The Zen Teaching of Huang Po_: A Gonzo Review by SnarkyMan
Less than twenty-four hours ago I was fired from my job. While I am
surprised to find myself rather calm in the face of it, my sleep last night was brief and
troubled. It is from a rare event like this that my body gooses me with the ready
information that I am not Enlightened.
In _Zen and the Art of Archery_, I think it was, a Westerner relates a
lunch he has in a Tokyo restaurant with a trio of zen masters that was interrupted by a
jarring earthquake. The masters were calm during the event that frightened the Westerner
and others in the cafe. I think it was this snippet of a story that I read some fifteen
years ago that piqued my interest in zen. The hocus-pocus sleight-of-hand stuff where a
Master of Archery can "become the arrow," unerringly piercing the bull's eye,
didn't impress me. If it was from zen mastery that one finds a fountain of such skills,
then the NBA and the NFL would hold their practice sessions at zen monasteries. It was
Huang Po who said that the fruit of becoming a monk is putting an end to anxiety. Hmmm.
"An end to anxiety." That's not a very lofty manifestation of spiritual growth
for an American like myself raised on Wheaties, but it is a clear "marker" for
something inside that has transformed.
No. I missed the point of _Z & the A of A_ when I read it fifteen
years ago, but I was right about what is essential. The "IT" that is important
begins as an internal quest--inscrutable, blazing, tortuous--that is "present"
as much when you are alone sitting on the toilet as when you are showing off in a game of
darts. "IT" is not a skill that you acquire, it is very much something else:
Eternal Truth or, as Huang Po suggests, the answer to the riddle of life and death. The
outward manifestations of "IT" are not "IT" at all, and it is a
misdirection to chase after "IT" for the purpose of patterning yourself after
the star of "Kung Fu" or making your Buddhist friends envious.
_The Zen Teaching of Huang Po_, translated by John Blofeld, was first
published in 1958, and is currently available as a palm-sized book, about 2" by
3", published by Shambhala in their Pocket Classics series. Huang Po is an eminent
Ch'an Master who lived in the Ninth century whose teachings, many think, are the summit of
Huang Po adhered to the "Highest Vehicle"--an intuitive
transmission of the wordless Dharma, the doctrine of One Mind. He cautioned that many
people are "afraid to empty their minds, lest they plunge into the Void. They do not
know that their own Mind is the void. The ignorant eschew phenomena but not thought; the
wise eschew thought but not phenomena." "The Void," he says later, "is
not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma."
H.P.'s disciple P'ei Hsiu writes in a preface that Mind is "like
the sun journeying through the sky and emitting glorious light uncontaminated by the
finest particle of dust." This "Mind" is the Buddha and "Mind and the
object of (one's) search are one."
In a book called _Original Teachings of Ch'an Buddhism_ a chapter called
"To Roar like a Tiger" is devoted to Huang Po. It relates that when asked
"What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?" H.P. immediately hit
a monk with a stick, and when asked if he had seen a tiger, H.P. immediately roared like
one. This follows from H.P.'s teaching that one must not conceptualize--that the
"emptyness" of your Buddhahood is found in the absence of the static of thought.
"Above, below and around you, all is spontaneously existing, for there is nowhere
that is outside the Buddha-Mind," he taught.
The _Original Teachings_ book relates that Huang Po is supposed to have
had a lump on his forehead. It is interesting that a story of his in _Zen Teachings_ goes
as follows: "Suppose a warrior, forgetting that he was already wearing his pearl on
his forehead were to seek for it elsewhere, he could travel the whole world without
finding it. But if someone who knew that he was wrong were to point it out to him, the
warrior would immediately realize that the pearl was there all the time." H.P.
teaches the "sudden elimination of conceptual thought," and finds the highest
expression of truth in the Buddha's words that he "truly attained nothing from
complete, unexcelled Enlightenment." Says H.P.: "All wisdom and all holiness are
but streaks of lightening. None of them have the reality of Mind."
_The Zen Teaching of Huang Po_ is a very assessable book of zen wisdom
that concludes with stories of the Master's relations with his disciples and Q&A's
where the Master explains the teaching of Buddha and Bodhidharma. It is all rather
magnificent. Current-day zen writers often seem to cloud their writing with an overlay
demonstrating their likableness or they entangle themselves in a scholarly snarl. The
plucky Ch'an Masters from a thousand years ago are fresh and vibrant, challenging and
authentic. The palm-sized book of the teachings of Huang Po is as good a zen book I ever
expect to read.
is the handle of Tom Armstrong, who lives in San Francisco,
spitting distance from that huge gateless gate, The Golden Gate