Vast Emptiness – Lesson 11 – Free Online Course: Classic Teachings of Zen Buddhism

Vast Emptiness – Lesson 11 – Free Online Course: Classic Teachings of Zen Buddhism

[Link to Lesson 1] [Link to Lesson 2] [Link to Lesson 3] [Link to Lesson 4] [Link to Lesson 5] [Link to Lesson 6] [Link to Lesson 7] [Link to Lesson 8] [Lesson 9] [Lesson 10] [Lesson 11] [Lesson 12] [Lesson 13] [Lesson 14]

Zen Practice Zen Enlightenment: A free course on the essential doctrines and methods of Zen Buddhism.

The goal of this course is to provide a comprehensive presentation of the essential doctrines and methods of Zen Buddhism. To provide the most reliable account possible this course appeals to the greatest authority available; the genuine teachings of the classic Zen masters.

In the interest of maintaining a logical structure and systematic advance, each lesson introduces a specific topic by opening with a brief excerpt from The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing: The Second Ancestor of Zen in the West. This is followed with a selection of related passages from the classic literature of Zen Buddhism.

The passages of each lesson offer an array of perspectives from a variety of classic Zen records. This provides a well rounded presentation of the specific subject and introduces the diverse teaching styles of the Zen records that serve as the foundation of Zen Buddhism. The selected passages also present various levels of difficulty. The easier, more accessible passages serve to illumine and bring into relief the significance of the more difficult expressions, while the latter serve to suggest the more subtle implications of the former.

Each lesson is designed to furnish two primary approaches of study; one basic, the other more involved. The basic approach can be followed by applying oneself to the lesson for about 20 minutes or less. The more involved approach will include additional material and references to both online and traditional resources allowing for expanded study suited to individual interests.

While some comment may be offered were clarification seems in order, in attempting to let the Zen masters “speak for themselves” every effort to refrain from “interpretative” commentary will be made. Any interpretive commentary that does seem appropriate will, as far as possible be confined to the “comment” field following each lesson. Please use this “comment” field to offer comments, questions, or suggestions.

Any and all constructive feedback is greatly encouraged and appreciated. If you have a comment, question, or suggestion you want to keep private, please email me at:


Vast Emptiness: Lesson 11


Introduction from The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing: The Second Ancestor of Zen in the West


“When all things are seen as empty of self, there is no delusion and no enlightenment, no buddhas and no ordinary beings, no life and no death.” ~Dogen, Shobogenzo, Genjokoan

… The experience of reality from this perspective is the experience of absolute oneness. In the experience of oneness, there are no separate individual things; the buddha-dharma is totally undifferentiated. From this perspective, all things (the myriad dharmas) cease to appear as distinct entities (empty of self) and are therefore not distinguishable as things. That is to say, oneness is truly oneness, without anything left over. When there is no-thing that can be distinguished from any other thing, “there is no delusion and no enlightenment, no buddhas and no ordinary beings, no life and no death.” There are no people, no animals, no houses, no stars, or any other particular things.

The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing: The Second Ancestor of Zen in the West


Turning Words from the Classic Records of Zen


 Floating on the deep ocean for about three years, Master Bodhidharma reached the Southern Coast (of China) exactly on September 21st of the eighth year P’u T’ung of the Liang dynasty (527 A.D.).

Hsiao Kao, Governor of Kuang State, received him with royal etiquette and sent a written message reporting the news to Emperor Wu.

When the Emperor received this report, he dispatched a messenger with an imperial mandate of invitation. On October 1st the Master arrived at Chin Ling [which was then the capital].

The Emperor declared, “Since my accession to the throne, temples have been built, scriptures copied, and monks saved without number. What kind of merit has been accumulated?”

The Master replied, “No merit.”

The Emperor asked, “Why no merit?”

The Master explained, “(Such deeds) bear but small fruits in the human and heavenly [worlds], and are causes of births and deaths. They are like shadows following objects. They look as if they exist but have no reality.

The Emperor asked, “Then what is true merit?”

The Master answered, “The pure wisdom is wonderfully complete, and the nature of its essence is immaterial. Such merit as this is not to be sought by worldly [means].”

Again the Emperor asked, “What is the first principle of the Sacred [Teaching]?”

The Master replied, “It is vastness itself. There is nothing holy.”

The Emperor demanded, “Who is it speaking to me?”

The Master answered, “I don’t know.”

The Emperor could not understand these words of the Master.

Realizing that [the Emperor’s] nature was not in accord with his own, the Master secretly crossed (from the Northern Empire) to the South of the River on the 19th of that month. On November 23rd he arrived at Loyang. It was then the tenth year of the reign of Emperor Hsiao Ming of the Latter Wei dynasty (of the Southern Empire).

The Transmission Of The Lamp, Sohaku Ogata

 The Transmission of the Lamp: Early Masters


Someone asked, “What do you mean by a true and proper understanding?”

The Master said, “You enter all sorts of states of the common mortal or the sage, of the stained or the pure. You enter the lands of the various buddhas, you enter the halls of Maitreya, you enter the Dharma-realm of Vairochana, and everywhere all these lands are manifest, coming into being, continuing, declining, and passing into emptiness. The Buddha appears in the world, turns the wheel of the great Law, and then enters nirvana, but you cannot see any semblance of his coming and going. If you look for his birth and death, in the end you can never find it. You enter the Dharma-realm of no-birth, wandering everywhere through various lands, you enter the world of the Lotus Treasury and you see fully that all phenomena are empty of characteristics, that none have any true reality.

The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi, Burton Watson

 The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-Chi


My body is born of formlessness,

Like a figure created in a dream.

The consciousness of a dream-man is originally naught;

Both woe and weal are empty and I have no abode.

The Transmission Of The Lamp, Sohaku Ogata 

The Transmission of the Lamp: Early Masters


The patriarch (Matsu) said to the assembly, “All of you should believe that your mind is buddha, that this mind is identical with buddha. The great master Bodhidharma came from India to China, and transmitted the one mind teaching of Mahayana so that it can lead you all to awakening. Fearing that you will be too confused and will not believe that this one mind is inherent to all of you, he used Lankavatara sutra to seal the sentient beings mind ground. Therefore in the Lankavatara sutra, mind is the essence of all the buddha’s teachings, no gate is the dharma gate.

“Those who seek the dharma should not seek for anything. Outside of mind there is no other buddha, outside of buddha there is no other mind. Not attaching to good and not rejecting evil, without reliance on either purity or defilement, one realizes that the nature of offense is empty: it cannot be found in each thought because it is without self nature. Therefore, the three rounds are mind only and all phenomena in the universe are marked by a single dharma. Whenever we see form, it is just seeing the mind. The mind does not exist by itself; its existence is due to form. Whatever you’re saying, it is just the phenomena, which is identical with the principle. They are all without obstruction and the fruit of the way to bodhi is also like that. Whatever arises in the mind is called form; when one knows all forms to be empty, then birth is identical with no birth. If one realizes this mind, then one can always wear one’s robes and eat one’s food. Nourishing the womb of sagehood, one spontaneously passes one’s time: what else is there to do? Having received my teaching, listen to my verse:

The mind-ground is always spoken of, bodhi is also a just peace.

When phenomena and the principle are all without obstruction, the very birth is identical with no birth.

 Sun-Face Buddha: The Teachings of Ma-Tsu and the Hung-Chou School of Ch’an


Q: If ‘there’s never been a single thing’, can we speak of phenomena as non-existence?

A: ‘Non-existence’ is just as wrong as its opposite. Bodhi means having no concept of existence or non-existence.

The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, John Blofeld

 The Zen Teaching of Huang-Po: On the Transmission of Mind


A sutra says: “The Path of enlightenment cannot be charted or measured: highest of the high, vast beyond limit, deepest of the deep, profound beyond fathoming, big enough to contain heaven and earth, small enough to enter an infinitesimal point—thus it is called the Path.”

Therefore, the body of reality is pure as empty space. But emptiness is not empty and existence does not exist. Existence basically does not exist—people themselves become attached to existence. Emptiness is basically not empty—people themselves become attached to emptiness. Pure liberation is apart from existence and emptiness, without contrived actions, without concerns, without abiding, without attachment. Within nirvana not a single thing is created. This is the contemplation of enlightenment.

Zen Dawn, J.C. Cleary

 Zen Dawn: Early Zen Texts from Tun Huang (Shambhala Dragon Editions)


A monk asked, “What about it when I don’t have anything?”

The Master said, “Throw it away.”

The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu, James Green

 The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu


Let go of emptiness and come back to the brambly forest.

Riding backward on the ox, drunken and singing,

Who could dislike the misty rain pattering on your bamboo raincoat and hat?

In the empty space you cannot stick a needle.

Cultivating the Empty Field, Taigen Dan Leighton

 Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi


Supplemental Instructions For Advanced Study


The patriarch one day assembled all his disciples and said to them, “The question of incessant rebirth is a momentous one. Day after day, instead of trying to free yourselves from this bitter sea of life and death, you seem to go after tainted merits only (i.e. merits which will cause rebirth). Yet merits will be of no help if your Essence of Mind is obscured. Go and seek for prajna (wisdom) in your own mind and then write me a stanza (gatha) about it. He who understands what the Essence of Mind is will be given the robe (the insignia of the patriarchate) and the dharma (the esoteric teaching of the Zen school), and I shall make him the Sixth patriarch. Go away quickly. Delay not in writing the stanza, as deliberation is quite unnecessary and of no use. The man who has realized the Essence of Mind can speak of it at once, as soon as he is spoken to about it; and he cannot lose sight of it, even when engaged in battle.”

Having received this instruction, the disciples withdrew and said to one another, “It is of no use for us to concentrate our mind to write the stanza and submit it to His Holiness, since the patriarchate is bound to be won by Shen-hsiu, our instructor. And if we write perfunctorily, it will only be a waste of energy.” Upon hearing this all of them made up their minds not to write and said, “Why should we take the trouble? Hereafter, we will simply follow our instructor, Shen-hsiu, wherever he goes, and look to him for guidance.”

Meanwhile, Shen-hsiu reasoned thus with himself. “Considering that I am their teacher, none of them will take part in the competition. I wonder whether I should write a stanza and submit it to His Holiness. If I do not, how can the patriarch know how deep or superficial my knowledge is? If my object is to get the dharma, my motive is a pure one. If I were after the patriarchate, then it would be bad. In that case, my mind would be that of a worldling and my action would amount to robbing the patriarch holy seat. But if I do not submit the stanza, I shall never have a chance of getting the dharma. A very difficult point to decide, indeed!”

In front of the patriarch hall there were three corridors, the walls of which were to be painted by a court artist, named Lu-chen, with pictures from the Lankavatara Sutra depicting the transfiguration of the assembly, and with scenes showing the genealogy of the five patriarchs, for the information and veneration of the public.

When Shen-hsiu had composed his stanza he made several attempts to submit it to the patriarch, but as soon as he went near the hall his mind was so perturbed that he sweated all over. He could not screw up courage to submit it, although in the course of four days he made altogether thirteen attempts to do so.

Then he suggested to himself, “It would be better for me to write it on the wall of the corridor and let the patriarch see it for himself. If he approves it, I shall come out to pay homage, and tell him that it is done by me; but if he disapproves it, then I shall have wasted several years in this mountain in receiving homage from others which I by no means deserve! In that case, what progress have I made in learning Buddhism?”

At 12 o’clock that night he went secretly with a lamp to write the stanza on the wall of the south corridor, so that the patriarch might know what spiritual insight he had attained. The stanza read:

Our body is the Bodhi-tree,

And our mind a mirror bright.

Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,

And let no dust alight.

As soon as he had written it he left at once for his room; so nobody knew what he had done. In his room he again pondered: “When the patriarch sees my stanza tomorrow and is pleased with it, I shall be ready for the dharma; but if he says that it is badly done, it will mean that I am unfit for the dharma, owing to the misdeeds in previous lives which thickly becloud my mind. It is difficult to know what the patriarch will say about it!” In this vein he kept on thinking until dawn, as he could neither sleep nor sit at ease.

But the patriarch knew already that Shen-hsiu had not entered the door of enlightenment, and that he had not known the Essence of Mind.

In the morning, he sent for Mr. Lu, the court artist, and went with him to the south corridor to have the walls there painted with pictures. By chance, he saw the stanza. “I am sorry to have troubled you to come so far,” he said to the artist. “The walls need not be painted now, as the Sutra says, ‘All forms or phenomena are transient and illusive.’ It will be better to leave the stanza here, so that people may study it and recite it. If they put its teaching into actual practice, they will be saved from the misery of being born in these evil realms of existence. The merit gained by one who practices it will be great indeed!”

He then ordered incense to be burnt, and all his disciples to pay homage to it and to recite it, so that they might realize the Essence of Mind. After they had recited it, all of them exclaimed, “Well done!”

At midnight, the patriarch sent for Shen-hsiu to come to the hall, and asked him whether the stanza was written by him or not.

“It was, Sir,” replied Shen-hsiu. “I dare not be so vain as to expect to get the patriarchate, but I wish Your Holiness would kindly tell me whether my stanza shows the least grain of wisdom.”

“Your stanza,” replied the patriarch, “shows that you have not yet realized the Essence of Mind. So far you have reached the ‘door of enlightenment’, but you have not yet entered it. To seek for supreme enlightenment with such an understanding as yours can hardly be successful.

“To attain supreme enlightenment, one must be able to know spontaneously one’s own nature or Essence of Mind, which is neither created nor can it be annihilated. From ksana to ksana (thought-moment to thought-moment), one should be able to realize the Essence of Mind all the time. All things will then be free from restraint (i.e., emancipated). Once the Tathata (Suchness, another name for the Essence of Mind) is known, one will be free from delusion forever; and in all circumstances one’s mind will be in a state of ‘Thusness’. Such a state of mind is absolute Truth. If you can see things in such a frame of mind you will have known the Essence of Mind, which is supreme enlightenment.

“You had better go back to think it over again for couple of days, and then submit me another stanza. If your stanza shows that you have entered the ‘door of enlightenment’, I will transmit you the robe and the dharma.”

Shen-hsiu made obeisance to the patriarch and left. For several days, he tried in vain to write another stanza. This upset his mind so much that he was as ill at ease as if he were in a nightmare, and he could find comfort neither in sitting nor in walking.

Two days after, it happened that a young boy who was passing by the room where I was pounding rice recited loudly the stanza written by Shen-hsiu. As soon as I heard it, I knew at once that the composer of it has not yet realized the Essence of Mind. For although I had not been taught about it at that time, I already had a general idea of it.

“What stanza is this?” I asked the boy.

“You barbarian,” he replied, “don’t you know about it? The patriarch told his disciples that the question of incessant rebirth was a momentous one, that those who wished to inherit his robe and dharma should write him a stanza, and that the one who had an understanding of the Essence of Mind would get them and be made the sixth patriarch. Elder Shen-hsiu wrote this ‘Formless’ Stanza on the wall of the south corridor and the patriarch told us to recite it. He also said that those who put its teaching into actual practice would attain great merit, and be saved from the misery of being born in the evil realms of existence.”

I told the boy that I wished to recite the stanza too, so that I might have an affinity with its teaching in future life. I also told him that although I had been pounding rice there for eight months I had never been to the hall, and that he would have to show me where the stanza was to enable me to make obeisance to it.

The boy took me there and I asked him to read it to me, as I am illiterate. A petty officer of the Chiang-chou district named Chang Tih-yung, who happened to be there, read it out to me. When he had finished reading I told him that I also had composed a stanza and asked him to write it for me.

“Extraordinary indeed,” he exclaimed, “that you also can compose a stanza!”

“Don’t despise a beginner,” said I, “if you are a seeker of supreme enlightenment. You should know that the lowest class may have the sharpest wit, while the highest may be in want of intelligence. If you slight others, you commit a very great sin.”

“Dictate your stanza,” said he. “I will take it down for you. But do not forget to deliver me, should you succeed in getting the dharma!”

My stanza read:

There is no Bodhi-tree,

Nor stand of a mirror bright.

Since all is Void,

Where can the dust alight?

When he had written this, all disciples and others who were present were greatly surprised. Filled with admiration, they said to one another, “How wonderful! No doubt we should not judge people by appearance. How can it be that for so long we have made a Bodhisattva incarnate work for us?”

Seeing that the crowd was overwhelmed with amazement, the patriarch rubbed off the stanza with his shoe, lest jealous ones should do me injury. He expressed the opinion, which they took for granted, that the author of this stanza had also not yet realized the Essence of Mind.

Next day the patriarch came secretly to the room where the rice was pounded.

Seeing that I was working there with a stone pestle, he said to me, “A seeker of the Path risks his life for the dharma. Should he not do so?” Then he asked, “Is the rice ready?”

“Ready long ago,” I replied, “only waiting for the sieve.” He knocked the mortar thrice with his stick and left. Knowing what his message meant, in the third watch of the night I went to his room. Using the robe as a screen so that none could see us, he expounded the Diamond Sutra to me. When he came to the sentence, “One should use one’s mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment,” I at once became thoroughly enlightened, and realized that all things in the universe are the Essence of Mind itself.

“Who would have thought,” I said to the patriarch, “that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure! Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically free from becoming or annihilation! Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically self-sufficient! Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically free from change! Who would have thought that all things are the manifestation of the Essence of Mind!”

Knowing that I had realized the Essence of Mind, the patriarch said, “For him who does not know his own mind there is no use learning Buddhism. On the other hand, if he knows his own mind and sees intuitively his own nature, he is a hero, a teacher of gods and men, a buddha.”

Thus, to the knowledge of no one, the dharma was transmitted to me at midnight, and consequently I became the inheritor of the teaching of the Sudden school as well as of the robe and the begging bowl.

“You are now the Sixth patriarch ,” said he. “Take good care of yourself, and deliver as many sentient beings as possible. Spread and preserve the teaching, and don’t let it come to an end. Take note of my stanza:

Sentient beings who sow the seeds of enlightenment

In the field of causation will reap the fruit of buddhahood.

Inanimate objects void of buddha-nature

Sow not and reap not.

The Diamond Sutra & The Sutra of Hui-Neng, A. F. Price & Wong Mou-lam

Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-neng (Shambhala Classics)


Resources For Advanced Study


Chan and Zen Buddhism – Reference material, Sutras (Buddhist Scriptures), Writings of the Chan (Zen) Ancestors, and Original Articles – Compiled by Dr. Ron Epstein, Philosophy Dept. San Francisco State University

BuddhaNet’s Web Links – BuddhaNet™ is a non-sectarian on-line cyber sangha committed to facilitate a significant Buddhist presence in the ever-expanding realm of computer communications technology, applying this technology to helping make the Buddha’s teachings freely available to all.

The Zen Site (Massive Zen/Buddhism Resource Site – Bookmark It!)

Hekiganroku (The blue cliff record) A collection of 100 koans


[Link to Lesson 1] [Link to Lesson 2] [Link to Lesson 3] [Link to Lesson 4] [Link to Lesson 5] [Link to Lesson 6] [Link to Lesson 7] [Link to Lesson 8] [Lesson 9] [Lesson 10] [Lesson 11] [Lesson 12] [Lesson 13] [Lesson 14]