The Song of Awakening was composed by Uchua, a Chinese Zen master, a contemporary of Hui-Neng. He came to awakening after having read some phrases from the Vimalakirti Sutra, and went to Hui-Neng to have his awakening verified. That he came to awakening while reading is important. The anti-intellectual attitude that so often pervades Japanese and American Zen gives us the impression that any kind of intellectual activity, any use of the mind through words, concepts and ideas, is taboo. But most of the Zen masters were very familiar with the sutras. For example, Bodhidharma who taught transmission beyond words and letters, passed on the Lankavatara sutra to Hui K’o the second patriarch. For someone to come to awakening when reading is not at all uncommon. Another famous example is Chinul, one of the founders of Korean Son (Zen) Buddhism. This reading is not, of course, done to acquire knowledge and information, but seeks to penetrate through the layer of words to the core of understanding. A Zen master said, “When you have the meaning you can throw away the words.” But first you must get the meaning, and for this you will need the words.
The Song of Realizing the Way, or Song of Awakening, begins with:
“Have you ever met the one versed in the way of ease,
One with nothing to do and nothing to get?”
On the face of it, this seems to be asking whether you have met an awakened person. But that would be a superficial reading of these lines. “The one seasoned in the way” is your true nature. When you ‘see into,’ or ‘meet,’ your true nature you have the feeling of everything suddenly being easy – you are “versed” in the way of ease.” You feel ‘oiled.’
Periodically, during a sesshin, you will encounter this feeling of ease. For a long time you just sit feeling dryness, bareness, as though walking along a dusty, cobbled road on your knees. Suddenly, you feel an easing. Your heart seems to soften, and you feel the rightness of what you are doing. It is important not to wallow in that feeling, although one has a great temptation to do so. But by not disturbing, by not trying to get something from it, you can stay in that way of ease in a free way. This is the antechamber to awakening. If you try to seize it, or push it, or use it, then you walk out of the antechamber, back onto the dry and dusty road.
“One with nothing to do and nothing to get.”
The miracle of wakefulness is the miracle of ‘not doing.’ “No one walks along the path.” No one walks, talks, sees, and eats. The belief that ‘I’ must do, ‘I’ must be in control, ‘I’ am the one that matters, is the primary illusion. The way of ease is a way of not doing. But the way of not doing is not the way of doing nothing. Walking, there is no one that walks, but this is not a blankness, not an absence but a presence. On the contrary, when I say, ‘I’ walk, then that is an absence: it is an absence of the vastness of being. That is a loss.
We are afraid to let go. We feel if we do so, things will fly out of control. We feel that then anything can happen. On the contrary, when we let go of the illusion of being in control, then everything goes according to the way the situation requires. You see this with great artists. A good musician, for example, has gone beyond technique. When a great musician plays, there is no one who plays. Similarly with a great athlete; she has no sense of being in control.
When you ask, “Who am I?” you are not seeking someone or something, you are asking about the illusion of being the do-er. The illusion of being the one who does things. There is nothing to do. Nothing to master. When we can allow this to be the case then everything is done, everything is mastered. A Zen master said, “I do nothing all day, but nothing is left undone.”
The song goes on and says:
“The real nature of ignorance is Buddha nature itself.”
In Buddhism ignorance is the major klesá. A klesá is that which brings suffering to others and to ourselves. There are two other klesá: anger and greed. Greed, anger, and ignorance are the three supports of our personality. An ignorant person is one who ignores, or turns his back on, his true nature. He does this by forgetting the world of unity and harmony, and dwells instead in the dualistic illusions of you and me, God and me, the world and me.
We tend to ignore those we do not like as well as the things we do not like. But they do not disappear. In the same way, our true nature does not disappear when we turn our back on it. On the contrary, turning our back is none other than the activity of true nature, just as the illusion of a dualistic world is our true nature in action.
The song goes on to confirm this by saying,
“The empty illusory body is the very body of the Dharma.”
Hakuin puts it this way in his Chant in Praise of Zazen: “This earth where we stand is the Pure Lotus Land, and this very body, the body of Buddha.”
We are not trying to get out of this world. The world, material things, are not evil, nor are they an obstacle, or obstruction to awakening. We are not trying to get away from every day life and existence and go to a Pure Land beyond it all. We cannot, because the world and things and our every day life are the manifestations of our true nature. What I see is what I am. What I experience, what I know, is what I am. Someone might say, “But you say we cannot see ourselves, we cannot experience ourselves.” And this is true. But it still remains that what I see and what I know is what I am .
One of the most difficult things for us to understand is that reality is not a quality of the world, it is not given to us by the world. What we say is real, is indeed real. What we know as real, is real. We give reality to the world. This is not the reality of the reflective mind, the mind that reflects itself and believes that it sees a real world. It is what Mind, the Great Mirror Wisdom, itself knows.
Although the mind reflects itself, it cannot get outside itself to appraise, or question, our knowing. And yet this is what we are so often trying to do when we ask the question,
”Who, or what, am I?” We try to get outside ‘I am’ to know ‘I am.’ Someone put it rather neatly the other day when we were talking together; he said, “It is like a camera trying to take a photograph of the inside of the camera”. This is the ultimate in the reflected mind. The effort to get outside the mind is already the reflective mind at work. There is no hiatus, no moment when I am the mind and another moment when I can get outside the mind to see it. This is why we say that when you ask the question “Who am I?” I am is already fully manifest.
We ask in dokusan, “who is it that asks the question?” And students say, “I do.” But by saying this they separate themselves from themselves. The “I” that they speak of is seen as an object in the world. It is ignoring this truth of separation that is the root of suffering
Talking, as I did just now, about ‘Mind’ and the ‘reflective mind’ gives the impression that there are two minds. However, there are not two minds, a mind that seeks the way and a mind that is sought. There are not two selves, the ego and the Self. This is why we say that awakening is like melting. Hakuin tells us in his Chant in Praise of Zazen, “Like water and ice, without water no ice.” With water and ice there are not two substances water and ice, but, instead, water and frozen water.
In a sesshin we can get to a point where we just cannot go forward, nor can we retreat back to where we were. Yet we just cannot stay where we are. Like a rat in a bamboo tube, as Hakuin would say. This causes people to fall into despair. This is one of the main complaints that I hear in the dokusan room, “I am just stuck! I don’t know what I am supposed to be doing. I don’t know where to go from here. What must I do?”
These people do not realize that their practice has brought them to that point. At the beginning of practice we are filled with all kinds of wild hopes, illusions and expectations. As we practice, slowly these are stripped away. Each person’s very nature is knowing, the practice is to awaken to knowing. And necessarily, although we may not be conscious of it, knowing eats away at the illusions we bring to practice. One of the main illusion is that there is something to attain.
When we start practice, we are full of illusions, full of images and ideas of what it means to be awakened. Time and again I have seen people come to start practice thinking, “I don’t see what all the fuss is about. This practice is easy. Why do people say it takes years to see into it?” I had just this feeling at the beginning. One has a kind of buoyancy, a confidence, an attitude of “let’s get this over quickly.” This buoyancy, this ‘confidence’ feeds on all kinds of subtle images and thoughts, expectations, beliefs, and dreams. The work that we do, simply by keeping coming back to the question, “Who am I?” or “What is MU?” causes these illusions to drop or drain away, melt away. When these dreams, illusion beliefs, and all the bits that we have read and chewed over begin to drop away, we reach the state where we do not know what to do anymore, we feel stuck.
Some people say, “I think Zen practice has taken away my faith. I had a lot of faith when I started this practice. But I don’t seem to have any faith anymore. I seem to have lost it all. It seems to me I don’t even have the motivation I used to have.” All this is true; all this is good. It is not faith that they have lost but illusory beliefs.
A book, He Leadeth Me, tells how a Jesuit priest sustained himself with prayer during a period of solitary confinement in Lubianka prison in Moscow. Eventually, because of the pressures that he had been under, the sheer agony and anguish of his existence in Lubianka, he signed a document that declared that he was a spy for the Vatican. When he returned to his cell, he felt that he had betrayed himself and that everything, even God, had deserted him. And he fell into the darkness of deep depression. Then he remembered the agony of Christ in the garden of Gethsemany and how three times Christ had asked that the cup be taken away from him, and three times Christ had said, “Thy will be done”. And it was at that moment, when he fully entered into his own despair and yet could in turn say, “Thy will be done,” that he suddenly came to a very deep awakening.
It is not necessary for us to suffer that kind of agony; undoubtedly too much agony can be an obstruction to the purification that is necessary. We can only tolerate so much. But sesshin is a harmonic of that priest’s time in the isolation cell. You are told to keep the eyes down. You face the wall. You sit and you must not move. The food is very plain and only available at meal times. All distractions are covered up or taken away. Mirrors are covered up. All that can interest you or take you out of yourself is obscured. In other words, this denudation process, of taking away and stripping down, is the process of true spiritual practice. And so when you see yourself in this condition, this inability to go forward, to go back, this inability to stay where you are, and are pervaded by general irritability and the feeling of having been betrayed, of having been abandoned, this is the doorway, this is the way through. You should not try to scramble back up again, look around, or protest. You go on. But, you do not go on as a hero. You simply go on. You simply take the next step. Thy will be done.
And then the song says,
“When the Dharma body is realized there is nothing at all.
The original nature of all things is innately Buddha.”
Your original nature is what you see. No ‘me and the world,’ no ‘me and you’. When you see a flower, you think that you see the colour and the form. Yet all that you are seeing is light, but you don’t see the light, you see the colour. You think that you see things, other people, objects, space. But you do not see objects, things, other people, space. You see light. And the light is knowing. This is why, “what you know as real, is real. What you know as so, is so.”
People sometimes have the most extraordinary beliefs: cannibals for example. That is to say, the beliefs are extraordinary as far as you or I are concerned. But they are not extraordinary from the believer’s point of view. From their point of view, what they do is what is right; they would think that you or I are doing extraordinary things. When I first went to France from England I could not understand why all the French drove on the wrong side of the road. There is no world outside knowing. Knowing is the world.
This is the meaning of “When the Dharma body is realized, there is nothing at all.” Innately, the original nature of all things is knowing (Dharma body). But I do not mean knowing things; knowing is things. Emptiness is form. When you are asking “Who am I?” there is not an ‘I am’ that you are going to find. The question is already it. We say, “It is going to rain, or “It is time we left,” or, “It is a long way home.” What is ‘it’? ‘It’ and ‘I’ both affirm a non existent duality. The sense of self, the sense of being something is quite unnecessary, it is a burden that we carry for no reason at all.
The song says,
” Elements of the self come and go like clouds without purpose.”
The elements of the self are the skandhas. The word “skandha” is often translated as ‘heap.” However, it would perhaps be better translated as ‘collection.” The five skandhas are: the skandha of form, of feeling, of thought (ideation, concept, images), of intention (will, motivation, desire,) and the skandha of consciousness. We constantly identify ourselves with these five skandhas. We think we are the body; this is the skandha of form. We see the body, we see it from outside. We see the form of it. We feel the pain of it. We also identify ourselves with our feelings. With our emotions: I am angry, I am sad, I am happy. But then we get into more refined feelings: the feeling of being, the feeling of knowing, the feeling of beauty, and we think this feeling is really me. This is very much New Age. But feeling, too, is empty.
As the Prajnaparamita says, “feeling, thought, and choice, consciousness itself, are the same as this, dharmas here are empty.”
We identify ourselves with our thoughts, desires and intentions. We think that the intentionality that we have, the search that we have to see into our true nature is ‘my’ intention, ‘my’ search, that the intentionality is me. We say, “ ‘I’ want to come to awakening.” But the search to awaken is also empty: empty of ego, sense of self or personhood.
And then we have consciousness. So many people feel that as long as they sit and are conscious of being conscious, aware of being aware, this is the ultimate. They believe that if they cling to consciousness of being conscious long enough then some truth will surely reveal itself. But the belief in consciousness as the ultimate is a cul-de-sac. It is a dead end. One must get out of that belief by any way possible. All five skandha are empty, all are forms of knowing. Nothing holds these five together. The sense of a unified integrated self, particularly the self which is held together by understanding and intuition, is an illusion.
The song goes on to say,,
“Greed, hatred and ignorance appear and disappear like ocean foam.”
What is interesting about this is that it says that greed, anger, hatred and ignorance do appear. People have the impression that the mind of the awakened person is empty, vacant without thought or feeling. When the expression, or the metaphor of empty space, is used, it is used because empty space and true nature are non-obstructing. True nature, like space, has no barriers. True Nature has nothing that obstructs, hinders, or catches. But the awakened mind is not a vacant mind. It is not a mind that floats on cloud nine. As Zen master Joshu says, “It is not cold ashes, it is not a dead tree. It is a hundred flowers in colourful bloom.”
Ummon says, “This old monk loves anger, loves joy.” Hakuin’s books overflow with passion like lava flowing from a volcano. To be unobstructed by greed, anger and delusion we must let go of ‘I am angry,’ ‘I am greedy,’ ‘I am ignorant.’ We cannot escape our karma. Karma is like an ocean in which waves of thought, passion and action are constantly churning. Karma is not happening to us, but rather, because we are human beings, we are human karma. Karma includes delusive passions.
So often people ask, “What is the use of my practice? What good is it? It has done nothing for me. I still get angry, so surely I have taken the wrong route.” Or they feel suffering, despair, or they encounter difficulties and then say, “I don’t understand why my life is so difficult. I have been meditating now for five, six years, and my life is still so difficult.” This is similar to the Christian who says, “I have faith in God, why is my life so full of trouble ? I pray to God, I am a good Christian….”
The only answer is, it is because you are a good Christian that you are able to suffer, that you have the strength to recognize that you suffer. It is because you have done so much zazen that you are able to awaken to the pain of life. You are at last coming home. At last seeing what the first noble truth or axiom of Buuddhism “Life is founded on suffering” really means. Now you can go through the suffering. To see, “Life is suffering” is only half way. Go on! But this does not mean go on out of suffering. Rather, to use the words of Jesus, “Pick up your cross.” Not only your own but also the cross of whomever you see around you.
An anti-life attitude of wanting to escape from life and its suffering so often pervades spiritual practice. But life is wonderful! Like Baso said, “Everyday is a good day.” And like Baso also said, “Sun faced Buddha, moon faced Buddha.” Remember that this was when he was dying and in considerable pain. One of his senior disciples came to him and asked him, “Well, how is it?” In other words, how are you facing this situation? What is it, talk to me from your suffering. And Basso said, “Sun faced Buddha, moon faced Buddha”.
A sun faced Buddha was reputed to have lived for kalpas. A moon faced Buddha lived just a day and a night. Whether for a long time or short time, suffering is still suffering. We cannot escape, but we no longer need to endure suffering. It is that ‘I’ suffer that is the problem. Erase that and every day is a good day.
“Greed, hatred and delusion appear and disappear like ocean foam.”
In other words, no ‘I’ clings to greed, hatred and delusion. This does not mean an absence of emotion but that life flows unimpeded. We are told at the beginning of a sesshin: “You will pass through all kinds of mind states, but do not be identified with any of them. Let life flow.”
“When you reach the heart of reality you find neither self nor other and even the worst kind of karma dissolves at once.”
This does not mean the karma vanishes. If it were to vanish, then the whole world would vanish. If we get rid of anything, then we get rid of everything. Everything is connected with everything else. But let the sense ‘I am the do-er,’ ‘I am the sufferer,’ ‘I am the one,’ dissolve. “I” is the hook that ties you to karma.
Devadatta, Buddha’s cousin, because he was envious of Buddha and of his spiritual riches, tried to kill him on three occasions. For this he was plunged into the very deepest hell. He called out to Buddha for help and Buddha sent Manjusri with a message: Devadatta would remain in the deepest hell for five kalpas (an infinite length of time) but at the end of that time he would become Buddha. And Devadatta said, “In that case I can turn on my side and rest in the fires of hell in peace.” By fully accepting his karma Devadatta was freed from it.