Hsiang Yen’s Enlightenment

A monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” To which Joshu replied, “Mu!”

In Chinese Ch’an Buddhism, the spiritual heir to ancient Taoism, and the precursor to Japanese Zen, the single syllable word, “Mu” represents enlightenment. It does not mean any exalted state of contact with heavenly visions of grandeur, or the extrapolation of complex metaphysical systems about astral dimensions or planes of reality. And, of course, it does.

In Buddhism and Taoism, spirituality is not sought in the realms of complex systems of philosophical/theological dogma. Quite the contrary, simplicity and the direct experience of union with Nature are the path to spiritual experience. Complex thought and systems of cosmology just get in the way. So – “Mu” means “no mind.” It means to be completely free of the delusional and egoistic contrivances of the mind that would have us believe that the spiritual experience is about attainment of heavenly visions or mastering astral planes. It means that enlightenment happens when we enter into a mind of absolute and direct clarity about the nature of the moment, beyond any intellectualization. And this is what leads us, without any pretentious ambitions, into realization of the permeating energy of a conscious Universe and the unified, multiple, simultaneous planes of existence.

This realization is represented in the classic Zen poem by the Chinese sage, Hsiang Yen (Kyogen in Japanese), who lived around 900 A.D.

The sound of something struck,

and I forgot everything I knew.

In the story associated with this poem, Hsiang Yen was a monk wrestling with the issue of enlightenment. He was a very intelligent and learned person, but all his knowledge and intellectual prowess could not bring him what he sought: the answer to the question of existence, to the nature of his true Self. One day, his teacher instructed him, “Don’t tell me what you have learned from your reading of the sutras (Buddhist texts), but give me an essential word about your Self before you came out of your mother’s womb, before you knew east from west.”

Hsiang Yen was at a loss. He desperately went back to researching through every esoteric text he could find, but to no avail. In despair he left the monastery and took up a hermit’s life at a long abandoned and dilapidated temple. One day, while cleaning the yard, lost in his thoughts, he tossed aside a broken clay tile and the sound of the tile striking and breaking against a bamboo tree was the moment of his enlightenment. He did not achieve enlightenment from some new bit of information, but rather, by breaking out of the maze of information that already filled his head.

The startling crack of the tile against the tree cut through all thought and intellectualization and brought him to sudden realization: the meaning of his life, his true Self, was completely contained in that moment in simple presence. While he was thinking about the meaning of life, he had been missing the experience of Life. The sound of the breaking tile woke him up, and there he stood, right in the middle of Life, with eyes opened for the first time.

In Taoist, Ch’an and Zen literature, this theme of sudden realization of true self, of pure existence beyond any learned knowledge is repeated frequently. Knowledge is, in fact, often represented as an impediment to enlightenment, because knowledge is always talking about, rather than living and experiencing Life. Knowledge also appeals to our egos, and the more complex and esoteric it is, the more our ego flatters us that we have uncovered something special, something that will make us special – and “enlightened.” In the Tao Te Ching, the original sourcebook of Taoism, made up of 81 short lessons or sections, and attributed to the sage, Lao Tzu, approximately 2600 years ago, it says in the third lesson:

The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores,

by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve.

He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire,

and creates confusion in those who think that they know.

(Mitchell translation)

This is precisely what Hsiang Yen’s teacher did for him when he requested: “give me an essential word about your Self before you came out of your mother’s womb, before you knew east from west.” He boxed out Hsiang Yen’s intellect and left him to sink or swim in the current of the river of Life. He challenged Hsiang Yen to realize pure knowing, that which is our natural mind before it is shaped and contorted by society and ambitions of specialness, including for some, “enlightenment.”

No knowledge other than what could be called the pure knowledge that is attainable only by being wholly present, vibrantly alert, and without preconception in the midst of the mystery of Life can awaken or enlighten us. We are born with this capacity – what Zen calls “original mind” – and then we are “educated” out of it by society and its so-called knowledge, telling us “east from west.” This capacity, also known as, “Buddha-mind,” is the felt knowing that exists only in the purity of the moment directly lived. It cannot be intellectually explained.

To understand Zen poetry, then, we must grasp that it is not written to stimulate the intellect. It is written to share a moment of Life lived immediately, and in so doing, awaken our natural mind. Here. Now. – “Mu!” – To empty people’s minds and fill their core.

Spring has hundreds of flowers; autumn the clear moon.

Summer has cool winds; winter has snow.

If busyness doesn’t take your mind, you will know.

Mumon (app. 1200A.D.)

Bill Walz has taught meditation and mindfulness in university and public forums, and is a private-practice meditation teacher and guide for individuals in mindfulness, personal growth and consciousness. He holds a weekly meditation class, Mondays, 7pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 227 Edgewood. By donation. Information on classes, talks, personal growth and healing instruction, or phone consultations at (828) 258-3241, e-mail at healing@billwalz.com.

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