Nowhere-attaching and Zen
- By Fa Gong
- Jan 08
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In the past few years, I read many times the Chinese version of both the Vajra Prajna Paramita Sutra and The Sixth Patriarch’s Platform Sutra. Although I understood the literal meaning of “One should have a true mind which is nowhere attached,” I could not comprehend this dictum in its deeper sense. I therefore received no benefit from its wisdom.
Recently, however, I read the English version of The Sixth Patriarch’s Platform Sutra which I downloaded from the Internet. Scholars often say that if a student wants to understand the grammar of his own language, he should study a foreign language. Reading the Sixth Patriarch's Sutra in English gave me a different perspective on his message. As I read the lines, I preliminarily understood what it means to keep our mind unattached. It is when I did Zazen that I more fully realized its meaning. With apologies for my limited experiences, I would now like to discuss the state of keeping our mind free and unattached.
I'll begin by relating one of Zen's delightful little stories. One day, while preaching to the assembly on the Vulture Peak, the Buddha held up a golden lotus flower. None in the assembly understood the meaning of his act except Maha-Kasyapa, the great elder, who looked at the Buddha and smiled. Then the Buddha said: “I have the True Dharma Eye which I now transmit to you, Maha-Kasyapa”. Thus Maha-Kasyapa was considered to be the first in the line of the Indian patriarchs of Zen. Since then Zen has claimed "to be specific transmission outside the Sutras and to be altogether independent of verbalism.” This does not mean that we don’t study Sutras. We do. We should revere any guidance these scriptures can give us; but we should remember that written words are signposts which direct us. We should not revere the word but only the wisdom that the word imparts.
In my opinion, Sutras should be studied with our body and mind rather than with our mouth and academic reasonings. They should be be footnoted with practices instead of rational observations. Dhyana (Meditation), particularly that which leads into Samadhi (absolute absorption), and wisdom (Prajna) are fundamental in Zen Buddhism. Some disciples think that Samadhi begets Prajna, and that these two are otherwise independent of each other. However, The Sixth Patriarch’s Platform Sutra says, “Samadhi is the quintessence of Prajna, while Prajna is the function of Samadhi. At the very moment that we attain Prajna, Samadhi is therewith; and vice versa.”. So Samadhi and Prajna constitute a non-duality.
When we sit in meditation we often hear lots of sounds around us, for example ticks of the clock, noise from the air conditioner, and the noises of people outside walking about. Sometimes when we begin to practice Zen we become so annoyed by these sounds that we try every means to distract ourselves from paying attention to them. In fact, we have become attached to the sounds. We can think of nothing else but our desires regarding the noise. We want the clock to keep time but we also want it to stop ticking. We want the air conditioner to cool us but we wish it to do so in another room. We want our meditation room to be conveniently located but we want no people to be nearby. On and on we discourse with ourselves about these troublesome noises.
As the Sixth Patriarch’s Platform Sutra says, “Dhyana means to be free from attachment to outward appearances, Samadhi means to attain inner peace.” So the correct way for us to attain Dhyana is to become like mechanical devices that record sounds without thinking about them. The tape recorder does not judge the sounds it records. It does not express any desires about them. When we become unattached to the sounds, we hear them clearly, but we neither welcome them nor exclude them, we neither wonder about their source nor suggest to ourselves ways in which we can change them. It is as though we and the noise are in two separate worlds that bear no relation with each other.
In our daily life, including doing Zazen, our minds are full of wandering thoughts. In order to control these thoughts many foolish people try a variety of means to annihilate them. In fact, this is wrong. As Grand Master Seng Ts’an, Third Patriarch of Zen, said, “The fervent desire to stop thinking and to return to stillness is still an active, fervent desire. This activates the mind even more." The thought of controlling a wandering thought is, itself, a wandering thought. In fact it is more than wandering. It is a marauding thought. We become more emotional, more uneasy, more unable to calm ourselves.
The correct attitude towards wandering thoughts is simply to accept their coming and going. Grand Master Yung-chia Hsuan-chueh, one of the most gifted teachers of the Zen school during the T'ang Dynasty, said in his famous Song of Enlightenment, “Holding truth and rejecting delusion are but skillful lies.” So the correct attitude is neither to welcome them nor to reject them. We merely acknowledge them when we walk, sit, work or do Zazen. Wandering thoughts are like a flock of wild geese flying through the sky. When they come, we observe them. We don't try to catch them and we don't try to chase them away. We merely look at them without forming any plans or desires about them. In this way, we come to experience the truth which the Vajra Prajna Paramita Sutra states: “You cannot attach to past thoughts; you cannot hold on to present thoughts; and you cannot obtain future thoughts.”
And just as we cannot cling to wandering thoughts, we cannot cling to wandering desires. Our sense organs come into contact with external objects everyday. Our mind and body are easily enslaved by attachment to these material world objects. We indulge our whims constantly, wanting to possess more and more. We are like a drunken man who cannot make the sober decision to stop drinking, who cannot stop drinking until he is too drunk to drink. In this way, too, we often spend ourselves into debt because we cannot free ourselves from our desires. Not until we are completely unable to purchase things do we cease trying to acquire things. The day after we have so foolishly indulged ourselves, we realize that we have been the most foolish human > beings in the world.
If we teach ourselves to remain unattached to wandering thoughts or to objects in the material world, we gain wisdom and insight. The mind that is nowhere-attached is the original mind which we have had, and had been covered up from the unbeginning Kalpa owing to attachments and fantasy. As Grand Master Dazhu HuiHai said in An Important Comment On The Entrance To Sudden Enlightenment, “Nowhere-attached mind is the Buddha mind”.
We cannot strive to destroy our thoughts, to make our minds blank and dumb, just as we cannot yearn for material objects. As the Song of Enlightenment says, “One who clings to vacancy and rejects the world of things escapes from drowning but leaps into fire.”
No matter whether we walk, stand, sit, lie down or sleep, no matter whether we eat, drink or urinate, no matter whether we stretch or bend our limbs, no matter whether we talk or keep silence, no matter whether we watch TV or listen to the radio, no matter whether we put on clothes or take them off -- in all these and other activities, if we act according to the rule, "One should have a true mind which is nowhere attached," we are practicing Zen. As the Song says, “Walking is Zen' sitting is Zen; speaking or being silent is Zen. Whether active or quiet, the essence of Zen is peace.”
In a word, nowhere-attaching is Zen.
I wish to thank Reverend Chuan Zhi of Hong Fa Temple, now Abbot of the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun, for encouraging me to write this essay.