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A Special Transmission Outside the Scriptures

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by Sangharakshita

... Buddhism, should be as broad as possible. Indeed, it should be universal.

In this connection I remember my experience at the Buddhist Society's Summer School in 1964, shortly after my return from India. There were lectures and classes on the Theravada, Mahayana, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism. Going from one meeting to another, as most of them did, some of the newcomers very quickly became disheartened and confused. Sometimes it seemed as though Buddhism was severely rational, strictly ascetic, and rather dry; sometimes as though it was warm, mystical, and ethically permissive. In one class they would be told to think; in another, to use their intuition. One speaker would sternly exhort them to rely on their own efforts for salvation; immediately afterwards, perhaps, another would invite them to rely solely on the compassion of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, who in ages long gone by had already graciously accomplished their salvation! Some, indeed, were heard to remark that they had learned a lot about the Mahayana, the Theravada, and various other schools, but where, they asked, was Buddhism? When were they going to hear about that? For most of them, however, light eventually dawned, and by the end of the week they had begun to realize that, despite their contradictions, all schools aimed at Enlightenment, all were concerned with one or another aspect of the same transcendental Reality.

We have had the same type of experience in our speakers' class. On one occasion four people, two men and two women, were asked to speak for twenty minutes each simply on `Buddhism'. Though the subject was the same, they produced four completely different talks. In fact, the talks could hardly have been more dissimilar. To begin with, the two men's approach to the subject was noticeably more intellectual; that of the women, more intuitive. While one speaker gave a systematic exposition of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, another devoted the whole of her talk to the subject of meditation. One of the four included a detailed account of the life of the Buddha. Another did not mention the Buddha at all. At the same time, despite their different approaches, all four talks were recognizably about the same thing - Buddhism. It was as though all, while inevitably falling wide of the central point of the incommunicable essence of Buddhism, in aiming at it drew, at different angles, lines which between them demarcated an area, or described a figure, within which Buddhism could be found and experienced. However comprehensive and objective we try to make them, our approaches to Buddhism are inevitably limited and conditioned - in short, one-sided. As my experience at the summer school, and in the speakers' class, illustrates, one way in which we can transcend this one-sidedness is by juxtaposing contradictory formulations of Buddhism in such a manner that we not only experience their contradictoriness but realize that they are equally valid expressions of a spiritual experience that forever eludes the logical categories of the discriminative mind. This is one of the benefits to be derived from a comprehensive study of different schools of Buddhism. We should not be afraid of contradictions. `A foolish consistency,' said Emerson, `is the hobgoblin of little minds.' On the psychological plane Buddhism attaches great importance to harmony and balance. Human nature has a number of different aspects, intellectual and emotional, active and contemplative, and so on, and justice must be done to them all. In the spiritual as in the secular life, all must be cultivated and developed, and a perfect equilibrium maintained. This is illustrated by the doctrine of the Five Spiritual Faculties, one of the most ancient and important of the `numerical lists' in which, from an early date, the Buddha's teaching was preserved. The Five Spiritual Faculties are faith (shraddha), wisdom (prajna), vigour (virya), concentration (samadhi), and mindfulness (smriti). Faith, representing the emotional and devotional aspect of the spiritual life, must be balanced by wisdom, otherwise it runs riot in religious hysteria, persecution mania, fanaticism, and intolerance. On the other hand wisdom, which stands for the intellectual - better, cognitive or gnostic - aspect, must be balanced by faith, without which it speedily degenerates into hair-splitting scholasticism. Vigour, or the active, kinetic aspect of the spiritual life, must be balanced by concentration, representing the introspective, contemplative counter-tendency, without which vigour is either animal high spirits or neurotic restlessness, and concentration itself by vigour, divorced from which concentration is aimless reverie, morbid introspection, or neurotic withdrawal. Mindfulness, the remaining faculty, being by its very nature incapable of going to extremes - one can't have too much mindfulness - requires no counterbalancing faculty to hold it in check. Mindfulness it is, indeed, that keeps faith and wisdom, and vigour and concentration, in a state of equilibrium. `Mindfulness is always useful,' the Buddha once declared.

Besides being one of the schools of Buddhism, Zen is, more specifically, also one of the schools of the Mahayana - the second of the three great stages of historical development into which Indian Buddhism traditionally falls. In the Mahayana four major schools, or types of approach, can be distinguished, and these, as I have explained in detail in my book A Survey of Buddhism, correspond to the Five Spiritual Faculties. What Conze terms the Buddhism of faith and devotion, with its highly emotional worship of the Buddhas, both historical and `legendary', and of bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Tara, represents a specialization, as it were, in the faculty of faith. The Madhyamaka School, or `School of the Mean', with its rigorously dialectical approach to Reality, represents a specialization in the faculty of wisdom. Similarly the Tantra, which in its esoteric form integrates not only the mind but the physical energies of breath and semen, concentrates on the faculty of vigour. The fourth spiritual faculty, that of concentration, is represented on the theoretical side by the Yogachara and on the practical side by the school which is known, in its Japanese form, as Zen. The faculty of mindfulness is represented by the spirit of tolerance which is diffused through all the schools and which holds them together as `moments' in the Mahayana-concept.

This correspondence between the schools of the Mahayana and the Five Spiritual Faculties gives us an important clue to the nature of Zen. Quite simply, it is that aspect of Mahayana Buddhism which emphasizes the importance of meditation, and specializes therein. This is indicated by the very name of the school. The Chinese term ch'an'na is a corruption of the Sanskrit dhyana, the general Indian word for meditative practice and experience, while zen-na, zen for short, is the Japanese corruption of the Chinese corruption. Thus the Zen School is really the Dhyana or Meditation School.

At the same time, Zen has its own distinctive features. This becomes obvious as we go a little deeper into the meaning of the word meditation. According to the remarkable man previously mentioned there are four kinds of Ch'an or Zen. So far as I know, this extremely important traditional classification, which sheds much light on the nature of Zen, has never appeared in English before, and it is unknown to Western Buddhists. I therefore hope it will be of interest to you.

Firstly there is Tathagata Ch'an - the classical methods of concentration such as counting the breaths and cultivating a spirit of universal love which were taught by Gautama the Buddha and are common to practically all forms of Buddhism, including Zen. In Zen monasteries the beginner is taught these methods and often practises nothing else for several years.

Secondly, Patriarchal Ch'an, i.e. the Ch'an of Hui-Neng, the sixth Chinese patriarch of the Zen School.

This refers to the Platform Scripture's teaching of the identity, or at any rate the inseparability, of samadhi and prajna. Hui-Neng says, `Learned Audience, in my system samadhi and prajna are fundamental. But do not be under the wrong impression that these two are independent of each other, for they are inseparably united and are not two entities. Samadhi is the quintessence of prajna, while prajna is the activity of samadhi. At the very moment that we attain prajna, samadhi is therewith; and vice versa.... A disciple should not think that there is a distinction between "samadhi begets prajna" and "prajna begets samadhi".' Further, `samadhi and prajna ... are analogous to a lamp and its light. With the lamp, there is light. Without it, it would be dark. The lamp is the quintessence of the light and the light is the expression of the lamp. In name they are two things, but in substance they are one and the same. It is the same case with samadhi and prajna.' Prajna of course means wisdom, in the sense of transcendental wisdom. But what does samadhi mean? Here there is a great deal of confusion to be cleared up. As one of the Five Spiritual Faculties, samadhi means simply one-pointedness of mind, or concentration. This is the meaning of the term in what we may call general Buddhism, the type of Buddhism codified in, and nowadays represented by, the Theravada, and it is in the same sense that samadhi is to be understood when it is enumerated as the second of the three great stages of progress into which the spiritual path is divided, the first stage being shila or morality and the third prajna or wisdom. In the Mahayana sutras which form the background of Hui-Neng's teaching, however, samadhi has a quite different meaning. Confusion has been created in the minds of Western students of Zen because they wrongly assume that the samadhi which Hui-Neng was equating ...

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