The Secret Teachings of Zen Buddhism

I remember reading the introduction to “Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects” by Mrs. Alexandria David-Neel, where she was informed by one of her teachers that there was no problem in publishing the secrets. They remain secret unless someone is ready to hear them.

Some kind of truth about such things.

With that, here is the knot of Zen Buddhist wisdom, ready or not …

For me, the best religious analysis of our situation can be found in three Buddhist terms: the four marks of existence, the two truths and the three bodies of the Buddha. If there are any authentic first principles to a spiritual life, certainly the Zen Buddhist spiritual life, these are these. Although I am wary of dogmas, I find these to be the most useful indicators of the structures of the human heart of anyone I have encountered in my life. While all things are to be taken lightly, subject to mutation and change, these are the indications which have so far proven to be as true as anything I have encountered in this Saha world.

This is why I call myself a Buddhist.

The four marks are observations on the nature of things, and specifically on our human condition. The first three are:

1) Everything is made of pieces, and they will inevitably come apart. It speaks to the fundamental structures of the universe as well as to the creation of our mind. But, it is the mind, it is the heart that is the most critical for us to understand. We are real. But we are impermanent.

2) There is no permanent self. Self is real. Like I said, we’re real, you and me. Pinch us and we’ll hurt. But our existence is mutable. And in the end, we are mortal. Nothing escapes the dissolution of the body. The wonderful mystery that we are, our unique perception of the universe, our little corner ends.

3) The movement of things going up and down is experienced by humans as painful, causing anxiety and dread. I call this encounter the buzz. The buzz is behind everything we come across, behind every victory.

The fourth mark claims there is a way through the injury. This is the good news of Zen Buddhism. While the buzz belongs to the universe, this reality specifically belongs to our human world. Given the size of the cosmos, “human” here would be any being endowed with a consciousness capable of discerning the first three marks.

The two truths can be summed up as follows:

1) Everything exists in a game of mutual causation, creating, living, dying.

2) The absolute emptiness of these ascending and descending things.

We humans naturally apprehend the former through careful observation, while the latter is recessive, and we should normally seek it out through presence practices.

A little more complex is the radical identity of these two truths, the formless world and the form world are in fact one thing. Although it is possible to find these principles in the Nikayas, the earliest writings, they have not been developed for hundreds of years. The second century monk Nagarjuna that I mentioned earlier is usually credited with sorting it out. It presents the facts of these two truths and their absolute identity with a razor. Personally, I found it once I arrived in China and East Asia, then presented in the conversations of Zen followers, and then especially through the poetic pen of Eihei Dogen attracting my heart and my being in this that it means as a living reality.

For us on the Zen path, the spiritual project is to see these truths. We normally start with our simple observation of the phenomenal world. It is as it is. Although temporary and causally linked, it is real. And. The next thing to notice is that everything in the phenomenal world is wildly open, limitless, empty.

The spiritual project is to notice the world that we are, that we are limitless, then beyond any sense of separation. And then let go of that feeling of beyond separation. What in the Zen way is called not one, not two.

In many ways, this is the pivotal observation for Zen.

And, the three Buddha bodies describe how we encounter these things. The first two are greatly affected. And I find the third more and more important.

1) In history and in this rise and fall of things.

2) As completely empty of substance. There is no part that remains. Everything goes.

3) And a third place, that of the mystery, the part where our minds and our human hearts engage the mystery. Where the ascent and descent seem less concrete and more fluid. Dream and metaphor are the language of this body.

But, wonderful as it is, it doesn’t end there. I think of this indigenous woman, so small, and her child. Hunger. I think of all the sufferings of our human condition. Those who are beyond our control and those who are in our hands to change.

In this world where we notice that we exist in bonds of connection.

These are not lists. This is not the best analysis. This is a hungry child. This is my restless heart. It’s about how we meet the world. And, I can’t express my gratitude enough for finding it. In fact, it seems to be something deeper than finding. As Zenju Earthlyn Manuel says, “Everything is very natural to me. I welcome the Dharma as it welcomed me long before I was born.

It’s about not turning away. It’s about looking into the gift and learning to hold your hands open. A bad metaphor, but I hope it points. Keep all things in your heart. But be prepared to let go. Mary Oliver sings it best: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: love what is deadly; hold it against your bones knowing that your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let go, to let go.

I feel the tightness of our connections. While in an ultimate sense these connections are palpable, but they are not a place we can live. It is unlimited and open. Ineffable. Our deep connections to each other and to the world become the backdrop for our knowledge.

Everything, every blessed thing is joined most intimately in a wild opening.

The truth is, this realization, finding this place, not one, not two, is our birthright. There is an old Buddhist saying that it is extremely rare and precious to be born human. As only humans can awaken to deep matter. May be. But if it does, the word human needs to be stretched. Even on this planet, humanity is a constellation of degrees of things that are common to other animals. And. Considering the size of this universe, it’s really hard not to assume that there are other creatures just as capable of opening up to the mystery of this place.

And. This realization is totally random. Maybe the graces are coming. Maybe they don’t. It can be like being hit by a bus. Or, like meeting Paul on that road to Damascus.

Zen professor Jules Shuzen Harris gave a talk on the gist of it all. “Unfortunately for many of us, the stressful lives we lead, the materialistic preoccupation we have and the education we receive rarely give us the freedom to understand our intrinsic nature, which is limitless.”

One of the most amazing gifts of the Zen tradition is that it offers practices that put us on the path to truly encounter this limitlessness. Many teachers have observed, including for me John Tarrant, that waking our hearts is like being hit by a bus. It’s a happy accident. Whereas our spiritual practices make us prone to accidents. And none seems more effective in this area than those found in Buddhism, and more specifically in Zen.

There are many good books on Zen meditation practices. In an appendix, I will include some of the main texts, which deserve to be visited and revisited.

Here, however, I want to offer the nugget of the matter, as best I understand it.

Sit. Shut your mouth. Pay attention.

With these three things, to sit, be silent and pay attention, we are invited into the ways of silence.

Of care.