of Holy Shit.

If It Ain’t Fixed, Break It

And nothing is fixed ! The famous master Hyakujo wanted to find an abbot for a monastery. He put a pitcher on the floor and asked what it was, adding, “Don’t say it’s a pitcher.” Some of the smarter monks came up with smart things to say. Then Isan the cook came up and kicked it over, breaking it. Bingo ! Isan got to be abbot. The moral of this story : The urge to destroy a pitcher is a creative urge also. Which doesn’t mean that we can achieve an awakened mind if we kick over a pitcher every time we see one. It’s been done !

Commenting on this famous koan, Shibayama says that the “natural and free working flowing out of true Zen spirituality” should never be confused with “unusual or eccentric behavior with a stink of Zen.” (287) Isn’t this true of all behavior that “reeks of anarchy.” How free from arche is it really ? Is it free from the arche of reactive rebellion ? Is it free from the arche of egoistic accumulation ? Is it free from the arche of self-righteousness ?

The real problem is not how to kick over a pitcher, but how to tear down that deceptive pitcher of the ego.

The Wisdom of Absurdity

So is it perfectly clear now ? Do I have to draw a pitcher ? If it’s not, here are two more strong hints from some of our compassionate teachers.

Hui-neng, very early in the history of Zen, generously gives away much of the secret of the “inscrutable” responses of Zen. Zen mind is basically dialectic in action, training the mind to practice spontaneously in ones everyday life what some philosophers have merely written about. Notice that Hui-neng recommends an explicitly anarchic method, that is, one that subverts principles : “If people question you about principles, if they ask about being, reply with nonbeing ; if they ask about nonbeing, reply with being. If they ask about the ordinary, reply with the holy ; if they ask about the holy, reply with the ordinary ; the two paths are relative to each other, producing the principle of the middle way.” [SH 72]

The first Western Zen master, Heraclitus, said much the same thing : “The path up and the path down are one and the same.” So if they ask about either path, the “opposite-way” response will show their identity. Hui-neng might have added that if they ask about the middle way, reply with the most radical extremes ! So this is part of the sense behind the nonsense. However as truly generous and compassionate as Hui-neng was, he didn’t really give all that much away. He gave away free menus, but he didn’t give away free food. For describing how it works is not the same as releasing the spontaneity of consciousness that allows it to work. It’s still up to us to work out our own spontaneity with diligence.

Another helpful hint comes from contemporary Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. He says that “the response to the koan lies in the life of the practitioner.” [ZK 57]. The koan is not a puzzle or riddle with one correct answer that the student has to guess. The koan is aimed at evoking, or provoking a certain state (or perhaps anti-state or statelessness !) of consciousness. Thus of two responses that seem formally identical one may be judged perfectly apt, another abysmally wrong, the pretext for a compassionate whack on the head. The koan isn’t a test question (fill in the blank mind ?) ; it’s an opportunity to wake up. Sometimes the sleeper doesn’t respond and needs a good dousing with cold water.

The koan is this wakeup call. Wake up and live !


In many of the classic Buddhist and Zen texts it’s important to look at the opening and closing words. Often the parts that seem at first to be peripheral (dedications, salutations, etc.) convey some of the most crucial messages in the entire work. Hakuin concludes his Zen 101 course with two injunctions. First, he humbly begs his students to “overlook once more an old man’s foolish grumblings.” And then he implores them to “please take good care of yourselves.” Thus with his always focused, ever-attentive mindfulness, Hakuin concludes with the essential non-essence of Buddhism and Zen : non-attachment and compassion. [ET 103]

So go out and kill some Buddhas, and a have a really, really nice day !


Dogen,“Actualizing the Fundamental Point” [The Genjo Koan] in Kazuaki Tanahashi, Enlightenment Unfolds : The

Essentialof Zen Master Dogon (Boston and London : Shambhala, 1999), pp. 35-39. [GK]

Hakuin, The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin : A Translation of the Sokko-roku Kaien-fusetsu, translated

by Norman Waddell (Boston and London : Shambhala, 1994). [ET]

Hakuin, “Song of Meditation” in D.T. Suzuki, Manual of Zen Buddhism (New York : Grove Press, 1960). [MZ]

Hakuin, “Zazen Wasan” (“Song of Zazen”), translation by the Rochester Zen Center (Rochester, NY : The Rochester

Zen Center, N.D.)… [ZW]

“Heart Sutra” in Buddhist Wisdom : Containing The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra, translation and

commentary by Edward Conze (New York : Vintage Books, 2001). [HS]

Hui-neng, The Sutra of Hui-neng, Grand Master of Zen, With Hui-neng’s Commentary on the Diamond Sutra,

translated by Thomas Cleary (Boston and London : Shambhala, 1998). [SH]

Joshu, The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu, translated by James Green (Boston : Shambhala, 1998). [RS]

Lin-chi, The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-Chi : A Translation of the Lin-Chi Lu. Translated by Burton Watson.

(Boston and London : Shambhala, 1993). [ZT]

Low, Albert, The World : A Gateway : Commentaries on the Mumonkan (Boston, Rutland VT, and Tokyo : Charles

  1. Tuttle, Inc., 1995. [WG]

Nhat Hanh, Thich, Zen Keys (New York : Doubleday, 1995). [ZK]

Snyder, Gary, “On the Path, Off the Trail” in Practice of the Wild (San Francisco : North Point Press, 1990). [PW]



From “The Dawn of Tantra” by Herbert V. Guenther

& Chogyam Trungpa. Shambhala Dragon Editions

pages 2, 3, 4, & 5.