The Whole, The One, The Way – A Bit of Zen History

The reason why the universe is eternal is that it does not live for itself; it gives life to others as it transforms.

Lao Tzu

 Changing the way we think about life and our world can be one of the hardest things to do, especially when times are changing, but it’s one of the things we have to do in order to thrive, grow and lead fulfilling lives. Sometimes it helps us to expand our thinking, giving us an ability to see our experiences from a different perspective, if we have an understanding of our culture, history and myths. This understanding helps us appreciate how we got here collectively in our history, giving us a framework in our heads for new thinking.

So here’s a bit of Zen history, about the journey and the influence of the Tao on Zen . . . and how “The Regarder of the Cries of the World” became a Goddess.

As Zen travelled through Oriental Asia with the patriarchs, mysticism, deeply rooted in the ethics and discipline of Yoga and India, merged with the spirit of emptiness of Buddhism, the mystery of the One-ness of the true nature of the Tao – the way of Heaven that permeates and guides everything – and the earthiness of Confucionism – the way of Earth, into a deep spirit that is Zen . . . the Way.

As the Bodhidharma (6th century first Zen )Patriarch taught, everyone has a buddha mind, part of the One-ness and uncovered in meditation. There is no hierarchy or superiority and anyone can become a Buddha through meditation’s transformation. The foundation for learning Zen, direct transmission, mind to mind with the teacher, became the spirit of Zen.

Korea’s greatest Zen Master, Chinul (1158 -1210) taught that there is a sentient intelligence within each person, the principle behind seeing and hearing: the individual mind, the buddha-nature. This principle is what makes it possible for human beings to become enlightened – human beings are capable of using all aspects of their intelligence for enlightened living. Each has its place in the grand scheme of buddha nature.

So the essence of Zen, learning the nature of our own minds, became established in the journey that is living in the moment: a journey that is grounded in daily practice.

Master Chinul also taught that all external sign-oriented phenomena are invitations to experience a truer, deeper understanding at the absolute level of wisdom. In the caligraphy of Cha’an (Chinese for Zen) the symbols are translated as “Solitary person opens heart and mind to signs from Heaven”. The path of enlightenment is here and now, through symbols and words, as well as through experience.

And, experientially at the time that all this discovery and learning was going on as the Masters travelled geographically and culturally thro Oriental Asia, another journey and transformation was taking place: by the time Zen reached Korea, via China, the mythical Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara had changed gender. By now the god had become a “she”.

That the Gods of Yoga in the Hindu tradition could be both male and female, and there being no sanskrit male/female pronoun for Divinity in India, was a strange concept when Buddhism arrived in China. But as usually happened with myth in culture, benign deities could be easily assimilated, and so when the Buddhists imported statues of Avalokiteshvara to China, the Chinese didn’t have a tradition of bisexual gods containing all the Divine male/female energy of creation, they understood the figure to be female. He/she became the “Goddess of Compassion” Kwan Yin, and in the manifestation as “The Regarder of the Cries of the World” in the Zen tradition, became “she”.

There is an ancient Taoist story of the separation of the yin and yang, which seems to be an origin for the Tao version of the Avolokiteshvara myth, The Regarder of the Cries of the World, and it’s about the origin of The Cry: tens of thousands of years ago just as humankind was beginning to be able to think, we were also beginning our separation from the One, in order to evolve and develop as humanity. The Yin and the Yang separated and the pain of separation was expressed in the deep cry of the heart of mankind – a hunger and a yearning. In the story, our cries are always heard and our yearning to return to the whole is watched over with great compassion. And in order to return to the whole, we must learn to surrender our thinking-mind back to the One Reality: Consciousness.

The early Chinese Zen patriarchs were well versed in the Chinese classics, and they integrated Zen with the accepted philosophies of China, particularly Taoism. Each of the patriarchs contributed in their own way to integrating Buddhism and Taoism to form the uniqueness that is Zen: Taoism sees all phenomena in the world as yin and yang opposites, whilst Buddhism views all as emptiness, and Zen blends the two in the “vast Great Way that is neither easy or difficult” (Seng-ts’an 6th Century third Zen Patriarch).

As usual, Zen changed with the culture and the culture changed with Zen.

And so, compassionately and non-judgementally, caring for the Whole and all the while watching over the innumerable, countless numbers of humanity . . . . the goddess/god of compassion had made her way through India, through the lands of the Tao and Confucious, to Zen in Japan and, in listening to our cries of hunger . . . eventually to us in the West.

In one of the elegant, completing-the-circle brushstrokes of Zen, a couple of years ago we in the West heard the deep-heart cries of those in difficulty in the land of Zen, Japan.

As a final aside, Zen Master Eisai who established Zen in Japan in the 12th century, was responsible for bringing the tea ceremony with him from China to Japan, in yet another blending of art, culture and Zen – he brought tea seeds back with him and planted the first tea garden on monastery grounds which eventually lead to the Tea Way: tea drinking as a Zen Art. Elements of the Tea Way are to accept, appreciate and revere what naturally occurs, exactly as it is – in an atmosphere of harmony, tranquillity, purity and reverence: we are all equal when we take time out for tea, with the concerns of the world temporarily distant.

I’m leaving with you with my own words that the light dancing in the dark brought to me this week, in contemplation of what a struggle times of shifting change can be for some of humanity:

 

Our lives are so fleeting, floating motes

dust on the light of the Universe’s dark canvas

that is the night of the soul

and still, we dance in the mystery

 namaste susan

Sources: Sheldon B. Kopp: If you meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!; C. Alexander and Annellen Simpkins: Simple Zen; Simple Taoism: A Guide to Living in Balance; Dainin Katagiri: You have to Say Something; The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara: The Myth of the Great Secret: An appreciation of Joseph Campbell (Celestial Arts, 1990); Brenda Shoshanna: Zen Miracles: Finding Peace in an Insane World.

Founder of suZenYoga, Susan Ni Rahilly is a published author, Meditation and Hatha Yoga Teacher.  Her teaching typically draws on breathwork in deep Hatha practice, as well as Raja Yoga (the Yoga of Meditation). She lives in West Cork, Ireland where she writes and teaches. Susan’s Hatha Yoga teaching is inspired by Zen and her ongoing research into our innate abilities for deep listening and intuitive practice. 

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