The Basis of Dark Zen

Question: What is the basis for your teaching?

Dark Zen: Our basis, if you wish to call it that, is Mind’s luminous originative power which can also be characterized as an intelligible light. Its other name is Buddha who is a “light-maker.”

Question: I’ve read that the mind is luminous. But I am afraid that I have never heard that the Buddha is a “light-maker”. Is this mentioned in the Buddhist canon?

Dark Zen: Yes. In the earliest scriptures, for example, the Buddha is sometimes described as “the bringer of light”. In one account, he was described as a “newly arisen sun” who has a “corona around him.” It is also said that the Buddha could "make the world bright." Now, if you strip away all the poetic imagery, what is left? I can only see an originative power which is prior to all things.

Question: Permit me to back up. I think I understand what you're saying. But what I had originally in mind to ask you is what is the historical basis of your teaching?

Dark Zen: From the corpus of old manuscripts discovered at Tun-huang around the turn of the last century, it is clear that Zen transmitted the 'dark principle.' The term is used a number of times in these old documents. In one of the oldest transmission documents found at Tun-huang it mentions the dark principle. In fact, the title of the document is as follows: Former Worthies Gather at the Mount Shuang-feng and Each Talks of the Dark Principle . I should also point out that in this same document there is no indication that there is a transmission going back to the Buddha. Nor, is there a master/disciple succession. But what is clear is that each Zen master is such in virtue of his insight into the dark principle.

Question: But what about the fact of a Zen lineage going all the way back to the Buddha as found in the book, The Transmission of the Lamp?

Dark Zen: It is, I think, a tall tale. It's a non-scriptural creation by Sung Dynasty Zennists who took selections from older works and made a singular work befitting of their theory. But it all falls apart when we compare it with the Mahayana Sutra entitled The End of Transmitting the Dharma Basket upon which The Transmission of the Lamp is largely based. The Sutra provides us with a list of 23 Indian ancestors, beginning with Mahakashyapa and ending with Simha Bhiksu. There is no mention of Bodhidharma or his master, Prajnatara. In fact, the Sutra is about transmitting the canon (Dharma)--it’s not about Zen. It is also noteworthy that in the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Gandavyuha chapter) it is mentioned that great disciples such as Mahakashyapa “were not capable of perpetuating the lineage of Buddhas.” Obviously, something is wrong. This passage doesn't square with the later Zen theory that Mahakashyapa was transmitted by the Buddha. Why then would the Buddha transmit to Mahakashyapa if he were incapable of perpetuating the lineage of Buddhas? As I read between the lines, Mahakashyapa is only worthy, like Ananda, to transmit the canon. Nothing more. He was incapable of transmitting the Buddha lineage which is the dark principle.

Question: Can you describe this so-called 'dark principle' of which you speak?

Dark Zen: It's an intractable subject, I must say. If I describe it by saying that all constructed things flow from this dark principle while it, itself, remains unconstruced and unmoved, what can such words really explain? At this stage it is a far off goal, like some great mountain seen in the distance. You, as a person, must still make the journey on your own.

Question: Isn't this just the problem of our need to think too much?

Dark Zen: Yes, of course, over-thinking can be a problem. On the other hand, some Zennists teach that we should repress our thoughts and be like a dead tree. This is wrong. But I happen to think that right thoughts are useful, especially those which give us right information. Information can help guide us in the right direction. Sometimes it leads us in the wrong direction. Often, it is true, we have to reconsider our former thoughts and question this information. We may find that they weren't much after all.

Question: Yes, I tend to agree with you. But back to the dark principle. Could you at least sketch it out?

Dark Zen: I will try although I am hesitant to say too much about it. I can't promise you miracles! [laughing] First of all, each of us has access to this dark principle. All of us can tap into it. This is a given. However, owing to our habit of following appearances, we have lost the ability to communicate with it even though it is coexistent with us. Now, in the case of the Buddha, with regard to the dark principle, when he reached complete enlightenment he entered into what might be called primordial light. But more than just mere light, it is sheer productive power, or the same, sheer potentiality. Naturally, it is free and independent of phenomena although without it, phenomena would not be. With that I can't say much more.

Question: How does this apply to Bodhidharma’s teaching?

Dark Zen: When Bodhidharma spoke of the Two Entrances, one was called the entrance by principle. This principle, of course, is the dark principle. To realize it was by means of wall-contemplation (biguan). Wall-contemplation means to turn to the real by rejecting phenomena, so as to abide in the primordial light. In this light there is nothing further to cultivate. This light, or I should say, this dark principle, is a sheer productiveness and is equally self-knowing. In Zen we call this the Great Perfection of the Path which was first mentioned in the work, the Records of the Lanka Masters.

Question: When the Buddha converged with this dark principle, as you allege, could he influence the weather or change the economic conditions of his country? [laughing]

Dark Zen: We are talking about two different worlds. The Buddha's world is the unconditioned world of potentiality before our senses cut it up and our brain conceptualizes it. The one of which you speak with its weather conditions and poverty is the highly conditioned human, samsaric world. Here sentient beings choose to look at this mysterious, unconditioned world in a certain, predetermined way, assembling it into a plurality of things and conditions. Furthermore, they crave this particular exotic view which ironically ends with their suffering. But if beings elect to transcend the human world, eventually reaching a higher plane of being, then, in such another world, sure they can influence the weather! [laughing]

Question: Well, I'm not sure I understand you. I only see the human world. It is the one I care about. But let me ask you this question: How do you understand all this in your daily life? This is what really interests me.

Dark Zen: When we tap into this dark principle, what little we can at first, it leads us to its fullness in time. As a result, one becomes blissful as this light gradually de-conditions unwholesome states of being. Even if you are in pain, for example, this light is at work aiding you to win your freedom. It is like an angel who insures that part of you will join the Buddhas.

Question: That is interesting. I like what I hear you saying. So, this is not some intellectual exercise after all. Something actually happens in one's inner being that helps them in their ordinary lives.

Dark Zen: Oh, but of course! It is most extraordinary. Let me also say that one senses at all times an illuminating energy present within them. In my case, as I turn to it, I become more of this dark principle. All the human gloominess fades away, you might say.

Question: Why is it that we don't experience this within us right now?

Dark Zen: I think it is because we are glued to appearances, both sensory and mental. Worse, the glue is like Crazy Glue! [laughing] When one faces the world of appearances, one is actually looking away from their true source. One is, in fact, merging with the world of birth and death only to suffer in proportion as they cling to this world. The Buddha said it is like a great king, who spending too much time with his subjects, forgets he is a king. Well, in our case, we have total amnesia! [laughing] This is why we don't experience it.

Question: So, by engaging with phenomena we become conditioned by it and get amnesia?

Dark Zen: Yes. And then we get hooked even more as we act towards our conditioning.

Question: Like a vicious circle?

Dark Zen: Yes! As the Buddha pointed out, humans are always dependently linked with phenomena—they almost never get free. However, for Buddhists, they must learn to de-link with phenomenal arisings. But this is a hard road to travel.

Question: Yes, it sounds like it. From all that you have said, at least it is encouraging to know that within me is the potential for liberation. I get the impression that if I could only merge with the dark principle of which you speak, my problems would melt away.

Dark Zen: Yes, that is true. At least your problems would be seen to not be such a big deal. But until that time, one must follow the Buddha's teachings to make this possible.

Question: To change the subject, does Dark Zen have a sangha? Most Zen groups that I am familiar with have a congregation. Do you have one?

Dark Zen: We have a different view of sangha. For us, sangha is made up of those who have experienced the Buddha's true Dharma. These beings have become a witness to his pure teaching—or the same, the dark principle.

Question: So, this is not a community then, am I right?

Dark Zen: Let's say that it is a community of like minds. In the Avatamsaka Sutra it tells us to “observe the Buddha's power of energy” which is his true Dharma. In observing it, we at once become members of his sangha.