What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Luke » Sun Mar 21, 2010 2:29 pm

There are many people around the world who are very interested in Zen Buddhism, but who have no access to a good Zen teacher where they live. My question is "What should these people do?" (Assuming that they can't move to where a good Zen teacher is for the forseeable future.)

Is reading Zen books worthless without a teacher? Some people have this view. I remember that back on E-Sangha Nonin-roshi often said that "Reading about Zen is like eating a menu."

If reading books about Zen without teacher is of no value, then which other Buddhist books should the aspiring Zen student read? Should he or she just read the Prajnaparamita Sutra and leave it at that?

I'm especially interested in hearing responses from Zen Buddhists who have practiced under the guidance of an experienced Zen teacher for many years.
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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Indrajala » Sun Mar 21, 2010 3:06 pm

Luke wrote:There are many people around the world who are very interested in Zen Buddhism, but who have no access to a good Zen teacher where they live. My question is "What should these people do?" (Assuming that they can't move to where a good Zen teacher is for the forseeable future.)


In the old days you had no other choice but to give up the home life (in Japanese zaike 在家 which literally reads "at home") and leave it (shukke 出家 or "leaving home").

If you think that is unrealistic, then you simply don't have enough resolve. That's basically the way people approached it.

One thing to understand is that Zen as it was practised in Japan was either in the realm of a few aristocrats or career monastics and the occasional hermit up in the mountains. If somebody can prove otherwise I'll listen, but as I understand it almost no laity up until fairly recently would have been doing zazen. Of course in places like Kyoto especially a few aristocrats or samurai would have had consultation with zenji 禅師 (zen teachers), but it wasn't something the average commoner could realistically engage in unless they ordained.

So what did most Buddhists do? They made offerings and prayed.

Today in Japan it is quite different. You can go to a number of Zen, both Rinzai and Soto, temples in Tokyo alone for weekly zazen meetings and lectures.

If, however, you are not in such a position and you live far away from a Zen temple, then if you really want to do it, then sacrifices are probably necessary. Historically that was the case as well. You gave up your home life. No spouse, no kids.

Is reading Zen books worthless without a teacher? Some people have this view. I remember that back on E-Sangha Nonin-roshi often said that "Reading about Zen is like eating a menu."


I think Zen is like Buddhism 401. Before you take the fourth year course, you need Buddhism 101 (the core sutras, a bit of abhidharma, history, etc...).

If reading books about Zen without teacher is of no value, then which other Buddhist books should the aspiring Zen student read? Should he or she just read the Prajnaparamita Sutra and leave it at that?


This is just my personal opinion (so take it with a grain of salt): if someone should want to, for example, do Soto Zen because they are attracted to Dogen's writings, then they should do much background reading in what Dogen would have read. That means having a well rounded reading in all manner of core Buddhist texts (which are not necessarily "Zen") as well as East Asian literature. Dogen was a well educated man and would have been well read in Chinese Classics. It might not seem initially germane, but I feel reading the Chinese Classics (Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Menicus, etc...) and having a good grasp of the core ideas of those individual textual traditions is essentially if you want to understand the context in which East Asian Buddhism developed. Keep in mind many Buddhist masters of the past in East Asia were given a traditional Chinese education which didn't necessarily focus exclusively on Buddhist texts.


I'm especially interested in hearing responses from Zen Buddhists who have practiced under the guidance of an experienced Zen teacher for many years.


Here is a pertinent question: how do you judge who is an experienced Zen teacher? Moreover, how do you tell if someone is actually a legitimate teacher of Zen or not?
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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby meindzai » Sun Mar 21, 2010 3:43 pm

I think everything Huseng said was right on. Most "zen books" are written by people who have read other zen books, and if you go far back enough in that type of literature you're lucky to get to someone who has any background on the fundamentals. Not that there aren't great Zen books, but I think the best ones are practical rather than doctrinal.

Huseng wrote:Here is a pertinent question: how do you judge who is an experienced Zen teacher? Moreover, how do you tell if someone is actually a legitimate teacher of Zen or not?


Rather than question "legitimacy" (which is hard to define, especially since you can apparently get inka with your happy meal at McDonals these days) I think it's better to seek out a teacher for oneself and attempt to form a teacher/student relationship - and test them. If they falter or attempt to B.S. you then they can be dismissed.

-M
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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Indrajala » Sun Mar 21, 2010 4:25 pm

meindzai wrote:
Huseng wrote:Here is a pertinent question: how do you judge who is an experienced Zen teacher? Moreover, how do you tell if someone is actually a legitimate teacher of Zen or not?


Rather than question "legitimacy" (which is hard to define, especially since you can apparently get inka with your happy meal at McDonals these days) I think it's better to seek out a teacher for oneself and attempt to form a teacher/student relationship - and test them. If they falter or attempt to B.S. you then they can be dismissed.

-M


I think that is the ideal.

As of late, however, if someone were to express an interest in "Zen" I would caution them about the general state of Japanese Zen in general and suggest they look to a Taiwanese Chan organization like Dharma Drum Mountain. I say that with a lot of disappointment actually. I also don't see overseas Japanese Zen groups doing any better. If anything the commercialization of "Zen" in the west is leading to greater problems. The title "roshi" has become a self-styled designation that is deployed on the spiritual marketplace to great effect.

One thing I personally find essential is discipline and after reading through material on the vinaya, bodhisattva precepts and in particular Daoxuan's commentary (written in the 7th century), I dare say I agree that before anything else silla or morality / discipline is essential. You can judge the quality of a teacher based on their behaviour. This is something Daoxuan stressed: evaluate the teacher based on their behaviour. He wrote that in a time when a good portion of the "Buddhist" monastic community was engaged in questionable activities which included slave trade.

In Taiwan the monks and nuns all maintain the vinaya and there are serious repercussions for those who do not. The laity are also encouraged to take the appropriate lay precepts and actually maintain them. I've never heard a Taiwanese Buddhist monastic ever say, "Take the vows and keep whatever ones you feel like, and do away with the rest." I see this kind of attitude towards discipline in Japan all the time -- you have the liberty to do whatever you want and the priests generally do just that. You're not allowed to pass judgement onto them either because, according to them, that's not right.

Dogen would be horrified.

If you want an example of a modern day Chan/Zen master, I would point to the late Master Sheng Yen. Besides being an erudite scholar with a long list of books and articles (he interestingly got his graduate degrees in Japan), he built a large Buddhist organization from nothing, promoted Humanistic Buddhism and conducted himself in his affairs quite honourably. He wrote a number of articles and books on the precepts too. I'm reading through one right now. He was quite clear about the need to maintain ones precepts.

Here is why:

「戒的功能是在斷絕生死道中的業緣業因」
"The function of precepts is in the karmic conditions and karmic causes which sever the path of samsara."

So, in my estimation, if a teacher is going to foster the causes and conditions which sever samsara from the root up, they should be evaluated on their ability to do just that and said ability is reflected in their observation of precepts.
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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby shel » Mon Mar 22, 2010 3:11 am

Luke wrote:Is reading Zen books worthless without a teacher? Some people have this view. I remember that back on E-Sangha Nonin-roshi often said that "Reading about Zen is like eating a menu."

Reading Zen books with a teacher would also be like eating the menu, except you'd have a dining companion. Zazen etc would be like partaking of the meal.
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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Astus » Mon Mar 22, 2010 1:30 pm

I don't think Zen specifically requires a teacher compared to other Buddhist schools (except Secret Mantra where they are emphatic about the guru). For instance Dahui came up with the practice of huatou exactly in order to propagate Zen among the laity. In recent times Xuyun also had a fairly large number of lay followers.

While it is true that the majority of "home-stayers" are busy collecting merit by supporting the monks and nuns, that is not the only option. The idea of "Zen in action" is essentially for those who are not in a monastery or a cave. Also it is not a coincidence that one of the most favourite sutras of Zen is about a layman.

What to do to practise Zen? Simple. Abide in the Unborn - as Bankei said, again a popular teacher. Trust in the Empty Doer - aka Juingong as Daehaeng Kunsunim says. It is accessible all the time. What else one would need?
"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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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Luke » Mon Mar 22, 2010 3:08 pm

Astus wrote:What to do to practise Zen? Simple. Abide in the Unborn - as Bankei said, again a popular teacher. Trust in the Empty Doer - aka Juingong as Daehaeng Kunsunim says. It is accessible all the time. What else one would need?

If this is true, then the next logical question is "How do you know that you're truly 'abiding in the unborn' without a teacher?"
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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Astus » Mon Mar 22, 2010 4:45 pm

I think it is no different from questioning whether one meditates on loving-kindness or not. If you're clear about the meaning of the word you can match the experience, just like you can tell if the water is hot or cold.
"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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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Indrajala » Mon Mar 22, 2010 5:58 pm

Astus wrote:I think it is no different from questioning whether one meditates on loving-kindness or not. If you're clear about the meaning of the word you can match the experience, just like you can tell if the water is hot or cold.


Some might argue that the karmic connection to the teacher and thus to the lineage stretching back to the Buddha is essential. Without such a connection, there is no guiding rope and conditions 緣 won't come together to make enlightenment possible.
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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby meindzai » Mon Mar 22, 2010 6:49 pm

Huseng wrote:
Astus wrote:I think it is no different from questioning whether one meditates on loving-kindness or not. If you're clear about the meaning of the word you can match the experience, just like you can tell if the water is hot or cold.


Some might argue that the karmic connection to the teacher and thus to the lineage stretching back to the Buddha is essential. Without such a connection, there is no guiding rope and conditions 緣 won't come together to make enlightenment possible.


Indeed, I thought that was the whole point. I have met more than one person claiming to have achieved various stages of samadhi, enlightenment, etc. who thought themselves quite clear on the matter. They are invariably DIY zen practitioners.

-M
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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Astus » Mon Mar 22, 2010 10:41 pm

Historical connection to the Buddha, the myth of unbroken lineage, might be true for monastic ordination, even though specific names and dates are unknown (and not important), but certainly not true for the so called Dharma-transmission of Zen. So that form of connection doesn't exist in a literal sense. However, in an ahistorical form there are different levels of connections ranging from hearing about the teaching up to enlightenment.

A teacher is a vessel of the Dharma, a medium. A teacher can transmit the teaching in many ways, like lectures, interviews, books and videos. To have a personal connection with a teacher is like having a good friend. But can we say that great masters who had literally hundreds of students were intimate with all of them? Unlikely. Also monks, following their initial years of training, have to be able to work on their own.

The guide of every Buddhist is the teaching of the Buddha. I go to my bookshelf (or C:\Users\Astus\My Documents\Sutra) and open the Avatamsaka Sutra I can read the very words of the Awakened One. In the Manifestation of Buddha chapter the knowledge of the essence of buddhas is called "teacherless spontaneous knowledge" (tr. Cleary, chapter 37; T10n0279, vol. 52, p0278a06). A couple of pages back it explains what "teacherless" stands for:

"If great enlightening beings accomplish the techniques of this great concentration of knowledge of adornments of buddhas of all worlds, they are teacherless because they can enter all principles and qualities of buddhas by themselves, without depending on another's instruction." (ch. 27; T10n0279, vol. 41, p0218a17-18)

Of course that doesn't mean there are no teachers. It is more like how the Diamond Sutra says Sakyamuni didn't learn anything from Dipamkara. As in the Avatamsaka Sutra:

"though they know things ultimately have no teacher, yet they always respect all teachers and those of experience; though they know true understanding of things does not come from another, yet they always respect skillful guides" (ch. 27; T10n0279, vol. 43, p0225b22-24)

As far as Zen history is concerned here, we can see that already at the beginning there were different factions with differing views. Now if we consider that there are so many factors defining what constitutes authentic teaching and to whom, it is virtually impossible to tell from the outside (ie. not joining any of them) who carries the real flame of transmission. Thus arguing for the necessity of a teacher - an enlightened Zen Master - becomes quite problematic.

I don't say teachers are useless, not at all. Without teachers Buddhism is dead. But this mentality of "ask your guru" is what I see as a deviance. In the words of Linji:

you take the words that come out of the mouths of a bunch of old teachers to be a description of the true Way. You think, 'This is a most wonderful teacher and friend. I have only the mind of a common mortal, I would never dare try to fathom such venerableness.' Blind idiots! You go through life with this kind of understanding, betraying your own two eyes, cringing and faltering like a donkey on an icy road, saying, 'I would never dare speak ill of such a good friend, I'd be afraid of making mouth karma!'" (tr. Watson, ch. 17; T47n1985_p0499b20-24)
"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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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Indrajala » Tue Mar 23, 2010 5:07 am

Astus

Good thing Master Linji never got involved in guru tantra. :rolling:

He was something of a maverick and not really a representative of Chinese Buddhism. I think a lot of people, particularly westerners who have a taste for sarcasm, would like to emulate him. One modern example was probably Sawaki Kodo Roshi who snapped criticism at everyone and didn't pull punches. However, his popularity seems to have come after his death. I don't know how many people really appreciated him during his life.

However, about Linji...

Let me quote a near contemporary Fazang:

《梵網經菩薩戒本疏》卷6:「初中應常發孝順於三處孝順。一父母是生育恩。二師僧訓導恩。三三寶是福田恩。皆是重恩故成孝順之境也。」(CBETA, T40, no. 1813, p. 650, b7-10)

Firstly: one should always develop filial piety to the three places of filial piety. The first is to the grace of your father and mother who raised you. The second is to the grace of the teacher and sangha who instructed and lead you. The third is to the grace of the triple-gem who is a field of good fortune. These are all great graces and thus one masters the realm of filial piety. ...

Filial piety was always highly valued as far as I can tell. This piety extended from one's parents to the sangha. Deferring to one's teacher is just as natural as deferring to your father.
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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Luke » Tue Mar 23, 2010 9:06 am

Huseng wrote:Good thing Master Linji never got involved in guru tantra. :rolling:

I don't know... I think that he and Tilopa could have had a very interesting conversation!
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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Astus » Tue Mar 23, 2010 9:20 am

Huseng,

At another place Linji advises his disciples to go and find a teacher for time is short. Also he talks about his career that he studied the Vinaya, sutras, treatises, then started Chan practice and finally met a capable teacher. So perhaps he wasn't that maverick in the end.

Respect for teachers and fellow practitioners is important of course. Even in the Nikaya scriptures the Buddha told Ananda that good friends are not just the half but the whole of holy life. As I said, I'm not arguing for the dismissal of teachers, only against this concept that without a personal contact with a teacher one cannot progress on the path.
"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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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Indrajala » Tue Mar 23, 2010 11:03 am

Astus wrote:Huseng,

At another place Linji advises his disciples to go and find a teacher for time is short. Also he talks about his career that he studied the Vinaya, sutras, treatises, then started Chan practice and finally met a capable teacher. So perhaps he wasn't that maverick in the end.

Respect for teachers and fellow practitioners is important of course. Even in the Nikaya scriptures the Buddha told Ananda that good friends are not just the half but the whole of holy life. As I said, I'm not arguing for the dismissal of teachers, only against this concept that without a personal contact with a teacher one cannot progress on the path.


I understand what you're saying Astus, my friend. I'm just of the mind that in the case of Chan it has historically been the case that a teacher is necessary. This might be partially due to a few reasons. The first is for the obvious value of having a connection initiated with the lineage stretching back to the Buddha. Moreover, historically it was the case that it was only really under a teacher that you could learn Buddhism. Assuming someone was literate, the texts were still to be found mostly in monasteries. Assuming an interested person was illiterate, then really they had no other choice but to study under a master. As you know Huineng admitted he couldn't read.

Maybe times have changed? The internet has opened up a lot of opportunities. Questions can be asked and addressed on forums like this. The educated and learned can offer advise to beginners. Meditation methods can likewise be learned through youtube videos. :smile:
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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Astus » Tue Mar 23, 2010 11:46 am

Personally I have benefitted from "sitting at the foot" of some Zen teachers. It has its own advatages and disadvantages. I am sure, however, that I learnt nothing as far as theory and practice goes that I couldn't from non-personal sources. But that was my case, not everyone's. Nevertheless, as you said, we can access a great amount of information, and if needed talk to teachers and fellows about some problems. On the other hand, if one can join a community IRL, it is very good and so there's one teacher at least (in most cases).

I'm not so sure about the necessity of a Zen teacher in the past. What you say about the limited source of information is true of course. But if we imagine a monk who learnt the basics in a monastery and then goes to the mountains, there were no teachers at hand. He knew what to do, had the training to prepare for solitary practice, then went on and did his best. And when he returned he visited temples, was respected by others for his practice and wisdom and finally established his own temple.

We shouldn't forget either that documents of transmission were used in order to establish one's authority as the abbot of a monastery. It is liking joining the prestigious club of elite monks who claimed to be enlightened heirs of Bodhidharma. Certainly it was on one hand a proof of one's expertise but as we can learn from the texts the status of an abbot/Zen teacher was abused as well on a large scale.
"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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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby tomamundsen » Thu Feb 10, 2011 5:30 pm

Astus wrote:Historical connection to the Buddha, the myth of unbroken lineage, might be true for monastic ordination, even though specific names and dates are unknown (and not important), but certainly not true for the so called Dharma-transmission of Zen. So that form of connection doesn't exist in a literal sense. However, in an ahistorical form there are different levels of connections ranging from hearing about the teaching up to enlightenment.

Hi Astus,

I'm not challenging you, or claiming otherwise, but how do you know for sure there is not an unbroken lineage back to the Buddha in Zen? Very curious to hear, as every Zen teacher I met who received shiho quite clearly believed it was a literal unbroken lineage back to Shakyamuni.
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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Astus » Wed Feb 16, 2011 2:09 pm

There is no record of an Indian lineage, there are records from China showing the development of both the concept and the actual descriptions of the lineages. The book "Seeing through Zen: encounter, transformation, and genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism" gives you a short introduction to the historical study of it. You may also find a couple of relevant essays on this site.
"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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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Indrajala » Fri Feb 25, 2011 1:53 pm

tomamundsen wrote:
Astus wrote:Historical connection to the Buddha, the myth of unbroken lineage, might be true for monastic ordination, even though specific names and dates are unknown (and not important), but certainly not true for the so called Dharma-transmission of Zen. So that form of connection doesn't exist in a literal sense. However, in an ahistorical form there are different levels of connections ranging from hearing about the teaching up to enlightenment.

Hi Astus,

I'm not challenging you, or claiming otherwise, but how do you know for sure there is not an unbroken lineage back to the Buddha in Zen? Very curious to hear, as every Zen teacher I met who received shiho quite clearly believed it was a literal unbroken lineage back to Shakyamuni.


I think by virtue of Zen existing as Buddhism it can be said to be a result of Buddha's teachings and passed down through the ages in some form or another, ergo it is a lineage stretching back to the Buddha.

I often think how if it wasn't for Buddha's speech some 2500 years ago and all those Buddhists between him and me, I would not be doing what I'm doing today. There is some kind of "karmic lineage" every tradition shares to the Buddha just by virtue of existing as Buddhadharma.
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Re: What should you do when you don't have a Zen teacher yet?

Postby Astus » Fri Feb 25, 2011 4:24 pm

Huseng,

So it is. But that connection is a lot more complex than a single line of male monks.
"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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