This case comes from the fascicle of Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo called "Spiritual Entanglements." The chapter is based almost entirely on this koan which is one of the 300 koans Dogen collected in China. In his commentary, Dogen made a statement that all four students of Bodhidharma were approved equally, in spite of the fact that the terms "skin, flesh, bones and marrow" suggest a hierarchy of their understanding, from the most superficial to the most profound. Dogen knew that for seven hundred years, the prevailing interpretation of this koan was that only the disciple who "got the marrow," the robe and the bowl was really enlightened; the others were not. Dogen, however, repeatedly pointed out that this was not the case.
Bodhidharma, like all Zen teachers, needed to face the fact that unless he transmitted to only one disciple, he had to solve the problem of how to recognize his other successors. If there was only one disciple, he or she would then naturally receive the robe and the bowl, and succeed Bodhidharma directly. But if there was more than one successor, they couldn’t all receive the robe. Bodhidharma needed to make clear that the other disciples he transmitted to had equal understanding.
I’ve added footnotes to clarify the koan. In the first line it says, The Venerable Bodhidharma was about to go back to India. He said to his students, "The time has come. Can you express your understanding?" The footnote to that says, Finding one general among the four will be a very difficult task indeed.
One of the students, Daofu, said, "My present view is that we should neither be attached to letters, nor be apart from letters, and allow the Way to function freely." The footnote says, Avoiding the curbsides, he navigates right down the middle of the road. What Daofu is saying is consistent with Bodhidharma’s teachings —"Zen is a special transmission outside the scriptures, with no reliance on words and letters." We shouldn’t be attached to words and explanations but allow the Way to come through us, to function freely. Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my skin." The footnote says, He doesn’t avoid grandmotherly kindness. Bodhidharma approves Daofu.
Nun Zongchi said, "My view is that it is like the joy of seeing the Akshobhya Buddha’s land just once and not again." The footnote says, Only an adept can speak like this. After all, she is a lion’s cub. The lion, of course, is Bodhidharma. The cub is the nun, his student. Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my flesh." The footnote says, Although there are many who travel the Way, those that know the tune are rare. Again, this is a statement of approval. Daoyu said, "The four great elements are originally empty and the five skandhas do not exist. Therefore I see nothing to be attained." Daoyu’s statement accords with Bodhidharma who once described the fundamental principle of reality as, "Vast emptiness, nothing holy." The footnote says, Deaf, dumb, and blind, he stumbles along. "Deaf, dumb and blind" echoes the lines from the Heart Sutra: "No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind. No color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena. No realm of sight, no realm of consciousness." It refers to the absolute basis of reality. Daoyu pointed out that everything is an empty illusion. Approving, Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my bones." The footnote says, A spirit recognizes a spirit, a thief recognizes a thief. Zen teachers are thieves because their only intent in teaching is to take away everything students hold onto. The thievery is meant to help you see that there is nothing outside of you; that you contain the totality of the universe. Realizing that is true empowerment.
Finally Huike came forward, made a full bow, stood up and returned to where he was. The footnote says, Proceeding by Bodhidharma’s own road, he walks right into the old man’s belly. He merges with Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my marrow." The footnote says, Clearly the case of an overindulgent parent. The koan then concludes, Thus he transmitted the Dharma and robe to Huike. The footnote says, One blind man leading a crowd of blind people. Where will this all come down to?
The commentary begins, If you take these different responses as being superior or inferior to each other, you have missed the intent of the Ancestor. People usually come to the conclusion that the skin represents most superficial understanding, the marrow most profound; therefore, "skin, flesh, bones and marrow" indicate progressively deeper degrees of appreciation. This is not the case. We should realize that although each disciple’s expression of the Dharma was different, nonetheless each in his or her own way contained the teacher’s whole being. That being the case, the next line in the commentary says, Given that Bodhidharma was not approving depth of understanding by the terms, "skin, flesh, bones and marrow," who did he transmit the Dharma to? If you say all four received the Dharma, why then is it said that "thus he transmitted the Dharma and robe to Huike" alone? If you are able to see into it here, you’ll understand the heart of the ancestor. What’s going on in these exchanges?
One of the central questions here is: Which of Bodhidharma’s students was spiritually empowered?
The question of spiritual authority is salient to Buddhist practitioners in the West at this time. Interest in Buddhism is growing very fast. All over the West people are flocking to Buddhist teachers. Frequently, people take up practice with no sense of who the teachers are. Are they qualified? Is there a way to know this for certain? Is spiritual authority something that can be given, something that can be received? Is there a difference between spiritual empowerment and spiritual power? Is it possible to have spiritual authority and no spiritual power? Is it feasible for someone to have spiritual authority and be a charlatan? Can someone who has been spiritually empowered be an impostor? What is spiritual power? What is spiritual authority?
In Western religious traditions there is a clear delineation of the process of spiritual empowerment. People who wish to be religious teachers go to a seminary. They’re educated in religious matters and then are ordained into a priesthood, a rabbinate, or a ministry. There are institutions within each religion which recognize and appoint people to teaching posts. We don’t have that kind of educational institutions and organizational control in Zen Buddhism. To a certain degree they exist in some Asian countries, but not in the West.
So what about American Buddhist teachers? What are their qualifications? What training have they received? American Buddhism is very new and very diverse. The landscape of Buddhist practice is very confusing. We have teachers who have never studied with anyone and who are self-appointed; we also have very highly qualified teachers. How are we to know the difference? Various American Buddhist organizations have struggled with this thorny issue. Training by different teachers varies greatly. At some places you are a monastic and live in the world; raise a family, have a job. It is hard to distinguish such a monastic from a lay practitioner who’s doing the same thing. Why is one called a monastic and the other a lay practitioner? Is there a difference in their commitments? Is there a difference in their training? At other training centers being a monastic means a vow of celibacy and poverty, full-time service to the teachers and the sangha, living in a monastery isolated from the world. You have a wide spectrum of training requirements. How are students to know when they go to a teacher what the teacher’s background and qualifications are? We have not yet been able to come up with guidelines to help students choose an authentic teacher. I really feel badly about it. You need a license to be a plumber, to go into somebody’s house and start tearing into its walls to put in new pipes. Surely, a spiritual teacher dealing with vulnerable students should have some kind of verifiable qualifications. There are over one thousand people who claim to be Zen teachers in America. Who are they? What are their qualifications? How long have they trained? Who are their teachers? Do they have any credibility?
In China, Japan and other Asian countries, government control contributed to record keeping concerning Buddhist training. Ordained monks were registered. Government agencies kept track of transmissions between teachers and students. Even though the government officials didn’t meddle in the transmission process, they noted who transmitted to whom. Our Buddhist associations are finally beginning to document similar facts and make them available to the general public on the Internet. Published information on teachers willing to participate will include: names of their teachers, the length of their training, whether their training was completed by the standards of their teacher, presence of the documents of transmission, and extent of their teaching experience. That is the least we can do.
Spiritual empowerment in Zen is based on the ancenstral lineage. This focus on the lineage exists partially because of the Chinese fascination with ancestry. This preoccupation with one’s link to the preceeding generations introduced certain amount of improvisational creativity in the formation of the Chinese Zen lineage charts. Does that mean that the mind-to-mind transmission is not authentic? Most definitely not. Mind-to-mind transmission is based on the student’s realization and the teacher’s verification. And transmission is not a one-way process. It needs to be verified by the student.
The historical Buddha predicted that there will come a time when Buddhism disappears from the face of the Earth. No sutras, no teachers, no Dharma, nobody sitting zazen will remain. Let’s assume that this happens and this state of affairs goes on for a couple hundred years. Then, two hundred years later, some person will say, "This world that we’re living in doesn’t make any sense to me. There is something wrong here." They will turn inward to look for answers. They will discover zazen; see the turmoil of their minds, stop chasing thoughts, let go of them and settle in their intrinsic silence and stillness. Finally they will reach samadhi and, at some point, experience the falling away of body and mind. Out of that will come insight into the nature of reality. At that moment the Buddhadharma will have lept two hundred years across space and time to that person. The continuum of the mind-to-mind transmission would remain unbroken. Transmission is not about space and time. It is about the realization and transformation of lives, generation after generation after generation. Transmission is real because it is as real as human life. That is transmitting the Dharma. That is what it means to receive the teachings. That is what the word "realized" means — to make real.
How does spiritual empowerment happen? When Zen first came to America, most of the Asian teachers couldn’t speak English very well. There was little talking. The best they could do was to teach using a lot of zazen. In face-to-face teachings they grunted, pointed, retorted with one-word responses. Most American students loved it. They thought this was the truly inscrutable Zen. Today, American teachers can’t get away with similar behaviour. We have to communicate in a way that is relevant and helpful to our students. We know their problems; we know their language. American teachers are equipped to guide American students. We can’t get away with grunts and pointing. We have to develop and adapt ways of training that resonate with the deepest spiritual yearnings while being poignantly meaningful to modern practitioners.
Within the Mountains and Rivers Order, the order at this Monastery, spiritual empowerment is realization, actualization, and verification. Teachers and students depend on their own realization, actualization, and verification. In our order, practice and training are two important aspects of empowerment, and we draw a clear distinction between them. Practice is what you do on your own, without anybody demanding anything of you. You practice zazen; you strive to take the mind of zazen into everyday activities. Training is what happens to you. Training begins when you declare to an institution such as the Monastery: I want to enter training here. In doing that, you place yourself in the hands of the teachers, senior monastics and lay students who help you navigate and stay on the path. In training there is a form, a matrix within which you train. Training is about realizing who you are, what your life is, and how to manifest your life in accord with the harmony of the universe.
Mountain and Rivers Order training takes place in eight areas or "gates." The heart of our practice is zazen. Then there is the face-to-face teaching between the teacher and the student in dokusan that emerges directly out of zazen. We also put a great emphasis on Buddhist studies. It is important for Americans to understand the religious thought and history of Buddhism. For most Americans there is little real awareness of Buddhism’s place among world religions. When we encounter Buddhism our tendency is to see it through the filter of the Judeo-Christian traditions, with which we are familiar. We need to see how our liturgy is unique; that although it looks similar to Western worship services, it is not the same. We also need to appreciate how the Buddhist Precepts differ from those of other religions. How do the moral and ethical teachings work if Buddhism is nontheistic? Where do the Precepts come from? Who enforces them? In our spiritual training we also use body practice and art practice. We explore how zazen informs the creative process, and how it informs our bodies and minds. We take our zazen into work with every activity of our lives practiced as a gateway, an opening to our real self.
The training here takes place over a long period of time, in a sense a whole life-time. It is not like going to a four-year seminary and passing examinations. It is an open-ended process that takes place within an intimate relationship with a teacher who acts as a guide. The teacher repeatedly tests the person’s clarity and looks for the students themselves to verify their understanding. Students not only verify their own understanding, but also verify what the teacher is saying, what the ancestors in the lineage have been saying. You need to make the teachings your own. That is what practice and verification mean. The teacher also watches how each student manifests their understanding as the living reality of their activities in the world. It is one thing to have insight, another to actualize that insight as your life. Is your understanding working in your relationships — in how you raise your children, deal with your boss, drive your car, take care of this planet? That is where it counts. If a religion doesn’t address those areas of life, what good is it?
As training unfolds and the student matures, finally there comes a time, as in this koan, when transmission happens. The central element in the transmission process is a ceremony called Shiho, which has three parts. First, Denkai is the transmission of the Precepts. In our lineage, receiving Denkai means that the student has completed the one hundred and twenty koans on the Precepts and is qualified to carry out priestly functions. Transmitted along with Denkai is Daiji, the great matter. This is essentially the teacher’s verification of the student’s clarity. Finally, there is Dembo, or transmission of the dharma lineage. In some lineages all this takes place in one week. In the Mountains and Rivers Order lineage, Denkai, Daiji and Dembo are regarded as different aspects of transmission and may take place over several years. Each is complete in and of itself. In addition to the formal documents transmitted at each point, there are oral and written teachings unique to the particular lineages that are also passed on.
Realization, actualization, verification, transmission, empowerment — is this yet spiritual authority? A person goes through this whole training process. They train for twenty years. This understanding has been verified. They’ve been empowered by their teacher., and done zuissei, an empowerment ceremony. They have the documents of transmission. Does this amount to spiritual authority? What does spiritual authority really mean?
Authority means influence and power. So where does spiritual authority come from? Can a teacher give spiritual authority to their successors? Not on your life. You can spiritually empower a successor, but you can’t give them spiritual authority. There is only one person who can grant spiritual authority to the teacher, new or old, and that is the student. Most students, when they begin to study with a teacher, don’t realize they’re granting spiritual authority. But it is critically important to know when you are extending such authority. Otherwise you can unknowingly get seduced into giving away your power. Real teachers won’t accept your power. This Dharma is about your empowerment, not about giving your power away. In Zen, we have teachers who can point the way. They don’t tell you how to live your life. That is a choice only you can make. So, it is really important to know when you are granting spiritual authority to a teacher.
To make the process of beginning formal training with a teacher as clear as possible in the Mountains and Rivers Order, we created barrier gates of entry. Those barrier gates are specifically designed to make conscious the fact that you are granting spiritual authority to a teacher. First of all you need to test what you are getting into. The Zen Training Weekend accomplishes that. Then you do a sesshin; you should experience the heart of this practice. You are asked to meet with the Guardian Council to clarify your motivation for practice. If your deepest questions are about the ground of being, the nature of reality, reality of the self, life, death, ultimate truth, you’ve come to the right place. Those are religious questions. This is a place prepared to help you address those questions. Then, you sit tangaryo alone for an entire day from sunrise to sunset to really examine what it is that you are doing. Finally, you meet the teacher in shoken, do nine bows and ask for the teachings. You say, "Please teach me." You need to ask before the teacher can teach. A teacher cannot teach without permission from the student. That is how the student grants spiritual authority. It is no small thing when you do that and you should do it with your eyes wide open.
As Buddhist practioners become more informed, their practice is going to become more authentic, and Buddhism will have a real chance to take root and flourish in America. It is important that American Buddhism be genuine, not some New Age synthesis of what was once a great teaching. I think the way to insure that is to inform and educate people, and to practice.
Before a step is taken
You have already arrived.
Before a word is spoken,
The truth has been expressed.
The teaching in this verse goes back to Shakyamuni Buddha. It is the basis of Buddhism, the basis of Zen. At his enlightenment the Buddha said, "I, all sentient beings, and the great earth have at once entered the Way." Essentially he was saying that each one of us is perfect and complete, lacking nothing. He realized that what he was searching for, he already was. Not only did he already have that inherent perfection, but each and every thing on the face of the earth also had it. But we’ve deluded ourselves, gotten confused, lost sight of our perfection. What we need to do is to get back to that original self — the true self, Buddha-nature, the ground of being. Whatever we call it, it is already there. Each one of us is born with it and will die with it, whether we realize it or not.
Zen practice is a way of looking at our conditioning layer by layer, going deeper and deeper, until we get to the ground of being. We need to realize that ground, verify it, and actualize it by living our lives out of what we have personally realized. That is the freedom that the Buddha spoke of. Thousands of Buddhist men and women for 2,500 years have realized and verified it for themselves. Before a step is taken, you have already arrived. You already have the enlightened nature. Before a word is spoken, the truth has been expressed. Each action, each step, each word is a manifestation of the truth of the Dharma. That is the inherent perfection. When you realize and verify it, as happened in this koan, it then begins to manifest in your life. It affects how you live your life, and how you relate to others. That is no small thing. There are no limits to human potential. The whole thing, like it or not, is in your hands. Use it well.
John Daido Loori, Roshi is the Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery. A successor to Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, Roshi, Abbot Loori trained in rigorous koan Zen and in the subtle teachings of Master Dogen, and is a lineage holder in the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen.
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