Three Greats of Zen

Someone looking at this title might see it and say, “Oh terrific, Bodhidharma, Huineng, and (fill in blank with the name of whomever the Great Teacher in your lineage is). But that's not the focus of this blog or Dharma talk.

The first “Great” of Zen is “Great Faith”. There are a lot of Zen “purists” that will say, “It's only about seeing your True Nature. That's it. Period. End of story.” Are they parroting the words of Bodhidharma or another Great Teacher who has said the same thing, or have they actually realized their Buddhahood? One thing that I have heard from the “purists” is that there is unequivocally no “Faith” in Zen, or in Buddhism in general. No “god,” no “faith” might succinctly sum up the point. This simple statement may have originated in whatever it was that led to Buddhist practice in general, and specifically to Zen. Rebelliousness isn't necessarily detrimental to practice, and in fact can be extremely useful, but even rebellion must be applied as skillfully as any other element of practice.

If the rejection is the blanket rejection of all “religiosity,” it makes me wonder what the depth of their practice is, maybe who their teacher is, and what their objective is in Zen practice. Rightly so, they may come back with, “There is no goal in practicing Zen!” Fair enough...maybe. Is this rather definitive statement the result of reading, or realization? Are they secularists in Zen clothing? Is Zen practice self-identified as “cool?”

My own road to the Path isn't entirely unlike this. The religion in which I was raised was unsatisfactory, and I started reading about numerous other “spiritual” practices. When Buddhist collections showed up on the radar screen, it was an amalgam—as much Buddha as Bodhidharma, as much Milarepa as Mu. What I found was that the writings that broadly fell into the category of “Zen” were the ones that resonated with me, so that's the direction I went. If I were going to join a Zen sangha, I was willing to do whatever the Zen sangha did, in an odd twist of “When in Rome.” My practice literally started as an act of faith. What I was doing wasn't working, and I believed this Zen thing might. Then I had faith in that Zen would. I went through my phase of sitting zazen, as I was with a Soto group at the time, and we did the chants in English and Japanese, I heard words like mantra and dharani, we dedicated merit, the whole gamut of forms that constitute practice. And at the time, it was all real. All the ritual must have been for some purpose, although I had no clue what that was. But everything was directly associated with name & form, and it took a while to shake that off.

Then, as I suspect we all might, I went through the “thinking phase,” where everything was an exercise in intellect. “Form was emptiness, and Emptiness was form,” but only intellectually. It said it in the Heart Sutra, so I said it. This still has its allure, and find myself in it again more than I'd like to admit. Intellect as part of skillful means, fine. Intellect as a means to boost my ego, to prove I'm the smartest guy in the room, and other such “I”-oriented results, no so skillful.

Then came the “attached to emptiness” phase. I told myself that if I were ever to give a Dharma talk, the first thing I'd do is knock the statue of the Buddha off the altar, and hope that it broke into 84,000 pieces. We'd see how many people were still attached to their superstitions, we'd see who was attached to “form.” Fortunately I moved on from that idea long before ever giving a talk. In this phase is where anything like “faith” was looked on with disdain, and anyone who said it was looked on with pity.

At some point, the harshest edges of attachment to emptiness wore off, if only because I saw how unattractive a trait it was when I saw it in other people, mostly in the form of Zenternet trolls.

Now, on the one hand, we can say that there is absolutely nothing upon which we can hang our hats in Zen practice. The Diamond Sutra put it as, “All dharmas are no-dharmas, thus are they called 'dharmas'.” Think you have something to stand on, the Buddha swipes it away even before your feet land. The Heart Sutra even dismantles the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path: “...No suffering, no origination, no stopping and no path...” So how could there be such a thing as “faith,” and what possible purpose could it serve?

And yet, The “Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment” speaks of “faith-understanding” as the entry gate to practice. Asvagosa is the purported author of “Awakening the Faith in Mahayana.” Third Zen Patriarch Sengcan's Xinxin Ming is often translated as “Faith-Mind Transcription.” Faith is all over Dogen's writings. So “faith” is mentioned any number of times, and is still scoffed at by some. For a practice that is rooted in the “here&now,” there seems to be little room for faith. But it's there, even if we don't call it faith, even if we deny that it's even there. We have faith in the Buddha, faith in the Dharma, faith in the Sangha. But, faith, as such, really needs no object in Zen . Ultimately, what we have faith in is our own Buddha-Nature, and that it is possible for us to realize it, so we have faith in ourselves.

This is tempered by the second “Great” of Zen, “Great Doubt.” The saying is, “Great Doubt, Great Awakening; small doubt, small awakening.” With both Great Faith & Great Doubt, personal views are dropped. With Great Doubt, the personal view (conceptual thought) is to be destroyed by a kong-an. A huatou only leads to one direction, to Great Doubt. It's the “no-this” of the pairs in the Diamond Sutra. “If this is not-this, and only provisionally called this, that means there really is no 'this,' then what is left?” Good question. This is “Great Doubt,” when the rug everything we think we have to stand on is pulled out right from under us. It need not be a fearful doubt, just an issue of impermanence, maybe of perceptions being empty. My views will change over time. My faith now is not the same as when I started to practice. I can even have Great Doubt in my Great Faith. Neither will take it personally.

In the talk, I mentioned walking in the dark. My faith is that if I take a step, there's going to be something for it to land on when it comes down. My doubt is typified by my holding onto a chair or some other object for support, because the faith is tempered by, “not always so.” Taking the step anyway is where the third Great of Zen comes in:

Great Courage. In simple terms, it's what gets me to put my foot down even if I can't see what, if anything, it's going to land on. When we do anything that gets past our fear, anything that gets past our comfort zone, that's Great Courage. You can put it in the same mix with perseverance, diligence, effort, determination, whatever else may work for you. In the Sutras, they are called “Fearless Bodhisattvas,” not Bodhisattvas of convenience. As ZM Seung Sahn would put it, “Practice, practice, practice for 10,000 years, become enlightened, and save all beings.” And we do it, even though we “know” that all Bodhisattvas are no-Bodhisattvas, all beings are no-beings, and there is no saving to be done. If that isn't a nice concise explanation of the Three Greats of Zen, I'm not sure what is.

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