Zen Takes “No Thought” as Its Central Doctrine


Translated by Andrew Yang

What is Zen? By nature, it is both everything and nothing. To view it as a mode of thinking would go against its very intent, for it is nothing but thought that Zen is meant to liberate, and so how could it set up a thought system of its own, to shoot itself in the foot? One should also be reminded that anything that exists, physical or spiritual, is no part of Zen’s entity, and thus if anything, Zen is something that does not exist.

At the same time, however, it is not appropriate either to say Zen is something that does not exist, for while not a system of thought in itself, Zen has in fact created a vast, inexhaustible expanse of thinking. Indeed, ever since before the beginning it has never departed from what is seen, heard or perceived by sentient beings and from their understanding of the mind. And it exists always and everywhere. It is thus because of this omnipresence that it does exist.

Yet, again, to say that Zen either is something that exists or is something that does not is a mere play on words, because it transcends all form, conception, speech and language. Meanwhile, the problem is, one might ask, that without the help of words how could its meaning be explicated?

Etymologically, the Japanese word Zen comes from Chan, translated from the Chinese name 禪. Chan, with its full form Channa 禪那, is itself a Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit term Dhyana. Across time, moreover, 禪 has been used in conjunction with 定 or ding, a word translated from the meaning of Samadhi, another Sanskrit term, to mean mental serenity achieved through meditation.

What, then, is Chanding or Dhyana Samadhi? Huineng (638-713), Sixth Patriarch of Chan, points out, “No delusion occurring is Dhyana, and seeing one’s true nature is Samadhi”. This means that Dhyana is not clinging to external triggering, while Samadhi is having a clean, pure mind. If one clings to triggering, their mind will be in discord. Once the clinging stops the mind will no longer be in disharmony. Cultivating Dhyana Samadhi produces enlightenment. Tracing back from the end result, many different approaches of cultivation could lead to awakening. The Chan school names all these techniques developed by its individual sects Chan.

Fundamentally, no thought or ideation is a principal approach Zen uses in countering a delusional mind that constantly attaches itself to external triggering. While a Zen practitioner walks, rests, sits or stays lying down, he must be alert of the rising and ceasing of any thought of delusion. Whenever one occurs, he must be instantly mobilized to break it. Delusion has been the basis of sentient beings’ transmigration between death and rebirth ever since before the beginning. With their senses of smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch and a perceiving mind, they incur suffering through emotions such as craving, anger and illusion that lead to committing acts of theft, killing and sexual misconduct, which further give rise to consequential evil karma. How, then, should one rid themselves of suffering through evil karma by cultivating personal virtue?

To Buddhists, all acts are preceded by a process of thinking, choice-picking and decision-making. Thus, if one is alert the moment a bad thought arises, it is possible to nip it in the bud to retain an evil-repelling clean mind. For example, no sooner than one has a thought of anger rising should he substitute it with one of compassion and forbearance so the thought of anger immediately subsides. If not, that thought may intensify to trigger acts of violence and verbal abuse in retaliation. In that case, alertness does not come along quick enough to suppress it. This is why we say that the rise of a thought is not a problem, but delayed awareness is. To reach a state in everyday life the moment a thought crops up, instantaneous alertness arrives to extinguish it, it takes diligent practice plus constant vigilance.

Secondly, once vigilance is in ample supply, the practitioner will be able to obliterate thoughts of delusion the moment they occur. It means that the mind, when clinging to triggers, becomes delusional, but since no triggers now exist, how would delusion come about? Hence, following an extinguished thought, when the next one is yet to come, delusional ideation could be completely conquered to let the true mind reveal itself. This inspirational shine of a focused mind eventually brings on awakening. A saying in this regard emphasizes that rather than seek the truth, the one thing absolutely necessary for one to do is utterly annihilate delusion.

The Buddha nature that sentient beings all possess is in itself clean and pure, not different from Buddha’s. Only, merely because of the confusion caused by ignorance, which, in being led to cling to all triggering involving the self and others from both the outside and within, produces mental trouble that casts dust over wisdom, they are not able to attain the true mind innate in them. Throughout many of their continuous lives, lay people pursue delusion against the truth. Without following one practical technique chosen from the many bespoke worldliness-transcending approaches of the Dharma, and persevering in its cultivation with tenacity, they may not achieve mental clarity after all.

In addition, a Buddhist practitioner must not forget to pursue both wisdom and blessing. To do the former the approach is to suppress delusion so wisdom could grow and shine. To do the latter, the approach is to do good acts where possible. Both should be done with a mind in cultivation while completely detached from any and all form. Otherwise, one would be afforded few short-term blessings but waste time and effort without gaining true awakening. In his practice, thus, it is critically important to stay removed from all form without gripping or clinging, to coincide with a mind that clutches to nothing, as advocated in the Diamond Sutra. This is the proper way to attaining enlightenment.

Every human has in fact an inherent true mind that is clean and pure. Yet in real life, they revolve around often a deluded mind, taking it as their true mind. Thus, unwittingly, they treat fake as real, and end up transmigrating between life and death without seeking transcendence. The uninitiated labour over the ego, while followers of Theravada stick to the Dharma and those pursuing Mahayana conveniently take Sunyata. They all fail to delve into the truth, driven on by clinging to delusion. On the other hand, Zen advocates the Way as an ordinary mind, with having no thought as its principal tenet and having set up not even one single rule. It liberates by leaving form alone, instantly obliterates delusion and ends clinging, pointing straight to the mind.

What, then, is an ordinary mind? It is a mind that does not discriminate, nor does it give and take or love and hate, a mind that thrives on egalitarianism. In other words, an ordinary mind is a Zen mind that leaves form alone on the outside and is not unsettled within.

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