The Path to
This essay is an effort to interpret Cheng-Tao-Ko, also known as Shodoka or Song of Enlightenment, a text of seminal importance to Ch'an, Zen and Taoism.
This text was written by Yung-chia Hsuan-chueh (Yoka Genkaku Daishi), 665 - 713, a student of Hui-neng (613 - 713), who was the sixth patriarch after Bodhidharma, and is accepted by many as the real Chinese founder of Zen.
Shodoka is memorized in its entirety by many students in China, Korea and Japan, and they would recite it at special occasions.
This essay paraphrases and explains where necessary, and also illustrates how Song of Enlightenment can be applied to everyday life in the modern world. In this way, the essay follows the author's intention, which is to guide the sincere person in her quest to live in harmony with the Tao.
The advice given is not designed for passive consumption.
You have to live it.
There is no shortcut.
Only when you apply this in your life, will you begin to understand.
1. Walking the Tao
The first three lines of this text describe a sage living in harmony with the Tao.
The sage is "the leisurely one".
Leisurely - what a relaxed, easy-going, lighthearted, buoyant, beaming state of mind to be in. In the financial and business environment, "leisurely" is synonymous with failure. You have to be in a furtive, hectic state of mind to appear important. Not for you the easy stroll enjoying the sunshine and the beauty around you. No, you have to be in a rush, with tunnel vision, your eyes transfixed on the next short-termed goal.
In Song of Enlightenment, "leisurely" is positive and crucial. The sage knows time is too precious to be wasted by rushing through it with too much to do.
Time is money? What ignorant nonsense. You cannot save time, like money. Vivisecting days into nanoseconds does not produce more time. It produces haste, and distress, and less time. By saving time, you actually lose time.
Time management experts are the false profits of our age.
I love the lilt of "walking the Tao". It reminds me of a dance - joyous, lively, yet easy and relaxed.
The sage is even more intriguing when you realize even her mind is leisurely.
The text does not describe the sage as without philosophy, for that would turn her into somebody stupid. No, she is beyond philosophy, which qualifies her as wise. She has not stopped thinking, but she has progressed beyond it.
We cannot bring our minds to rest by ignoring problems. Repressive silence causes neurosis and not peace of mind. Somehow, we have no choice but to go through our mental storms until they have subsided or we have transcended them.
I always find it exciting when young, sincere minds earnestly and passionately search for answers. It is useless to tell them to stop all mental activity, or to point out to them that they are entering a spiritual wasteland where answers produce even more questions. They have to fight their own mental battles until they realize the truth of this themselves, and until their minds reach silence "beyond philosophy."
Existing beyond philosophy does not mean the death of creativity. In fact, getting stuck in intellectuality does. The passage clearly shows "fantasy" is part of moving with the Tao, which is wonderful. In its natural state close to the Tao, the mind functions in all its creative splendor. The sage does not search for truth, for she knows truth cannot be found by searching for it. It is beyond the reach of analytical mental activity. Truth is only found when you have given up searching for it.
2. The real nature
Ignorance is the source of suffering, the root of evil.
Ignorance is more than just not knowing. It is a state of mind, the cure of which is far more complicated than just acquiring knowledge. Ignorance, like wisdom, is frustratingly illusive.
Yet, this passage implies that ignorance and wisdom are two sides of the same coin.
This passage is astoundingly optimistic. It is one of hope. It tells us that wisdom and compassion lie dormant just below the surface of what might appear to us as appalling ignorance.
Every human being, no matter how stupid or evil, has the potential to become compassionate and wise.
Even our bodies of flesh and desire, the very root of our delusions, are part of the spirit.
This passage is profound. It tells us that nobody should be discarded as beyond hope. Even a murderer has the potential to become a sage.
I find this inspiring in a world where people are all too ready to condemn others and to exclude them from their mercy.
This passage appeals to us to extend our compassion to those that appear ignorant and evil, for we share the same nature with them, which is one of wisdom and compassion.
It is a message of hope for all. Wisdom and compassion are dormant in everyone. We are not lost. We are never beyond hope. We are a hair's breadth away from enlightenment.
3. Nothing at all
It is astounding. Science has been dedicated to finding, categorizing and analyzing matter. We have acquired vast data bases of knowledge. And now this text is trying to tell us that at the end of all this furtive search for true insight, there is "nothing at all".
Of course, this text is talking about a different kind of "awakening" than just intellectual realization following research or intellectual activities.
It is talking about a spiritual experience which lies beyond science. When we become aware of the true nature of our self, we realize that we are in fact "empty", that there is nothing permanent in us. We, too, are a brief manifestation of energy, which takes shape and disappears, like a wave in the ocean rising and falling to disappear into the endless ocean. There is nothing to cling to. Clinging to permanence is holding on to an illusion.
To follow the Tao is to accept the perpetual movement and change of which we are an integral part.
In the light of this passage, a bloated ego becomes particularly absurd.
Living only for yourself is dedicating your life totally to an illusion.
4. The seemingly irreconcilable
This passage makes me realize how near and how far we are from paradise. It is frustrating, isn't it? We are born full of innocence, but then in our vain effort to find the truth, we lose our innocence. It's almost as if truth and innocence cannot co-exist. The one seems to eliminate the other. This is probably because we often falsely see truth as intellectual matter, something we should acquire through analytical thinking, research and academic activities, or through fervent religious activities full of hardship and suffering.
In this passage, truth is clearly something else, for it exists as an inseparable part of innocence.
When we study or do research, we are not really searching for the truth, are we? Aren't we just acquiring the means to utilize power? We cannot else but lose our innocence this way. As for acquiring truth? Forget it. Knowledge? Yes. Insight? Possibly. But truth?
By the time you start searching for the truth, you have already lost your innocence. Isn't this a reason to despair? Aren't we in this age desperately searching for truth only after materialism and greed have alienated us from ourselves? Are we not already defeated even before we have begun?
How do we regain our lost innocence? Isn't this a question human kind has been struggling with for ages? Doesn't this touch the very essence of most religions?
The author tries to answer these questions in the next part of his passage.
5. Bubbles on the surface
If our true nature is one of "innocent truth", then all our negative and destructive reactions and emotions are "like bubbles on the surface of the sea".
They are insubstantial and not really part of us.
I find this passage brings within reach what seems to be unreachable. In fact, you do not have to search for your true nature. You just have to realize that your natural state is one of innocent truth. Negative qualities come and go like bubbles on the ocean, but the ocean, your true nature, remains, and this true nature is full of innocence and truth.
We are not the clouds and the storms. We are the gloriously empty sky.
When we reach total unity with our true self, we will have escaped the world of distinction, the very cause of our undoing and separation from our true nature.
The world, like our mind, will become one of innocent truth, and there will be no hell to go to.
For a brief moment in the fourth and fifth lines, the author appears on the scene, and he takes an impressive oath to emphasize the central importance of what he is saying:
Is the author saying that the world can be turned into a place without hell by the way we deal with reality in our minds? Is he saying that if we abandon our analytical, dualistic forms of thinking and strive to reach spiritual unity with all things, we will come to peace and banish hell here on earth?
Isn't this naive? What about the wars and famines, and the stark images of children bloated with hunger? Isn't he talking about the escape of a privileged few from a reality most people cannot escape from?
Of course not. He is not talking about isolation from the world. The imperfect world still exists. Your mind and the world are one. He is talking about the kind of spiritual state essential to compassion, as his next lines clearly indicate:
Once awakened, we become truly compassionate. Our nature of "innocent truth" is neither naive, nor escapist. It is the kind of nature that will not give in to the horrors of the world. No, it will rather transform the world so that the path of hell vanishes.
7. Waking up from the dream
To understand this part of the passage, it is necessary to know that in eastern texts, the life of confused and ignorant people are often depicted as a dream, from which they have to awaken before they enter reality or real life. In this dream, which is their life, ignorant people fall prey to the illusion that their dream is reality - they think that the forms before them are truly permanent forms of life with some permanent core.
This illusion of reality and permanence is part of their confusion and their ignorance. They refuse to recognize that all forms are mere displays of energy, totally devoid of any permanence. They therefore also live lives dedicated to solidity and material, clinging to the illusion of permanence, furtively and vainly trying to hold on to life and their possessions. They are materialists because they are not aware of the fact that they have fallen prey to a dream - they cannot see reality beneath the illusion of form. They are ignorant. They are almost like an audience falling prey to illusionary forms conjured up by magicians.
Enlightenment within this paradigm means waking up from your dream to discover reality. So part of enlightenment is to discover that life is an illusion of form - that the universe is empty. Nothing permanent exists. Everything is moving inexorably and changing rapidly.
You, too, as an "individual" do not really exist; in fact, you are nothing but many aggregates operating in unison for a brief moment. There is nothing permanent in you. You, too, are empty.
"What!" you might protest. "But this is terrible! Isn't this totally nihilistic?"
No, it's not. The secret lies in understanding the idea of emptiness spoken about here. It is not the kind of emptiness which means the lack of material presence. It does not mean "nothing at all". Emptiness within this context - and remember this is an effort to describe spiritual experience with inadequate forms of language and imagery - is a mysterious quality intimately related to the Tao. It is the quality that permeates all things.
In Japanese Hua-Yen philosophy, the word Li describes emptiness. It is the essence of all things and forms, which are called Shih.
Once we have awakened from our dream, we will realize that the whole world is in total unity, for we all are mere forms (Shih) of emptiness (Li). In a flash, our separation from the rest of creation will become clear to us, and we will realize that our minds have been the cause of this separation. We will understand that before our enlightenment, we fell prey to the dualistic thinking habits of our minds, which made us believe that the dream is reality, that things are really separated, and that the world actually consists of separate entities.
What must be pointed out is that this kind of realization is not the result of mental activity, but it is of an experiential nature. It happens on a spiritual level. It is not something you can pick up at seminars.
Describing this to the uninitiated is like explaining electricity to someone who has not seen a bulb glow, or who has not touched a live wire yet.
Enlightenment is to wake up from this dream we mistakenly accept as "reality" to discover the real world of the spirit.
This does not mean that we escape this illusionary world, for this illusionary or dream world and the real world out there are identical. What has truly changed is the way we see the world, and even more important, the way we live in the world.
The enlightened person is part of this world without being part of it.
8. Giving up the dream
This part of the passage is quite astounding. How many people do not preoccupy themselves with religion or meditative forms of self-improvement because they want to improve their good fortunes or gain something. What this passage clearly says, and it is a dire warning, is that this kind of agenda does not go with "eternal serenity".
In a way, there is no such thing as achieving enlightenment with a hidden agenda of improving your fortunes or gaining by it. Your striving must be completely selfless.
It's really true, isn't it? How could you wake up from the dream, realizing that material things are mere illusions if in your heart you are searching for a more effective way of clinging to the illusion? It will never work. It is only when you have given up the dream that you can get rid of it.
9. The clean mirror
Before we can really understand what this passage really means, the meaning of the image of the mirror in Ch'an or Zen should be explained.
The true sage in total harmony with the Tao is like a clean mirror reflecting reality as it really is.
The dust particles on the mirror referred to here are our emotions and thoughts interfering with the true reflection of reality. Our thoughts and emotions turn us into dirty mirrors not able to reflect reality and truth without distortion.
This passage is therefore a call on us to cleanse ourselves of the thoughts and emotions which distort reality and the truth.
In Zen, this means controlling your thoughts to a point where they do not influence you, and where your analytical mind ceases to interfere in your perception of reality. Only then will you be able see things the way they really are.
Silence, like emptiness, therefore has a positive meaning in this context. Silence is a state of total honesty, where your own emotions, inclinations, ambitions and agendas have ceased to exist, and therefore do not influence the way you observe and experience reality.
"Silence" and "emptiness" are two words or images with which a state of "total unity" with "reality" is described. They are unsatisfactory, I know, but they are the closest that language or imagery has come to describing the indescribable. In fact, and this is the problem, they only become completely "comprehensible" on a "spiritual level" after enlightenment, and not before.
They simply point at the incomprehensible or the invisible. The miracle is that language or imagery, somehow, sometimes work.
The miracle is not one of language or poetry, though, but of spirit.
10. Striving for the impossible
This passage has provided many people with difficulties. Many alternative translations and transliterations have been offered as a way out. Let us, however, try to understand this translation.
In actual fact, the explanation to this passage is simple. The author is actually saying that no-one can quite reach the ideal of a totally clean mirror reflecting reality without distortion, for no-one can be totally without thought - anyway, not anyone born here on earth.
Only those who are "not-born" can have "no-thought", and even those who are "not-born", are still, somehow "produced", that is they are not "un-born" either. Even a robot (or statue) is not without thought, which is true, for artefacts or works of art also contain or represent ideas, don't they? Artefacts are expressions of thought. What the author is in fact saying is that nothing created by humans is totally free of thought. We cannot totally escape our rational minds, even when we use symbols or forms to overcome the handicaps of language.
Is he therefore saying that the ideal state of mind - one of complete emptiness and silence - does not exist here on earth?
He probably is. We are facing a difficult task because we live in a world where thinking is part of survival, and to give up thinking on the rational level could have disastrous consequences. In fact, on the material level of survival we are not supposed to give up thinking. We must think rationally, we have no choice but to analyze and discern.
When these mental survival activities go beyond their own sphere, they tend to disturb us in our search for serenity on a spiritual level.
You have probably experienced it yourself. You try to meditate only to end up worrying about tomorrow, or brooding over problems and hurts. Small wonder that throughout history many people earnestly in search of serenity have withdrawn themselves completely from "normal life", to live hermetical, ascetic lives. The ancient traditions of cloisters and monasteries are testimonies of the belief that experiencing enlightenment and finding your true self is almost impossible in the normal hectic struggle for survival. Many monks earnestly believe that enlightenment can only be found by living in seclusion with other monks striving towards the same goal. You find these practices in almost all religions, where it is thought that finding true fulfilment is impossible in the family and working environment, where you are often confronted by people who tear you down - people who are so confused and ignorant that they increase the confusion in you. They also believe it is too difficult in working environments where you are sometimes expected to do things which go against the very essence of what you are trying to become.
This belief that true enlightenment is impossible when you are a person taking on the normal responsibilities of family and society does not bode well for us "normal people". Particularly in our performance orientated society, there is no place for beggar monks who can spend their days meditating.
In our modern times, very few of us have the luxury of controlling our environments to such an extent that we can find serenity in seclusion. Yes, we will go on holiday in a desperate attempt to revitalize the spirit, but even then most people in their ignorance will only increase their confusion with hectic thrill-seeking activities.
If it is impossible to find serenity in this hectic world dedicated to greed, is it worth its while to try to reach enlightenment? Yes, of course it is. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate.
The spirit isn't logical. That's what I love about it. Our spirit is willing to reach for the unreachable. Do not kill your spirit with common sense arguments. Allow it to soar. You will be lifted up with it. Even if you cannot become perfect, your effort to improve will bring you close enough to the kind of serenity possible on this earth of ours.
11. Detachment and freedom
This passage asks a profound question. Theologians and philosophers have argued endlessly about this. Many would argue that fulfilment comes through virtuous deeds, through active compassion. Others would argue that one should isolate oneself from the realities of samsara - this endless wheel of suffering which is life - and concentrate on finding Buddha, God, whatever name one gives to the summum bonum or the absolute.
The answer given by the author here comes as a bit of a shock, doesn't it? It sounds quite banal. You should give up "your hold" on everything that constitutes life and existence, and you should - and this sounds paradoxical at first - "drink and eat as you wish".
Releasing your hold on things sounds like a call to asceticism, to controlling your instincts and desires, doesn't it? And yet, the very next sentence tells you to live according to your natural instincts, and even more: "as you wish". It is a call to total freedom. Most people will at first find this quite perplexing, for we are often told that control is essential to spiritual development. We are given all these commandments, rules and laws governing our behavior, and are told we would transgress them at our peril.
The author, without hesitation, brings a detached state of mind - where desire does not play a role - into harmony with the ability to live in total freedom, where you "eat and drink as you wish."
His answer is a breathtakingly simple and profound one: once you have stopped clinging to life and have stopped living according to your desires, you will acquire the freedom to live a life of total freedom where you can actually enjoy life. Isn't it true? Clinging to things spoils the fun, doesn't it? If you love someone, it is wonderful. The moment you cling to your beloved, the love turns sour quickly. Clinging to life stifles and suffocates life itself.
If you cling to things, you will eat and drink not in serenity, but in anxiety, afraid that you might lose what you have. If you have ceased holding on to things, you will "Drink and eat as you wish in total serenity." Serenity only comes when you have conquered desire and ceased holding on to things. Only then will virtuous deeds and walking the path of the Tao make sense, and will eating and drinking become truly enjoyable.
12. The ultimate truths
This passage is of immense meaning. It summarizes the ultimate truths of Buddhism. Volumes can be written about these truths. They take lifetimes to understand. I shall try to comment on the three aspects mentioned in terms of their meaning and application in modern life. But I would like to warn, as I will point out many times as we progress, that language cannot come to grips with this, and our intellectual faculties fail us as well. True understanding takes place on a different level - a spiritual level, which is closely linked to the experiential.
Let us have a brief look at the three central truths: transience, emptiness and enlightenment.
Transience is obvious, isn't it? Everything is temporary and in a continuous flow. Nothing is perfect or complete. We are all beings on the way from one point to another. We are, somehow, always in between, in the middle, on the way. There is nothing static. Mountains move and rivers dry up. Moving with the Tao is changing with change. It is not to try to hold on to illusions of permanence. In real life out there, it means comfort zones are mostly zones of stagnation. Choosing the illusion of security instead of spiritual development is futile, for no matter how much your mind tries to hold on to permanence, the flow continues, and your own suffering will only increase when you hold on to illusions. You have no choice really. Accepting transience brings serenity.
Emptiness has a profound meaning in Ch'an or Zen. Apart from the various aggregates functioning interdependently in you, you are completely empty. There is no permanent, unchangeable core in you. You are nothing but a continuous flow of interdependent faculties. You are as transient as all other beings around you.
The word "emptiness" is an unsatisfactory translation of its counterpart "Sunyata", which is often used in Buddhism. "Sunyata" does not mean the absence of something, as "emptiness" suggests. The only absence that it refers to is the absence of illusion - the kind of inventions of the mind we take as reality, like for instance the idea that an "I" really exists. Its meaning is more profound than the absence of illusion. It is closely linked to the word "Li", which means the real "basis" or "substance" or "essence" of everything. The emptiness in you is therefore not so much the absence of something, as it is the very "substance" of all existence. The word "substance" used here is however a woefully inappropriate word, for "Sunyata" or emptiness is wholly insubstantial.
When you accept the emptiness within you, you accept that you carry in you the same "substance" as all beings around you. The emptiness in you is universal, it is your link with everything else. It is what unites you with everything else. It is the only "real thing" in you. Your body, senses, perceptions, decision-making processes and consciousness are in perpetual flux and unreal. The only reality in you is "Sunyata", "Li" - emptiness.
Emptiness is also your "true self". Language is again totally inadequate here. The "self" in "true self" has actually little if nothing to do with the traditional concept of "self", for in this context "self" does not really exist, except as part of the universal. It is probably preferable, to avoid confusion, to speak of "true being" instead of "true self", but the latter has become the more popular term. In a way, the "true self" can only be discovered when you have destroyed your "false self" or ego, that is your own invention of what you are supposed to be. The moment you have stripped yourself of your "false self" or your ego, only emptiness, Sunyata, Li, your "true self" remains. You come face to face with "reality", your "true self", which is in fact complete emptiness, where no self exists. This is a moment of enlightenment. It is when you realize on a spiritual level that you are completely empty, that "self" does not exist, and that you are an indivisible part of the totality of things.
When you move in harmony with your "true self", you move in harmony with the Tao.
The emptiness in you is part of the Tao. It is the closest you will ever come to the Tao.
Once you are in contact with your true self or emptiness, you will live in total harmony with the Tao. You will have conquered all fear, for if you are empty, you have nothing to lose. You will be truly compassionate. You will be truly liberated.
(The Tao is Tao, 15)
As you have noticed, I have already tried to explain the third great truth of enlightenment when I explained emptiness. Enlightenment has many forms, and is probably the most difficult to explain. The enlightened often do not have words to describe what has happened to them, and are sometimes observed with suspicion by the uninitiated. Paradoxes, symbols, analogies and metaphors are often used by the enlightened in an effort to explain their experiences.
Enlightenment is central to Buddhism and Taoism.
The last line in the passage,
emphasizes that it is essential that these three truths should be kept and taught actively.
Not understanding these truths is living in total ignorance. Enlightenment is not only to banish your own ignorance, but to spread this light into the darkness enveloping other beings.
13. Cutting out the root
The author seems to be aware that his explanation of the three central truths is essential and problematic, for he actually encourages the readers to question him if they should not agree. What a pity he is not alive to be asked.
In a way, these three truths represent an article of faith, but a faith based on observation of life. It is true, though, that if you do not accept these three truths, you cannot continue on this particular path. In this way it does represent a kind of doctrine.
The author also emphasizes that he is not interested in dealing with "leaves and branches", but with the "root", which has to be "cut out".
The root cause of our misery is ignorance. The only way to cut it out is to learn to understand and experience the basic truths of transience, emptiness and enlightenment.
14. The light
Before one can understand this text, "Mani-jewel" and "Tathagata-garbha" will have to be explained.
The Mani jewel has featured in Hinduism even before the beginning of Buddhism. In the Manipuri, the ancient Indian religious dances, the celestial light of the Mani jewel plays a major part. The Mani jewel has always been the source of beauty and many earthly joys, and it transfers special powers to lucky recipients. This idea of special powers and favours emanating from this jewel has also found its way into Buddhism. Jiz˘ Bosatsu, that ever popular Japanese deity, whose friendly face can be seen everywhere in Japan on roadsides, crossroads, on high mountain passes or to the entrances of old graveyards, is shown with a Mani jewel in his hand, which signifies that he bestows not only protection and special powers, but treasures and wealth on all beings. Small wonder that he is so popular in Japan.
The Mani jewel symbolizes the joy, power and benefit that can come from living in the right way. It symbolizes the essence of selfless devotion and compassion. Even if the emphasis in spiritual teaching is often on the sacrifices that are essential on one's spiritual path, it is of course also true that there are advantages as well to be reaped from living in harmony with the Tao. The danger is that one could try to use the right way to become wealthy, which would be counter-productive. The moment you start clinging to material things, you will be turning your back on emptiness, and you will not develop spiritually.
Depending on its context, "Tathagata" has different meanings. Its actual translation is "the thus-come-thus-gone one". It can mean "the nature of Buddha", or it can be used as an epithet of the Buddha. "Tathagata Garbha" means "where Buddha is born", but not in a literal sense. It is not so much the physical birth as the spiritual awakening of a Buddha, the actual moment of enlightenment where a "normal person" finds his own Buddha nature and becomes a Buddha. "Buddha nature" is something that each one of us carries in us, and it is in fact synonymous with "emptiness". Once you reside in emptiness, when you have rid yourself of your "false nature", you will be at one with your Buddha nature. Each one of us has the potential to become a Buddha. We carry the seeds of enlightenment in us.
Let us now return to the poem. The author claims the Mani jewel lives "intimately with the Tathagata-garbha". What is he saying? He shows that the moment of enlightenment is also a moment of immense benefit, joy and power. The "light" in enlightenment is the celestial light of the Mani jewel, or liberality and compassion, with all its benefits for sentient beings. It is a tremendous moment. This light of the Mani jewel controls the senses and consciousness of the enlightened. They live in the same world as everyone else, yet the world has become something totally different to them, for they see it in the pure light of compassion. They realize their senses are empty and yet of great benefit to other sentient beings. Nirvana is not a place; it is living in the light of the Mani jewel. It is a state of mind of tremendous wisdom, compassion and spiritual power.
What does the author mean when he says "the rays from this perfect Mani-jewel/have the form of no form at all"? In a way, this is an argument against formalism. There is no ritual with which you can capture enlightenment. It is not something that can be called forth in some ceremony or Tantric formulae.
The power of the enlightened is an invisible one, often recognizable only to the enlightened.
15. Beyond the intellect
The "five eyes" and "five powers" referred to in this passage encompass an incredibly wide scope of development. The first eye, the "physical" one, is the visual ability to see clearly. The second, the "heavenly eye", is the ability to see more than what is just visible or obvious. It refers to the ability to recognize and see the spiritual. The third eye, the "Prajna" eye, has to do with the discerning powers of wisdom, the ability to look at the world without desire and to avoid being entangled by dualistic thoughts. The fourth eye, the "Dharma" eye, refers to a higher level of wisdom, and extraordinary discriminatory powers on a spiritual level. It refers to the ability to understand the world in all its complexity, but with the wisdom only spiritual maturity can bring. The fifth eye refers to "Buddha vision". This is the ability to progress beyond the dualistic world into a spiritual world. It is perfect vision, in which one sees the world as it really is.
The five powers referred to are faith, energy, memory, meditation and wisdom. These powers encompass all aspects of spiritual development.
The second line in the passage above, though, is stupendous. The author clearly states that acquiring the incredible insight and vision described in the "five eyes", and developing the "five powers" do not constitute "intellectual work". In other words, it is not something you can acquire through courses at seminars, colleges and universities. It is not something you can write an examination on and get a certificate for. It lies outside the scope of the intellect. Amazing, isn't it? We stress the intellectual so much in our education, and now we are told that the truly essential aspects of development lie outside the intellectual.
How do you attain this development? The author's answer is even more astounding. His tone is almost flippant. "Just realize, just know." Is his repetition of "just" suggesting that it is easy? No, it isn't, I think. If it's that easy, why aren't we all enlightened? No, he's probably pointing to the fact that it is a simple act, and not a complicated act of studying. It is simply to
"realize" and to "know". These two words contain much greater certainty than mere intellectual surmise can bring. It is the kind of knowledge based on experience. "Knowing" here is of a spiritual nature. It removes doubt and brings the certainty of faith.
The third and fourth lines present analogous imagery illustrating what the author actually means in the first two lines. To "see images in a mirror" in this context is the equivalent of intellectual activity. It is easy and there is nothing profound about it. The rhetorical question emphasizes that the spiritual act of "knowing" is as illusive and difficult as taking "hold of the moon in water". The imagery is beautiful and profound, for it clearly implies that the spiritual form of "knowing" lies beyond the logical in a world where the reflection of the moon in water becomes reality, and where one can hold on to what seems unreal in the world of the intellect.
In the next passage, the author actually describes the person who can "take hold of the moon in water".
16. The humble one
The description of the "enlightened one" seems to contain a contradiction. On the one hand, he is depicted as a person of grace and style, on the other with an appearance that does not draw attention to himself. He seems to be a bit of a loner, or at least someone who seems to shun groups or organizations. Notice the repetition of "always" in the first line. He is always alone, at work and socially. He does not seem particularly popular, does he? And nobody seems to be missing him either, for he passes "unnoticed" among people.
What the text is suggesting is that most people do not recognize true spiritual greatness. They are not able to see the true qualities of "natural elegance" - and they are not able to detect when someone is walking "the free way of Nirvana". This is because they are easily taken in by appearance. The enlightened person cannot be identified by appearance. In this case, his appearance even serves to camouflage his true greatness, for he is "tough and bony". This description does not reflect the author's physical preferences or prejudices. What the author is emphasizing is that the enlightened person cannot be recognized by his outward appearance, which tends to be humble, even suggesting hard times. This text was written at a time when being fat was fashionable and a sign of affluence; "tough and bony" meant one had to work hard for a living, and it was therefore a sign of insignificance in the eyes of those conscious of status. So, in a way, the sage has the undramatic appearance of a working man. There is nothing in his outward appearance to suggest spiritual greatness. He can in fact only be recognized by those who can identify the true qualities of enlightenment in a person.
What a contrast this description is to the appearance of many leaders of spiritual movements who demonstrate in their appearance a voluptuous affluence in stark contrast to their protestations of humility, sacrifice and abstention.
What this text clearly shows is that spiritual greatness cannot be captured by an outward show of attire or appearance. Only people who really understand what enlightenment is will recognize the enlightened. That is why the masses are so easily fooled by false prophets through an outward show of pomp creating the illusion of greatness.
17. True wealth
In this passage, the author goes even further than the previous one. He even describes the true followers as "poor in body", speaks of their "poverty" and the fact that they "wear ragged clothing." Isn't this taking anti-materialism too far? I mean, is it necessary to be poor, to neglect your body and wear "ragged" clothes?
The contrast between appearance and true substance could not be greater. They may be poor in body, but those close to the Tao are rich in Tao, and that is what matters. They carry a priceless jewel within themselves, in spite of their ragged appearance.
One could even argue that they are poor because they are rich in spirit, but if I should do so, I would have every materialist in the world against me, or any naive believer who argues that material wealth is the natural fruits of virtue. The author is deliberately provocative in this passage. It is almost as if he denies any direct link between material gain and spiritual blessing.
18. The inexhaustible source
The jewel that the enlightened carry is an eternal, inexhaustible source. The people close to Tao spend it "freely", that is with great liberality and without any personal gain, on those that need help.
The "jewel of no price" is therefore not "priceless" in the sense of being extremely valuable in a materialistic way, but it has no price. It is not saleable. It cannot be bought. It has no material worth. It must be given away freely, that is without any thought of self-gain. The author is obviously describing the highest form of compassion here. True compassion can only be selfless to the point of self-deprivation. Small wonder then, one could say, that those who carry this jewel within themselves look so ragged and poor.
This jewel - compassion - is the essence of enlightenment. It is the true source of life in harmony with the Tao.
19. The best student
Again, the author does not mince his words here. It could not be clearer. The best student is not the most learned one, but the one with the most faith - the one who goes directly to the source without asking questions. The best student is the one who lives in harmony with the Tao without craving full understanding.
(The Tao is Tao, 22)
In fact, the author implies that being too learned about articles of faith is a sign of a lack of faith. It's so true, isn't it? Many people desperately turn what should be simple faith into an academic exercise covering up their lack of faith. Just look at how complex the study of Theology has become. Theology mostly does not bring faith. It often destroys faith. More often than not, it is a cover for the lack of faith. Dogma often replaces what should have been pure faith. Intolerance destroys what should have been unity based on compassion. Our sad history books are filled with the gruesome results of this form of "faith".
Men craving holiness
(The Tao is Tao, 139)
20. Naked honesty
It is not outward show that counts. Wearing ragged clothing is not important. What is important is removing the dirty garments from your own mind. It is to have a mind unhampered by egotism and negative emotions and thoughts. The author deliberately speaks of your "own mind", emphasizing here that you should rather start with yourself.
You should not try to impress by showing off, the author warns us, and it is clear the author is encouraging us to be free of people who "slander" and "abuse" those who move humbly close to the Tao. The author assures us that those who try to destroy the work of the spirit cannot touch those close to the Tao; they are like people who "try to set fire to the heavens with a torch". Their aggression is futile and silly, and they end up "by merely tiring themselves".
With the right attitude, by listening to "their scandal as though it were ambrosial truth," you cannot be influenced by the aggression of these aggressive people. You "enter a place beyond thought and words" where slander and meanness cannot touch you. In this way, the slander of these people will actually have brought you closer to the Tao and serenity. You will actually grow spiritually if you approach with the right attitude those people who are aggressive towards you.
The author does not stop here. He goes one almost impossible step further. He actually declares one should be thankful to a scandal-monger who slanders one, for this abusive person is one's "good teacher".
This is really amazing. The author says that difficult people crossing one's path should be seen as opportunities for development, and should be treated with the deference reserved for good teachers.
Isn't the author expecting the impossible? It is extremely difficult, no doubt, but it is also clear that a person who could approach his adversaries in this way would not else but have an incredible spiritual influence. Demonstrating gratitude where people expect anger and vengeance must have a profound effect on those who can recognize greatness when they see it.
The reward is great, though. The moment we have reduced our ego to a level where we do not "become angry at gossip," our life will become infinitely easier, for we will have no "need for powerful endurance and compassion". It does not mean we will be without compassion. We just will not need to strain ourselves to show compassion by forgiving those offending us. Scandal and gossip will not touch us, and there will be no-one to forgive. We will be more relaxed, have more stamina, and be able to utilize our compassion and reserves where they are really needed.
After the curse
(The Tao is Tao, 118)
21. Maturity of expression
Maturity in expression is one of the signs of true enlightenment. It is a wonderful quality. It means knowing when to speak and when to be silent. Timing is everything.
Knowing when to speak means possessing great sensitivity. It is the ability to read people's moods and states of mind, and to know when people are ready to listen. It is also the uncanny gift to formulate words in such a way that they have the right effect on people. This kind of sensitivity is only possible when you observe people without your own ego obscuring your view. The true Taoist sage has no ego to distort her view.
In a way, the person close to Tao functions like a mirror, reflecting to those people who are ready for it a clearer image of themselves. It also means to tell people exactly what they need to know for their spiritual development - no more and no less. Conversation to a person of this maturity is not an effort to assert her own views, but to allow people to find their own.
Silence is used with great effect by the Taoist sage. Her silence, likewise, functions like a mirror, allowing a person to see glimpses of his true nature.
The silence of the sage
(The Tao is Tao, 29)
The person mature in expression also knows that the right deed at the right moment, or the refusal to act is often worth more than a thousand words. The person who can silently walk away without retaliating when abuse is being thrown at her says more through her refusal to act than any words can say. Being a perfect example is still the most mature form of expression.
The secret to mature expression is to be at one with emptiness, where emotions and thoughts are under control, and where illusion, ambition and the ego do not exist.
The wisdom of the true mind (prajna) and meditation (dhyana) prevent stagnation. The author deliberately mentions dhyana here - the ability to discipline and control your mind, which is an important part of enlightenment. Wisdom and compassion are linked to a disciplined mind. Freedom and discipline are natural partners in a truly enlightened person.
22. Enlightenment is possible for everyone
This passage represents a tremendous declaration. What it says is in fact that all people can become enlightened. No-one is barred from this. We are all "Buddha-bodies", that is we all carry "Buddha-nature" in us.
"Buddha-nature" is another effort to describe emptiness, or the true self. We may be different on the surface, but we are Buddha-bodies. A wise and compassionate nature is within us. We do not need to search for it in far-off places. We are it.
We only have to get rid of our illusions of permanence and the self, as well as our greed and ego, which form the basis of our ignorance, and we will "become awakened" from our world of illusions.
The humble man close to Tao
(The Tao is Tao, 55)
It is a process of becoming less in a worldly sense rather than becoming more. It is in many ways the opposite of what people normally understand by "development". Often it comes with an exacting price: the loss of prestige and status among your peers and other ambitious people who see your reduction of ego as a loss of "personality", ambition and flair. To the ambitious materialist, humility is an undesirable form of weakness.
Enlightenment is not gain;
(The Tao is Tao, 56)
Is the price worth it? Stupid question. Of course it is.
23. Few succeed
This delightful passage has an allegorical touch. What does "the lion-roar of doctrine" mean? The author is referring here to Hui-neng, his teacher, who was known as a wise man of great temperament. The doctrine of his master, which he is explicating in this poem, can only be accepted by the purest and the noblest and the most courageous, represented here by the "heavenly dragon". This doctrine, with its relentless renunciation of the ego, ambition and greed, is enough to scare and to "shatter the brains" of even the most powerful beasts, and the elephant is a symbol of strength of mind. In contrast to the king of elephants, who runs away "forgetting his pride", the heavenly dragon "listens calmly, with pure delight."
Isn't the author in a way contradicting what he says in the preceding lines, where he claims everyone can become enlightened? Here he is clearly showing that the exacting price one has to pay for enlightenment is something only very few people can accept. So even though we all carry the potential to become Buddhas, very few of us realize this potential. We are too attached to our illusions, too dedicated to our egos, too ignorant to be willing to pay the price.
24. Zen - the essence is at peace
This passage is beautiful and profound. In fact, I think it is one of the most beautiful passages in Zen literature.
The author at first describes how he has searched everywhere "asking about the Way", and how he has found enlightenment with the Sixth Founding Teacher, Hui-neng, who has taught him "what is beyond the relativity of birth and death."
The author now proceeds to describe Zen. What he says is clear. Nothing can touch the essence. When we live in silence and emptiness, in unity with the essence, nothing can shatter our peace and our tranquility. Not even facing destruction can move us.
This, then, is the reward. In lines preceding these, the author has described to us the price we have to pay to achieve Zen. His description of the reward of Zen in the last four lines is breathtaking. It is the definition of true power.
What becomes so clear in these lines is that Zen - true Zen - is part of life. It would be useless if you could reach unity with emptiness only in secluded monastic solitude. We need to be in contact with our real selves when we are out there in the real world, facing all the irritations and anxieties of life. Very few of us can afford the luxury of withdrawing from the stress of competitive life in an environment where the survival of the fittest is often the only norm. We need serenity in the heat of earning a living, or writing examinations, or facing financial difficulties, or when suffering the setbacks which can happen so abruptly in our modern world.
The poem is full of wonderful reassurance. The "essence is at peace", we are assured, no matter whether we are active or passive. It enables us to face the worst situations, even death, with serenity.
We cannot escape suffering, but Zen - being in harmony with the Tao - gives us the strength to face the inevitable with tranquility.
This passage emphasizes the aspect of patience. Development in character, and particularly in spirit, takes time. Enlightenment is not a sudden, total change of character and personality, in which a person has immediately vanquished all weaknesses and has become perfect. Enlightenment should be seen more as a change of direction. But, and it is a big BUT, it will still take a long time to get rid of all those bad habits, and to control and get rid of all negativity. It quite simply is not that easy.
Many people in the modern world want instant gratification without the effort that is essential if you want to reach anything. If they suffer from insomnia, they will not work on the causes of their sleeplessness, but they will suppress the symptoms with drugs. If they are emotionally down, they will not do something to cure this, but they will quite simply take alcohol or some pill to get rid of it instantly, in this way only increasing the real causes for their fits of depression.
Improving yourself is essentially a long-term project. According to legend, as the poem describes, it took the Buddha many lives to reach his perfection.
In a way, this thought must drive people, particularly those who do not believe in reincarnation, to despair. It should not. They should take heart from the last line of this passage: "I am serene in this cycle."
You should accept your limitations, and with patience and serenity fulfil your tasks in life. Once you worry too much about your own shortcomings, it is a certain sign that you have become too focused on yourself. Nothing could be worse than to try to satisfy the ego while trying to improve on a spiritual level. Live in harmony with the Tao, let your compassion be your guide, do not fret and worry about your own development, and you will move closer to the Tao. Remember: the emptiness and silence of Tao are a natural part of your true self. Emptiness seems to be far away, and yet it is close to you.
26. Truly free
Once you are in harmony with the Tao, honour and disgrace seize to matter to you. This is incredible. You have got rid of your ego to such an extent that your own reputation cannot touch you. What an incredible form of independence. You are beyond the influence of flattery or abuse. You are immune to praise and public forms of acclaim. The way people look at you cannot influence you positively or negatively in your resolve. You will not act to become popular, nor will you shut up because you are afraid of what others might say. You can think with great clarity, unimpeded by the shackles of your own vanity. You will even stand against the majority if you feel you have to, and you will not flinch, for disgrace does not touch you.
If I have ever read a definition of true power and freedom, this is it.
27. Silence and beauty
This is a beautiful metaphoric description of the peace you experience when you live in harmony with the Tao and everything around you.
These lines speak for themselves. I refuse to touch them.
28. The direct way
What I find astounding about this passage is that it encourages us to give up our self-centered preoccupation with our own personal merit, which is often an effort to escape the inevitable forces of karma.
When you have come into total harmony with the Tao, you live beyond the "multiplicity of the relative world". You are truly free, for you have eliminated your preoccupation with your own merit and salvation. You have realized that serving your own merit is just serving your own self in a religious guise.
Even though achieving merit brings you "the joy of heaven itself", it is futile, even harmful, in the final instance, for then, the author warns us, "everything goes wrong."
It is easy to see why. The religious preoccupation with the self, often in the guise of a permanent "soul", is selfish. It is just another way of inflating the ego. It must go wrong.
The "true self" has no ego. You will only come into harmony with it if you get rid of the ego and your longing for personal merit. The "true way of the absolute" lies beyond ego and merit; beyond the idea of "I" and "me" and "mine".
The passage now calls on you to be more direct in your approach and to penetrate "the ground of the Tathagata", the true nature of a Buddha. There should be no selfish fooling around. You should "take hold of the source". This act, however, can only be a selfless one where the false self has been eliminated. Gone is your preoccupation with yourself: your "gain is the gain of everyone endlessly."
The person in harmony with the Tao does not really care about his own salvation. He is too busy caring about other beings. Doing good in order to go to heaven or to achieve Nirvana, as so many religious people do, is selfish, not good. The truly good person performs good deeds even if there is no reward at all. He would do good even if it means that he has to suffer for it.
The truly good person performs virtuous deeds because he is in total harmony with his own Buddha-nature. He cannot do anything else. When you "take hold of the source", you will discover that Buddha-nature is part of you. This incredible jewel is impressed on "the ground" of your mind, where it will grow and blossom as you become one with the universe, your robe being "the dew, the fog, the cloud, and the mist."
This passage is full of profound beauty.
It gives someone as imperfect as me courage, hope and faith.
29. The gentle way
The first two lines refer to two incidences in Buddhist mythology. The first line refers to the legend that the Buddha once pacified dragons by miniaturizing them and putting them in his food bowl. The second line refers to a Zen master who once separated two ferocious tigers with his light staff, in this way preventing them from killing each other.
Both these incidences are so beautiful that even the sceptic could not else but wish they were true. They are pregnant with meaning, and could be interpreted in many ways.
What is similar about the two incidents is that in both cases incredibly little aggression is used to pacify forces of great power and destructive potential. One could argue that turning dragons into minute versions of themselves must have been quite a frightening experience for the dragons, but being the symbols of virtue that they are, they could only serve a good cause in the end. And we are sure the Buddha would never harm them.
In the second case, aggression is prevented from going its natural way. It is quite simply astounding that a single man could separate two alpha predators of such power and ferocity with a musical staff. Anyone who has had anything to do with tigers in their natural habitats would tell you that nobody could accomplish or survive this feat.
The two examples illustrate that spiritual development is clearly linked to the ability to make peace with the most peaceful means, or to tame wild and potentially destructive forces to such an extent that they become controllable.
The substance clearly lies in the style. It is not the pacification so much that is astounding. You can also pacify tigers by shooting them. It is the style in which it is done. Pacifying tigers in this way of course requires far greater courage than simply shooting them from an elephant's back, as so many "brave" hunters did in the nineteenth century. It is also the aim that turns the deed into a noble one. The master did not pacify the tigers to save his own life, but he risked his life to save theirs. He was gentle, compassionate and brave.
What should we call this way? It is the mild, gentle way to make peace. It is using the minimal amount of aggression to pacify and to turn the destructive into the virtuous. It is the way of least resistence to accomplish harmony and peace. It also entails tremendous courage and the kind of power only compassion can give you. It is the way of the Tao.
30. Beyond truth and delusion
This passage claims that someone moving close to the Tao is not concerned with finding truth, nor getting rid of delusion.
Is this kind of detachment supposed to be virtuous? How could a virtuous person not be concerned about truth? What is the author telling us?
It is simple. The truly enlightened person knows truth and its opposite, delusion, are both part of the illusion of living in a dualistic world.
The truly enlightened person lives in this world, and yet he has entered emptiness, where truth and delusion do not matter. He lives in close harmony with his own Buddha-nature, and therefore he lives a life beyond laws, rules, emotions and concepts. He lives as if truth does not exist, yet he lives in spontaneous, unconscious harmony with the truth. Delusion does not exist, for he sees things as they are, and not the way desire and greed would like him to see them. The true nature that he embraces is part of the absolute and is "neither empty nor not empty".
The enlightened person lives with incredible freedom, unhampered by the anxieties of people struggling to find truth or fighting delusion. His freedom is remarkable, for it is the freedom of a person who lives so much in harmony with the Tao that truth is an unconscious part of him, and delusion is quite simply not a possibility.
31. The clear mirror
The image of the mind being like a mirror is often used in Zen. The mind-mirror referred to here is the state of being in perfect harmony with the Tao. The state of mind when you are close to the Tao is one of great clarity. There is nothing to contaminate the mirror. All thoughts and emotions, which influence the way you see things, have come to rest, and in this silence and emptiness, you see things without distortion as they are. Not only do you see things as they are, but the mind "illuminates the universe" so that you truly understand in a spiritual sense everything to "the depths and in every grain of sand."
As you come into total harmony with everything around you, you reach a profound understanding beyond the intellect.
It is ironic, isn't it? Our intellectual effort to understand the world mostly separates us from the world. It is only when we have entered the spiritual sphere - where we have given up the intellectual effort to divide and to separate - that we can reach a true understanding of things around us.
You have probably experienced this in many ways. In the Biology class, they can dissect a cat and name and count its parts, but when they are finished, they could not be further removed from it. It is only when you forget the differences between you and a cat, and when you ignore the artificial categories you have learnt, that you will ever come close to a cat and really understand it. A cat named Fred lived with me for fifteen years. Long before his death he had ceased being a cat to me, for he had turned into a companion who understood me better than I understood him. He ignored the differences between us, and he taught me to look at him in the same way.
The same is true for all things:
I see my reflection
(The Tao is Tao, 96)
This clarity of a mind in total harmony with the universe is the essence of wisdom and compassion. It is enlightenment.
32. Leaping into the fire
When one becomes fascinated by the concept of emptiness, one is easily tempted to use it as an escape from the realities of life. The author warns us against this in the first two lines. Living "in nothingness" and ignoring "cause and effect" can only lead to disaster.
The word "nothingness" is interesting. It pinpoints a mistake many people make. They equate "emptiness" with "nothingness". "Nothingness" is negative, even nihilistic. It is an effort to close your eyes to reality. This can only lead to "chaos".
The movement towards the Tao is not an escape from the realities and challenges of the world. The true Taoist sage has the power to move in the world while he is in full harmony with the Tao. He does not need total isolation and a permanent retreat to find harmony.
Using spiritual life as an escape from your obligations and duties can have dire consequences, as the text points out graphically in the last two lines.
The reason for this is obvious. In an effort to understand and explain, we tend to fall prey to the idea that the spiritual world is really separate from the material world. We tend to forget that this separation does not exist. The spiritual and material are one and the same thing. Their separation is a mental act. We separate them with the discriminatory tools of our intellect. In reality, there is no separation. Trying to escape the material world through the spirit is probably the greatest delusion of all. We are in this world, which is simultaneously spirit and material. You cannot escape the one or the other. Materialists try to escape the world of the spirit by totally immersing themselves in materialism. This is also delusionist, and, likewise, can only lead to chaos and disaster, as we so often witness in our industrialist, consumer orientated society today. It is truly escaping drowning only to be consumed by fire.
33. Skillful lies
This passage clearly points out that the search for truth is hypocritical if you refuse to abandon your dualistic thinking. Rejecting delusion while clinging to your own ego has nothing to do with spiritual development. In plain words: you cannot be filled with self-grandeur and simultaneously develop on a spiritual plain. You cannot develop in a spiritual sense if you do not abandon those emotions that trap you in a discriminatory world of materialism and greed.
The author does not mince his words here. He declares that people who feign religiosity and practice dualistic thinking on a quasi-spiritual level, are living "skillful lies." These people, who live a materialistic life but claim to be truthful and free of delusion, love "thievery in their own children." The author clearly has a very low opinion of this kind of hypocrisy.
This kind of people, the author assures us, will never reach enlightenment and will lose all spiritual power they might have had.
The author seems to be very harsh, but it is clear why. What he is emphasizing is that there is no way of being in harmony with truth unless you are in harmony with the Tao. You must first enter emptiness and silence and come into harmony with your true self before you can be at one with truth and totally free of delusion. Claims to the contrary by people who still serve their own egos are hypocritical and often deliberate lies.
I find this text relevant. When I look around me, I see these lies everywhere. Spiritual people bloated with ego, yet who claim they possess the truth - as if the truth could be ever be a possession. Ambitious, often corrupt clergy or monks who claim spiritual clarity. Religious people full of hatred and intolerance who claim to spread "the love of God".
Look around you. It's everywhere. The delusion that there is no delusion in a world of competitive cruelty. The untruth that there is truth where blatant materialism rules.
I understand the author's abhorrence. There is nothing more revolting than insincerity in religion.
Realizing truth is essentially a sincere and humble act, for you are confronted with your own emptiness, dispensability and insignificance. You have to perform a kind of suicide on your own self, ridding yourself of your ego and your hidden agendas.
And yet it is everything but nihilistic, for your new perspective gives life true meaning. You will live a full life as if you are part of the world, yet you will not be part of it.
The author is right. It is only when you reach Zen that truth is realized. In Zen - when one is in total unity with emptiness and beyond dualistic thinking - the cutting off of delusion is real. It is only then that you will develop the "wise vision" to "penetrate directly to the unborn."
Wisdom is therefore less a result of study - even though of course study could be of benefit - than a personal act. You reach wisdom only when delusion has been annihilated totally.
Delusion includes what the author sees as "useless knowledge".
Personally, I find this incredibly harsh. Does the author mean that knowledge should always be utilitarian? Is he saying knowledge may not be pursued for the sheer joy of it?
I think that would be jumping to conclusions. The author is referring to the kind of thought process where we often concentrate on "useless knowledge", and forget the essence. We have seen this in for example the many devious paths science has taken. Often science has concentrated on the parts and forgotten about the whole. Biologists have dissected lizards and taught us the body parts, but they have not come closer to the reality of the lizard - somehow, they could not put it together again. In fact, they have often distanced themselves even further from it. It is only in the last few years that many scientists have become aware that somewhere along the way they have lost sight of the whole. Some scientists are now struggling to regain a concept of the whole, discovering to their chagrin that the details are obscuring their view of the essence. We are living increasingly in a world of experts we as laymen cannot understand. Even more frighteningly, the experts themselves become idiot savants only able to grasp their own narrow disciplines. We are increasingly in need of minds that can establish an overview, but also with the capability of "penetrating directly to the unborn."
What the author is saying is that we have enough knowledge - what we need now is "the diamond edge" of wisdom.
35. Clouds of love
They roar with Dharma-thunder;
The author describes in glowing terms and with vivid imagery the effect that people living in harmony with Tao have on the world of the spirit.
When I first read this passage, I found the picture disturbing. The students with "vigorous will" seem too loud and too filled with missionary zeal for my liking. Some commentators of this passage also warn against pride and its insidious effects, and against many so-called Zen masters who feel they have some divine right to direct the lives of others.
Yet I feel obligated to defend this passage, for it is quite simply true that no matter how humble and unobtrusive many of these people in close harmony with the Tao may have been, it is not to be denied that they have had a tremendous effect on the lives of many people. Just think of the humble Lao Tzu. It could truly be said that he "spread clouds of love" through his writing.
I think the basic mistake one could easily make here is to think that to be loud and rash is to be effective and successful. This could be true for politicians fighting for the favour of a gullible and naive nation. It is not true, however, on the spiritual level. Showing off has a perverting effect on religion. A particular religion might recruit many followers through a show of ceremony, opulence and splendour, but in the process it would destroy much of the spiritual quality the religion might have had.
It is just as basic a mistake to think that someone quietly working in obscurity will not have any spiritual effect on the world. This assumption is based on ignorance. The Tao needs no pompous publicity campaigns. We carry the Tao in us, and it is part of everything around us. We can "spread clouds of love" and "pour ambrosial rain" even if we work and die in total obscurity. There is no way to quantify the effect of living in harmony with the Tao. True spiritual effect cannot be expressed in "so many souls saved", as some missionaries grandly claim. Spectacle and ritual are no proof of spiritual effect.
It is probable that the greatest spiritual leaders may be totally unknown to us, for they may have lived truly humble lives in total obscurity. Would the fact that we did not know about them be a loss or a waste?
No, of course not. The Tao cannot be "lost" or "wasted". How can we lose something we cannot possess, and waste something we cannot use?
Of course, it is quite possible that twisted ideas of prominence may prevent us from recognizing a true Taoist sage when we see one. As the author has stressed in this poem, there is no way you will recognize him or her by outward appearance. One thing is sure. He/she is not going to proclaim to you either through outward signs or language that he/she is a sage. He/she most probably will not even know he/she is one.
As has been said so often. "It takes a Buddha to recognize a Buddha." Yet when Buddhas recognizes each other, they will be too humble to call each other anything else but friends.
36. Total harmony, complete insight
This passage is a beautiful description of complete harmony with the Tao which manifests itself in total harmony with nature. The metaphor used in the first three lines describes this harmony:
It is like drinking the fresh, pure milk produced by cows eating fei-ni grass. This milk passes into your body when you drink it, and the wonderful properties of the grass now become part of you. In the same way,
It is also a description of being in total unity with all things:
The following two lines represent one of the most popular metaphors in Ch'an or Zen:
The moon is a symbol of constant change, yet it is also a symbol of the constancy of the cycles of change. It is the symbol of beauty and mystery and truth. In Buddhism, it is the symbol of the Dharma. This moon is reflected in all of us. We are all reflections of the same mystery, beauty and truth. Separateness is an illusion the way reflections of the moon in pools are illusions of separateness and permanence. This metaphor captures the magic of our fleeting, seeming existence as sentient beings, and the wonder and the beauty of our unity.
In the same way, our nature is not ours, it is not separate, but our nature is part of Tathagata - of Buddha nature.
We carry total perfection in us, and we are in total unity with it. This is a proclamation that, like all creation around us, we are intrinsically noble and good. This declaration is in direct contrast to the doctrines of some religions, which emphasize that we are "born in sin" and basically evil, and that we can only be "saved" by some external factor or force.
This is not the position of Zen, or Ch'an, or Taoism. According to the author, we are basically part of an all-pervasive Buddha nature, which is in everything that exists. Our salvation, and the power to succeed, lies in our own hands. What we need to do is get rid of delusion and eliminate our egos, and our separation from our true selves will disappear, and we will become one with the rest of the universe. Our separation is created by our own egos and is an illusion. Reality is total unity.
The author points out here that this experience where "one level completely contains all levels" is not one of "matter, mind or activity." It is one of the spirit. And it happens "in an instant", "in a twinkling". At our moment of enlightenment, when we reach unity with our true nature, all teachings will be fulfilled and all evil in us will be destroyed. It is a tremendous moment which has a profound effect on our lives.
All categories will cease to have any influence on our insight:
Our insight will have ceased to be narrow and judgmental, and will have become lateral and inclusive:
37. Eternally serene
This is a description of the state of enlightenment. It is a state of fullness, where nothing can be added. It is therefore totally serene:
All desire has stopped. You have stopped searching, for you know if you search, you will lose sight of it:
It is beyond your reach:
It is beyond your control. Your own feelings of acceptance and rejection have ceased to exist. You are in a state of non-desire and detachment, the only state of mind where you can become enlightened:
It is in this state of mind that you discover the value of silence - when your emotions and thoughts have ceased to have any effect on you. It is like living in total silence, and yet in this silence, you will hear it speak.
The silence you experience is not a thoughtless state, but a state where you reach real insight. Your insights are reached in silence as well as in language:
This is the ultimate state of mind:
38. The power of prajna
The author's answer to the question which sect he belongs to, is of incredible scope:
Prajna is the wisdom that comes to a mind filled with compassion and in total harmony with the Tao.
It is as simple as that. And as incredible. It is no formula. No doctrine. It is obvious and simple. It has none of the trappings of dogma with its complexities and doctrinal implications.
The author's answer is in the ancient tradition of Zen. Some Buddhist schools of thought have expressed doubt whether Zen is truly Buddhist, for Zen has always been trying to rid itself of the cultural forms and trappings which have little to do with the essence of Buddhism. Particularly Buddhist schools that are focused on outward form and ceremony would disapprove of Zen. Zen has always endeavoured to present a Buddhism as pure as possible and in step with the times. What mattered most to Hui-neng, who had such an influence on the development of Buddhism in China, was that Zen was something that was truly alive. Often he would act impulsively and rashly to get rid of trappings hampering people in their efforts.
The main purpose of Zen is to bring every individual into contact with Prajna, that tremendous spiritual force which lies latent in every single person on earth. It is through this Prajna that we are able to reach Enlightenment. Prajna is not mainly an intellectual process, even though the intellect does play a role, but it is mainly experiential and intuitive.
The author now refers to divided opinion about this path of Prajna.
They do not know what they are talking about, the author argues, because they have not experienced it:
It is clear. Not even heaven can imagine this road. This road is not one of theory and imagination. It can only be understood if you have experienced it. What is clear is that the road is both "smooth" and "rough". Spiritual development has smooth and rough spells. It is not for the faint-hearted.
Spiritual development is essentially experiential. It is not academic. Only when you take to the smooth and rough road will you find out.
39. Receiving the lamp
The author now confirms the tradition in which he stands. The first two lines should be understood in this light:
The author is part of a long tradition of many eons. He now carefully describes the lineage of Zen. Bhodi Dharma came from India and founded Zen, but Hui-neng really established it.
40. Natural sameness
The author argues here that our discrimination between truth and falsehood is based on illusion. The "truth" has not been captured in words yet, and what is supposed to be false has therefore also not been expressed in words:
The moment we stop discriminating between existence and non-existence, we will discover that even "non-vacancy" does not exist:
Our ideas of emptiness and vacancy are inaccurate:
The true "oneness" to be found in emptiness - the "Tathagata-being", the true nature of Buddha - is beyond our artificial efforts to understand and explain: it is "naturally sameness". This "sameness" is the underlying law of all existence. We are part of it and have no choice. There is no separation from it.
This passage is very reassuring. What the author confirms is that alienation from the Tao is not possible. We are part of the natural "sameness" the way we are part of the law of gravity on earth. We can deny that gravity exists. We can pray to it. We can hate it. We can announce we are not part of it. We can claim we are in control of it. We can argue some beings are not part of it, or have more of it. Our beliefs do not touch or change the law of gravity. In the same way, the Tao cannot be influenced or changed. Yet, even though it is not touched by our beliefs, it nevertheless influences all of us.
There is a warning in the passage, too. The implication is clear. We cannot attain unity through artificial effort. It is only when we become natural that we will be able to discard those qualitites separating us from ourselves and the rest of the world. This aspect is dealt with in the next section of the passage.
41. Naturally genuine
In the first line, the author subscribes to the idealist view: The basis of everything is the mind, material things are less real.
In his very next sentence, though, he announces that both mind and phenomena are "like a flaw in the mirror". This would be quite shocking to those who have put their hope in the mind. The mind, too, he says, distorts reality. It is like a flawed mirror. So, according to the author, even our minds keep us from experiencing true unity with the rest.
The author is unequivocal. Only
The author explains what he means by it:
I love the word "genuine". It must be amazing to be "naturally genuine". It is to be effortlessly sincere. But in a way, there is no other form of being genuine, is there? To be genuine is to be sincere in a natural way. This is only possible when you have reached full harmony with the Tao. And you can only be in full harmony with the Tao when "both mind and phenomena are forgotten". When you have ceased being aware of "I" and "they". When you are neither subject nor object, but have become a natural part of everything.
42. An invitation to hell
The author is passionate in these lines. It is clear how strongly he feels about the materialism of the world which has confused people so much.
It is reminiscent of the tone and emotion of the words of despair uttered by the Buddha directly after his enlightenment, when he at first quailed at the thought of spreading the truth to people not ready for it:
It makes one think, doesn't it? Even the Buddha had difficulty facing "folk with lust and hate consumed". How do you teach people a way which is so "Deep, subtle, difficult, delicate" and "Against the stream of common thought"? The Buddha speaks of a world "Cloaked in the murk of Ignorance." Nothing seems to have changed since then. The Buddha's abhorrence is almost tangible. What a consolation to know that even the Buddha had difficulty facing society!
The author of the Shodoka obviously shared the same experience with the Buddha and us.
The passage is amazingly applicable to our modern world of profit and greed, which has made people so unhappy and without self-control.
It is so true, isn't it? Where greed rules, self-control becomes difficult and people lose their grip as they are ruled by their own desires.
This materialism is based on "false views", the author tells us, which strengthen the "demons" of desire. In such an environment, the "Dharma is weak", i.e. the spirit has little influence on people, and for this reason "disturbances are many".
The solution could be so easy. People should accept the "Buddha's doctrine of immediacy", and all
The author becomes very emotional when he ascertains that people are unable to accept the challenge:
Humanity alone is to blame for their failure to come into harmony with their own environment and find enlightenment, as the author clearly states:
If you should blame external factors for your failure, for example say that it is the Buddha's teaching that has caused you to fail, you will be seeking an "invitation to hell".
Blaming others or external factors and not taking responsibility for your actions is the path to hell.
Particularly in Western society, we still have a real problem. We are willing to accept responsibility for our actions on a materialistic level, but we somehow believe that the same laws of cause and effect do not function on a spiritual level. You often see this with relationships. People will know that you have to work to reach anything on a materialistic level, but they believe successful relationships just happen, and that they work by chance. People will refuse to work on a relationship. If relationships fall apart, they will then apportion the major share of the blame to external factors. They will blame their in-laws, stress, their job, lack of time. On the spiritual level, you also reap what you have sown, and there is no escape.
We are the cause of our own misery, but, and this is a wonderful thought, we can also be the solution to our problems.
People, as the author laments, prefer to cling to illusions and materialism, and they refuse to accept the real solution, which lies within themselves. This is the root of their unhappiness and confusion.
43. Only the brave
In this passage, the lion becomes the symbol of the enlightened spirit. The lion alone is able to live in the "deep luxuriant forests", a symbol of a state of enlightenment.
The description of life in the forest is beautiful:
I find this idea exhilarating, for it combines freedom with peace. In many religions, peace can only be reached if you give up your freedom and become bogged down by countless rules. Enlightenment in this context is a process of liberation which brings peace.
Freedom often brings with it the burden of being free, which is responsibility and duty, and its accompanying anxieties. In this case, freedom brings peace, but it does not mean that you do not need courage to accept this form of freedom. This is where the symbol of the lion comes in. The lion is a majestic being of tremendous courage and strength. What the author is clearly illustrating is that you need courage and strength to accept the challenge of living a life of enlightenment. Freedom and peace are only possible with a person of tremendous strength and courage.
The author emphasizes that "other animals", i.e. with less strength and courage, will stay away from the forest. No matter how many "demonic arts" you may control, if you lack courage, you will never become enlightened.
44. Not a matter of emotion
What the author emphasizes in this passage is that enlightenment is not about emotions.
This is difficult to understand in a world where religion has often become synonymous with whipping up emotions. Often people think they have to "feel" God to be close to him, and very confused people will think that feeling God is a proof of his existence. So they will see to it that they get feelings that will "prove" the existence of God to them. Many rituals are also expressly designed to create feelings - to give people a feeling of the presence of God.
This author is saying the opposite:
The author realizes that this might confuse people and he appeals to people to come and discuss this with him if they have feelings of doubt or uncertainty.
In many ways, Zen tries to achieve the opposite of creating emotion to confirm beliefs. The criticism one could raise is that perhaps Zen does not deal sufficiently with human beings, who are, after all, creatures full of emotions and doubts.
The position of Zen is clear. You deal with emotions by accepting that they come and go, and by not clinging to them. It is only when you are not run by your emotions that you can really move freely. Your emotions only increase your vulnerability to external influences, which might confuse you even further. It is only in silence and emptiness, where you are liberated from thought and emotion, that you are truly free and at peace.
45. Beyond permanence and extinction
The author expresses his worst fears, namely that someone might start believing in either "permanent soul or complete extinction".
Both these doctrines, the author believes, will lead you terribly astray. The idea of permanence goes against the idea of emptiness. Likewise, the idea of emptiness has nothing to do with nihilism, the belief in "complete extinction". Both these ideas can be the core of ignorance, which is the root of all evil. The belief in permanence is the essence of egotism and selfishness. In the same way, nihilism also leads to confusion and lovelessness.
Compassion, true compassion linked to wisdom, can only be found when both permanence and nihilism are rejected.
Buddhism accepts neither permanence, nor extinction.
The author tries to explain what it means:
In the world of the spirit, where discriminations have ceased, there is no difference between being and non-being, life and death. All the categories we use in our rational world lose their meaning in the world of the spirit.
Haven't you experienced it yourself? Children often demonstrate this. Children, who often live a life of the spirit, hardly distinguish between animate and inanimate objects. To a little girl, her little doll is as alive as anything else on earth. Love can wipe out these distinctions too. You have probably heard the story of the widow who went to her husband's grave and covered it with her body during a particularly violent storm. In the world of the spirit, there is no distinction between the living and the dead.
Likewise, in the world of the spirit, fictional, symbolic characters may become as real as "real beings". To the person in total spiritual unity with nature, the mountains are alive and the rivers truly sing. In the spiritual world, there is no beginning and no end. People declare "eternal" love and live "happily ever after". It is not a world of fantasy, but it is as real, even more real, than the "objective world" of science and analysis.
If all that I have written in the previous paragraph should sound like sheer nonsense, then it is because you have not moved into the world beyond dualism yet.
(The Tao is Tao, 17)
How important it is to understand this aspect is emphasized in no uncertain terms by the author:
The author goes even one step further. The attainment of Buddhahood depends on understanding. Of course, by understanding the author does not mean on an intellectual level, for a non-dualistic world does not make sense on this level. Nor does the author mean that one should somehow make sense of the paradoxes involved. That would still be trying to understand things on a dualistic level. You cannot conjure up enlightenment through intellectual activity, no matter how fervent and sincere. It would be like chasing a feather with a fan.
The understanding the author is referring to is non-dualistic, intuitive, spiritual and experiential.
This experience of understanding is direct and immediate, but it often comes when you expect it least.
Enlightenment is so tantalizingly close, yet so far away.
46. The untransferrable
The author emphasizes the futility of trying to develop spiritually through study alone.
His moment of truth came when he read the lines: "What profit in counting your neighbour's treasure?"
He then realized he was trying to reach enlightenment through the experiences and insights of other people. Enlightenment is not transferrable, not even as knowledge, for enlightenment is not knowledge in the ordinary sense of the word. It is an "experience" you will have after you have gone your own way to reach it.
You cannot reach enlightenment only by studying other people's insights. You must reach your own insights through your own experience, and enlightenment will come when it comes.
What the author is emphasizing in this passage is that enlightenment is only possible if the "seed-nature" is right. You will only find enlightenment if you have reached a certain level of spiritual development, i.e. only when there is no ego involved. It is only when you have penetrated to your true nature that you will become enlightened.
He then continues to show us different people at different stages of development aspiring to reach enlightenment. Some students lack "aspiration", i.e. they do not use what Buddhism calls "Right effort", which is more than just "earnest" effort. Other students may be clever, but they simply lack "prajna", i.e. wisdom.
The most stupid kind of student is the one concentrating on form and sensation. These are the students that would focus on dress, ornaments and rituals. They would "mistake the pointing finger for the moon." Often, they would worship people who are pointing the way rather than go the way themselves. They would honour the texts and the words pointing the way, and would think the words are the essence.
When I read the descriptions of the author, many people I have met came to my mind. Particularly the last category of people, who concentrate on the superficial, can be found in all religions.
The author's judgement on them is harsh:
Are these people then all without hope? No, of course not. Nobody is without hope, because we all carry Buddha-nature in us.
But we all tend to go through stages, depending on our insight, experience and age, don't we? Often we have to go along many erroneous routes before we reach the development where our "seed-nature" is right, and where we finally experience the "Buddha's doctrine of immediacy".
48. Karma is empty
You cannot search for the Tao, or your true nature, or emptiness. The moment you search for it, you will be looking for an object, which it is not, for it is absolute.
It is only when you realize that Buddha-nature is not an object you can search for, when you are "Not supposing that something is the Tathagata", that you will truly see "freely".
It is the core of Zen. Everything is empty. Form is illusion. Nothing really exists. Even "non-existence" does not exist.
When we are awakened in this way, we realize that even karma is empty, for it does not touch the essence, which is absolute and beyond its reach.
The author does not say or imply that the enlightened escape karma. Understanding the text in this way would be a grave mistake. What he is saying is that when you are not enlightened, you will not have awakened to the fact that karma might touch the world of form and sensation, but it does not touch your true self, which is emptiness, the essence, Buddha-nature. Even when you are enlightened, you will be as much in the power of karma as the totally unenlightened person, but it will not really touch you on a spiritual level, for you will be aware that all things, even karma, are empty and of no real consequence.
The enlightened person suffers karma, but is free from it.
49. Surviving the fire
The hungry are served a king's repast,
Again, the author is bemoaning the fact that people refuse to accept the true way. They are hungry, yet they refuse the best of food; they are sick, and yet they cannot be cured by "the king of doctors" - a reference to the Tathagata.
The practice of Zen overcomes desire and greed, which cause so much sorrow and suffering.
In this life, which is a "fire" of desire and passion, only the lotus - the Buddhist symbol of purity and enlightenment - can survive.
50. Hope for all
In this passage, the author gives a message of tremendous hope. In various examples, he points out that even people who have made grave errors have nevertheless reached enlightenment. He mentions the extreme example of two monks who were guilty of murder and sexual depravity who were brought to enlightenment by Vimalakirti
If even murderers are an instant away from enlightenment, then how close are we not to our true selves?
This passage is clear. No one is beyond help and hope. Mercy acquires a new meaning here. Even if you cannot escape karma, you can still attain enlightenment.
51. One vivid word
The author declares that the "remarkable power of emancipation" is worth more than all treasures on earth, even sacrificing your own body, for it
This is a declaration of faith in the power of enlightenment, which is a form of liberation. Being emancipated from the things that hold you captive works "wonders" on a massive scale. The poet is speaking of incredible power. It is clear that this kind of liberation of the spirit is worth pursuing.
The author now makes a stupendous claim. Emancipation, being liberated from the illusions of samsara, is often the result of one "vivid word", which can surpass "millions of years of practice".
Is the author not exaggerating here? Is it possible for one single word to carry so much power? Are we not being warned continuously about putting too much faith in language?
What the author is emphasizing is what power the right word at the right moment can have. Words used at the wrong moments can be harmful, and should be avoided. But with the right timing, words can bring about enlightenment, as so many Zen stories illustrate.
But it takes someone in perfect harmony with the Tao to use words effectively. Someone with empathy, wisdom, compassion and perfect timing - a silent person who knows the value of patience and silence.
One single word can do it. It is not a matter of many words. Long arguments often achieve the opposite of what they are intended to.
"One vivid word" can be enough.
52. There is no Buddha
This is probably one of the most provocative statements in Buddhism.
The author declares that
No Buddha! Imagine telling a Christian there is no Christ, or a Muslim there is no Mohammed. Their whole religions hinge on this premise. Zen is unique, for it is based on Emptiness: nothing exists, not even Buddha.
Is Zen then still Buddhist? Of course it is, and yet it isn't. Zen is called Zen in a way the Tao is called Tao. It defies names and labels.
Many Christians are furtively trying to prove that Christ is indeed a historical character, as if the very existence of their faith depends on this. To the person in harmony with the Tao, historical authenticity is irrelevant. The Taoist accepts that nothing exists, not even the Tao, for the Tao is absolute and does not "exist" or "non-exist". The Tao is the underlying principle of everything. The example of the Law of Gravity illustrates this. It is irrelevant whether the scientist who formulated the Law of Gravity is an authentic historical character or not. Our "faith" in the Law of Gravity does not depend on this. It does not really matter whether Galileo or Newton really existed. Even if the story about the apple falling from the tree is fictional, it would not change the Law of Gravity, for you can personally test the law and find it to be true. Spiritual truths should not be treated differently than physical laws.
Once you have experienced enlightenment, the historical existence of any Buddha becomes irrelevant. In fact, it has been irrelevant from the start. The Buddha himself clearly pointed out that spiritual development is experiential. You have to find out for yourself. He warned against accepting anything because it is tradition, or because some person of authority has told you so, or because it is written in some authoritative text. You should only accept truth if you have personally tested it through your own experience, and have found it to be true. Blind adherence is the last thing you need on your road to enlightenment. In this context, historical authenticity becomes totally irrelevant. The only valid criteria are the evidence of your own spiritual experience.
The truly enlightened person realizes only emptiness exists, but even emptiness does not really exist, for something so absolute as emptiness or Buddha-nature cannot be said to exist or to non-exist.
The person, Buddha, Sakyumani, does not "exist", but even his essence, Buddha-nature, which is in all of us, is in fact beyond the dualistic, rational realm. Even Buddha-nature does not exist or not-exist.
This is a vivid metaphor to describe the effect of sages. They are as transient, and their appearances as fleeting as everything else's. Yet they are like lightning. They illuminate the darkness with tremendous power. They drive away ignorance with tremendous force.
Like a flash of lightning
The Tao has no power,
(The Tao is Tao, 49)
The author could not have been more emphatic about the power of Emptiness than this.
Emptiness is not "nothingness". It is the only "real thing".
It is the source of all power.
It is part of the Tao.
53. The power of truth
The author's equanimity is based on his perfect faith:
This is a declaration of unshakable faith in the power of truth over evil.
Truth is likened to an elephant. It is powerful and cannot be stopped by a mantis - the symbol of evil here.
Truth does not preoccupy itself with insignificant paths which are a waste of time:
The last four lines of this incredible poem contain a warning and reflect the author's anxiety that, somehow, he still has not got his message across.
He warns against getting entangled in detail and losing sight of the whole:
He warns against tunnel vision, and losing perspective:
We should never lose sight of the magnificent whole when concentrating on detail.
In the final two lines, he encourages his readers to come to him if they still do not understand:
It is a pity the author is not alive so that we can accept his invitation and speak to him personally.
And, yet, he is still alive, isn't he? We still hear his voice in this magnificent poem, in the tremendous spiritual wealth we have inherited from him, and in the wisdom of those who have followed in his footsteps.
ę Jos Slabbert 2001
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