A Short Sketch of Zen History

Q: I've heard you talk about Zen's "soteriology." I had to look up the word in a dictionary! It means a system or a set of methods leading to "salvation." Can you explain this?

A: All the classic Zen texts are soteriological. This means that they speak of a before and an after. They speak of going from delusion to enlightenment, even though ultimately there may be no such "things."

How to attain enlightenment is the basic question of Zen (or of any real yoga, for that matter.) The problem to consider is one of yogic method.

To put it another way, it is a question of whether some kind of intervention is possible. The student is as helpless as a worm in his ignorance & anguish. The Master must intervene to wake him up, somehow! But how?

So, by intervention I mean a technique, a teaching, a procedure capable of stopping the endless production of delusions -- or, in Huangbo Xiyun's words, of "cutting off thinking" and "forgetting views."

In the history of Zen we see clearly that the oldest soteriological technique is dhyana. A text found in the Tun-Huang caves says, "Sit silently in empty fusion."

Other, later Zen figures felt that his technique of "empty fusion" was not good enough, so they added question-and-answer sessions which were conducted in the Buddha Hall after the daily meditation period.

Starting in the late T'ang Dynasty, certain Masters felt that the verbal, expository nature of the question-and-answer sessions was inadequate to stop the deluded minds of students, so they began refusing to answer certain questions, sometimes just getting down off the dais and walking out of the Hall, or answering with a seemingly irrational word or phrase such as "dried shit stick" or "sesame flatcake!"

Yet even this was not always effective, so some of the Masters began coming down from the dais and slapping students -- or even, like Yunmen, chasing them outside with a stick.

Later, in the Song Dynasty, the records of these strange encounters were turned into objects for meditative contemplation -- public cases, kung-ans, which were given to students one by one to focus on in an energetic, single minded way not only while doing sitting meditation but all day and all night, until breakthrough (kensho, satori).

Still later, the kung-ans were reduced to a single "head word" or hua t'ou to try to prevent students from trying to understand them logically.

All this creative effort and energy in Zen was devoted to answering a single soteriological question:

How does one stop thought discriminations from arising so that one actually experiences reality as it is?

Huangbo says that "stopping thinking" is more than enough. "The Patriarchal Gate of Zen is calming mental functions and forgetting all views." What are all the poisonous attachments of samsara, after all, but mental functions arising from holding onto views?

The salvation offered by Zen is that of being undisturbed in the Way. The soteriological question is whether or not there is a particular method for realizing this wonderful state of being undisturbed in the Way.

Clearly, when you are disturbed you feel it. So how do you drop the disturbed feeling? By looking at its cause. This is not a matter of "fixing" the mind but of abandoning the mind. So how do you abandon the mind? Such is the persistent "how to" question of Zen.

The Chinese were pragmatic people. They wanted to know how to become Buddha, not just how to worship Buddha.

Q: How do you know I'm not a Buddha already?

I don't know. That's for you to decide. Do you feel completely at ease all the time, at one with life, playful and strong?

When you take a drink of water, you know for yourself whether it's hot or cold. So if I say to you, "The water is cold," if you wanted to be skeptical you could certainly just say, "That's only words."
However, it's not only words. I'm drinking the water and I actually do know that it is cold. For you it's just words. For me it is the reality.

Q: Sounds far too subjective.

A: Certainly everyone's way is subjective. Everything is subjective in that sense. So why then did the Zen Masters "go into the weeds" to try to awaken their students?

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