First of a series of talks on the Platform Sutra, Red Pine edition.
Platform Sutra 1
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Transcribed and edited by Mary Wilson and Barbara Byrum
Zen is the Japanese reading of the Chinese word Chan, which is the reading of the Sanskrit word dhyana, which means meditation. So the Zen school emphasizes meditation.
In the development of the Chan school, scholars make a distinction between what they call “Early Chan,” which is the first few hundred years up to the time of the Sixth Ancestor, Huineng; and then “Classical Chan,” from the time of the Sixth Ancester through the Tang dynasty; and then “Song Chan,” which is a refined or elaborated Chan. The Song Chan is the Chan that Dogen encountered when he came from Japan in the 13th century.
If you notice in the story about the poem, the poem is written on a wall at the monastery. A very famous painter was to arrive and paint on that wall scenes from the Laß╣àk─üvat─üra S┼½tra. So they are all set to do this, but that night Shenxiu writes his poem on the wall. Eventually Huineng also writes his poem on the wall. The abbot calls up the painter and says, Don’t bother coming. We’re not going to do this after all. We’re going to have this poem on the wall instead. Did you notice that?
Huineng was inspired by the Diamond Sutra. The poem that he wrote is really a poem that reflects the emptiness teaching. The Laß╣àk─üvat─üra Sutra – that was to be written on the wall – does not particularly reflect the emptiness teachings. It is a sutra about the nature of mind, meditation, purity and transformation.
The Laß╣àk─üvat─üra S┼½tra is the characteristic teaching of early Chan. The Diamond Sutra is the characteristic teaching of Classical Chan. So you see in the Platform Sutra that the simple, direct poem of Huineng – a few words – replaces this elaborate painting of the Laß╣àk─üvat─üra S┼½tra . The Zen school is not abandoning the teachings of Laß╣àk─ü, but emphasizing instead the teaching of the Diamond Sutra, the teaching of emptiness.
The emptiness teachings are about reality – the way it is – without the necessity to change it, to fix it, to gradually transform it. So everything is already connected, free, without problems. Then we come along, and we project onto it all the different problems we have, and then we think, I’ve got to do a lot of work to overcome all these problems. I’ve really got to study hard, and overcome all those problems. If you look closely enough, directly enough, there is no problem. So the Laß╣àk─ü is a sutra about how we have to work really, really hard to overcome our problems. The Diamond Sutra is a sutra about how to look and see reality as it is, directly and simply.
Zen stories turn on this understanding. The Heart Sutra says emptiness is form, but form is emptiness. So don’t worry. In other words, it is a radical teaching of non-duality. There is no real “truth,” other than the linguistic and conceptual, the distinction between outside and inside, between self and others, between the religious and the non-religious. This sutra very strongly expresses that non-dualistic teaching.
In reality we are already Buddha. We just have to see it. We’re already okay. We just have to see it.
There’s a cultural and political sub-text to the sutra: the difference between Chinese culture in the north and Chinese culture in the south – these two doctrinal positions of sudden and gradual enlightenment. At various times throughout the history of Zen this difference is important. This sutra is a backdrop to the whole sense of intrigue of (this faction versus that faction.
You see this debate in Shenxiu’s verse, which talks about the mind is a mirror that you must wipe continuously to keep it clean. We always have to purify ourselves all the time. Then Huineng says there is no mirror, there is nothing to wipe clean. Everything is already pure. You see, just in the comparison of the two verses, the difference. In terms of this sutra, Shenxiu’s verse is the bad verse, the shallow understanding. Huineng’s verse is the good verse, the profound and true understanding. The Platform Sutra is promoting that point of view and, to some extent, denigrating the other point of view.
From the standpoint of our own school of Zen, we practice both. We embrace both those verses at the same time. We don’t see it as an either/or proposition. Suzuki Roshi talks about this. It’s like when he says, “You are perfect just the way you are, and a little improvement would also be good.” In other words, there’s a big difference between working to cultivate beneficial states of mind based on the fact that you have real confidence in your real nature, versus, Oh my god, I am a total wreck, I’m hopeless, I’d better do something.
You might be doing the same thing in both cases. People might be cultivating in the same way, but in one case, there is a kind of a desperate sense that things are not right. In the other case, there is a confident sense that because things are so fundamentally right, I owe it to myself not to goof off. I owe it to myself to be good and practice goodness, to be kind and be loving, exactly because my nature is so dignified and powerful. Therefore, how do I not take care of myself and respect myself and others?
So it is very different. But in both cases there is cultivation. There is dust-wiping. So our way is a dust-wiping on the basis of a real confidence in our true nature. I think this is the virtue of our sitting practice. To a great extent, the point of our sitting practice is, in the way that we practice, the gradual dawning in us of that confidence. A strong sense that when I return to my cushion, when I return to my breath, when I return to my heart, when I return to my mind, yes, I see many confusions and things of that sort, but I also see, underneath that, something fundamentally pure and strong just in my being alive. Just in that. So whatever fixing I need is based on that strength.
We return over and over again to the cushion and our sitting becomes, at some point, a tremendous pleasure, to return to and rest in our Buddha nature.
From the standpoint of the way that we practice, the two poems complement each other. They don’t contradict each other. Not only do they complement each other, but from the standpoint of our tradition, neither one would make sense without the other. In other words, cultivation without confidence in Buddha nature would make no sense. You’d never get anywhere! And Buddha nature without the sense of responsibility and delight in cultivation would make no sense. You wouldn’t really be confident in Buddha nature if you didn’t feel that sense of responsibility and delight in cultivation of the good. The two poems, far from being contradictory, need each other, complete each other. In other words, the radical non-dualistic perspective does not exclude the dualistic, because that in itself would be dualistic.
The Platform Sutra is a controversial text. There have been so many versions of it. It teaches primarily Zen as a direct, simple path, as opposed to scholasticism, complications, ritual and so on. You see this in the story. A young, illiterate person from the South, where people are rough and not very cultured, comes up and says to the great Zen master, “I’m here to become a Buddha.” “You, become a Buddha?” That’s what he tells him. But he has confidence in that, and he says, “Yes, that’s right. In terms of our fundamental nature we are all the same.” Not only does he have that attitude, but he actually does this. He does it without meditating. He becomes a Buddha. He achieves this full awakening without studying, without meditating, without doing anything. It takes him eight months, pounding rice in the store room, to have this simple, direct, very natural and clear intuition about who he is and what our life is.
Scriptures are always carried in a tradition. They are always corrupt, in the sense that we can never know the original, and they are always read and practiced in community over the centuries. It becomes a profound thing to be in conversation with one another about the deepest things about a human life. And not only in conversation with one another, but in conversation, at the same time, with generations before us, who have had the same conversation, evolving over time. It’s a beautiful thing, the practice of reading scripture in the light of actual practice, not as an academic study, but in the light of actual practice.
So that’s one thing: the non-dualistic nature of the text, and the direct, simple, intuitive nature of the practice that is being emphasized in the text. Another thing that the text emphasizes is that it moves from a practice that emphasizes the external, like, I’m over here, and I am going to venerate the Buddha over there. Or I’m going to achieve buddhahood later; it’s going to come from outside, later. The teachings are over there, outside.
It brings it all inside. In a way, that is one of the most radical things about the text. The Sixth Ancestor is re-interpreting a lot of the conventional, not only in Chan but in Buddhism in general. He is saying, You always thought this meant something outside of yourself. It actually means something right where you are. Something right inside yourself. It’s not outside of yourself. It’s not later. It’s not elsewhere. It’s always here, and it’s always now, and it’s always right where you are.
So I’m going to begin on page 17. This is all illustrative of the fact that there is a radical reinterpretation of everything external to being everything internal.On page 17 you have the Four Vows – the vows that we always chant ourselves at the end of our evenings here. Here are the Four Vows. “Beings are numberless. I vow to save them. I vow to end all afflictions, no matter how countless. I vow to master all teachings, no matter how limitless. I vow to obtain Buddhahood, no matter how transcendent.” Now recite this three times.” So the whole assembly of people recite this verse three times.
Yampolski’s translation has sometimes been translated as “saving all sentient beings in my mind.” In other words, this is not an external thing – I am going to go out and grab people by the scruff of the neck and I am going to save them. This is about, I am going to bring peace to my own mind, and I am going to have faith that everyone else has the capacity to bring peace to his or her own mind, because my nature and everyone else’s nature is of peace.
“The wrong views and afflictions, the ignorance and delusions in their own material bodies, already possess the nature of enlightenment.” Even their confusion, even their affliction. If they could see it for what it really was, they could see that it was already pure. It is just this nature of original enlightenment that saves them with right views. Once they realize the prajna wisdom of right views, they dispel their ignorance and delusion and each being saves themselves.
As for “I vow to end all afflictions no matter how countless”, this means simply to get rid of the delusions of your own mind. And “I vow to master all teachings, no matter how limitless”, simply means to study the dharma.” In other words, it’s not something to get; it is to internally be in the process. It’s not something to know that is outside of yourself, but simply to be in the process of study. “I vow to obtain buddhahood, no matter how transcendent”, means just to practice with humility and respect: to avoid attachments, to give rise to wisdom from your own awareness, and to put an end to delusions. It is through self-realization that buddhahood is obtained. This is the power of making vows.
The sutra flips the whole thing from outward attainment to being an inward process based on a deep confidence, not in our personality, not in our skills, not in our abilities – because no matter how great we are this is always limited – but in something literally limitless within ourselves that we come to realize through our practice.
Then you take the triple refuge, which is usually translated, “I take refuge in Buddha. I take refuge in dharma. I take refuge in sangha,” the teacher, the teaching, the community.
Here’s how he reinterprets this: “Take refuge in the enlightenment of your own minds.” That’s the Buddha. It’s not a great, venerated teacher that we really respect. It is the awakened nature of your own mind. The dharma is to be free from attachment. That is the teaching. Free from clinging. Free from holding on. That is the whole of the teaching. When you are free from holding on, then all the sutras and all the teachings and all the details are included in that. Then the sangha is the purity of your own mind. The sangha is the pure community. So the sangha here is reinterpreted from pure community to mean the purity of your own mind. No matter how many afflictions and delusions are present in your nature, because your nature remains always uncorrupted, you are always the perfect sangha. You, yourself. Your own mind is the perfect sangha.
It is a very radical reinterpretation of the triple treasures. The whole sutra is like that. He is reinterpreting everything, making it direct and immediate and inside yourself. He flips the whole of Buddhism in that way.
That story is telling us the kind of awakening that we are looking for and trying to practice. Zen is not a public, ecclesiastical, kind of certifiable-by-the-outside-external-agency enlightenment in which somebody becomes an important abbot or sage. Maybe this story is telling us that it is a private, personal matter. Publicly it doesn’t exist. Privately it is affirmed. It’s not the important person who receives this teaching or understands it.
There might be something somewhat subversive or dangerous about this teaching,in the sense that it makes a person not as cooperative, not as concerned about social, public convention, as one would be if one took it [the teachings] entirely seriously. You see this in Zen. The idea of the outlaw Zen guy is a common trope in Zen. The most beloved Zen people are always – not always, but often – a little bit off and to the side, off in the corner, a little bit bad boy, bad girl. Or just simple people that are overlooked sometimes – the hidden sage, which is a trope not only in Zen but in other traditions as well.
Judaism has this wonderful thing about thirty-six just people. It’s a wonderful legend. There are thirty-six “just” people in the world in every generation, and it is because of these people that the world exists. Nobody knows who they are. Could be the butcher. Some simple person. You don’t know who it is. But there are thirty-six of them, and it is thanks to these thirty-six people, who are truly just people, truly good in the most profound sense, that the world is allowed to exist another generation.
It’s the same idea in this sutra with Huineng. People who came to the monastery would never guess that the most profound, and just, and righteous person was the guy pounding rice, who just got there a few months ago. They would think it would be these high people in colored robes and what not. So here, in this pivotal story of Zen, you see this.
Also, a really famous and important teaching in this sutra is this statement that begins very much in the beginning of his teachings, before the ordination ceremony begins. He says, “Meditation and wisdom are one.” Very famous. This is much-refined, and there is a lot of discussion about this later on in Dogen, who wrote several important texts on meditation.
This idea begins here, when the Sixth Ancestor says you always thought there was meditation and then that meditation would get you the wisdom, but that’s not right. Meditation and wisdom are the same thing. Again, this is a radical reinterpretation. Traditionally, there’s shila, samadhi, prajna: morality, meditation, wisdom. It’s kind of like a process. So first, you have to clean up your life. Clean up your life a little bit, then you can meditate, and when you can meditate you can, through the meditation, achieve insight. A, B, C. But he says, no, no. First of all, the implication is that ethical conduct, morality, is folded into meditation, which is wisdom. So the whole thing is one thing.
This goes along with the idea that we don’t need to cultivate wisdom, to develop it gradually and slowly, coming from ignorance to wisdom. We don’t sit to get wisdom or get enlightenment. We sit to express and manifest and appreciate the wisdom, the enlightenment, not to manufacture it. The Sixth Ancestor is saying that sitting isn’t just sitting. Sitting is the constant activity of manifesting wisdom in our daily life.
So the sitting, when he says meditation is wisdom, means wisdom is meditation. Meditation is every minute of living, when we are coming forth in our living, in this direct and straightforward way, which is wisdom. So that’s why they always used to say, in the monastery, and those of you who have been in our monasteries know this, they say, “Just follow the schedule. The schedule is your teacher.”