zen catechism

Catechisms are doctrinal manuals often in the form of questions followed by answers to be memorised. A christian example:

Q. What is the chief end of man?

A. To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

next question:

Q. How may we glorify and enjoy him?

My next question might have been: Who is god? What is man? Where is woman? Those questions were not in the book. Wikipedia tells me catechisms were devised to initiate the hearers into the fullness of Christian life, but I think one of the objects must have been to ignore and suppress certain questions.Β The questions and answers are to be remembered and recited like a string of beads, without thinking. Surely this calms the mind, but would you get any wiser?

By Becritical (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

By Becritical (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

The following series of questions and answers are quoted from John Blofeld’s translation of the zen teachings of Huang Po. He died in 850, was one of the successors of Hui NΓͺng and is considered as one of the founders of Lin Chi (Rinzai) zen.

Is this important? Probably not. Many followers of zen think the origin of the sect can be retraced to the time when buddha held up a flower and Mahakasyapa smiled. They take this as the first in a series of wordless dharma transmission, that includes zen masters like the First Patriarch Bodidharma, who supposedly brought (zen)buddhism from India to China, Hui NΓͺng, the Sixth Patriarch, Huang Po, Rinzai and onwards, to present day zen masters. However, all of these authorities would have strongly objected to you taking their word for it!

Nigel Williams [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Nigel Williams [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

These teachings have been written down by P’ei Hsiu, his successor, in the year 858. He pretends to ask the questions himself, but it could have been anyone present at this talk. Please don’t try to memorise what follows:

Q. What is the Way and how must it be followed?

A. What sort of THING do you suppose the Way to be, that you should wish to FOLLOW it?

Q. What instructions have the Masters everywhere given for dhyana (=meditation) practice and the way to study the Dharma?

A. Words used to attract the dull of wit are not to be relied on.

Q. If those teachings were meant for the dull-witted, I have yet to hear what Dharma has been taught to those of really high capacity.

A. If they are really men of high capacity, where could they find people to follow? If they seek from within themselves, they will find nothing tangible; how much less can they find a Dharma worthy of their attention elsewhere! Do not look for what is called the Dharma by preachers, for what sort of Dharma could that be?

Q. If that is so, should we not seek for anything at all?

A. By conceding this, you would save yourself a lot of mental effort.

Q. But in this way everything would be eliminated. There cannot just be nothing.

A. Who called it nothing? Who was this fellow? But you wanted to SEEK for something?

Q. Since there is no need to seek, why do you also say that not everything is eliminated?

A. Not to seek is to rest tranquil. Who told you to eliminate anything? Look at the void in front of your eyes. How can you produce it or eliminate it?

Q. If I could reach this Dharma, would it be like the void?

A. Morning and night I have explained to you that the Void is both One and Manifold. I said this as a temporary expedient, but you are building up concepts from it.

Q. Do you mean that we should not form concepts as human beings normally do?

A. I have not prevented you; but concepts are related to the senses; and, when feeling takes place, wisdom is shut out.

Q. Then should we avoid feeling in relation to the Dharma?

A. Where no feeling arises, who can say that you are right?

Q. Why do you speak as though I was mistaken in all the questions I have asked Your Reverence?

A. You are a man who does not understand what is said to him. What is all this about being mistaken?

The zen teaching of Huang Po, translated by John Blofeld, 1958, Grove Press, New York

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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24 Responses to zen catechism

  1. bop2112 says:

    Nice !!
    Always so thought provoking.

  2. Bastet says:

    Gotta love it… πŸ™‚

  3. violetwisp says:

    This is an excellent post! I can’t stop thinking of the potential ramifications for Christianity if they’d take a small leaf out of this (mentally exhausting for good reasons) philosophy.

  4. Pingback: questions about killing | violetwisp

  5. But, concepts are how we communicate ideas. I still don’t know if it’s possible to truly practice zen in modern society.

    • Me neither. Some days I do think it’s possible, some days I don’t. I’ve tried to imagine what thinking would be like if we did not use concepts. It put us in the same position as the lamprey eel (one of the first creatures in evolution that developed a spine). It uses only its brainstem to think. They have survived, but I don’t think theirs is a way of existence that we should strive for.

      • It would be appropriate if I lived in the country or the hills somewhere. In the city, I have to be a minimum of two completely different people to survive. I could not tell the difference without concepts. If someone asked me a question I might just stare at them and smile.

        • I don’t think the idea would be to live without concepts for ever. Zen philosophers often make a difference between the absolute and the relative. The relative would be our everyday world. The absolute would be something underlying (not the right word) reality. In the absolute there would be no concepts, no self, no division etc. Once you have realised that, it might actually be easier to deal with the everyday world because you would be less attached to it and you would have less preconceived ideas about what you encounter. Well, that’s the theory anyway. πŸ˜‰

  6. john zande says:

    Chris took the words out of my mouth

  7. dimvisionary says:

    Zen Catechism, great idea! I love a good mash-up. Thanks!

  8. David Yerle says:

    Without wanting to sound disrespectful (I’m going for humorous) do you sometimes get the feeling that Zen is this 2,000 year-old running joke that only Zen masters are able to get? As in: you spend your life studying Zen and when you reach the “master” status you realize “oh, it was all a big joke! We were just speaking gibberish!” and then you play the same joke on your disciples and derive no little joy from it. And so the tradition continues…

    • Very much so. A paradox is the perfect way to outsmart any person who likes to think. And this specific dialogue strikes me as being humorous rather than insightful. That’s why I cited it. The reason I practice zen is not that I believe in it. I just derive tangible benefits from doing meditation and zen seemed to be the least religious option at the time I started out. Apart from that, I guess I am still looking for a philosophy that teaches me to live right (I think I can use that word without you thinking I believe in things being right per se). Anything convincing will do. πŸ™‚

      • David Yerle says:

        “Zen seemed to be the least religious option at the time I started out.” That perfectly sums up my approach too. And I am convinced of the positive effects of meditation, not only because it makes sense but because of the pile of scientific evidence for it.
        I didn’t really think you’d get offended by my comment, but sometimes it’s good to be extra-careful! I have a knack for pissing off people I like πŸ™‚

  9. Another book I have to look into πŸ™‚

    I especially like this: Not to seek is to rest tranquil.

    As for Zen’s history… Dharma transmission is yet another one of those concepts that I have serious issue with. Also, isn’t there some squabbling over what Zen really is? One school of thought has it that Zen is largely Taoism with a bit of Buddhism mixed in, if not Taoism in Buddhist clothing.

    • Thank you for you comment. I really liked reading this particular book. It does imply trusting John Blofeld to tell us what Huang Po said, which always makes me a bit uncomfortable (especially when it’s an 1100-year-old Chinese text) but his teaching seems to be very clear and even humorous.

      I like what you say about dharma transmission. Could you expand on your ‘issue’?

      This weekend, I was reading an article that is very critical of zen. (The zen of Japanese Nationalism, by Robert H. Sharf) It states that Japanese zen practitioners never mentioned enlightenment at all until the early 1900’s. And when they did, their objective was to lend credibility to the Japanese philosophy of superiority that has done so much damage in neighbouring countries. One thing Sharf mentions is this infamous conversation between D.T. Suzuki and Hisamatsu:

      Q. Among the many people you’ve met or heard of (in the West) is there anyone who you think has some understanding of zen?
      Suzuki: No one. Not yet anyway.
      Q. I see, not yet. Well then, is there at least someone you have hope for? (Laughter)
      Suzuki: No. Not even that.
      Q. So of the many people (in the West) who have written about Zen there aren’t any who understand it?
      Suzuki: That’s right
      Q. Well, is there at least some book written (by a Westerner) which is at least fairly accurate?
      Suzuki: No. Not to my knowledge.

      This conversation was accidentally recorded when the two stayed at Harvard in 1958. Suzuki expresses an opinion that is radically different from what he said in public. From reading this article, we should go back to the origins of zen in China, I think. After all, Brad Warren has lived in Japan for years and he’s not enthusiastic about the way zen is practiced there now. πŸ™‚
      The roots of zen in China seem to be Taoism and Buddhism. I am about to read some more on Taoism, actually. I’d like to explore that.

      So, yes, I needed a lot of words for this one but I think I agree with most of what you say.

      • I understand your concerns about who to trust; I get around all this by simply evaluating the information. I couldn’t care less if someone read his/her own philosophy into something. Is it sound? Then that’s good enough for me.

        That conversation with Suzuki is interesting… I find it hard to believe that no one outside Japan got it…

        My issue with Dharma transmission is that it seems supernatural and is used as a justification for a lineage, similar to blood lines in the monarchy. I can’t tell you how many times I heard something like “X received the Dharma transmission from Y…”.

        • Well, that is the approach I would advocate when it comes to any philosophy: is it sound? Then we can forget about who received transmission from whom and whether enlightenment is possible outside Japan πŸ˜‰

          I agree with you 100% on dharma transmission. It certainly should not be a justification for anything. Apart from that, looking at the recent history of zen, zen masters haven’t always been very successful at selecting dharma heirs.

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