Archive for April, 2010


Simply Stop

Thich Nhat Hanh elucidates the no-frills wisdom of ninth-century Chinese Zen teacher Master Linji, founder of the Rinzai school of Zen

“As I see it, there isn’t so much to do. Just be ordinary—put on your
robes, eat your food, and pass the time doing nothing.” —Master Linji,
Teaching 18

IN MASTER LINJI’S TIME, some Buddhist terms were used so often they
became meaningless. People chewed on terms like “liberation” and
“enlightenment” until they lost their power. It’s no different today.
People use words that tire our ears. We hear the words “freedom” and
“security” on talk radio, television, and in the newspaper so often that
they’ve lost their effectiveness or their meaning has been distorted.
When words are overused, even the most beautiful words can lose their
true meaning. For example, the word “love” is a wonderful word. When we
like to eat hamburger, we say, “I love hamburger.” So what’s left for
the meaning of the word “love”?

It’s the same with Buddhist words. Someone may be able to speak
beautifully about compassion, wisdom, or non-self, but this doesn’t
necessarily help others. And the speaker may still have a big self or
treat others badly; his eloquent speech may be only empty words. We can
get tired of all these words, even the word “Buddha.” So to wake people
up, Master Linji [Japanese, Rinzai] invented new terms and new ways of
saying things that would respond to the needs of his time. For example,
Master Linji invented the term “businessless person,” the person who has
nowhere to go and nothing to do. This was his ideal example of what a
person could be. In Theravada Buddhism, the ideal person was the arhat,
someone who practiced to attain his own enlightenment. In Mahayana
Buddhism, the ideal person was the bodhisattva, a compassionate being
who, on the path of enlightenment, helped others.

According to Master Linji, the businessless person is someone who
doesn’t run after enlightenment or grasp at anything, even if that thing
is the Buddha. This person has simply stopped. She is no longer caught
by anything, even theories or teachings. The businessless person is the
true person inside each one of us. This is the essential teaching of
Master Linji.

When we learn to stop and be truly alive in the present moment, we
are in touch with what’s going on within and around us. We aren’t
carried away by the past, the future, our thinking, ideas, emotions, and
projects. Often we think that our ideas about things are the reality of
that thing. Our notion of the Buddha may just be an idea and may be far
from reality. Buddha is not a reality that exists outside of us, but is
our own true nature. The Buddha outside ourselves was a human being who
was born, lived, and died. For us to seek such a Buddha would be to
seek a shadow, a ghost Buddha, and at some point our idea of Buddha
would become an obstacle for us.

Master Linji said that when we meet the ghost Buddha, we should cut
off his head. Whether we’re looking inside our outside ourselves, we
need to cut off the head of whatever we meet, and abandon the views and
ideas we have about things, including our ideas about Buddhism and
Buddhist teachings. Buddhist teachings are not exalted words and
scriptures existing outside us on a high shelf in the temple, but are
medicine for our ills. Buddhist teachings are skillful means to cure our
ignorance, craving, and anger, as well as our habit of seeking things
outside and not having confidence in ourselves.

Insight can’t be found in sutras, commentaries, verbal expression, or
—isms. Liberation and awakened understanding can’t be found by devoting
ourselves to the study of the Buddhist scriptures. This is like trying
to find fresh water in dry bones. Returning to the present moment, using
our clear mind which exists right here and now, we can be in touch with
liberation and enlightenment, as well as with the Buddha and the
patriarchs as living realities right in this moment. The person who has
nothing to do is sovereign unto herself. She doesn’t need to put on airs
or leave any trace behind. The true person is an active participant,
engaged in her environment while remaining unoppressed by it. Although
all phenomena are going through the various appearances of birth,
abiding, changing, and dying, the true person doesn’t become a victim of
sadness, happiness, love, or hate. She lives in awareness as an
ordinary person, whether standing, walking, lying down, or sitting. She
doesn’t act a part, even the part of a great Zen master. This is what
Master Linji means by “being sovereign wherever you are and using that
place as your seat of awakening.”

We may wonder, “If a person has no direction, isn’t yearning to
realize an ideal, doesn’t have an aim in life, then who will help living
beings be liberated, who will rescue those who are drowning in the
ocean of suffering?” A Buddha is a person who has no more business to do
and isn’t looking for anything. In doing nothing, in simply stopping,
we can live freely and true to ourselves and our liberation will
contribute to the liberation of all beings.


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