Throw-down the flagpole!

34. “Q: What is meant by relative truth?1

A: What would you do with such a parasitical plant as that? Reality is perfect purity; why base a discussion on false terms? To be absolutely without concepts is called the Wisdom of Dispassion. Every day, whether walking, standing, sitting or lying down, and in all your speech, remain detached from everything within the sphere of phenomena. Whether you speak or merely blink an eye, let it be done with complete dispassion. Now we are getting towards the end of the third period of five hundred years since the time of the Buddha, and most students of Zen cling to all sorts of sounds and forms. Why do they not copy me by letting each thought go as though it were nothing, or as though it were a piece of rotten wood, a stone, or the cold ashes of a dead fire? Or else, by just making whatever slight response is suited to each occasion? If you do not act thus, when you reach the end of your days here, you will be tortured by Yama.2 You must get away from the doctrines of existence and non-existence, for Mind is like the sun, forever in the void, shining spontaneously, shining without intending to shine. This is not something which you can accomplish without effort, but when you reach the point of clinging to nothing whatever, you will be acting as the Buddhas act. This will indeed be acting in accordance with the saying: ‘Develop a mind which rests on no thing whatever.3 For this is your pure Dharmakaya, which is called supreme perfect Enlightenment. If you cannot understand this, though you gain profound knowledge from your studies, though you make the most painful efforts and practice the most stringent austerities, you will still fail to know your own mind. All your effort will have been misdirected and you will certainly join the family of Mara.4 What advantage can you gain from this sort of practice? As Chih Kung5 once said: ‘The Buddha is really the creation of your own Mind. How, then, can he be sought through scriptures?’ Though you study how to attain the Three Grades of Bodhisattvahood, the Four Grades of Sainthood, and the Ten Stages of a Bodhisattva’s Progress to Enlightenment until your mind is full of them, you will merely be balancing yourself between ‘ordinary’ and ‘ Enlightened’. Not to see that all METHODS of following the Way are ephemeral is samsaric Dharma.

Its strength once spent, the arrow falls to earth. You build up lives which won’t fulfill your hopes. How far below the Transcendental Gate From which one leap will gain the Buddha’s realm!6 

It is because you are not that sort of man that you insist on a thorough study of the methods established by people of old for gaining knowledge on the conceptual level. Chih Kung also said: ‘If you do not meet a transcendental teacher, you will have swallowed the Mahayana medicine in vain!’”

1 Literally ‘worldly truth” no doubt used in the sense of ‘truths’ applicable to the apparently objective sphere of daily life.

2 The King of Hell-here used figuratively.

3 A famous quotation from the Diamond Sutra.

4 Prince of Devils-here used figuratively.

5 A famous sixth-century monk.

6This verse is from the ‘Song of Enlightenment’ attributed to Yung Chia, a seven-century monk. This fascinating work has been translated in full by Dr. Walter Liebenthal and published in the Journal of Oriented Studies of the Catholic University of Peiping, Vol. VI, 1941.

By and large what has been expounded by Huang Po throughout these discourses has to do with Truth (Paramartha); his adepts are still clinging to “relative” notions of what this Absolute Truth actually entails and hence they are always “attached” to the phenomenal realm vs. the Real Dharma-Realm, or Dharmadhatu. When the Master insists on being dispassionate towards every-thing apparently experienced in the relative-realm of illusion, he’s not implying that anyone should make some kind of active-reactionary attempt to shut-out the phenomena; as he taught earlier on, this would only incur deeper karmic debt as any attempted-action or non-action could very well cause more harmful circumstances than one is trying to allay. Rather, and he is most precise on this in terms of every “daily-action” possible, one needs to be Mindful that the diurnal-walk through samsara is not representative of the Truly-Real, but rather just shadow-walking through lesser-mind-fields of the karmadhatu. One should not get “passionate” about passing-shadows but rather be-Mindful that they have no Real-Substance apart from the Animating-Principle. The best rule of thumb to keep in mind is that any-thing that changes is impermanent; and attempting to cling to what is impermanent will only weigh one down with needless anxieties that only enhances the karmic-spin as one awaits the inextricable arrival of Yama—the king of Death. I beg to differ with Blofeld’s footnote on this; Yama is not just a figurative-persona, but is truly representative of the inescapable arrival of Death at the end of one’s present samsaric-journey; or as we learned in the “Lankavatarian Book of the Dead” series, the passage from prior-bardo-realms into the Bardo-Realm Proper of Death, before subsequent Bardo-Realms leading to Liberation of Mind or Re-birth into recurring samsaric-realms of further imperfections.  Huang Po says that while this Realization eventually becomes Self-Evident, it is not without effort. One still needs to Mindfully make Right-Effort (through persistent Recollective-Vigilance and time spent in deep-samadhis) lest the heavy-weight of samsara wears-down the spirit before it can properly Ascend through all the Stages of Mind-Development. Upon initiation into the Tathata-Family, all-prior stages can be abandoned (like a raft that helped carry one to the Other-Shore of Deathless Suchness) as One’s True Body of Reality (the Dharmakaya) fully-embodies the Nirvanic-Kingdom of Self.  The Master warns that if this is not Fully-Realized, then all one’s efforts spent through countless hours of studious erudition only guarantees graduation to the top of Mara’s Class, but one still does not escape from his damnable-claw. What a commentary Huang Po shares on the human-condition—one spends their entire lifetime building up merits and hoarding-treasures that will never satisfy their insatiable longing for permanence in an impermanent world. He even goes one step further and asserts that even those who have immersed themselves in the Mahayana does not guarantee successful passage through samsaric-seas; what is needed, above all, is exposure to a Dharma-Teacher who has transcended the ways of all (what he calls) samsaric-dharmas. The Buddhadharma alone is paramount.

35. “If you would spend all your time-walking, standing, sitting or lying down-learning to halt the concept-forming activities of your own mind, you could be sure of ultimately attaining the goal. Since your strength is insufficient, you might not be able to transcend samsara by a single leap; but, after five or ten years, you would surely have made a good beginning and be able to make further progress spontaneously. It is because you are not that sort of man that you feel obliged to employ your mind ‘studying dhyana’ and ‘studying the Way’. What has all that got to do with Buddhism? So it is said that all the Tathagata taught was just to convert people; it was like pretending yellow leaves are real gold just to stop the flow of a child’s tears; it must by no means be regarded as though it were ultimate truth. If you take it for truth, you are no member of our sect; and what bearing can it have on your original substance? So the sutra says: ‘What is called supreme perfect wisdom implies that there is really nothing whatever to be attained.’ If you are also able to understand this, you will realize that the Way of the Buddhas and the Way of devils are equally wide of the mark. The original pure, glistening universe is neither square nor round, big nor small; it is without any such distinctions as long and short, it is beyond attachment and activity, ignorance and Enlightenment. You must see clearly that there is really nothing at all-no humans and no Buddhas. The great chiliocosms, numberless as grains of sand, are mere bubbles. All wisdom and all holiness are but streaks of lightning. None of them have the reality of Mind. The Dharmakaya, from ancient times until today, together with the Buddhas and Patriarchs, is One. How can it lack a single hair of anything? Even if you understand this, you must make the most strenuous efforts. Throughout this life, you can never be certain of living long enough to take another breath.”1

1 Buddhists believe that it is a rare and difficult thing to be born a human being; and, as Enlightenment can only be attained from the human state, it is a matter of great urgency that we should press forward. Otherwise, the unique opportunity may be lost for many aeons.

The Master says not to get discouraged while transcending lesser-mindfields; Right-Effort is not something sudden and complete in itself; indeed, it may take great gradual and persistent attempts to de-conceptualize all that limits one’s advances in the Buddhadharma, but one should not just give up and back-slide into the mind-games of their own complacency in relying exclusively upon outside agencies that really leads the nowhere but only deeper into philosophical quagmires. He also forewarns that if anyone mistakes any/all expedient means as the Truth in Itself, then they are setting themselves up for a great disappointment. All about-you, whether humans or concepts about Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, indeed all contained within the great chiliocosms are mere “bubbles”—they are all insubstantial phantasms of the Animating Mind. Quite simply, Mind-Only is where it’s at and no-thing else need try to sell false admission-tickets into the Pure Mind of the Dharmakaya. As an additional wake-up call, the Master says this could well-be your last chance of this Noble Self-Realization for untold kalpas to come. Sober-Up, as this kind of missed-opportunity can be lost indefinitely!

36. “Q: The Sixth Patriarch was illiterate. How is it that he was handed the robe which elevated him to that office? Elder Shen Hsiu (a rival candidate) occupied a position above five hundred others and, as a teaching monk, he was able to expound thirty-two volumes of sutras. Why did he not receive the robe?

A: Because he still indulged in conceptual thought-in a dharma of activity. To him ‘as you practise, so shall you attain’ was a reality. So the Fifth Patriarch made the transmission to Hui Neng (Wei Lang). At that very moment, the latter attained a tacit understanding and received in silence the profoundest thought of the Tathagata. That is why the Dharma was transmitted to him. You do not see that THE FUNDAMENTAL DOCTRINE OF THE DHARMA IS THAT THERE ARE NO DHARMAS, YET THAT THIS DOCTRINE OF NO-DHARMA IS IN ITSELF A DHARMA; AND NOW THAT THE NO-DHARMA DOCTRINE HAS BEEN TRANSMITTED, HOW CAN THE DOCTRINE OF THE DHARMA BE A DHARMA?Whoever understands the meaning of this deserves to be called a monk, one skilled at ‘Dharma-practice’. If you do not believe this, you must explain the following story. ‘The Elder Wei Ming climbed to the summit of the Ta Yii Mountain to visit the Sixth Patriarch. The latter asked him why he had come. Was it for the robe or for the Dharma? The Elder Wei Ming answered that he had not come for the robe, but only for the Dharma; whereupon the Sixth Patriarch said: “Perhaps you will concentrate your thoughts for a moment and avoid thinking in terms of good and evil.” Ming did as he was told, and the Sixth Patriarch continued: “While you are not thinking of good and not thinking of evil, just at this very moment, return to what you were before your father and mother were born.” Even as the words were spoken, Ming arrived at a sudden tacit understanding. Accordingly he bowed to the ground and said: “I am like a man drinking water who knows in himself how cool it is. I have lived with the Fifth Patriarch and his disciples for thirty years, but it is only today that I am able to banish the mistakes in my former way of thinking.” The Sixth Patriarch replied: “Just so. Now at last you understand why, when the First Patriarch arrived from India, he just pointed directly at men’s Minds, by which they could perceive their real Nature and become Buddhas, and why he never spoke of anything besides.” ‘Have we not seen how, when Ananda asked Kasyapa what the World Honoured had transmitted to him in addition to the golden robe, the latter exclaimed, ‘Ananda!’ and, upon Ananda’s respectfully answering ‘Yes?’, continued: ‘Throw down the flagpole at the monastery gate.’ Such was the sign which the First (Indian) Patriarch gave him. For thirty years the wise Ananda ministered to the Buddha’s personal needs; but, because he was too fond of acquiring knowledge, the Buddha admonished him, saying: ‘If you pursue knowledge for a thousand days that will avail you less than one day’s proper study of the Way. If you do not study it, you will be unable to digest even a single drop of water!’”

1 This passage has puzzled many a Chinese scholar. I am not sure that this translation conveys the meaning very well, but at least I have simplified the wording by using ‘doctrine’ as well as ‘dharma’. In the original, the same word is used for both. A word-for-word translation would run something like this: ‘Dharma original Dharma not Dharma, not Dharma Dharma also Dharma, now transmit not Dharma Dharma, Dharma Dharma how-can be Dharma.’ I have closely followed a rendering made for me some years ago by Mr. I. T. Pun, a famous Buddhist scholar resident in Hongkong. He admits that this version merely represents his own opinion, but it seems to me the best possible. In my previous published translation I failed lamentably.

Reading the beginning of this particular passage again and again in light of the Buddhadharma, one can begin to fully-discern why Hui-neng was chosen as the Sixth Patriarch. It all goes back to the prior passages in this series dealing with “spontaneity, or Wu-Wei.” Being an exceptional, “Honor-Roll type-Egghead” (akin to Shen Hsiu’s erudition) bearing all sorts of titles and honorary degrees is all a heap-of-crap when it comes to Self-Realization of Pure-Mind. Pure Mind is so named because It’s completely Void of all that Epistemological rubbish that is no better than, what Huang-po’s Dharma-heir Lin Chi would describe as, “all just a dried shit-stick!” Being illiterate—indeed, completely void (empty of words) of all that head-shit, Hui-neng was a pure-vehicle who just spontaneously recognized the Real-face and Mind of Zen, and not just like some poor imitation, verbatim-ridden scoundrel spewing forth dead-words from some long-forgotten master. Only the Pure can recognize the Pure. Light from Light; Pure Mind from Pure Mind. The reference to Ananda’s classic dharma-encounter with Kasyapa rings so true here: there is therefore no longer any need of any form of instruction—so, “throw-down the flagpole!” Ananda’s “yes” is the spontaneity—the Wu Wei of Mind Recollecting Mind AS Mind. (Even though this most likely meant for Ananda that this blessed moment of Mind-Spontaneity took some time to sink-in)

This entry was posted in The Zen Teachings of Huang Po, Zen and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Throw-down the flagpole!

  1. Boon says:

    Great understanding. To seek may be illusion or more clinging..but keep me in..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *