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A Special Transmission Outside the Scriptures

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 13: A Special Transmission Outside the Scriptures - edited version After spending twenty years in the East, mainly in India, I returned to England in August 1964 at the invitation of the English Sangha Trust, and was for two years Incumbent of the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara, London. During this period I delivered at the Vihara upwards of a hundred lectures on various aspects of Buddhism, including five talks on `The Essence of Zen'.

The present work is a transcription of these talks, which were given towards the end of 1965. Though the passage from the spoken to the written word has inevitably resulted in a certain amount of condensation, I have tried to resist the temptation of recasting the substance of these talks in more `literary' form. In this way, I hope, I have not only remained closer to the heart of Ch'an but avoided the obvious inconsistency of producing yet another `book on Zen'. Despite the fact that you are now reading with your eyes rather than listening with your ears, in the following pages I am still just talking ... I wonder if you can hear me.

Freathy Bay, Cornwall. 26 April 1973 introduction Zen is one of the best known and most important forms of Buddhism, and for a long time I have been wondering whether to speak on the subject. I was aware that, in venturing to speak on Zen, I would be treading on very dangerous ground. Some people, indeed, might regard me as a trespasser on their own special preserve. However, after pondering the matter for some time I decided to take my courage in both hands and speak on Zen. There will, therefore, be a series of five talks on `The Essence of Zen', of which the first talk in the series, the one I am giving today, will be of an introductory nature.

My reluctance to speak on Zen was certainly not due to any feeling of disrespect towards this form of Buddhism. I have in fact the greatest admiration for Zen. Along with the Maha Mudra and Ati Yoga teachings of Tibet it represents, in my opinion, the peak of Buddhist spirituality. My reluctance was due rather to an awareness of the extreme difficulty of doing justice to the subject. I was also aware of the numerous misunderstandings surrounding Zen, some at least of which would have to be dispelled before Zen itself could be approached. However, having given series of lectures on the Theravada and Mahayana schools, as well as on Tibetan Buddhism - not to mention an odd lecture on Shin - I eventually decided that, for the sake of completeness at least, I ought to overcome my reluctance and speak on Zen too.

A few words about my personal connection with Zen might be of interest here. At the age of sixteen I happened to read the Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Wei-Lang (as the Platform Scripture was then called) and immediately had the intuitive perception that here was the absolute truth which, far from being new to me, was what I had really known and accepted all the time. Like many others, I also read the writings of Dr D.T. Suzuki and his imitators. Suzuki's own words on Zen, with their combination of erudition, intellectual brilliance, and spiritual profundity, impressed me deeply, and I have returned to them for inspiration throughout my Buddhist life. For more than twenty years, mainly in the East, I studied and practised forms of Buddhism other than Zen. In particular, I practised meditation according to Theravadin methods and according to the Tantric traditions of the Tibetan Buddhist schools. These studies and practices, and the spiritual experiences to which they led, deepened my understanding and appreciation of Zen. This will seem strange only to those who tend to regard the different forms of Buddhism as so many mutually exclusive entities each of which has to be approached independently and as it were de novo. Far from being mutually exclusive, all the schools of Buddhism, despite their immense diversity, have a great deal of ground in common, so that to experience the truth of any one of them is to some extent at least to grasp the inner meaning and significance of all the others. All are concerned, ultimately, with the attainment of Enlightenment. Having known the truth of Buddhism by practising, for example, a form of Tibetan Buddhism, it is therefore possible to understand and appreciate the Theravada or the Jodo Shin Shu. Knowledge of the whole includes knowledge of the parts. In order to understand the spirit of Zen one does not always have to read books on `Zen Buddhism', or stay at a monastery labelled `Zen Monastery', or even practise `Zen meditation' - much less still learn Japanese or sit on cushions of a particular size and shape.

However, had that been all, had my connection with Zen been limited to my experience of the Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Wei-Lang, my reading of Suzuki's works, and my general understanding of Buddhism, it is very doubtful whether I should have ventured to speak on the subject. But fortunately there was one more link. Before returning to England in 1964 I was in contact with a very remarkable man. This was a lay Buddhist hermit living on the outskirts of Kalimpong in two small rooms which he has now not left for at least fifteen or sixteen years. From five in the morning until five in the afternoon he sat, and I am sure still sits, in meditation, with a short break for lunch. Visitors are allowed only in the evening, by appointment. For several years I saw him regularly, usually on Saturday evenings. Besides possessing a thorough knowledge of the canonical literature of Buddhism he was, I soon found, an advanced practitioner of the Vajrayana, which he had studied in eastern Tibet, as well as of Zen or, as I ought to say - since he was Chinese - of Ch'an. He was moreover a prolific writer, publishing numerous books on Tantric Buddhism and Zen, though he allowed himself only half an hour a day for literary work. Despite the fact that he refused to act as a guru, and accepted no disciples, in the course of talks and discussions I was able to learn a great deal from him. In particular I was able to imbibe the spirit of Zen in greater measure. Had it not been for this contact I probably would not have felt able to speak to you about Zen at all.

Now you may have noticed that so far as these talks are concerned I have arrived at the subject of Zen as it were schoolwise. That is to say, having given courses of lectures on the Theravada, on the Mahayana, on Tibetan Buddhism, and so on, I finally decided to give, for the sake of completeness, a series of talks on Zen. This brings us to an extremely important point, a point directly affecting the nature of the Buddhist movement not only in this country but throughout the Western world. Buddhism has a long history. It has flourished in the East for 2,500 years, and during this time, in India, China, Japan, Tibet, and elsewhere, numerous sects and schools have sprung up. Nobody knows exactly how many of them there are or were, for some are extinct. Probably there are several hundred still in existence. These schools present a picture, or pattern, of unity in diversity, and diversity in unity. All aim at the attainment of Enlightenment, or Buddhahood. At the same time they approach it in a number of ways and from many points of view. They are either predominantly rationalist or predominantly mystical, inclined to activism or quietism, situating their teaching in a historical or a mythological context, and so on. These schools, or at any rate some of the most important of them, are now in process of being introduced into the West. Partly on account of the reasons already adduced, and partly through being associated with different national cultures, they at first present, to the Western student, a spectacle of unmitigated difference, not to say disharmony. But we should not allow ourselves to be misled by appearances. Despite their apparent differences, even mutual opposition, we should study and learn to appreciate them all, thus making ourselves acquainted, as far as possible, with the whole vast range of Buddhist thought and practice. Only in this way will it be possible for us to obtain a balanced picture of Buddhism. Otherwise, we might commit the mistake of identifying Buddhism with one or another of its expressions, maintaining that this, and this alone, was the true embodiment of the Buddha's teaching. Such a course would be unfortunate as it would mean, in effect, adopting an attitude of sectarian exclusiveness which, though unfortunately characteristic of most forms of Christianity until recent times, is quite foreign to the spirit of Buddhism.

In this place we do not identify ourselves exclusively with any particular school. Therefore, having dealt with so many other forms of Buddhism, it was inevitable that sooner or later we should get round to Zen.

This synoptic kind of approach is, of course, a very difficult, even confusing, one to follow. It demands ability to discriminate what is essential from what is inessential in Buddhism. It demands objectivity and power of judgement, as well as a considerable amount of hard study. Most of us shrink from the effort involved. After all, it is so easy, in comparison, to `take up' the form of Buddhism to which we are most strongly attracted, to identify ourselves wholeheartedly with it, to derive emotional satisfaction, perhaps, from proclaiming this, and this alone, to be the true Dharma, and all the other forms travesties, misrepresentations, and corruptions! But the temptation must be resisted. We must remember that, as Buddhists, we take refuge in the Dharma, not in the teachings of this or that particular school. Our line of spiritual practice may, indeed must, be specialized, at least to some extent: we either recite the Nembutsu, or practise mindfulness of breathing, or visualize a mandala of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other deities.

But our general approach, our overall attitude, to Buddhism, ...

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