Seven (7) Zen Masters On Words & Letters – sutras & koans (scriptures & sayings)

Seven (7) Classic Zen Masters On Sutras and Koans

Parshva attended the Buddhist master Punyamitre for three years, never once going to sleep. One day as Punyamitre was reciting a scripture and came to an exposition of the uncreated, Parshva attained enlightenment on hearing it.
Keizan, Transmission of Light, Thomas Cleary, p.44

I happened to hear that The Lotus Sutra was the king of all the scriptures… when I had finished, I closed it with a heavy sigh. “This,” I told myself, “is nothing but a collection of simple tales about cause and effect. True, mention is made of there being ‘only one absolute vehicle,’ and of ‘the changeless, unconditioned tranquillity of all dharmas.’ …
Meanwhile, I lived as the priest of a small temple. I reached forty, the age when one is not supposed to be bothered any longer by doubts. One night, I decided to take another look at The Lotus Sutra… I read as far as the third chapter, the one on parables. Then, just like that, all the lingering doubts and uncertainties vanished from my mind. They suddenly ceased to exist. The reason for the Lotus’s reputation as the “king of sutras” was now revealed to me with blinding clarity. Teardrops began cascading down my face like two strings of beads—they came like beans pouring from a ruptured sack. A loud involuntary cry burst from the depths of my being… I was finally able to penetrate the source of the free, enlightened activity that permeated Shoju’s daily life.
Hakuin, The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin, Norman Waddell, p.33

One day when Huineng went to market with a bundle of wood, he heard a traveler reciting the Diamond Cutter Scripture.  When the traveler reached the part where it says, “You should activate the mind without dwelling on anything,” Huineng experienced enlightenment.
Keizan, Transmission of Light, Thomas Cleary, p.138

There is another type of Zen teacher who tells people not to make logical assessments, that they lose contact the minute they speak, and should recognize the primordial. This kind of “teacher” has no explanation at all. This is like sitting on a balloon—where is there any comfort in it? It is also like the croaking of a bullfrog. If you entertain such a view, it is like being trapped in a black fog.
Foyan, Instant Zen, Thomas Cleary, p.46

There is originally no word for truth, but the way to it is revealed by words. The way originally has no explanation, but reality is made by explanation. That is why the buddhas appeared in the world with many expedient methods; the whole canon dispenses medicines according to diseases.
Shih-shuang, Zen Teachings, Thomas Cleary, p.51

From the Zen people of today, who are content to sit quietly submerged at the bottom of their “ponds of tranquil water,” you often hear this:“Don’t introspect koans. Koans are quagmires. They will suck your self-nature under. Have nothing to do with written words either. Those are a complicated tangle of vines that will grab hold of your vital spirit and choke the life from if.”
Don’t believe that for a minute! What kind of “self-nature” is it that can be “sucked under”? Is it like one of those yams or chestnuts you bury under the cooking coals? Any “vital spirit” that can be “grabbed and choked off” is equally dubious. Is it like when a rabbit or fox gets caught in a snare?  Where in the world do they find these things? The back shelves of some old country store? Wherever, it must be a very strange place.
No doubt about it, these are the miserable wretches Zen priest Ch’ang-sha said “confound the illusory working of their own minds for ultimate truth.” They’re like that great king master Ying-an T’an-hua talked about, who lives alone inside an old shrine deep in the mountains, never putting any of his wisdom to use.
Hakuin, The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin, Norman Waddell, p.24

One time, as Shitou was reading a famous Buddhist treatise, he came to the point where it says, “It seems that only a sage can understand that myriad things are oneself.” At this point he hit the desk and said, “A sage has no self, yet there is nothing that is not the self.  The body of reality is formless—who speaks of self and other?  The round mirror is marvelously bright—all things and the mysteries of their beings appear in it spontaneously.  Objects and knowledge are not one—who says they come or go to one another?  How true are the words of this treatise!”…

Having attained realization at a blow and succeeding in seeing clearly, he ranked as one of the Zen masters.
Keizan, Transmission of Light, Thomas Cleary, p.153

A bigoted believer in nihilism blasphemes against the sutras on the ground that literature [i.e., the Buddhist scriptures] is unnecessary [for the study of Buddhism]. If that were so, then neither would it be right for us to speak, since speech forms the substance of literature. He would also argue that in the direct method [literally, the straight path] literature is discarded. But does he appreciate that the two words ‘is discarded’ are also literature? Upon hearing others recite the sutras such a man would criticize the speakers as ‘addicted to scriptural authority’. It is bad enough for him to confine this mistaken notion to himself, but in addition, he blasphemes against the Buddhist scriptures. You men should know that it is a serious offence to speak ill of the sutras, for the consequence is grave indeed!
Hui-Neng, The Diamond Sutra & The Sutra of Hui-Neng, A. F. Price & Wong Mou-lam, p.144

When students are beginners, whether they have the mind of the Way or not, they should carefully read and study the Sagely Teachings of the sutras and shastras.
Dogen, Record of Things Heard, Col. Trans. of Thomas Cleary, Vol. 4, p.796

I have observed that people of the present time who are cultivating their minds do not depend on the guidance of the written teachings, but straightaway assume that the successive transmission of the esoteric idea [of Son] is the path. They then sit around dozing with their presence of mind in agitation and confusion during their practice of meditation. For these reasons, I feel you should follow words and teachings which were expounded in accordance with reality in order to determine the proper procedure in regard to awakening and cultivation. Once you mirror your own minds, you may contemplate with insight at all times, without wasting any of your efforts.
Chinul, Tracing Back the Radiance, Robert Buswell, p.151-152

How sad is the aridity of contemporary Zen schools! They laud unintelligent ignorance as transcendental direct-pointing Zen.  Considering unsurpassed spiritual treasures like Focusing the Precious Mirror and the Five Ranks to be worn-out utensils of an antiquated house, they pay no attention to them. They are like blind people throwing away their canes, saying they are useless, then getting themselves stuck in the mud of the view of elementary realization, never able to get out all their lives.
Hakuin, Kensho, Thomas Cleary, p.68-69



3 thoughts on “Seven (7) Zen Masters On Words & Letters – sutras & koans (scriptures & sayings)”

  1. Thanks, Ted, for assembling this wonderful collection of teachings (words again!) on texts and words. Now I’ll pick up my cane and hobble off…

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