Thich Nhat Hanh, Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go

As should be clear, I’m in a process of trying to get my Buddhist practice back.  The main point isn’t even the daily sit–meditation, that is–though I have been vastly more consistent over the last couple months than I had been in the six years before, much to my improvement.  The point is, as my teacher always said, to not leave my method, so to speak, on my mat.  That is to say, it’s easy to be all “Zen” and calm when sitting on a cushion in a silent place.  Being in the world and keeping a mind of non-attachment without avoiding or disengaging from the world is the hard part.

Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Waking Up to Who You Are is Thich Nhat Hanh‘s translation and commentary on Linji, often transliterated Lin Chi and, in Japanese terminology Rinzai.  Linji is most famous as the master who instructed his students to kill the Buddha should they ever meet him on the road.  Less well known is that he also included parents in that particular teaching.  I practice Buddhism and read it, and so I have a greater familiarity with its history and lineages than probably most people, but I am by no means an expert.  Having said that, Linji has a reputation as being extreme in his teachings, though positively so, extreme in his absolute rejection of all labels and concepts.  Hence, his instruction to kill the Buddha.

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most gentle people I could imagine, and having been physically present at his teaching I can attest that he very literally radiates a gentle, opening calm.  Reading Linji–actually, students’ records of his teaching–the two masters seem very different personalities.  Linji shouts at his students, as a tool of awakening, to jog them out of conceptualizing thought, for example.  So too does Linji bemoan the low level, to give it a name he didn’t, of his students’ practice, always chasing as it were an enlightenment that very simply doesn’t exist.  Nhat Hanh, in his commentary, often contextualizes Linji, noting that what might seem to us harshness was in fact compassion, not only the compassion that comes from a friend correcting a friend–a deep compassion but often a hard one–but also that, for example, Linji didn’t hit his students.  Times change, and with them notions of acceptable behavior.

Nhat Hanh is absolutely right to point to Linji’s compassion, which can be easy to miss.  Almost constantly, Linji admonishes his students with something like the following:

My friends, at this very moment your own wonderful function is no different than the wonderful function of the masters and the Buddhas.  It is only because you lack confidence that you are looking for something outside of you.

This is a very deep teaching, easy for me to intellectualize and which I have not yet really penetrated in practice.  That lack of confidence of which Linji spoke seems to me to be the normal mental condition of people, certainly in the United States, with its consumption/credit driven economy based on stimulated perception of people’s inherent deficiency in themselves, and definitely in my case.  This is Linji’s basic teaching, as far as I can tell as someone who by no means has been given leave to teach the Dharma, and if one bears this in mind one can see how thoroughly that teaching reflects, going backwards in time, the basic teaching of the Buddha, reformulated for a different historical and cultural context and, moving forward, in teachings of people like Thich Nhat Hanh and Master Sheng Yen, to name the two with whom I am most familiar.  Nhat Hanh’s stress on mindfulness is precisely Linji’s point, phrased differently, and this is absolutely clear in his commentary on the main text.

I am almost of the mind to say that the book is not fundamentally about practical things, because Thich Nhat Hanh, who as I’ve noted before in my response to The Sun, My Heart, has written so widely and in the case of many books with an extremely practical focus, which is to say, how one sits, or a particularly meditation exercise, etc.  Before I started practicing Buddhism I read various sutras, more for intellectual satisfaction than spiritual, though one should properly say that one can find an open door to practice through intellectual pursuit and possibly that was the door through which I passed into Buddhism.  I haven’t read a sutra in a few years, and that was the short Diamond Sutra in Nhat Hanh’s translation and commentary.  Having said that, sutra study, and in that I will included texts like this Record of Linji, should be seen as fundamentally practical manuals if they are to be of any use.  One cannot, however, come to them cold, that is, without a healthy practice, and get anything more than an intellectual understanding of particular ideas.  Linji pointed out at one point that monks sitting in silent meditation seeking enlightenment was just the creation of more karma and the perpetuation of samsara–the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth–just the same as any number of activities we would label “negative” or “bad.”  The same can be said of sutra study for intellectual pursuit.  It’s not that it’s bad, but the Buddha taught in order to give methods by which people could free themselves from conceptual thought, among other things.  To end the digression, I found that, reading this at a time when my daily practice is more consistent, I found myself thinking more about what Linji’s insistence that we should not look outside of ourselves in terms of what that means for me to actually do, both physically and intellectually.  This is not easier than intellectualizing scripture, though in a literal sense it is simpler.

The nice thing about Linji–it’s odd to put it this way, but there it is–is that he, and Nhat Hanh echoing him, make it very clear what one needs to do.  Drop everything, be who you are, where you are, without concepts.  Obviously, that’s not easy, but that kind of clarity is rare.  I feel like people should make points like that all the time, but they don’t.

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