The Zen Teaching of Huang Po
On the Transmission of Mind
The first part of this
selection is taken from John Blofeld’s introduction to his new rendering of
this ninth-century Chinese Buddhist classic. [Selections included in
Nancy Ross Wilson’s The World of Zen.]
All Buddhists take Gautama
Buddha’s Enlightenment as their starting point and endeavor to attain to that
transcendental knowledge that will bring them face to face with Reality,
thereby delivering them from rebirth into the space-time realm forever.
Zen followers go further. They are not content to pursue Enlightenment
through aeons of varied existences inevitably bound up with pain and ignorance,
approaching with infinite slowness the Supreme Experience which Christian
mystics have described as “union with the God-head.” They believe in the
possibility of attaining Full Enlightenment both here and now through
determined efforts to rise beyond conceptual thought and to grasp that
Intuitive Knowledge which is the central fact of Enlightenment.
Furthermore, they insist that the experience is both sudden and complete.
While the striving may require years, the reward manifests itself in a
flash. But to attain this reward, the practice of virtue and dispassion
is insufficient. It is necessary to rise above such relative concepts as
good and evil, sought and found, Enlightenment and unenlightenment, and all the
To make this point clearer, let us consider some
Christian ideas of God. God is regarded as the First Principle, uncaused
and unbegat, which logically implies perfection; such a being cannot be
discovered through the relativity of time and space. Then comes the
concept of “God is good” which, as Christian mystics have pointed out, detracts
from His perfection; for to be good implies not being evil a limitation
which inevitably destroys the unity and wholeness of these things, for He transcends
them all. Again, the idea of God as the creator of the universe suggests
a dualism, a distinction between creator and created. This, if valid,
places God on a lower level than perfection, for there can be neither unity nor
wholeness where A excludes B or B excludes A.
Zen followers (who have much in common with mystics of
other faiths) do not use the term “God,” being wary of its dualistic and
anthropomorphic implications. They prefer to talk of “the Absolute” or
“the One Mind,” for which they employ many synonyms according to the aspect to
be emphasized in relation to something finite. Thus, the word “Buddha” is
used as a synonym for the Absolute as well as in the sense of Gautama, the
Enlightened One, for it is held that the two are identical. A Buddha’s
Enlightenment denotes an intuitive realization of his unity with the Absolute
from which, after the death of his body, nothing remains to divide him even in
appearance. Of the Absolute nothing whatever can be postulated; to say
that it exists excludes non-existence; to say that it does not exist excludes
existence. Furthermore, Zen followers hold that the Absolute, or union
with the Absolute, is not something to be attained; one does not ENTER Nirvana,
for entrance to a place one has never left is impossible. The experience
commonly called “entering Nirvana” is, in fact, an intuitive realization of
that Self-nature which is the true Nature of all things. The Absolute, or
Reality, is regarded as having for sentient beings two aspects. The only
aspect perceptible to the unenlightened is the one in which individual
phenomena have a separate though purely transitory existence within the limits
of space-time. The other aspect is spaceless and timeless; moreover all
opposites, all distinctions and “entities” of every kind, are here seen to be
One. Yet neither is this second aspect, alone, the highest fruit of
Enlightenment, as many contemplatives suppose. It is only when both
aspects are conceived and reconciled that the beholder may be regarded as truly
Enlightened. Yet, from that moment, he ceases to be the beholder, for he
is conscious of no division between beholding and beheld. This leads to
further paradoxes, unless the use of words is abandoned altogether. It is
incorrect to employ such mystical terminology as “I dwell in the Absolute,”
“The Absolute dwells in me,” or “I am penetrated by the Absolute,” etc.; for,
when space is transcended, the concepts of whole and part are no longer valid;
the part is the whole I AM the Absolute, except that I am no longer
“I.” What I behold then is my real Self, which is the true nature of all
things; see-er and seen are one and the same, yet there is no seeing, just as
the eye cannot behold itself.
The single aim of the true Zen follower is so to train
his mind that all thought processes based on the dualism inseparable from
“ordinary” life are transcended, their place being taken by that Intuitive
Knowledge which, for the first time, reveals to a man what he really is.
If All is One, then knowledge of a being’s true self-nature his original
Self is equally a knowledge of all-nature, the nature of everything in the
universe. Those who have actually achieved this tremendous experience,
whether as Christians, Buddhists or members of other faiths, are agreed as to
the impossibility of communicating it in words. They may employ words to
point the way to others, but, until the latter have achieved the experience for
themselves, they can have but the merest glimmer of the truth a poor
intellectual concept of something lying infinitely beyond the highest point
ever reached by the human intellect.
It will now be clear that Zen Masters do not employ
paradoxes from a love of cheap mystification, though they do occasionally make
humorous use of them when humor seems needed. Usually, it is the utter
impossibility of describing the Supreme Experience which explains the
paradoxical nature of their speech. To affirm or deny is to limit; to
limit is to shut out the light of truth; but, as words of some sort must be
used in order to set disciples on to the right path, there naturally arises a
series of paradoxes sometimes of paradox within paradox within paradox.
It should perhaps be added that Huang Po’s frequent
criticisms of those Buddhists who follow the more conventional path,
cultivating knowledge, good works and a compassionate heart through successive
stages of existence, are not intended to call into question the value to
humanity of such excellent practices. As a Buddhist, Huang Po must
certainly have regarded these things as necessary for our proper conduct in
daily life; indeed, we are told by P’ei Hsiu [who recorded the teachings] that
his way of life was exalted; but he was concerned lest concepts such as virtue
should lead people into dualism, and lest they should hold Enlightenment to be
a gradual process attainable by other means than intuitive insight.
Huang Po’s Use of the Term “The One Mind”
The text indicates that Huang Po was not entirely satisfied with his choice of
the word “Mind” to symbolize the inexpressible Reality beyond the reach of
conceptual thought, for he more than once explains that the One Mind is not
really MIND at all. But he had to use some term or other, and “Mind” had
not often been used by his predecessors. As Mind conveys intangibility,
it no doubt seemed to him a good choice, especially as the use of this term
helps to make it clear that the part of a man usually regarded as an individual
entity inhabiting his body is, in fact, not his property at all, but common to
him and to everybody and everything else. (It must be remembered that, in
Chinese, “hsin” means not only “mind,” but “heart” and, in some senses at
least, “spirit” or “soul” in short, the so-called REAL man, the inhabitant of
the body-house.) If we prefer to substitute the word “Absolute,” which
Huang Po occasionally uses himself, we must take care not to read into the text
any preconceived notions as to the nature of the Absolute. And, of
course, “the One Mind” is no less misleading, unless we abandon all
preconceived ideas, as Huang Po intended.
In an earlier translation of the first part of this
book, I ventured to substitute “Universal Mind” for “the One Mind,” hoping that
the meaning would be clearer. However, various critics objected to this,
and I have come to see that my term is liable to a different misunderstanding;
it is therefore no improvement on “the One Mind,” which at least has the merit
of being a literal translation.
The book tells us very little about the practice of what, for want of a better
translation, is often called meditation or contemplation. Unfortunately
both these words are misleading as they imply some object of meditation or of
contemplation; and, if objectlessness be stipulated, then they may well be
taken to lead to a blank or sleeplike trance, which is not at all the goal of
Zen. Huang Po seems to have assumed that his audience knew something
about the practice as most keen Buddhists do, of course. He gives few instructions
as to how to “meditate,” but he does tell us what to avoid. If,
conceiving of the phenomenal world as illusion, we try to shut it out, we make
a false distinction between the “real” and the “unreal.” So we must not
shut anything out, but try to reach the point where all distinctions are seen
to be void, where nothing is seen as desirable or undesirable, existing or not
existing. Yet this does not mean that we should make our minds blank, for
then we should be no better than blocks of wood or lumps of stone; moreover, if
we remained in this state, we should not be able to deal with the circumstances
of daily life or be capable of observing the Zen precept” “When hungry,
eat.” Rather, we must cultivate dispassion, realizing that none of the
attractive or unattractive attributes of things have any absolute existence.
Enlightenment, when it comes, will come in a
flash. There can be no gradual, no partial, Enlightenment. The
highly trained and zealous adept may be said to have prepared himself for
Enlightenment, but by no means can he be regarded as partially Enlightened -
just as a drop of water may get hotter and hotter and then, suddenly, boil; at
no stage is it partly boiling, and, until the very moment of boiling, no
qualitative change has occurred. In effect, however, we may go through
three stages two of non-Enlightenment and one of Enlightenment. To the
great majority of people, the moon is the moon and the trees are the
trees. The next stage (not really higher than the first) is to perceive
that moon and trees are not at all what they seem to be, since “all is the One
Mind.” When this stage is achieved, we have the concept of a vast
uniformity in which all distinctions are void; and, to some adepts, this
concept may come as an actual perception, as “real” to them as the moon and the
trees before. It is said that, when Enlightenment really comes, the moon
is again very much the moon and the trees exactly trees; but with a difference,
for the Enlightened man is capable of perceiving both unity and multiplicity
without the least contradiction between them!
From: The Chun Chou Record of
the Zen Master Huang Po (Tuan Chi)
A collection of sermons and
dialogues recorded by P’ei Hsiu while in the city of Chun Chou.
The Master said to me: All the
Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, beside which
nothing exists. This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and
indestructible. It is not green nor yellow, and has neither form nor
appearance. It does not belong to the categories of things which exist or
do not exist, nor can it be thought of in terms of new or old. It is
neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measure,
names, traces and comparisons. It is that which you see before you -
begin to reason about it and you at once fall into error. It is like the
boundless void which cannot be fathomed or measured. The One Mind alone
is the Buddha, and there is no distinction between the Buddha and sentient
things, but that sentient beings are attached to forms and so seek externally
for Buddhahood. By their very seeking they lose it, for that is using the
Buddha to seek for the Buddha and using mind to grasp Mind. Even though
they do their utmost for a full aeon, they will not be able to attain it.
They do not know that, if they put a stop to conceptual thought and forget
their anxiety, the Buddha will appear before them, for this Mind is the Buddha
and the Buddha is all living beings. It is not the less for being
manifested in ordinary beings, nor is it greater for being manifest in the
Q: From all you have just said,
Mind is the Buddha; but it is not clear as to what sort of mind is meant by
this “Mind which is the Buddha.”
A: How many minds have you got?
Q: But is the Buddha the ordinary mind or the Enlightened mind?
A: Where on earth do you keep your “ordinary mind” and your “Enlightened mind?”
Q: In the teaching of the Three Vehicles it is stated that there are
both. Why does Your Reverence deny it?
A: In the teaching of the Three Vehicles it is clearly explained that the
ordinary and Enlightened minds are illusions. You don’t understand.
All this clinging to the idea of things existing is to mistake vacuity for the
truth. How can such conceptions not be illusory? Being illusory,
they hide Mind from you. If you would only rid yourselves of the concepts
of ordinary and Enlightened, you would find that there is no other Buddha than
the Buddha in your own Mind. When Bodhidharma came from the West, he just
pointed out that the substance of which all men are composed is the
Buddha. You people go on misunderstanding; you hold to concepts such as
“ordinary” and “Enlightened,” directing your thoughts outwards where they
gallop about like horses! All this amounts to beclouding your own
minds! So I tell you Mind is the Buddha. As soon as thought or
sensation arises, you fall into dualism. Beginningless time and the
present moment are the same. There is no this and no that. To
understand this truth is called complete and unexcelled Enlightenment.
Q: Upon what Doctrine (Dharma-principles) does Your Reverence base these words?
A: Why seek a doctrine? As soon as you have a doctrine, you fall into
Q: Just now you said that the beginningless past and the present are the
same. What do you mean by that?
A: It is just because of your SEEKING that you make a difference between
them. If you were to stop seeking, how could there be any difference
Q: If they are not different, why do you employ separate terms for them?
A: If you hadn’t mentioned ordinary and Enlightened, who would have bothered to
say such things? Just as those categories have no real existence, so Mind
is not really “mind.” And, as both Mind and those categories are really
illusions, wherever can you hope to find anything?
Q: Illusion can hide from us our
own mind, but up to now you have not taught us how to get rid of illusion.
A: The arising and the elimination of illusion are both illusory.
Illusion is not something rooted in Reality; it exists because of your
dualistic thinking. If you will only cease to indulge in opposed concepts
such as “ordinary” and “Enlightened,” illusion will cease of itself. And
then if you still want to destroy it wherever it may be, you will find that
there is not a hairsbreadth left of anything on which to lay hold. This
is the meaning of: “I will let go with both hands, for then I shall certainly
discover the Buddha in my mind.”
Q: If there is nothing on which to lay hold, how is the Dharma to be
A: It is a transmission of Mind with Mind.
Q: If Mind is used for transmission, why do you say that Mind too does not
A: Obtaining no Dharma whatever is called Mind transmission. The
understanding of this implies no Mind and no Dharma.
Q: If there is no Mind and no Dharma, what is meant by transmission?
A: You hear people speak of Mind transmission and then you talk of something to
be received. So Bodhidharma said:
The nature of the Mind when understood,
No human speech can compass or disclose.
Enlightenment is naught to be attained,
And he that gains it does not say he knows.
If I were to make this clear to you, I
doubt if you could stand it.
From: The Wan Ling Record of
the Zen Master Huang Po (Tuan Chi)
A collection of dialogues, sermons and anecdotes recorded by
P’ei Hsiu during his tenure of the prefecture of Wan Ling.
Q: If our own Mind is the Buddha,
how did Bodhidharma transmit his doctrine when he came from India?
A: When he came from India, he transmitted only Mind-Buddha. He just
pointed to the truth that the minds of all of you have from the very first been
identical with the Buddha, and in no way separate from each other.... Whoever
has an instant understanding of this truth suddenly transcends the whole
hierarchy of saints and adepts.... You have always been one with the Buddha, so
do not pretend you can ATTAIN to this oneness by various practices.
Q: If that is so, what Dharma do all the Buddhas teach when they manifest
themselves in the world?
A: When all the Buddhas manifest themselves in the world, they proclaim nothing
but the One Mind. Thus Gautama Buddha silently transmitted to Mahakasyapa
the doctrine that the One Mind, which is the substance of all things, is co-extensive
with the Void and fills the entire world of phenomena. This is called the
Law of All the Buddhas. Discuss it as you may, how can you even hope to
approach the truth through words? Nor can it be perceived either
subjectively or objectively. So full understanding can come to you only
through an inexpressible mystery. The approach to it is called the
Gateway of the Stillness beyond all Activity. If you wish to understand,
know that a sudden comprehension comes when the mind has been purged of all the
clutter of conceptual and discriminatory thought-activity. Those who seek
the truth by means of intellect and learning only get further and further away
from it. Not till your thoughts cease all their branching here and there,
not till you abandon all thoughts of seeking for something, not till your mind
is motionless as wood or stone, will you be on the right road to the Gate.
[Translator’s footnote:] These
words recall the admonitions of so many mystics Buddhist, Christian, Hindu or
Sufi who have committed their experiences to words. What Huang Po calls
the total abandonment of hsin mind, thought, perceptions, concepts and the
rest implies the utter surrender of self insisted on by Sufi and Christian
mystics. Indeed, in paragraph 28 he used the very words: “Let the self
perish utterly.” Such striking unanimity of expression by mystics widely
separated in time and space can hardly be attributed to coincidence. No
several persons entirely unacquainted with one another could produce such
closely similar accounts of purely imaginary journeys. Hence one is led
to suppose that what they describe is real. This seems to have been
Aldous Huxley’s view when he compiled that valuable work The Perennial
The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind.
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