What is Zen?

A Dharma Talk by Dosho Port-sensei


Working Zen, motorcycle Zen, tennis Zen, walking-in-the-park-smiling Zen. At war with what's too long and too short, the simple truth is obscured. Even though the word "Zen" is used in the zazen halls, what is it?

Case Zen Master Daowu visited the assembly of Great Master Shitou (Above the Rock, Rare Transformation). Daowu asked, "What is the essential meaning of the buddha-dharma?" Shitou said, "Not to attain, not to know." Daowu asked, "Is there some turning place when going beyond or not?" Shitou said, "The vast sky does not hinder white clouds from flying."


These days in our culture "Zen" is a word that is used more and more commonly. Yesterday's Pioneer Press reviewed a play saying, "If you can Zen your way through this part of the play" then it isn't too bad. "Zen" is used as a verb here that means humming out. This definitively is not Zen. It's a misuse, a misappropriation of the word.

On the other hand, I was watching the Olympics recently, and one of the commentators said that snowboarding was like Zen in motion. In my view, that was more fitting. For the snowboarder, while snowboarding, they must drop the distinction between self and mountain. To go down the mountain as fast as they do, and do all those funny things that they do, they must really thoroughly let go. Walt Whitman wrote, "Unscrew the locks from the doors, unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs."

Within this cultural context, it seems very important to me that we be very clear about what Zen is and what zazen is. This way of practice and waking up is backed by 2,500 years of giving and receiving. So let's digest a koan from one of our Zen Ancestors that clearly expresses the essence of Zen teaching, practice, and realization.

Shitou was a great teacher in ancient China. Three of the five schools of Zen spring from him. Although many people came to practice with him, apparently he didn't like the hubbub of the monastery. He built a hut out of grass with his own hands on a rock platform on a nearby cliff. He lived there in ten feet squared and would sometimes go up to the monastery to teach. He likened the process of building a grass hut to the life of Zen:

"Bind grasses to build a hut and don't give up! Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely. Open your hands and walk, innocent."

Daowu asks Shitou this wonderful question: "What is the essential meaning of the buddha-dharma?" In the Zen tradition we celebrate the inquiring mind in person-to-person encounter. "Shitou, old teacher, after practicing for all these years, please show your guts!" I offer this koan to you now not as a dialogue between two old dead guys, but as an expression of a question you might find in your heart too. "What is true?" "What in this fluid life is reliable?" "Fundamentally, who am I?"

It is not a question that someone will be able to answer for you. As Daido Loori once said, "Zen is a process, not an answering machine." In this same spirit a student recently said, "I don't see you as the Wizard of Oz." I thought, "Phew!" Coincidentally, I've been reading my 4-year-old daughter The Wizard of Oz. Right at the beginning when Dorothy gets blown into Oz, she meets the good witch and the good witch kisses her on the forehead. Then throughout the rest of the story no harm can come to her - but she doesn't know it. She's originally protected by the incredible power of good. That's just like the teaching of this koan. We're all kissed - not to attain, not to know. We all have the invisible lip marks of the good witch of the north right on our foreheads - and all over the body and mind.

In the intimate meeting of this koan, Daowu asked about the truth. Shitou kisses Daowu on the forehead. He doesn't tell him to kiss off with Buddha babble. He says, "Not to attain, not to know." Shitou directly, vividly hits the bull's-eye of this precious human life.

You might hear this kind of meeting when the Han (the wooden instrument that hangs in Great Patience Hall) is hit. Just before we moved into this zendo, Judith and I came and showed it to Michael O'Neal and Joen Snyder O'Neal [Founders of the Center for Mindful Living]. As we were showing them around, Joen saw the Han. Without saying anything, she walked up, took the hammer and "TOCK!" Clear, strong meeting!

This is the practice of zazen itself. Not to attain, not to know. And brilliantly, the koan is letting go itself. This is theme-less meditation, meditation without props. In Japanese it's shikantaza. Okamura-sensei used say it's like riding a wild horse. Sitting upright and letting go moment after moment. If there isn't constant letting go you go down the slope of discursive thinking and are lost in the historical, psychological self. Earnest, vivid sitting is not just sitting and spacing out.

Only through not attaining, not knowing can we be fully alive. When you hook onto something as that which you've attained, you miss the fresh possibility of going beyond your idea of the moment. "Strip off the blinders, unpack the saddlebags," said one teacher. Those saddlebags we like to carry around - the good stuff and also all the oozing sores - may seem so very important. And, of course, each thing has its own integrity. This integrity is most fully honored in unpacking the saddlebags, pulling off the blinders. Throw the blinders out the window. That's the spirit of Zen that is pointed to in this expression, Not to attain, not to know.

Fully alive zazen has the qualities of holding tight and letting go. In holding tight, like you might hold a lover tightly, there is being engulfed and there is engulfing. In unity there is flow between engulfed and en-gulfer. Then there is letting go. How does it work to cling to the love that is evoked through holding and being held?

Daowu continues raising the inquiring mind, clarifying the way for us. He asks, "Is there some turning point in going beyond or not?" If it's simply not to attain, not to know is there some sweet place, some fixed position or not? Enlightenment is often thought of as one such a thing - the perfected state.

Shitou said, "The vast sky does not hinder white clouds from flying." "From these white clouds there may be no thunder or lightening and still the whole earth is drenched with sweet drizzle," says Zen Master Dogen.

Daowu is served this powerful teaching: not to attain, not to know. He responds: "Is there a turning point in going beyond or not?" Can I be saved? He just can't take in the radical impermanence of this life. Who can fault him? He's no slouch. And he's not just some guy that lived in China a thousand years ago, either. Daowu is this flinching mind. The mind right in the middle of arising and vanishing in profusion crying, "What about me?"

What about me? The vast sky does not hinder white clouds from flying. So there it is - both sides. The truth is not to attain, not to know. In zazen, just do it. You can say - and some practitioners do for many years - "I can't do it." I don't know if you can or not. The only way you can do it is just to do it, cutting through cleanly. One voice is yelling "Can't can't can't." Another voice is yelling, "Can can can." Both are troublemakers, flipping from deflation and hell to inflation and god realm. One moves right into the other. In a clear moment, "Ooh! Meditation, ooh! Zazen, ooh, I'm really present, ooh, I love Zen!" Then suddenly the mind drops, "Phooh." Then a different "ooh" comes up. "Ooh, I'm really in some sticky goo here. I really hate Zen."

Fortunately, the vast sky does not hinder white clouds. The falling maple leaf of our life presents front and back in turn. Clarity and delusion, sameness and difference in harmony. Each presentation has this integrity - to be free of itself. The vast sky of emptiness does not hinder the flowering of the 10,000 things.

May we together, walking hand-in-hand, continually realize and manifest this truth.


The Secrets of Heaven and Hell

The old monk sat by the side of the road. With his eyes closed, his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap, he sat. In deep meditation, he sat.

Suddenly his zazen was interrupted by the harsh and demanding voice of a samurai warrior. "Old man! Teach me about heaven and hell!"

At first, as though he had not heard, there was no perceptible response from the monk. But gradually he began to open his eyes, the faintest hint of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth as the samurai stood there, waiting impatiently, growing more and more agitated with each passing second.

"You wish to know the secrets of heaven and hell?" replied the monk at last. "You who are so unkempt. You whose hands and feet are covered with dirt. You whose hair is uncombed, whose breath is foul, whose sword is all rusty and neglected. You who are ugly and whose mother dresses you funny. You would ask me of heaven and hell?"

The samurai uttered a vile curse. He drew his sword and raised it high above his head. His face turned to crimson and the veins on his neck stood out in bold relief as he prepared to sever the monk's head from its shoulders.

"That is hell," said the old monk gently, just as the sword began its descent.

In that fraction of a second, the samurai was overcome with amazement, awe, compassion and love for this gentle being who had dared to risk his very life to give him such a teaching. He stopped his sword in mid-flight and his eyes filled with grateful tears.

"And that," said the monk, "is heaven."