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Eastern spirituality, Oriental Religion: mystical enlightenment:

Zen, Buddhism, Taoism, Chinese philosophy

A book excerpt from the spiritandflesh.com religion and spirituality online library.



The Eastern, or Oriental, psyche has seemingly always had a clearer grasp of the subtler metaphysical undercurrents of 'being' as compared with the Occident's more concrete, psychological makeup. And the East has broadcast these realizations in a much more cohesive structure than its western, theistic counterpart; from the Buddha in India, to Lao Tzu in China, to the Zen masters of Japan, there has run a stream of 'detachment' from and 'transcendence' above the conventional, or profane, vision of reality, and this has produced a concomitant distaste for the linear, rational mind.

            Thinkers in the East have for the most part considered all that 'is' as 'illusion', and so the ancient masters sought to show therefore that there was no liberation within the context of the illusory world, and thus only by stepping out of (that is, by escaping, or, rising above) the context and recognizing another whole way of seeing things did the individual emancipate him or herself from the limitations society's thought-structures imposed upon life.

This perspective has often, therefore, been divulged through paradoxical and absurd statements about conventional reality, a method that is so patently 'eastern'.



"…the still deeper secret of the secret:

The land that is nowhere, that is the true home."

The Secret of the Golden Flower



And yet since everywhere is nowhere (now-here), there is no need for one to physically escape life, but instead one can remain in the world while not being tainted by it, for, as Jiddu Krishnamurti pointed out, "...the innocent mind can live in the world which is not innocent."

That is, in a world which is endlessly seeking to belittle the incredible mystery of being through its addiction to facts and 'understandings', an individual can still reverse the process and return to the untainted vision of incomprehension, as we have seen from the last two chapters.

            Thus, through the following quotes it can be seen that the mystic East has not simply recommended that one flee the world, escaping into the void, but the masters have instead often suggested that the mystery can and must exist in the cacophony of daily living; one need not seek out esoteric wisdom, or retreat to the monastery, but instead one can come to essential awe through the absence of every idea, understanding, and expectation, while dwelling calmly in the midst of life's myriad 'things'.

             It is our false views of the world that lead to our erroneous participation within it. The eastern adepts have therefore realized that the struggle to be released from the sorrow of life comes from the misconception that we are trapped in the sorrow of life; the misconception is conception itself, by which we are 'conceived' into the trap that is not there.

Zen Master Yuanwu asserts, "Once the ground of mind is clarified, there is no obstruction at all- you shed views and interpretations that are based on concepts such as victory and defeat, self and others, right and wrong."

Regarding the 'shedding of views', one method employed in Zen Buddhism, as an attempt to liberate the mind from its conventional fetters, is the koan. The purpose of these illogical puzzles- the koans- is to strategically disarm the individual's conventional reason, rendering a state of hopeless exasperation, because the koan, being a rationally unsolvable, solutionless conundrum, drives the individual into the precarious realm of ambiguous uncertainty- a state which normally the mind, through inveterate tendency, would do anything within its power to deny or avoid, or would invent an answer rather than be left with no answer at all. And so, by the method of the koan, the mind is tricked into the inescapable sense and acceptance of absolute non-understanding. An example of a koan is the oft quoted "what is the sound of one hand clapping?"

           When an individual, struggling with the meaninglessness of one of these problems, finally comes to the state of confounded bewilderment, they have arrived exactly at the place within themselves where they were intended to be all along- they have rediscovered ignorant wondering. Then all that is necessary is to, "Keep that don't-know mind", as suggested by Seung Sahn.



"There is no need to seek Truth; only stop having views."

Seng T'san



For the most part, however, the koan is just a trick, and any sedulous, thoroughly honest individual can see that life and its 'purpose' are in themselves the most baffling of riddles; that is, it is almost impossible for an individual not to come to complete, unquestioned incomprehension, by the simple recognition that the mystery of life is unsolvable, incomparable, and everywhere; that life itself is the koan of koans.

            In fact, Zen is so anti-intellectual, that, having been questioned as to why he had chosen Hui-neng to become the sixth patriarch of Zen, Hung-jen, the fifth patriarch answered: "Four hundred and ninety-nine out of my disciples understand well what Buddhism is, except Hui-neng." Hui-neng's ignorance was his virtue, because it was the very essential necessary for receiving the highest Buddhist insight. And Hui-neng himself, when asked how he had come to succeed the fifth patriarch, answered: "Because I do not understand Buddhism."

            A similar case showing the astonishing requirement necessary for succession along the Buddhist lineage occurred at the very outset of Buddhism when, during his famous Flower Sermon, the Buddha sought to find a successor for his teachings and so had gathered all of his disciples together in one place in order to select one. Standing in front of his entire flock the Buddha simply lifted up a flower without saying anything. Among the hundreds of monks gathered, only one smiled, and he smiled because he did not know what a flower was, and saw only the Mystery to which all mysteries belong, and so he was chosen, and the unbroken chain of 'awakened ones' had begun its acquisition of links.

            This feeling of unavoidable incomprehensibility, which precipitates absolute cognitive surrender of its own accord, is one of 'throwing up your hands' in the face of the marvelous ridiculousness of existence, and it is this feeling of flabbergastedness which we must keep always within ourselves, about everything we are, everything we see, and everything we do. To perpetually retain that "don't-know mind", is to dwell in the magical reverie of unknowing, and be liberated from the unmagical mind.



"Let me come to be like a creature without knowledge."

Shen Tao



            To know that ignorance is the pinnacle of real wisdom is to come full-circle within the circumference of the mind; it is to be wise, foolish, oblivious, indifferent and passionate, all at the same time; it is to 'see' everything, and yet know nothing.

Zen Master Xiatang suggests: "Transcend all mental objects, stop all rumination. Don't let either good or bad thoughts enter your thinking, forget all about Buddhism and things of the world. Let go of body and mind, like letting go over a cliff. Be like space, not producing subjective thoughts...or any signs of discrimination."

When we come to that open spaciousness of authentic wonder we must accept it and not allow ourselves to make the mistake of seeking again to find an answer, or a solution to the perplexity, for we must always remember that to formulate any certainty about the mystery which we are, or about why it is unknowable, or the meaning of its meaninglessness, is to return to the forum of the obsolete mind, and to confuse sublime, lucid non-understanding, with vulgar, distorted misunderstanding.

            Zen Master Foyan admonished: "Some senior Zen students say they don't rationalize at all, don't calculate and compare at all, don't cling to sound and form, don't rest on defilement and purity. They say the sacred and the profane, delusion and enlightenment, are a single clear emptiness. They say there are no such things in the midst of the great light. They are veiled by the light of wisdom, fixated on wisdom. They are incurable."

We must recognize that illusion is wholly illusionary; what is absolutely incomprehensible must be left absolutely untouched by the mind, or we may fall into the mistake of believing we 'see' the illusion clearly, and therefore fall further into the mistake that we 'know' that it is an illusion, and why it is such, and how it is going to change, though we really know nothing of it whatsoever.

This is such a difficult threshold to cross that the greatest spirits have never claimed to understand what others claim to understand, and, in fact, they have claimed the exact opposite- they have gone deeper and deeper into complete, humble acceptance of their unknowing.



"My ignorance far exceeds yours."




            As such, with great humility, wisdom, and foolishness, Sri Nisargaddata Maharaj admitted: "I do not claim to know what you do not. In fact, I know much less than you do."

The history of true wisdom is, in essence, a lineage of true idiots.

One of the wisest fools of all, Lao Tzu, confessed in the Tao te Ching, "I alone have the mind of a fool, and am all muddled and vague. The people are so smart and bright. While I am just dull and confused."

            Likewise, although Jack Kerouac was born in the Occident, he was a confirmed student of the East. Mirroring the last quote from Lao Tzu, Kerouac concluded: "…everybody, they never listened, they always wanted me to listen to them, they knew, I didn't know anything, I was just a dumb young kid and impractical fool who didn't understand the serious significance of this very important, very real world."

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            So we see, once again, that facts, words, and 'truths' exist only in the realm of the vulgar, and all these categories are but obstructions to the vision of the wise fool. To make a claim of understanding is to prove one has neither understanding, nor ignorance, only pride. Which is to say, in the paradoxical manner of the eastern sages- in order to be thoroughly stupefied by the miracle of our incomprehensible beings, one must be thoroughly, intelligently ...stupid.


(excerpted from THE WAY OF WONDER: a return to the mystery of ourselves, by Jack Haas)






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