Irmgard Schloegl

"We Live in a Dual World" (excerpt) THE WISDOM OF THE ZEN MASTERS - by Irmgard Schloegl

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by Irmgard Schloegl

We live in a dual world of night and day, of darkness and light, of joy and sorrow. We are part of this world. Both aspects are there. If we want light and joy only and reject the other half, we shall begin to feel that a vital part of life is missing. But since only a masochist enjoys suffering, it is a razor-edge line on which to hold the balance.

Perhaps it is possible for each of us when we go into ourselves to see that there is a dividing line between the bitter resentment of selfishness, the ‘why must it happen to me?’, and the grief and sorrow that is part and parcel of our human condition. The latter needs to be accepted and lived; all life needs to be lived. We live it in any case; but how we live it is important. If we reject what is common to all, go through it with averted eyes, and refuse our share of common sorrow though we all expect if not demand our share of common joy, then the unlived, refused life piles up against us as fear, including the fear of death.

Master Shaku Soen liked to take an evening stroll through a nearby village. One day he heard loud lamentations from a house and, on entering quietly, realized that the householder had died and the family and neighbors were crying. He sat down and cried with them. An old man noticed him and remarked, rather shaken on seeing the famous master crying with them: 1 would have thought that you at least were beyond such things.’ ‘But it is this which puts me beyond it,’ replied the master with a sob.
Have we ever bothered to think out the consequences of a hypothetical state free from suffering? What we want, badly, is not to be bothered or hurt any more; but this would make us also incapable of feeling warmth and joy. We should turn into unfeeling monsters, callous and selfish brutes. Should this be the way of Buddhism which holds to the twin pillars of wisdom and love?

Love, warmth of heart, in its accepting humility is a true blessing. And it is the way that Buddhism cultivates. It is a way out of suffering not through refusal but through total embrace. This is what we need to know if we want to understand the Zen Masters, or if we happen to feel inclined to walk that way ourselves.

It is also a way to a true understanding of oneself. A true understanding of oneself, without excluding anything, is at the same time an understanding of others. And being so hard to achieve, it gives rise of itself to tolerance and compassion, to that disinterested love which is open, free, and, like the sun, just there. T with its ever-present itch to interfere, however altruistically ‘as I think it ought to be’, has abdicated. With the irritant gone, the itch ceases. The intentional ‘do-gooder’ is proverbial because all react against him though his intentions are undoubtedly good.

We have tried to better the world, and ourselves, for millennia, and though we have seemingly succeeded in some things, in others we are worse off than ever. Every short-term improvement inevitably throws up its opposite which trips us up.

Is there a way out? Yes, the hardest, for it starts at our end, where it hurts. The way is for each of us to dismantle our own obstacles. We all want to be reasonably considerate, reasonably tolerant, reasonably warm-hearted; why can we not be so, or not always so, though we ourselves want to be? What prevents us against our will? Truly, we are our own obstacles. And since the world is populated by us, we make and shape our own weal and woe. Could a fair number of us dislodge no more than our own obstacles, we need not trouble ourselves about the world, for it would of itself be a better place to live in. Could it be that T finds it more congenial to try to change the world than to set to work on its own obstacles and so change itself? Yet, our world would thus be a better one.

This way the Zen Masters show by living the lives they did and do. They actively contribute to it by their own lives and by training their students to live such lives. They are conspicuous for the absence of any zeal to interfere or to better anything. All of them shun abstractions and speculations, however edifying and lofty, as ‘flowers in the empty sky’—at best useless, more often downright destructive. Their common motto through the ages is ‘look at the place where your own feet stand’. A Chinese proverb often quoted by the Zen Masters says: ‘Even a journey of a thousand miles starts from right under one’s feet.’

If one’s eyes are searching for imaginary flowers in the sky, if one’s head is in the clouds, one is apt to stumble and to lose one’s way.

A present-day Master said of his students, in their presence, that they seemed to like him, and that occasionally they would set out to do something ‘great’ for him that would really please him. He could see it coming on in the far-away look in their eyes which were glued to the ‘great things’. He did not damp their enthusiasm outright as they had to learn the consequences; but he resigned himself to a period of trouble. Their minds away on the great, they would forget the ordinary things such as opening or shutting the temple gates, and they burnt the rice, spoilt the vegetables, and so on. After some days when all were beginning to feel the strain and to suffer from indigestion, he would tell them that if they really wanted to please him, would they please abandon the ‘great thing’ they were going to do for him, and just do the ordinary things they had to do as well as they could; nothing would please him better.

That is typical of the way in which Zen Masters ‘teach’. They are not teachers in the usual sense of the word, but they are eminently practical. Compact and solid, they stand on their own feet and they know human nature. They point the Way for their students, so that they do not lose themselves in the ‘thorns and brambles’ of speculation, or in the regions ‘where fierce desire rages, and opinions stand up like spears on a battlefield.’

Though many of them, both in China and Japan, have enjoyed imperial patronage, and some of them have counted emperors as their disciples, they have preferred the monastic life and fare within their community. Nor would they leave their community for long; the responsibility is binding.

The sun shines; that is its nature. Clouds may obscure it to our eyes; they do not affect the sun. These obscuring clouds we need to dispel so as to become aware of the sun. Such clouds we fashion by our I-interests, intentions, volitions, passions. Indeed we are our own obstacles.

The Buddha Nature is in us, as in everything that exists. If we do not obstruct it with our desires, etc., be they good or bad, it acts of itself, through us. This, however, is the opposite of ‘as I want it, everything goes’. The very I that wants everything ‘my way’ is the cloud that is to be dispelled.

The Wisdom of the Zen Masters
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"Zen Masters" (excerpt) THE WISDOM OF THE ZEN MASTERS — Irmgard Schloegl

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Picture by Roman Trottner


THE WISDOM OF THE ZEN MASTERS (excerpt) by Irmgard Schloegl

When the succession after the Fifth Patriarch was under consideration, his main disciple Jinshu was generally expected to be the heir. To present his insight, he composed a verse:

The body is the Tree of Awakening,
The heart is a bright mirror;
Carefully wipe it always So that no dust can settle.

Eno (Hui Neng), who in fact became the Sixth Patriarch, countered with another verse:

There is no Tree of Awakening;
The bright mirror has no stand;
When all is emptiness Where can dust settle?

The teaching analogies of the Zen school are finely balanced, and these two verses reflect each other like two mirrors. They make a point that is as important now as it was then: one cannot have the one without the other; the chicken comes out of the egg; without the egg, no chicken.

Many of the Zen Masters are claimed as fathers or founders of special teaching lines, stressing a particular way or style. Their teachings and biographies were written down by their disciples. They themselves wrote nothing; they taught. What they taught was not scriptural learning, not Buddhism or Zen, but a way of life. Familiarity with the scriptures is basic to all Buddhist monks. The Zen Masters made use of the scriptures and quoted them freely, though often with a comment that brought new light on what had become too familiar. They tried to break down blind piety towards the teachings, and to help their students to a real insight, to that clear seeing as a result of which the scriptures assumed a new and living meaning —not something abstract ‘up there’ to be quoted, but functioning here and now in one’s own life and in all that is, ‘clearly perceptible right before the eyes’.

The Zen Masters were men of few words, but mature in insight and skilled in means. They were also past masters in rousing their students out of complacency and in spotting imitative behavior. They could be fierce to an extent that to us seems appalling, though never without purpose, but balanced by a ‘grandmotherly kindness’ which seems to have been a greater danger than their fierceness, for we often find warnings in the texts against spoon-feeding.

A man who wants to stand squarely on his own feet and to get his sight clear needs courage to see into his emotional household and to disentangle himself to some extent from it. Such a man in the fullness of time needs to come to a genuine breaking point at which ‘I’, fired by passion, abdicates. This is what Master Hakuin called the Great Death, and that this is a shattering experience is obvious.

To help to bring about this turning over, to assist what is in itself a natural process as a kind of midwife, is another of the functions of a Zen Master. The Zen analogy for it is a hen hatching out an egg. When the chicken is ready, the hen must peck the shell to help the chick out. If this is done too early or too late, the chick dies. Hence derives the very real responsibility assumed by a Zen Master, of which he is humbly conscious. The relationship is a serious contract, binding on both parties.

Every inner experience has a convincing, even overpowering finality. The little ones in particular are inevitably followed by 1 have got if, an I-appropriation. T wants to hold it, which is impossible. Then T strives to get it back, which is equally impossible for T has no say in the matter. The wanting and striving to bring it back is misdirected effort, is clinging to a passing phenomenon, and so only strengthens the sense of T. This is contrary to the Way, and so the Way is lost.

Hence one more function of a Zen Master is to prevent students from becoming stuck in any experience and thus losing the Way. He goads them on in their training till sooner or later they die the Great Death, and come to that true humility which is the joy of the heart, releasing its inherent warmth which now can flow and act freely. When the trammels of egoism are gone, its blinkers shed, what remains and is seen is what is.

A monk brought two potted plants to his Master. ‘Drop it,’ ordered the Master. The monk dropped one pot. ‘Drop it,’ again ordered the Master. The monk let the second pot go. ‘Drop it,’ now roared the Master. The monk stammered: ‘But I have nothing more to drop.’ ‘Then take it away/ nodded the Master.

The simplicity of such an analogy must not blind us to the veritable impossibility of doing just this. And yet it has to be done. Hence the importance of training.

Even dropping what we have, all we have, is not an easy thing. But dropping what has us, our ingrained opinions, views, ideals, our dear burdens that we so hotly and volubly defend—we cannot drop them by an act of will. It is just that which is the rub. W e never even dare to look at them squarely, much less to doubt their validity.

The Zen Masters hold that three things are necessary for this training: a great root of faith, great doubt, and great courage-endurance. The death of T is no easy matter. Moreover, it needs preparation so that the dying can happen cleanly.

A knight in medieval Japan deserted his liege lord after long inner struggles, for such an action was inconceivable according to the code of knighthood. He did it because he felt an overwhelming vocation for the Zen life. Having spent some twelve years in one of the mountain monasteries, he set out on pilgrimage. Before long he encountered a knight on horseback who recognized him and made to strike him down but then decided against it as he was unwilling to sully his sword. So he just spat in the monk’s face as he rode by. In the act of wiping away the spittle, the monk realized in a flash what in former days his reaction would have been to such an insult. Deeply moved, he turned round towards the mountain area where he had done his training, bowed, and composed a poem:

The mountain is the mountain And the Way is the same as of old.
Verily what has changed Is my own heart.

Such is the Way of Zen. Who could exhaust it? The guides on that Way are the Zen Masters. It is a Way that can be walked now as then. The guides are there still. They do not propagate either themselves or their teachings. They sit and train themselves, and those who come to them prepared for such training, able to bow at least the head and capable of giving up cherished views. ‘The Great Way is not difficult, it only avoids cherishing opinions’ on questions such as what is Truth, the Absolute, or other great words.


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"What, then, is the Tao, the Way that is its own goal?" (excerpt) THE WISDOM OF THE ZEN MASTERS by Irmgard Schloegl



“Woman Walking on Beach” by Daryl Urig


What, then, is the Tao, the Way that is its own goal? A ‘true man of the Way’ is another way of describing the ‘man who has nothing further to seek’, the ‘independent man of the Way’ who leans on nothing and who has the ‘single eye’ or has come to see clearly.

The classic Taoist text is the
Tao Te Ching, ‘The Way and its Virtue’ also translated as ‘The Way and its Power’. It is a short text, and perhaps no other of comparative length has been translated so often and so variously.

Tao, the Way, has the connotation of a physical path actually to be walked. As theory only, it would not affect a practical mentality. But it is not a processing machine from which, neatly packed, identical products emerge. Bodhidharma, traditionally the founder of the Zen school, is supposed to have said: ‘All know the Way; few actually walk it.’

So the Way exists for the one who actually walks it as best he can, and keeps walking whether the going is smooth or rough. By this exercise the walker gets the use of his legs and develops strength of muscle as well as endurance. His eyes get used to recognizing stumbling blocks, slippery ground, pitfalls, quagmires, and other obstacles. When his strength and surefootedness are well developed, the Way ends—in nowhere. From now on he can be trusted to make his own way. Well used to the Way and to himself, he is sure to find one, making it as he goes along.

The second term in the title
Tao Te Ching refers to the strength that develops from walking the Way. If translated as ‘virtue’ it is in the sense of ‘by virtue of.’ Hence it does not connote a moral value but it is that depth from which morals and moral strength arise.

Tao and Te are complementary. In man, Te is the function of Tao. Both are intimately related and inseparable.

By virtue of walking the Way, the childish ‘I want’, the passions or emotions, are transformed. What in fact happens is that the energy (strength) loses the blind compulsion of a drive and becomes amenable to conscious choice. In this lies the virtue of seeing clearly and of being able to act in accordance with that seeing. This embraces all the truly human qualities, such as responsibility, justice, consideration, warmth of heart, joy, tolerance, compassion, awareness of strength of personality and its power and limits. For nobody has the right to manipulate anybody or to impress anybody with his stronger personality, not even for the other’s imagined good, for nobody can know what that good is. This is courtesy rather than callousness, for the other’s dignity is thus acknowledged, or the dignity of his grief is respected. If and when he is ready, the other will of himself reach out for consolation and feel free to ask for a hand to point out the way.

This is the place where the man of Tao and Te stands, and his way is ‘action by non-action’, refraining from all meddling in or interfering with things small or great. He is acting rightly because he acts with the whole of himself just when action is called for, instead of throwing himself like a spanner into the wheel of things, blindly, for the sake of doing something. A meddler has no rest and is prone to bring destruction in his wake. With whatever good will, to shout and awaken a sleep-walker on top of the roof will not help. It is better to wait quietly till he comes down and awakes. Then a gentle suggestion is in place so that precautions can be taken, the arrangements being left to him. The other is not a baby; he has his dignity and needs it sorely.

Such is the virtue of the man of Tao, by virtue of which he is free and this is his strength. Obviously this is not brute strength of muscle or mind which always imposes. Brute force is the reverse of the strength of restraint, of doing nothing when nothing is required.

While the walker follows the Way, the Way itself is the discipline which produces clear seeing and the strength to act in accordance with it. Then the Way ends; the walker is free of the Way, free of his own I-biased and deluded seeing. He himself has become the Way. So he acts out of his own nature.


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