Monday, December 5, 2011

Warrior of Zen: The Diamond-Hard Wisdom Mind of Suzuki Shosan

Book Review: Warrior of Zen: The Diamond-hard Wisdom Mind of Suzuki Shosan    edited, translated, and introduced by Arthur Braverman (Kodansha 1994)

Wonderful book. Shosan taught without bullshit and pretense. His teachings as depicted here come across as bare bones honesty about our situation regardless of what we might want to hear. I am quite sure he annoyed lots of people in his time with his brutal honesty. Even though he criticizes the pretentious Zen of his day he still comes across as utterly sincere and offers much to ponder about what we should be doing with our lives and about becoming free of the influence of Samsara and free of the limitations of our mind and its thoughts.

Shosan (1579-1655) was born just after the end of the Warring States period in Japan when feudal lords were fighting for control of the country. Shosan was born to an old and powerful Samurai family and he and his brothers fought for one of the most prominent lords. He became interested in Zen while traveling around visiting temples during and between war campaigns. After becoming a monk he became disheartened by the then formalized nature of Zen which was apparently less radical than it was in previous times. Shosan spent some time alone in the mountains but decided that that was not the best situation in which to practice – for him and for most people he advocated practicing meditation as a part of worldly and daily life. Although he was a monk he taught a more secular form of Buddhism. He was known for sincerity, compassionate acts such as intervening with his brother Shigenari against government cruelty at the risk of his life, and his promotion of duty among the people. He wrote a text refuting Christianity which had made it to Japan by that time. Shinto and Confucianism had thoroughly mixed with Buddhism but Christianity tended to be intolerant and sought to destroy other religions. Wary of these foreign influences he had hoped that the government would endorse Buddhism as the religion of the people. He practiced Soto Zen but also encouraged the practice of Pure Land Buddhism, encouraging many to chant the nenbutso, the mantra NAMU AMIDA BUTSU which he himself was said to chant endlessly.  He fought against corruption and laziness in the temples often to no avail. His brother Shigenari had a tragic end after failing to convince the government to lower taxes – he was compelled to commit suicide in the traditional manner of “cutting the belly.” Indeed in Shosan’s talks he sometimes would mention alertness as readiness to cut one’s belly.

One idea he was well-known for is that of keeping the “death awareness” in order to raise vital energy and convert it into practice. This became known as “Nio Zazen” – the Nio being the wrathful temple guardians often in statue form at the temple gate with fierce gazing eyes. He presented ways of practice to each of the traditional four classes of Japanese society – Samurai, artisans, farmers, and merchants. He discouraged people from becoming monks due to the corruption he experienced in the monasteries. Shosan, as samurai Zen practitioners before him, emphasized the study of death:

“Put everything aside and only study death. Always study death, free yourself from it, and when death actually comes, you won’t be flustered ....”

He felt that the promise of enlightenment or of rebirth in the Pure Land kept one from experiencing the present. He tended to despise clever arguments as meaningless words. He warned against certification of monks as having kensho, or enlightenment experience. He said that a mind that contemplates impermanence requires a vast amount of energy exerted constantly in order to succeed. The translator notes that:

“The Nio do not practice vigorously with the object of becoming Buddhas. Vigorous practice is their nature; they see delusion everywhere and guard against its attack.”

The selections for this book were drawn from the Roankyu, the Donkey-Saddle-Bridge, a collection of Shosan’s talks in three parts by his disciple Echu. This is only one set of his teachings and emphasizes his main points of keeping the vital energy by constantly thinking of death. He wrote other texts teaching more traditional Zazen and cultivating the “unborn and undying” mind, but he suggests that those practices are less accessible to most people.

Shosan found that his ‘Nio Zazen’ worked well for him and for beginners at the Buddhadharma. He encouraged one to “ hone his vital energy like a Vengeful Spirit.” He compared the ki, or vital energy, of battle required of the samurai to that required to practice dharma. He noted that one should first focus on the Nio, guardians at the temple gate, and then the Fudo, the wrathful deities, before approaching the Tathagata Zazen of the peaceful Buddha. He called the Nio meditation, the ‘warrior’s glare.’

“In the Buddha Way, however, it is the living who make use of their vital energy. Unaware of this, some become gentle, pious, and withdrawn, thinking that this is the Buddha Dharma. Others walk around deranged, there noses in the air, entertaining the meaningless notion that they are enlightened. I know nothing about either piety or enlightenment. Twenty-four hours a day with my buoyant mind I am engaged in conquering all things. Having acquired this unwavering energy of the Nio and Fudo, all of you should practice so that you will overcome the deluded thoughts arising from bad karma.”

“If you want to follow my approach to Buddhist practice, rouse your vital energy, fix your gaze, and acquire the energy of the demon-conquering forms of the Nio and Fudo. Guarding this Nio-mind, you will overcome the delusion created by evil karma. I’ve never heard of anyone since antiquity who has practiced imitating Buddhist images like this. Yet it suits me, and frees me in all my activities.”

“Rather than carrying around your own views, it’s better to arouse death-energy.”

He pointed out that the energy for meditation is the same energy for war, for art, and for work. Periods and sustained habits of undistracted concentration lead to success in all these endeavors. He mentions (as in an above quote) the notion of the ‘buoyant mind.” This he explains:

“The buoyant mind is the mind that longs to enter the lion’s den. It is the mind that presses on, little by little, resolving to fight to the death. Without such vital energy, you will not be able to make use of this mind in different situations.”

He emphasized that while poison could become medicine, medicine could also become poison. Here he was referring to ‘experiences’ of satori, (sudden enlightenment) and the certifiable enlightenment experiences, called kensho, among the monks and institutions. He said therefore he preferred unrealized satori to realized satori. This kensho, or seeing into one’s own nature, he also claimed to have experienced but he noted that experiences come and go only sometimes leaving one with varying amounts of ongoing benefit. He describes some of his meditation experiences, days of blissful feeling, and how these experiences can delude one.

Shosan is often fierce and controversial in his dialogues but his genuine caring and compassionate nature also comes through. He describes when he decided to become a monk in his early forties. As a samurai he could have evoked the wrath of his lord but was lucky. He first shaved his head and went on pilgrimage, sleeping in fields, always disheveled. He practiced in the Risshu, or Precepts sect, performing vigorous physical austerities for a while. (Afterward he noted that performing austerities can take the vital energy practice too far endangering one’s health). This gave him health problems that improved when he changed focuses and ate a better diet. After his health improved he abstained from meat until his death. At first he wanted to retire to the mountains and practice but later he was grateful that he was to practice within society for alone in the mountains – “... I would have become a good practitioner, but remained ignorant of my faults.”

“I surpass others only in my aversion to death. That’s why I practice with the ‘warrior’s glare’. Actually it is because of my cowardice that I have come this far.”

He mentioned the corrupt monks of the day being caught up in preta-mind, or greedy hungry-ghost mind. He warns against attachment to anything at all, including thoughts and the “I”, experiences of satori, and the “bag of worms” that is the body. Attachment is the basis for delusion. Detaching from mind and body, and ‘exhausting the self’ are the practices for overcoming delusion.

He says that we should “live having let go of your lives.” Here he notes that it is easy to let go of life in the heat of battle but not so easy in peaceful circumstances. In this context a major goal of practice is to be able to let go of life, to be able to not hold on to life when death comes. As far as poverty and starvation he says that one would better fear attachment and greed (and the preta-mind it cultivates) than poverty and starvation.

Another practice he recommends to keep the vital energy is to do ‘glaring Zazen’ by fixing the gaze on an image of Bodhidharma – the great sage.

As far as focusing on the faults of others rather than the faults of oneself – as many of us tend to do – even though he does talk about the problems of greed – in answer to a specific questioner he says that:

“When you call someone greedy, you are almost always taking part in the greediness yourself. I have never thought of anyone else as greedy. In this whole world, I think that I alone am greedy.”

In regards to a story about a well-crafted sword he noted:

“Anything whatsoever that is prepared with diligence has value. Religious practice, in particular, demands that you work exhaustively to accumulate merit.”

In regards to excessive drinking (common among some monks and patrons at the time) he noted simply that:

“Practitioners should not enjoy activities that have no real purpose. Moreover, you should immediately cease any wrong actions that will be harmful to you.”

The following quote is his answer to – “What is the True Dharma?” – to which he replies  – The eradication of the “I”:

“Practitioners of wisdom establish a ‘wise I.’ Practitioners of compassion establish a ‘compassionate I.’ Practitioners of meditation establish a ‘zazen I.’ Practitioners of a {particular} viewpoint establish an ‘I’ with that viewpoint. Ordinary people tend to elevate themselves. One is always trying to elevate oneself above others. No matter how humble a person’s position, if he upholds the truth, I will step aside for him.”

“One day in an emotional outburst, he said: “How idiotic! Nobody from a hundred years ago is around today. All traces from them have vanished. But, forgetting this, we desire trivial things and become planners and schemers. What stupidity!”

Regarding our deep level of attachment he noted that:

“I still can’t stop treasuring this bag of dung. The thing that we call existence is deeply ingrained.”

He noted the practices of doing all actions as if one were a Buddha image. Regarding the different images he noted that he had mastered this way of the fierce deities but not yet the “Four-faced Bodhisattva” for he could not yet force his vital energy to operate behind him. As in many of his sayings – he notes the utter difficulty of attaining complete enlightenment and is wearied by the claims of enlightenment around him.

He instructed a dying monk to be at ease and not worry about death as it is natural and not important but to guard the seed he has procured in a life of practice.

As for death meditation he recommends:

“Grit your teeth, fix your gaze, and observe your death at this moment. There is always a tendency to allow this energy to wane. So you have to feel it so strongly that it seems as if it is attacking you. Fearless energy comes from this. At this moment death is right before your eyes. It’s not something you can afford to neglect.”

Nearing his death he was asked by one of the visiting monks for some final instructions:

“What do you mean? Not having understood what I’ve said over the last thirty years, you ask this now?”

Shosan was also known to have taught about and drawn a version of the traditional – Ten Oxherding Pictures – representing the path to enlightenment. Shosan saw these representing a life of meditation in action, not as a man secluded from the world, but one partaking of it. His drawings actually changed a few of the pictures and he gives explanations as to why. Traditionally the ox is the mind and the oxherder is he that seeks to deal with the mind. Shosan changes the third and fourth pictures to denote the great effort needed to initially control the mind and the final, or tenth picture, called - Entering the Marketplace with Giving Hands - he draws people in the marketplace to signify the need to be compassionate to beings who cannot see the truth directly. There is a set of modern drawn pictures in the book with Shosan’s changes added as his originals are lost.

There is a section on teachings and instructions relating to koans. He relates that understanding the meanings of the words of stories and koans can be difficult and sometimes require a certain level of discernment. In reference to Rinzai’s “recognize your nature in accord with the flow,” Shosan says it means:

“if you want, you take; and if you are slapped, just be slapped. If you follow the flow in this manner,[the mind] will turn in accord with all situations, with no limits. This is not instruction for the ordinary mind. It is for the mature mind. I may not be able to make you understand this subtle meaning.”

He talks of generating and holding the ‘mind of fearless energy’ in order to keep the seed of doubt, Doubt, he says, has no objective body, and so is like the sky. Thus there is nothing for the demon to hold onto. Therefore he says if one places hope in the Pure Land (or faith in various scenarios and external deities I add) – a demon attaches to that belief. But if one keeps doubt there is nothing for the demon to attach to.

A layman asks Shosan about an old song which says, “It is good to live in the mountains because trees and grasses never discuss people’s good and bad points.” Shosan says he would just like to change one word: “It is deplorable to live in the mountains because trees and grasses never discuss people’s good and bad points.

In reference to a story about a question regarding where one will go at death Shosan replies:

You’ll go to the place you want to go. Whether its heaven or hell, you’ll go where your mind leads.’

In his practice instructions to the nun Shosei, he says:

There are two ways of approaching the practice of Buddhism: through reason and through activity. The man of reason awakens to the fact that all mutable things are like dreams, bubbles, shadows, lightning, or dew, and concludes that originally there was nothing at all. The man of action lays siege to the body and mind, uprooting the 84,000 delusions. Cherishing the mind and body to any extent is cause for falling into hell.”

“When you attain this mind {{fearless energy mind}}, delusion is wisdom, and life and death are nirvana.”

This he also calls the “free and unobstructed robust mind.”

Shosan was interested in a practical Buddhism that could be employed by all people. One teaching he gave was “The Subjugation of the Six Rebellious Delusions:” He praises practice of the “Six Harmonies” – of body, prostrating together; of speech, chanting together; of thought, sharing faith-mind; of precepts, sharing them; of view, sharing views of emptiness; of benefit from practicing together, sharing the fruits of practice.
He also praises the “Five Relationships of Confucianism;” justice between ruler and ruled, kindness between father and son, distinctions between husband and wife, order between young and old, and companionship between friends.

Shosan’s teachings were practical before all else. For him a workable sincerity of communication was better than simply speech that accords with statements of truth. Thus we see that he cared about his fellow humans and did not wish to see them make the  fundamental mistakes that he saw happening all around him – thus his notion that he was surrounded by hungry ghosts. If we could but listen and better yet summon and keep the ‘fearless energy mind.’

Treausure indeed.

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