Case 23 Think Neither Good Nor Evil
The Sixth Patriarch was pursued by the monk Myõ as far as Taiyu Mountain.
The patriarch, seeing Myõ coming, laid the robe and bowl on a rock and said, "This robe represents the faith; it should not be fought over. If you want to take it away, take it now."
Myõ tried to move it, but it was as heavy as a mountain and would not budge. Faltering and trembling, he cried out, "I came for the Dharma, not for the robe.
I beg you, please give me your instruction."
The patriarch said, "Think neither good nor evil. At this very moment, what is the original self of the monk Myõ?"
At these words, Myõ was directly illuminated. His whole body was covered with sweat.
He wept and bowed, saying, "Besides the secret words and the secret meaning you have just now revealed to me, is there anything else, deeper still?"
The patriarch said, "What I have told you is no secret at all.
When you look into your own true self, whatever is deeper is found right there."
Myõ said, "I was with the monks under Õbai for many years but I could not realize my true self.
But now, receiving your instruction, I know it is like a man drinking water and knowing whether it is cold or warm.
My lay brother, you are now my teacher."
The patriarch said, "If you say so, but let us both call Õbai our teacher.
Be mindful to treasure and hold fast to what you have attained."
The Sixth Patriarch was, so to speak, hurried into helping a man in an emergency, and he displayed a grandmotherly kindness.
It is as though he peeled a fresh lichi, removed the seed, put it in your mouth, and asked you to swallow it down.
You cannot describe it; you cannot picture it;
You cannot admire it; don't try to eat it raw.
Your true self has nowhere to hide;
When the world is destroyed, it is not destroyed.
This Story is from the Platform Sutra, the story and teachings of Hui Neng the Sixth Patriarch. Since the time of Bodhidharma who brought the Zen Lineage from India to China (around the year 500) Zen remained a small school with a single teacher in each generation. Then came Hui Neng (638-713), an illiterate peasant who was also a genius. He had a spontaneous enlightenment experience without any formal training and then went in search of a teacher. He ended up in the monastery of the 5th Patriarch Hung Jen (Obai). Even with so little formal training in just months Hung Jen recognized that Hui Neng's understanding was deeper then any of his other students, and gave him the robe and bowl that had been passed down since Bodhidharma from teacher to teacher. This transmission was done at night and in private because Hui Neng had so little status in the monastery that Hung Jen feared that Hui Neng's transmission would not be accepted and maybe even endangered him. After the ceremony Hung Jen asked Hui Neng to leave the monastery and go back home to Southern China. Hung Jen was correct and in a few days when it was discovered what had happened Myo was sent to retrieve the Robe and Bowl by his fellow monks. They called Myo the General. Maybe he had been a general but he certainly had be a soldier, was a rough sort of guy, and an excellent athlete. He ran in pursuit of Hui Neng and several days later caught up to Hui Neng on Taiyu Mountain . Now we have caught up to the story in the koan.
Hui Neng threw down the robe and bowl and told Myo to take them, they are only symbols and not worth a fight, but when Myo tried he could not lift them up. One might think this was a miracle but there are no miracles in Zen. Myo could not lift them up because he knew that Hui Neng must have deserved the transmission, and so he says, "I came for the Dharma, not for the robe. I beg you, please give me your instruction." At this Hui Neng says, "Think neither good nor evil. At this very moment, what is the original self of the monk Myõ?" With that simple question Myo experiences enlightenment.
We work so hard at our meditation and seem to achieve so little how could this fellow achieve enlightenment with just this simple question? Infact Myo was a well practiced monk who had just completed several days of running. We can imagine that he ran with the same concentration that he practiced with zazen and was in deep samadhi when he finally caught up with Hui Neng. He need only a little something to push him through the gateless gate (mumonkan) of enlightenment.
Hui Neng was an uneducated peasant who had worked as a wood cutter before his initial enlightenment experience. We might think that there was something special, if not magical about Hui Neng to experience enlightenment without formal training but again there was nothing magical, it was simply a matter of conditions and causes as the Buddha taught. Cutting wood is not very different from running and zazen if approached with the same state of mind. Being a simple a humble peasant he did not take his ego into his work, nor did he daydream as he cut but worked with concentration and a quiet mind. Dogen called this "fully engaging body and mind". This is the ordinary mind of case 19. In other words Hui Neng though not consciously practicing zazen, still created the causes and conditions for his own enlightenment.
Hui Neng uneducated without more than a minimal training in Buddhist thought becomes a teacher and so must rethink Buddhism and he did an amazing job. Read the Platform Sutra. But even more amazing is that he was a gifted teacher and was able to say or do just the right thing to push a student through the gate of enlightenment. From Hui Neng onward Zen spread with multiple teachers in each generation. This case is the story of his first success as a teacher as well as his first innovation in Buddhist thought. Classical Buddhist thought up until this time was concerned with no-self and had rejected the idea of a self. But in fact this is a rejection of only what we normally consider the self, the individual self. But also as a fact the enlightenment experience does not leave one without an understanding of what we are as individuals but transforms that understanding. We can either talk about no individual self or a self that is not individual. This becomes the the True Self, or the Large Self, or the Original self, or the Infinite Self, or Self itself. And now Zen becomes a quest to discover this Original Self and enlightenment becomes an experience of redefining one's self as this Self that includes everything and everybody.
Myo asks "... is there anything else, deeper still?" The answer is no in a general sense, this is the gate this is enlightenment, to understand the true Self, but once this threshold is crossed the path does not end. It takes a lifetime or more to mature in this understanding to make it fully who you are, to have an ongoing experience of the true self and not to get caught in the narrow view of a limited self. Part of Hui Neng's story that is left out of this koan is that when he left Hung Jen one of the last things he was told is that he should dedicate himself to zazen for 10 years before he began teaching. It is only through the quiet mind of deep meditation that we can manifest our true Self.
I was given a book by a Japanese Jungian therapist. He writes quite a bit about the difference between the "Western" idea of self and the "Japanese" idea of self. One of the question's I have as a teacher is, why is it so difficult and rare for Westerners to have this deep experience called enlightenment? I think the answer lies in the different way we think of ourselves in the two cultures. Of course Japan's culture is deeply influenced by Buddhism and Buddhist ideas of self and no-self are present in story and attitude even though, still few Japanese ever experience enlightenment. I believe the idea of an individual self is universal among humans. It is a result of our genetic (karmic) endowment as individual life forms. We are born with a desire mechanism which promotes our survival as individual life forms. Then as our intelligence develops we come to recognize our individuality through these desires and this forms our way of thinking about ourselves. But then this understanding of ourselves is just an idea with a relative truth because an equal truth is that we also exist in a web of interconnectedness without any impenetrable barriers and effect and are effected in the ongoing process of change.
As we are growing into adults we come to understand ourselves as individuals but we see our individuality as related to the individuality of everything and everybody around us. For example we see ourselves in relationship with our parents and we cannot see our selves as fully separate. We cannot fully separate our parent's desires from our desires. The same is true of our peers, and even the larger social structure. The desires and thoughts of our friends, our religious leaders and even our political leaders become our thoughts because we are not fully autonomous creatures. This confusion of desires is often a cause of great internal suffering. In western societies the solution to this dilemma has been to develop a deep sense of ourselves as fully autonomous individuals with ideas like free will and a soul that is somehow outside the the web of cause and effect. We in the west encourage people to develop with a strong sense of their own individuality and to sort out their own desires and thoughts from the thoughts and desires present in the larger environment. This idea of individuality has been very powerful in the development of western culture. This is the premise that western psychological therapy is based upon Jungians call this process individuation. But, we can also see how this might not work for a tribal society with far far less options for behavior. Tribal societies must function as a harmonious unit to be effective and survive. Japanese society and many other societies in Asia and the rest of the world still view individuality through a much more tribal lense where individuality is see as much more relational then in western societies.
Buddhism takes a completely different direction from the normal western development of individuality. Instead of the individual developing towards complete autonomy the Buddhist path takes one towards dissolution. This dissolution we call the Great Death which is not physical death but a temporary death of the awareness of individuality which reveals Oneness, non-duality, emptiness, etc., as well as how our idea of individuality and dualistic thinking works. In some sense individuals in societies that, like the Japanese, are without a highly developed idea of individuality have a much easier time on the Buddhist path. And we in western societies that place such great value on autonomy can have a much more difficult time One of the pitfalls that I see among western students of Buddhism is that they are trying to use their practice to help them develop their autonomy. In other words they are using their practice as a tool to become better as individuals, better writers, better engineers, better rock climbers, better people, better because they are now enlightened. This just strengthens their idea of themselves as individuals and makes insight into no-self more difficult It just doesn't work that way.
Interestingly deep Buddhist experience does endow the individual with a kind of autonomy through a completely new definition of the self, the self without boundaries. This new self stands outside the pressures and conventions of society and culture whatever culture it manifests in. The individual who manifests the non-dual self moves freely in society, without inner conflict and functions with a wide open heart.
Lastly I want to emphasize that we all exist on a continuum in personality and potential. Just because one lives in a western culture or eastern culture this does not mean one will be more or less successful on the Buddhist path. The path take dedication and we should be aware of the many potential pitfalls.