Case 18 Tõzan's "Masagin"
A monk asked Tõzan, "What is Buddha?"
Tõzan replied, "Masagin!" [three pounds of flax].
Old Tõzan attained the poor Zen of a clam. He opened the two halves of the shell a little and exposed all the liver and intestines inside.
But tell me, how do you see Tõzan?
"Three pounds of flax" came sweeping along;
Close were the words, but closer was the meaning.
Those who argue about right and wrong
Are those enslaved by right and wrong.
"Three pounds of flax," A simple but improbable answer. Maybe Tozan had just measured out three pounds of flax. We cannot know but somehow it came to his mind and he just spit it out. My friend and local translator Red Pine (Bill Porter) once told me that in China Zen monasteries were often placed in somewhat remote valleys so that they could be self sufficient through farming. It is likely that flax was a crop that was grown at the monastery.
When I was a student of Sasaki Roshi he often gave his students koans that were of the general form "How do you experience (or manifest) Buddha ..." through an experience or some activity. He asked me three koans of this form. The first step in answering these koans was to understand what Buddha is or at least what Sazaki meant by Buddha. Contemplating this word buddha can create all sorts of trouble for the Zen student. Like all words it tends to trap one in dualistic thought. Some Zen teachers even say that to name "it" Buddha or anything else is to defile "it." But Sasaki did name it as does in this koan.
Shakyamuni called himself the Buddha because it meant "awakened one." How does that meaning fit into this koan? We might think of the monk's question as, What is it to be awakened? But this doesn't quite fit because in one case buddha is being used an a pronoun and in the other case as a noun. Maybe this difference is of little importance if we truly understand what it is to be Buddha through experience. Experience is always of paramount importance if we are to truly understand anything is Zen. And remember we are on koan 18 so that usually the student working on this koan has had some deep experiences. Most important is Kensho, all the rest is commentary. But the commentary is still important and koans often have the purpose of clarifying certain points.
In Zen we clear our minds through Zazen and when functioning we try to engage ourselves fully body and mind letting no stray thoughts interrupt our concentration. Many of us think of this approach to life as Zen. This is our practice. But also we should not attach to Zen practice as something special. Even three pounds of flax is Buddha let alone 7 billion people who live on this planet as well as all the insects and all the other animals and all the plants and mountains and lakes and oceans and planets and stars and the space inbetween. What is not Buddha? So we practice Zen and as we practice Zen, Buddha is also practicing Zen.
One of the most salient aspects of deep samadhi and kensho is to experience non-duality. Yet because the whole process of practice and getting to the experience of non-duality involves quieting that part of the mind that speaks with language and even turning off conscious awareness it is quite common to go into deep samadhi and then return to a more normal state of mind without clarifying anything let alone the experiencing of non-duality. That is exactly why we have koans. We practice with the intention to clarify our understanding, We watch our own minds in deep samadhi so that we can clarify a completely new way of seeing the world. To clarify Non-Duality is to clarify our Universal nature. It is to see the Universal in every thing around us and in all the activity of the world. It is this vision of the world that makes Buddhism a religion. It is the grace of this perspective that relieves our existential suffering and allows us to feel at home in the world no matter what happens. Whether we call the Universal, God or Buddha or Alla it does not matter. Once we have clarified the Universal the dualistic nature of words is no longer an obstacle and we can use them freely. So now what is Buddha?
When I sit a sesshin, sitting long hours of zazen and chanting when I am not sitting I am constantly practicing cutting of my thoughts. Eventually I reach the point where I go several minutes between thoughts. And then I see the world not as a multiplicity of things but as a single being. And one of the few verbal thoughts I will have is to name it Buddha, probably because of my training with Sasaki Roshi. ( After all these many years of training to some extent this vision of the world is available at any time, and the understanding it engendered is with me all the time,) I call the Non-Dual not an it but a being because it is not static but functioning. And I see its functioning not as impersonal but as very personal. It functions with the compassion that takes care of people. And it functions with the intent of realizing itself and occasionally actually doing so. We might think that this is just people taking care of people and that the Universe functions impersonally. But when you see from the perspective of the Non-Dual, Buddha, you see the compassion and intent in its functioning. This does not mean in any way that Buddha has to live up to our human desires and our human sense of right and wrong. It does not even mean that in the long run Buddha will take care of humanity and it does not mean suicide for humanity through environmental degradation or nuclear holocaust is not possible. The Non-Dual does not function like the "personal" view of God that is common in many religions. The Non-Dual is not an individual being but is Being Itself. It functions as a whole without division and yet this Whole functions through its inseparable constituents through process internal to itself, what we in Buddhism call Interdependent Origination or more commonly cause and effect. In other words our compassion as humans is the functioning of the Buddha, and is the compassion of the Buddha. All our desires and activity is the desire and activity of the Buddha. There is nothing separable from the Buddha. And then when we look at the whole thing, what Martin Luther King called "the arch of history we see compassion functioning on a larger scale. We find solace in this view in the dissolution of our individual being into the larger Being Itself in which there is no birth or death, and no existential suffering.
Quite a mouthful.
I want to comment on a couple mistakes that I think are common in the Zen community. One, Buddha is often thought to mean the clear awake mind we experience after much meditation. To think of Buddha this way without a larger understanding is to still be caught in a personal or individual perspective. In other words the small self is still at the center of this perspective. The other mistake is to think of non-duality as the quality of our state of mind - that clear mind- or the nature of our activity, in other words activity that is done without dualist thoughts. This is also a small self perspective. To think of buddha and non-duality this way is to confuse the nature of Zen practice with the result of a strong dedicated practice, the kensho experience and a deep understanding of the Non-Dual. There are no boundaries to Buddha. Without a clear intention to go both deeper in meditation and understanding neither is likely to be experienced. This is not about just putting your time on the pillow