Below are a few stories and passages which illustrate some of the key aspects of Buddhism. These provide an immediate feeling for Buddhism (in no particular order), important since Buddhism stresses the importance of whole-being engagement and conscious practise rather than just mere intellectualism.
I’ve selected these stories because they’ve helped with my own understanding of the ‘spirit of Buddhism’, and together they remind me of the following core aspects of Buddhism.
1. Buddhism is about compassion
2. Buddhism is about just being happy and at peace
3. Buddhism is about well-being, inner peace and stability
4. Buddhism is about being here, now and not running away from your problems
5. Buddhism is about paying attention to everything you do.
6. Buddhism is about realising the inconceivable
7. Buddhism is nothing special
(Two quick qualifying points: this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and these texts do have overlapping themes so might illustrate many of the key ideas below.)
(1) Kusuda The Physician (from the sotry ‘stingy in teaching’)
A young physician in Tokyo named Kusuda met a college friend who had been studying Zen. The young doctor asked him what Zen was.
“I cannot tell you what it is,” the friend replied, “but one thing is certain. If you understand Zen, you will not be afraid to die.”
“That’s fine,” said Kusuda. “I will try it. Where can I find a teacher?”
“Go to the master Nan-in,” the friend told him.
So Kusuda went to call on Nan-in.
Nan-in said: “Zen is not a difficult task. If you are a physician, treat your patients with kindness. That is Zen.”
Kusuda visited Nan-in three times. Each time Nan-in told him the same thing. “A physician should not waste time around here. Go home and take care of your patients.”
It was not clear to Kusuda how such teaching could remove the fear of death*. So on the forth visit he complained: “My friend told me that when one learns Zen one loses his fear of death. Each time I come here you tell me to take care of my patients. I know that much. If that is your so-called Zen, I am not going to visit you any more.”
Nan-in smiled and patted the doctor. “I have been too strict with you. Let me give you a koan.” He presented Kusuda with Joshu’s Mu to work over, which is the first mind-enlightening problem in the book called ‘The Gateless Gate’.
Kusuda pondered this problem of Mu (No-Thing) for two years. At length he thought he had reached certainty of mind. But his teacher commented: “You are not in yet.”
Kusuda continued in concentration for another year and a half. His mind became placid. Problems dissolved. No-Thing became the truth. He served his patients well and, without even knowing it, he was free from concern of life and death.
When he next visited Nan-in, his old teacher just smiled
Commentary part one
Kusuda’s ‘access’ ‘no-thing was staring him in the face every day – all he needed to do was to ‘lose himself’ in the practise of treating his patients with compassion. This short story should serve as a reminder that many of us, in fact, have ample opportunity to practise compassion in our day to day lives. Of course contemplation of Mu may have helped, but the point is, Kusuda was not living a robe wearing monk, initiated into any special sect, his life was nothing special’. In other words, there is no ‘great secret’ to Zen Buddhism. Developing the genuine intention of kindness is sufficient to release yourself from the fear of death (*fear of death is one of the basic forms of suffering, one of the basic elements of our ordinary mundane existence).
Commentary part two
The importance of compassion is most commonly emphasised in The Tibetan Buddhist tradition, expressed below by The Dalai Llama:
‘Mental states such as kindness and compassion are definitely very positive. They are very useful… I would regard a compassionate, warm, kind-hearted person as healthy. If you maintain a feeling of compassion, loving kindness, then something automatically opens your inner door… You’ll find that all human beings are just like you, as you are able to relate to them much more easily. That gives you a spirit of friendship. Then there’s less need to hide things, and as a result, feelings of fear, self doubt and insecurity are automatically dispelled… I think that cultivating positive mental states like kindness and compassion definitely leads to better psychological health and happiness.’
Cutler, H. and The Dalai Lama, 1999 (p28)
(2) Take my Hand – A Poem by Thich Nhat Hanh
Take my hand.
We will walk.
We will only walk.
We will enjoy our walk,
without thinking of arriving anywhere.
Our walk is a peace walk.
Our walk is a happiness walk.
Thich Nhat Hanh (2011)
The simplicity of this poem speaks volumes. It is a perfect reminder that Buddhism is about peaceful contentment with whatever it is you find yourself doing, in this case walking:
Walk for the sake of walking, walk peacefully, walk happily, and do so in peaceful companionship with others. Walk, just walk.
(3) Matthieu Ricard’s ‘ocean analogy’
About five minutes in Ricard says…..
‘Well being is not just a pleasurable sensation, it is a deep sense of serenity and fulfilment: a state that underlies all emotional states, and pervades all the joys and sorrows which can come one’s way. Look at the waves coming at the shore. When you are at the bottom of the wave you hit the bottom, you hit the solid rock, when you are surfing on the top you are all elated, so you go from elation to depression, there’s no depth. Now if you look at the high sea, there might be a beautiful calm ocean like a mirror, there might be storms, but the depth of the ocean is still there, unchanged.’
Here, Matthieu Ricard (2004) contrasts the analogy of waves breaking on a shore to the calmness of the deeper ocean to distinguish western notions of happiness from Buddhist notions. Ricard characterises the western notion of happiness as involving ‘doing something pleasurable’ which is analogous to surfing on the crest of a wave, but at other less-pleasurable times, we might be having our heads smashed against a rock onthe shore-line. Whereas in Buddhism, we are striving to develop a characteristic of mind that is more like the deeper ocean rather than the shoreline. Although there are still peaks and troughs of waves, out in the deep, the depths remain undisturbed. It is this deep and stable peace that we are striving for in Buddhism, a stable condition of mind that pervades and enables us to endure all emotional states, all the joys and sorrows that come one’s way.
(4) That’s Not Your Door
In Zen monasteries you must pay constant attention to what you are doing. All your activities are prescribed, and they’re carried out in deliberate stillness. After a time, this can get to you (as it did to one particular zen student) who went to see the master and said.
‘I can’t take this any more, I want out’
The master said ‘O.K, then leave’
As he started for the door the teacher said ‘that’s not your door’
Oh! Sorry.’ The startled fellow looked around and spotted a second door. As he headed for it the teacher said ‘That’s not your door’
‘Oh!’ He looked around for another door. He could see that behind the teacher was a little door normally used by the teacher’s attendant. As he headed for that door the teacher screamed at him ‘That’s not your door!’
Totally bewildered and exasperated, the poor fellow said. ‘What do you mean? There’s no other door! You told me I could leave, but there’s no door I can leave by!’
”If there’s no door you can leave by,’ said the teacher ‘then sit down’.
Hagan, S (1999, 34-5)
Wherever you go, there you are. We’re always here, Examine your life and you’ll see this is the case. The master’s ‘sit down’ means to start paying attention to what’s actually going on, rather than running away from it. Right here, and right now, whatever it is you are experiencing, that is the thing to pay attention to. That is Buddhism, plain and simple.
(5) Every Minute Zen
Zen students are with their masters at least two years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: “I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.”
Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.
Buddhism is about paying attention when you are in formal meditation, you must pay attention in day to day life, to whatever it is you are doing, even the most mundane and ‘in-between’ activities. In fact, paying attention to the ‘in-between bits can be very useful practise, given that they actually make up several minutes, sometimes hours in our day. The Venerable Soto recommends paying attention to opening and closing doors, given this is one of those times when we are most likely to be thinking of something else (i.e. what is through the door); Thich Nhat Hanh once made a ‘pact with a staircase’ and every time he now climbs or descends stairs he is careful to do so mindfully.
(6) The Flower Sermon
One problem with any discussion about the nature of Enlightenment is that Enlightenment is something which transcends conceptualisation, and thus the actual experience of it cannot be expressed in words. This is illustrated in the The Flower Sutra, within the Zen tradition which stresses wordless insight more than most other types of Buddhism.
Toward the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a quiet pond for instruction. As they had done so many times before, the Buddha’s followers sat in a small circle around him, and waited for the teaching. But this time the Buddha had no words. He reached into the muck and pulled up a lotus flower. And he held it silently before them, its roots dripping mud and water. The disciples were greatly confused. Buddha quietly displayed the lotus to each of them. In turn, the disciples did their best to expound upon the meaning of the flower: what it symbollized, and how it fit into the body of Buddha’s teaching. When at last the Buddha came to his follower Mahakasyapa, the disciple suddenly understood. He smiled and began to laugh. Buddha handed the lotus to Mahakasyapa and began to speak.
“What can be said I have said to you,” smiled the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.”
Mahakashyapa became Buddha’s successor from that day forward.
Commentary (by Zen Master Bon Haeng)
The Buddha was teaching about the essential nature of reality, an essence not separate from the everyday. It’s the essence we can experience of any and every thing, of every moment. It is just “thus!” Sometimes it’s called “thusness.” This experience is truly indescribable. It doesn’t need to be described because there’s nothing lacking. No words are needed and no words are adequate. This is a taste of “thusness,”…. You could say it’s the essence of life or of awareness, expressed in breath and consciousness and time and you all as one complete perfect moment.
(7) Nothing Special – From Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
If you continue this simple practice (zazen), you will obtain some wonderful power Before you attain it, it is something wonderful, but after you attain it, it is nothing special. Strictly speaking, for a human being there is no other practice than this practice. Zen practice is the direct expression of our true nature.
While you are continuing this practice, week after week, year after year your experience will become deeper and deeper, your experience will cover everything you do in your everyday life.. The most important thing is to forget alll gaining ideas, all dualistic ideas. In other words, just practixe zazen in a certain posture. Do not think about anything. Just remain on your cushion without expecting anything. The eventually you will resume your own true nature. That is to say, your own true nature resumes itself.
Suzuki, S, 1998 (pp46-48)
Shunryu Suzuki single-handedly brought Zen to the West, and his life and words he emphasised the utter simplicity of Zen practice. Sitting in quiet meditation, giving yourself to your breath, just sitting there, is the core practise in Zen Buddhism. The problem with just sitting there is that it is too easy to fall into the habit of ‘trying to get somewhere’ or ‘praising yourself for getting it right’ or ‘imagining luminescent states’ which, actually, is differing to just sitting there. However, Enlightenment is both wonderful and nothing special, which is different to sitting there thinking how special the inexperience is.
Hence why, as outlined in the very first section of his book (and his only book), just to take this posture (properly) and focus on the breath (attentively) and just sit there, without any gaining thought, this is all you need to do and not-do, this is the conclusion of Buddhism.
Hagan, S (1999) Buddhism Plain and Simple, London: Penguin
Howard C. Cutler and His Holiness The Dalai Lama, (1999) The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. Mobius.
Ricard, M, (2007) Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Atlantic Books
Suzuki, S (1998) Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, New York: Weatherhill
Thich Nhat Hanh (2011) The Long Road Turns To Joy: A Guide To Walking Meditation, Parallex Press, Berkeley, California.