How useful are Chan records?

How useful are Chan records?

Postby Indrajala » Sat Mar 20, 2010 11:34 am

This afternoon I had the pleasure to visit Tokyo University to participate in a reading group where the Blue Cliff Record 碧巖錄 in the original is gone over in meticulous detail. Last year I took a class where we did the same thing with a different Chan text. There is something I have to ask after being exposed to these texts after a number of months:

How practical are they?

The reason I ask is that they often seem far too ambiguous and the doctrine quite vague. The literature is often pieced together from multiple sources including sutra, sastra and even Daoist texts.

I sat in a room with half a dozen or more advanced senior schools of Zen/Chan including native Chinese speakers, and more often than not it comes down to individual interpretation. Constantly parts of a text are left to educated guesswork. The language in the text is the vernacular from centuries ago with allusions to concepts and ideas quite foreign to just about anyone of the present day. Even if you read Literary Chinese, you'll still need several dictionaries including one specifically for Zen/Chan vocabulary and phrases.

One other concern arises. I'm sceptical about anyone who would use Cleary's translation and claim to actually understand the contents of the text. Moreover, I wonder if basing one's religious practise and thought on such literature alone would be wise or not. The trend in western Chan and Zen circles to uncritically accept translations and then implement them into their religious practise is potentially alarming.

Basically, if senior scholars in a joint effort struggle to completely understand these records, then the average joe reader is likely going to go off track.
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby meindzai » Sat Mar 20, 2010 2:14 pm

I think that with this kind of literature there are two different approaches. What you are talking about here seems to be an academic approach - and you have very valid concerns. The other approach is the use of texts like this for introspective practice. Now, in this case, I think it'd be irresponsible to completely ignore such concerns, and I know that Zen masters (at least the ones I've known of) have occasionally consulted academic texts, and take the context and vernacular into account.

But the skillful use of the literature by a teacher avoids the "paralysis by analysis." The the point of koan introspection is to prompt an intense *internal* struggle and a strong *personal* insight. When I say "personal" insight I mean something directly experienced by the practitioner, which doesn't come from the text but from their encounter with it.
In this case I wonder how much the "finer points" of the text would matter.

You said the "doctrine" was "quite vague." I never thought of the koan literature as even being a doctrine of any kind, so can you give an example of something from the Blue Cliff Record you might classify as doctrine?

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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby Luke » Sat Mar 20, 2010 2:22 pm

Huseng wrote:Basically, if senior scholars in a joint effort struggle to completely understand these records, then the average joe reader is likely going to go off track.

You bring up a very interesting point, Huseng. I think the problem is that many ordinary readers mistake any sort of mysterious, random-sounding, avant-garde nonsense which contains many contradictions and many references to nature and ordinary objects to be real Zen. ("Red is green. Green is red. Sparrows chirp. Grainsack is empty." "Wow! That's so Zen!")

So, in a sense, a market for confusing, badly-translated Eastern literature may have been created in the West.
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby kirtu » Sat Mar 20, 2010 4:33 pm

Huseng wrote:The reason I ask is that they often seem far too ambiguous and the doctrine quite vague. The literature is often pieced together from multiple sources including sutra, sastra and even Daoist texts.


Buddhism rests on practice (either outer practice (meditation, pilgrimage, mind training, ritual training, scholastic training, sutra recitation, etc.) or faith practice or both*.

Within that, Zen Buddhist practice rests on training with a teacher.

Within that, Zen Buddhist personal practice advances as the individual slowly awakens as a result of engagement in their practice and with the teacher.

Your observation about translations and their quality is well-taken but currently we have little other choice. As always the text is a pointer rather than the realization. It seems to be that the Blue Cliff Records is a very valuable pointer.

Kirt

*I make this somewhat false distinction because many teachers will talk about this as a general West - East distinction with ordinary practitioners.
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby Indrajala » Sat Mar 20, 2010 5:03 pm

meindzai wrote:Now, in this case, I think it'd be irresponsible to completely ignore such concerns, and I know that Zen masters (at least the ones I've known of) have occasionally consulted academic texts, and take the context and vernacular into account.


Were they reading the original Chinese or not?

See the problem is that the moment you attempt to put it into English, it is a lot of interpretation on the author's part.

But the skillful use of the literature by a teacher avoids the "paralysis by analysis." The the point of koan introspection is to prompt an intense *internal* struggle and a strong *personal* insight. When I say "personal" insight I mean something directly experienced by the practitioner, which doesn't come from the text but from their encounter with it.
In this case I wonder how much the "finer points" of the text would matter.


Are people getting an "experience with the text" if said text is a poor translation?


You said the "doctrine" was "quite vague." I never thought of the koan literature as even being a doctrine of any kind, so can you give an example of something from the Blue Cliff Record you might classify as doctrine?


Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby Indrajala » Sat Mar 20, 2010 5:07 pm

Luke wrote:
Huseng wrote:Basically, if senior scholars in a joint effort struggle to completely understand these records, then the average joe reader is likely going to go off track.

You bring up a very interesting point, Huseng. I think the problem is that many ordinary readers mistake any sort of mysterious, random-sounding, avant-garde nonsense which contains many contradictions and many references to nature and ordinary objects to be real Zen. ("Red is green. Green is red. Sparrows chirp. Grainsack is empty." "Wow! That's so Zen!")

So, in a sense, a market for confusing, badly-translated Eastern literature may have been created in the West.



That's unfortunately the truth. Too many people uncritically accept poor translations.

I once read this "translation" of Zhuangzi and the author admitted to not knowing any Chinese and having pieced together his interpretation from French and German translations.

Worse I have friend from Iran who "translated" an English version of the Daodejing into Farsi and had it sold at bookshops!
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby Indrajala » Sat Mar 20, 2010 5:10 pm

kirtu wrote:Within that, Zen Buddhist practice rests on training with a teacher.

Within that, Zen Buddhist personal practice advances as the individual slowly awakens as a result of engagement in their practice and with the teacher.


While I agree that in Chan and Zen the teacher plays a very critical role, a lot of folks nowadays don't see it as such. They piece together their vision of Zen from whatever Wikipedia articles they can get ahold of.

Your observation about translations and their quality is well-taken but currently we have little other choice. As always the text is a pointer rather than the realization. It seems to be that the Blue Cliff Records is a very valuable pointer.


Sure, but if it is a practical text, then having a translation of it might manipulate the direction of the pointer, so to speak.

How many Zen teachers in the western world are actually qualified to lecture on such a text anyway?
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby kirtu » Sat Mar 20, 2010 5:44 pm

Huseng wrote:
kirtu wrote:Within that, Zen Buddhist practice rests on training with a teacher.

Within that, Zen Buddhist personal practice advances as the individual slowly awakens as a result of engagement in their practice and with the teacher.


While I agree that in Chan and Zen the teacher plays a very critical role, a lot of folks nowadays don't see it as such. They piece together their vision of Zen from whatever Wikipedia articles they can get ahold of.


This is a serious problem with Zen Buddhism - mostly this is Zen divorced from the Buddhist tradition and in fact one of my lineage masters basically approved of this to an extent (apparently because of his faith in awakening). Then there is the true hodgepodge stuff going on more like what you note. I am very concerned about the future of Zen Buddhism in the West and it seems plenty shaky for other reasons in Japan as well. Chan and Vietnamese Zen seem more ok.

However, the exposure to a different but true spirituality, even if is deficient on the whole (the exposure), could still be beneficial. In the US, practically anything to raise bodhicitta, morality, karma, the interconnectedness of all phenomena and the protection of all life and the renunciation of hatred is useful. Otherwise we will quickly end up with a Repo Man (the new movie) like future.

Your observation about translations and their quality is well-taken but currently we have little other choice. As always the text is a pointer rather than the realization. It seems to be that the Blue Cliff Records is a very valuable pointer.


Sure, but if it is a practical text, then having a translation of it might manipulate the direction of the pointer, so to speak.
[/quote]

The institutions on the whole must take the lead and produce translations for practitioners.

How many Zen teachers in the western world are actually qualified to lecture on such a text anyway?


I don't know. I know that at least some lineages do in fact work their way through the Blue Cliff Records though.

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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby meindzai » Sat Mar 20, 2010 8:16 pm

Huseng wrote:
meindzai wrote:Now, in this case, I think it'd be irresponsible to completely ignore such concerns, and I know that Zen masters (at least the ones I've known of) have occasionally consulted academic texts, and take the context and vernacular into account.


Were they reading the original Chinese or not?



The teacher's I knew of were not native or fluent Chinese speakers, but would certainly take language considerations into account, much the same way we discuss terms from Pali or Sanskrit. Do we get the precise, subtlety of meaning this way? Certainly not - but being fluent in Chinese - based on what you've described - doesn't guaruntee that either.

See the problem is that the moment you attempt to put it into English, it is a lot of interpretation on the author's part.


Of course. But this is only a problem if your goal is to find the precise meaning and best possible translation of the text - which is the goal of academic study, not Zen practice.

Are people getting an "experience with the text" if said text is a poor translation?


Well, your first post said nothing of "poor translations," unless you think Cleary's translation is a poor one. It seems the point you were making was that even native speakers struggle with word meanings and vernacular, much like a native English speaker would struggle with Chaucer.

My point is that trying to find the best possible translation sounds to me like a struggle of indeciveness, like the guy who spent 30 minutes standing in the cereal isle trying to figure out which box of cheeries to get. We don't need to make decisions rashly, but how long are we going to stand there and talk about it before we do something? People are hungry!


You said the "doctrine" was "quite vague." I never thought of the koan literature as even being a doctrine of any kind, so can you give an example of something from the Blue Cliff Record you might classify as doctrine?


Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?



Good example of something I wouldn't consider a doctrine at all, but something for the student to engage with personally and discover their own answer.
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby Huifeng » Sun Mar 21, 2010 1:37 am

Since this is in the Ch'an forum, maybe some thoughts from the Chinese side of things.

The only people I've known who'll really sit down and work with (rather than just read) Chan Records are monastics who are meditation specialists, and have already undergone a far amount of training. This training includes the usual few years in the Buddhist College, regular practice in the monastery which involves a fair familiarity with Mahayana sutra, and a fair bit of time in the Chan Hall, with practice under a teacher and aided by classic Chinese Buddhist meditation manuals. By the latter, I don't mean "Chan Records", but Mahayana sutra and sastra which focuses on actual meditation method, eg. portions of the Yogacarabhumi Sastra, the appropriate chapters of the Mahaprajnaparamita Upadesa, a number of Tiantai texts like Lesser Samatha-Vipasyana, and Explanation of Dhyana-paramita, and often also some Theravada and Tibetan texts.

Now, most of the people I'm referring to are native Chinese, and esp. in Taiwan, they grow up learning classical Chinese like people in the West used to learn Latin not so long ago. As monastics, they are often extremely fluent. Also, the "colloquial" and "dialect" parts which are famed by scholars of Chan texts may not be so difficult to some of these monastics, particularly if they are also native speakers of southern dialects like Hokkien, Hakka, Tew Chow, Cantonese and so on.

I'm not sure if they still have a wide range of differing readings or not. I am often surprised that I find some modern Chinese masters give an explanation for a passage which is pretty much how I also understand it. One example is on the phrase "無門關" - most English versions try to make out that 無門 is "no gate", where I've always read it as the "gate of emptiness" (wu as emptiness / non-existence). It is almost exactly the same as 空門, which is a fairly standard term for Chan practice, or at times, any Buddhist practice. I found a great explanation in exactly this same manner from Master Jing Hui not so long ago. Suggests to me that there is some consistency in the Chinese understanding, and because that is where all of my own training has come from (I've never had a western teacher of either the language or the tradition), I've picked up on that. Or maybe this is just a freak example!

For these people though, even different readings may often not be the point, even if they totally misread a statement, they'll be pretty much guaranteed to give a teaching which is in basic conformity with the Chan Mahayana teachings, anyway. And this may be more important for what they are doing. Academic analysis may be another matter, however.
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby Indrajala » Sun Mar 21, 2010 7:23 am

meindzai wrote:The teacher's I knew of were not native or fluent Chinese speakers, but would certainly take language considerations into account, much the same way we discuss terms from Pali or Sanskrit. Do we get the precise, subtlety of meaning this way? Certainly not - but being fluent in Chinese - based on what you've described - doesn't guaruntee that either.



You don't have to be a speaker of Chinese to read the text. Plenty of Japanese and Koreans read them without speaking Chinese. The 13th century version of a language is a different language compared to what people might speak now. I always have treated Literary Chinese as a separate language.

Likewise, a Hindi speaker won't understand Sanskrit without learning it.

Actually in the case of old Chinese texts, one problem is that while an educated Chinese speaker can pronounce and read aloud the sentences, they're prone to misunderstand a lot unless they have studied Classical Chinese. Just being able to read the passage and know the characters is insufficient in understanding the actual meaning. My prof told me at presentations this happens. A native Chinese speaker will attempt to lecture on a Classical Chinese text and get the meaning all wrong and be corrected by the audience.


Of course. But this is only a problem if your goal is to find the precise meaning and best possible translation of the text - which is the goal of academic study, not Zen practice.


My concern is that some people's Zen practice might be based on misunderstandings and poor interpretations. If such is the case, then their practice will probably prove fruitless, if not regressive.
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby Indrajala » Sun Mar 21, 2010 7:29 am

Venerable

Huifeng wrote:Now, most of the people I'm referring to are native Chinese, and esp. in Taiwan, they grow up learning classical Chinese like people in the West used to learn Latin not so long ago. As monastics, they are often extremely fluent. Also, the "colloquial" and "dialect" parts which are famed by scholars of Chan texts may not be so difficult to some of these monastics, particularly if they are also native speakers of southern dialects like Hokkien, Hakka, Tew Chow, Cantonese and so on.


That's an interesting point.

Their approach is also quite different from what joe Zennist would do with Cleary's translation. The monastics you speak of read the original and already have extensive reading done in not only Buddhist literature, but probably most major Chinese classics and literature. Their experience in the meditation hall would also potentially contribute to understanding the more subtle meanings of many statements in texts.

I just don't see any of that possible with English translations, however. At least when it comes to vague Chan texts. The meditation manuals might be a different story.
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby Huifeng » Sun Mar 21, 2010 8:55 am

Personally, and this is also how I've seen some other Chinese monastic do it too, I would rather use the "manual" type teachings to instruct people first. This is because these texts are, well, manuals. They give specific directions and general formulations to be applied.

Then, the Chan Records kind of act like case studies of how somebody else went through the process. But, that is just their story. To me, this is why they are called "gong'an" - case studies. As one is working on one's own practice, one may encounter case study material that are similar to what one is also undergoing. But not all of it is going to be applicable.

Perhaps if we made an analogy of DNA genome theory as the manual on one hand, and a science-novel about the courageous scientists who discovered things through it, as the Records. For non-specialists, reading the novel is great fun, but I think they'd have great difficulties replicating the actual results of their experiments without reading the articles and conclusions in scientific journals that form the real DNA theory. See if you can get a Nobel Prize in bio from this.

Just one take.
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby Luke » Sun Mar 21, 2010 10:41 am

Huseng wrote:Their approach is also quite different from what joe Zennist would do with Cleary's translation.


Huseng, I hope you don't feel only contempt for average Zen practitioners. While I can understand your frustrations with their misunderstandings, I think most of them are doing the best they can in the circumstances in which they live. If they live in small towns and have no good Zen Buddhist teachers near them--or any Buddhist teachers near them for that matter--, then they have to resort to doing a lot of reading on their own. If they make mistakes, it is often not intentional.

I would urge you to feel compassion for average Zen practitioners as well.

Perhaps, one way to show compassion would be to compile a list of truly excellent books about Zen which are written in English, so that others might benefit from them.
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby Indrajala » Sun Mar 21, 2010 11:38 am

Luke wrote:
Huseng wrote:Their approach is also quite different from what joe Zennist would do with Cleary's translation.


Huseng, I hope you don't feel only contempt for average Zen practitioners. While I can understand your frustrations with their misunderstandings, I think most of them are doing the best they can in the circumstances in which they live. If they live in small towns and have no good Zen Buddhist teachers near them--or any Buddhist teachers near them for that matter--, then they have to resort to doing a lot of reading on their own. If they make mistakes, it is often not intentional.

I would urge you to feel compassion for average Zen practitioners as well.

Perhaps, one way to show compassion would be to compile a list of truly excellent books about Zen which are written in English, so that others might benefit from them.


No, I don't have any contempt for average Zen practitioners. The expression "joe Zennist" just refers to the average Zen practitioner.

If you look at Chan and Zen from a more orthodox perspective, one actually requires a teacher. The "transmission" as it were is quite essential. One might think something like "guru devotion" is really only to be found in Tibet, but in reality the Shifu and Dizi relationship plays a similar function. Connection, lineage and transmission has always been absolute crucial in Chan and later in Zen. That's why they wrote so vigorously the lineage charts going back to Bodhidharma and beyond.

So, trying to go at Zen on your own without a real live teacher is a relatively recent concept as far as I can tell. Even in Japanese Zen circles the teacher or roshi has always played a key role and, moreover, Zen in Japan was historically practised in monasteries according to strict rules. Dogen himself wrote a rulebook that contained regulations on everything including how to wipe your bum and how to make rice porridge. That tends to get ignored a lot.

If you can achieve awakening or in Japanese satori on your own after reading a few books without a teacher, then you're a rare rare exception.
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby Indrajala » Sun Mar 21, 2010 11:45 am

Huifeng wrote:Personally, and this is also how I've seen some other Chinese monastic do it too, I would rather use the "manual" type teachings to instruct people first. This is because these texts are, well, manuals. They give specific directions and general formulations to be applied.

Then, the Chan Records kind of act like case studies of how somebody else went through the process. But, that is just their story. To me, this is why they are called "gong'an" - case studies. As one is working on one's own practice, one may encounter case study material that are similar to what one is also undergoing. But not all of it is going to be applicable.


Venerable

This is very pertinent indeed!

But then again another concern comes to mind: how many people (outside of monasteries) will read those case studies and attempt to formulate their own personal religious practise from it without consulting the manuals? How many of these manuals are in a form accessible to the average practitioner? How about in the west? So very few.

Anyway, after reading what you wrote here it sounds like there is a practical application at least in the environment you're pointing to.
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby meindzai » Sun Mar 21, 2010 2:10 pm

Huseng wrote:My concern is that some people's Zen practice might be based on misunderstandings and poor interpretations. If such is the case, then their practice will probably prove fruitless, if not regressive.


Which is a valid concern, but which kind of practice are you talking about? I have been assuming (perhaps wrongly) that we're talking about actual zen practice - which means guidance under the practice of a teacher - zazen, dokusan, etc. IMO, someone who is not doing those things is not really Zen practice, or at least not koan practice.

In that case, the outcome is a result more of the student/teacher relationship than it is on the translation, IMO. Otherwise, we can study Koans academically, but as I said before, i don't see much in the Koan literature one can actually "base" one's practice on. As I said, I don't consider them to be doctrine at all. I believe that what one bases ones practice on comes from the Suttas/Sutras, from teachers, and perhaps from other writings (Such as Dogen - which I guess is another translation story).

Keep in mind that even though I'm commenting in this thread, I'm not a currently Zen practitioner. Once I concluded that "No teacher = No Zen" I dropped all pretext of being a Zen practitioner because I didn't want to end up in the situation you described here...

But then again another concern comes to mind: how many people (outside of monasteries) will read those case studies and attempt to formulate their own personal religious practise from it without consulting the manuals? How many of these manuals are in a form accessible to the average practitioner? How about in the west? So very few.


Which is why in the west we have an abundance of Buji Zen/DIY/Fortune Cookie Zen, because people think they can do it on their own.

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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby Luke » Sun Mar 21, 2010 2:36 pm

Huseng wrote:If you look at Chan and Zen from a more orthodox perspective, one actually requires a teacher. The "transmission" as it were is quite essential. One might think something like "guru devotion" is really only to be found in Tibet, but in reality the Shifu and Dizi relationship plays a similar function. Connection, lineage and transmission has always been absolute crucial in Chan and later in Zen. That's why they wrote so vigorously the lineage charts going back to Bodhidharma and beyond.


Ah, interesting. Then I'd like to ask you a question, but I don't want to go off-topic here.

I created a new thread:"What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?" I'd be fascinated to hear your response and Ven. Huifeng's response there.
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby Indrajala » Sun Mar 21, 2010 2:46 pm

meindzai wrote:Which is a valid concern, but which kind of practice are you talking about? I have been assuming (perhaps wrongly) that we're talking about actual zen practice - which means guidance under the practice of a teacher - zazen, dokusan, etc. IMO, someone who is not doing those things is not really Zen practice, or at least not koan practice.


"Zen" nowadays can refer to anything from frozen vegetables (I'm not kidding) to weeks of intense zazen at Eiheiji.

That's another problem: anything can be Zen and if you challenge somebody's religious interpretation of what is or is not Zen they might accuse you of being intolerant, or respond with some vague koan-like Zen master-like response to excuse themselves from answering in a comprehensible manner. I think if you look through a lot of "Zen" forums on the internet you'll see a great deal of misunderstandings. This isn't limited to the English internet forums either. On Japanese forums too I encounter a lot of outright incorrect statements (from a scholar's point of view at least).

Chan, however, is a different story because at least in English in refers to Chinese traditions and those traditions are still generally maintained by ordained monastics with institutions and large followings. This leads to a lot of unity in ideas I think.

In Japanese or Chinese the character for Zen and Chan is the same one 禪/禅, and I don't sense a strong distinction in either language between "Chinese Chan" and "Japanese Zen" unless it is specified.

In that case, the outcome is a result more of the student/teacher relationship than it is on the translation, IMO. Otherwise, we can study Koans academically, but as I said before, i don't see much in the Koan literature one can actually "base" one's practice on. As I said, I don't consider them to be doctrine at all. I believe that what one bases ones practice on comes from the Suttas/Sutras, from teachers, and perhaps from other writings (Such as Dogen - which I guess is another translation story).


I think if you dig deep into them you can find subtle points of doctrine. You might be able to find some kind of inspiration in them too. Many of the old Chan masters had a sense of humour too. The literature itself is fun to read for the contents alone, nevermind the religious thought.


Keep in mind that even though I'm commenting in this thread, I'm not a currently Zen practitioner. Once I concluded that "No teacher = No Zen" I dropped all pretext of being a Zen practitioner because I didn't want to end up in the situation you described here...


I have no authority to make a final judgement call on who is and isn't a Zen practitioner, but my personal opinion right now is that if you're going to "do Zen", so to speak, a teacher is a prerequisite for practice. If someone should feel otherwise, I welcome them to put forth some points as to why they say so.


Which is why in the west we have an abundance of Buji Zen/DIY/Fortune Cookie Zen, because people think they can do it on their own.


I used to think I could do it on my own too. When I was barely a legal adult my first experience with Buddhist literature was actually those old Chan records in English translation. It really made no sense why old masters were physically harming their students, but I nevertheless read on and my first vision of Buddhism was admittedly way off. I can see how a lot of people would be misled by not having grounding in Buddhism 101 before touching obscure Chan texts. I know I was.
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Indrajala
 
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Re: How useful are Chan records?

Postby Astus » Mon Mar 22, 2010 11:58 pm

This is a great analysis on Chan texts with a focus on Zhaozhou's Wu: How to Think with Chan Gongans
"There is no such thing as the real mind. Ridding yourself of delusion: that's the real mind."
(Sheng-yen: Getting the Buddha Mind, p 73)

"Neither cultivation nor seated meditation — this is the pure Chan of Tathagata."
(Mazu Daoyi, X1321p3b23; tr. Jinhua Jia)

“Don’t rashly seek the true Buddha;
True Buddha can’t be found.
Does marvelous nature and spirit
Need tempering or refinement?
Mind is this mind carefree;
This face, the face at birth."

(Nanyue Mingzan: Enjoying the Way, tr. Jeff Shore; T2076p461b24-26)
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Astus
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