A Brief Introduction To Buddhism (Part Two): 仏教入門


(continued from Part One…)

The compendium of instruction manuals dealing with attaining the state of ‘being- as-is’ known as Minding Mind includes several famous works including Korean Zen master Chinul’s (1158-1210 CE) Secrets on Cultivating the Mind, and master Dōgen’s A Generally Recommended Mode of Sitting Meditation (395). A major concern of these manuals was that altered mental and physical states could be mistaken by the unprepared or unwary as authentic spiritual experiences without the prerequisite knowledge, experience, and understanding (397). And in recent times one might add a certain superficial Orientalism that contrasts the Zen axiom that “a good craftsman leaves no traces” –  a true Zennist showing no outer signs of enlightenment, claiming no expertise, or not pursuing spiritual authority over the lives of others.

The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, a highly influential scripture with its origins in the Ch’an and Hua-yen Buddhist traditions, is believed to be composed around the eighth century (Muller 1999, 3). First studied in the context of Ch’an Buddhism, it later became a significant part of the official monastic curriculum of the Chogye, the main school of Korean Sǒn (Zen) due to its highly organized structure and the practicality of its discussion of meditation. An accompanying commentary by the monk Kihwa (1376-1433 CE) is also useful in understanding not only the text, but its reception in Kihwa’s time as well.

Korean Buddhist Wonhyo (617–686 CE) synthesized various Buddhist schools and doctrines, and read every religious text he came across. Though he had no formal training, he read Buddhist literature voraciously, and became known in the Silla Kingdom both as a wise teacher, and eventually a national figure of great renown. He established a unique universalist/syncretic philosophy, harmonizing various methods and modes of doctrine, making them easily understood to both monks and lay practitioners alike. What Wonhyo preached, most notably in his work Taesung Kishinnon So (Treatise on the Awakening of Faith), was that the religious aims of Mahāyāna are Body (essence), Aspect (phenomenon), and Use (function). Each and all are interpenetrated, so there are no obstacles to anyone achieving a spiritual unity with all things (‘being’ and ‘non-being’).

But it was his work the Adamantine Absorption Scripture that stands out in Buddhist history, having been elevated during his lifetime to the status of ‘treatise’ (Silla Korean: non), which meant that Wonhyo was considered a bodhisattva. According to Wonhyo, “adamantine absorption” (Skt: vajrasamādhi) is a special type of meditative concentration that he believed catalyzed the final experience of enlightenment. Like adamant (diamond) shatters all other minerals, the adamantine absorption shatters all forms of attachment that prevent one from experiencing Buddhahood.

The Platform Sutra, centered on life and teachings of Master Hui-neng (638-713 C.E), has continued to play a major role in Zen Buddhism, and is the only work of its kind in Zen history to be classified as scripture, an honor reserved exclusively for the teachings of a Buddha. It is a history of the life and sermons given by Hui-neng, an uneducated woodcutter who achieved enlightenment outside of the Zen schools, was ordained a Grand Master, and subsequently fled into the hills to escape the persecution of jealous monks to later emerge as a legendary teacher. A source of insight and inspiration to both secular and ordained Zen acolytes, it is an oft quoted resource for both teaching and exegesis of Zen writings.

This sutra was also a significant influence on Zen master Dōgen Zenji (1200 – 1253 C.E), who was the founder and First Patriarch of the Sōto sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan, though some Sōto practitioners place more emphasis on the work and teachings of Fourth Patriarch Keizan Jōkin (1286–1325 C.E). A key theme in Dōgen’s early studies was his investigation into the question of why Buddhas and Bodhisattvas long for enlightenment and engage in ascetic practice, when both esoteric and exoteric Buddhist doctrines teach primal Buddha nature is inherent in all sentient beings. Dōgen is also author of the Shōbōgenzō, Treasury of the Eye of the True Law. The Shōbōgenzō was also the first major Buddhist text to be written in Japanese, and is a prime example of how Zen masters draw freely from older literature in full or in partial quotation (a process which is described by Dōgen as “presenting sideways, and upside-down”). Dōgen also continually made the effort to express the inexpressible by perfecting seemingly imperfect speech through the creative use of wordplay, neologism, and lyricism, as well as the recasting of traditional expressions. Since Dōgen’s time, Sōto and Rinzai Zen have been and are still the two dominant branches of Zen Buddhism in Japan.

It is important to remember when translating Buddhist works (the Mahāyāna scriptures especially) that scripture is not free standing and self-explanatory, but rather both a product of, and guide to, spiritual experience embedded in practices neither clearly defined nor meant to be read privately in silence. These were verses to be chanted out loud and memorized as a referent in meditation and scholarship. It must also be pointed out that many scriptures and terms that Zen Buddhism inherited have been translated from the original Pali into Sanskrit, Mandarin, and eventually into medieval Japanese. Translating the Taoist terms and subsidiary concepts influencing Ch’an Buddhism has also been fraught with many difficulties and mistakes. The Jesuit missionaries who undertook the initial translations of the Tao Te Ching in China for example, considered the Tao to be equivalent to the ‘Supreme Reason of the Divine Being.’ Modern translations as well tend to be as poetic as literal, and this may partially explain how East Asian religion and philosophy can be misread.

For example, the well known and widely read Fronsdal translation of the Sayings of the Buddha (Skt: Dhammapada) for example, translates the forty-ninth Sutra “as a bee gathers nectar and moves on without harming the flower, its color and fragrance, just so should a sage walk through a village.” But another translation, the Maguire/Müller Dhammapada, presents the same verse as “the bee collects nectar, so should a wise person go among the people and things of this life.” Like the bee taking honey but harming not the flower, the Lal translation has the wise man living similarly “in the flower of his village.” The “Ox Cutter” verses of the Chuang Tzu too raise translation issues. Graham (2001); Watson (2003); Hinton (1997); Legge (1962); Murton (1965); and Ames (1998) all mention a generally uniform ceasing of sight and free movement of the spirit. However, the Giles translation states, “when my senses bid me stop, but my mind urges me on, I fall back on eternal principles.” This reference to eternal principles seems to suggest some much more practical method or spiritual law lacking some sense of extra sensory agency. In yet another case, the Addis-Lombardo translation of the Chinese philosophical classic, the Tao Te Ching, does not include the literal phrase “the whole world,” but instead informs the individual reader in the present tense. When the world knows the beautiful, both translations also say to “recognize” it, or “become conscious of it.” When everyone in the world became conscious of the beauty of the beautiful it turned to evil. If D.C. Lau states that ‘the whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful yet this is only the ugly,’ Ellen Chen might argue that ‘when all under heaven know beauty as beauty, there is then ugliness.’ Upon scanning further texts, (Ryan 2008: Feng/English 1989; Legge 1962; Star 2001; LaFargue 1992; Hendricks 1989; Wihelm 1985; Wagner 2003; Hamill 2007; Mitchell 1988; Cleary 1991; and Bynner 1944), we find several modes of recognition or cognition at play; to know, recognize, become conscious of, can see X as X, acknowledge X, knows that it is nothing but X that makes Y, etc.

But considering all these variations, we still may conclude that Japanese literature contains the essential meanings necessary to a correct and practical interpretation of each text on its own terms, for many have been handed down unaltered (or at least hardly altered) for centuries, and it is usually commentary on such volumes that contain divergent theories and ideas promoted by differing artistic schools and sects.



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