Garma C. C. Chang on the Practice of Zen (Part 1)

Part 2 is here.

Have you read a book that changed you fundamentally—one that you return to time and again only to discover things you’d never seen before?

Such a book is like a lover who stays with you for decades, calls you on your bullshit, and loves you unconditionally at the same time.

Since 1973, when I first encountered it, The Practice of Zen by Garma C. C. Chang has become such a book for me.

I’ve stopped counting the number of times I’ve reread this. It is, like Ezra Pound said, “news that stays news.”

I read a lot about Zen and humbly attempt to practice it. But out of the vast literature on the subject, The Practice of Zen grants me the most clarity. 

So, I’m reading the book again and posting my notes. This will be in two parts, and I hope that you enjoy the ride.

Taking enlightenment lightly

There is a part of me—the result of being raised Lutheran—that approaches spirituality not just seriously but fearfully. This makes sense if you believe that the whole game is about avoiding an eternity of torment in a special place reserved for nonbelievers.

In Zen Buddhism, this perspective is largely absent. The practice is serious but not solemn.

In fact, there is attitude of detachment and humor that pervades the whole teaching. It echoes G. K. Chesterton, who said, “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

Chang quotes a dialogue between two Zen masters that proceeds in this spirit. It illustrates the Zen ideal of moving from abstract concepts to concrete details:

One day Chao Chou and Wen Yuan played a debating game. They agreed that whoever won the argument would be the loser, and whoever lost the argument would be the winner. As a prize, the loser should give the winner some fruit.

“You speak first,” said Wen Yuan to Chao Chou. 

So the following dialogue ensued:  

Chao Chou: I am an ass.  

Wen Yuan: I am the stomach of that ass.  

Chao Chou: I am the feces that the ass has dropped.  

Wen Yuan: I am a worm in the feces.  

Chao Chou: What are you doing in the feces?  

Wen Yuan: I spent my summer vacation there.  

Chao Chou: All right. Now give me the fruit.

Before Zen study, I saw story this as gibberish. With Zen study, I see that it points to the core of Buddhism. 

If I ever hear a conversation like that between two Lutheran ministers, I’m going back to church again.

What is Zen?

Believe it or not, there is a simple answer to this question. According to Chang, Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of Ch’an, a Chinese word for meditation. And Ch’an is a corruption of Dhyana, a Sanskrit word for meditation.

“In other words,” Chang notes, “Zen is a mispronunciation of another mispronunciation!”

If asked to define Zen during a happy hour conversation, this is probably what I’d say. I’d sidestep the real challenge—that Zen is profound and nearly impossible to describe.

Even for Chang, a Zen monk and Buddhist scholar, Zen is something “round and rolling, slippery and slick.” 

This is not a bug in Buddhist mental software, however, but a core feature: The practice aims at a life-changing and intuitive insight that transcends words.

Beyond clinging to concepts

If there is a unifying theme in all the Zen literature I’ve read, it’s enlightenment as seeing the world without the screen of concepts. Chang gives this example from the sixth Zen patriarch’s remarks to his student, Hui Ming:

“If you have come here for Dharma, you should first cast aside all mental activity and let no thoughts whatsoever arise in you. Then I shall preach the Dharma for you.”

After a long time of silence, the Sixth Patriarch continued, “Not thinking of good, not thinking of evil, right at this very moment, that is your original face.”

Hui Ming was immediately enlightened.  

The same theme comes to us from many other sources. See, for example, In My Own Way, the autobiography of Alan Watts:

It [Zen] continues, in its own way, the general practice of Buddhism, which is to free the mind from its habitual confusion of words, ideas, and concepts with reality, and from all those emotional disturbances and entanglements which flow from this confusion. Thus the ego, time, the body, life, and death are all viewed as concepts having neither more nor less reality than abstract numbers or measures, such as inches or ounces.  

Seung Sahn, a Korean Zen master, says:

If you are thinking, then all Zen books, all Buddhist sutras, all Bibles are demons’ words. But if you read with a mind that has cut off all thinking, then Zen books, sutras, and Bibles are all the truth. So is the barking of a dog or the crowing of a rooster: all things are teaching you at every moment, and these sounds are even better teaching than Zen books. So Zen is keeping the mind which is before thinking.  

And in Zen Bow, Zen Arrow, John Stevens describes the origin of satori, a Japanese word often used as a synonym for enlightenment:

This can be translated literally as (sa) distinctions (tori) remove—that is, to remove all artificially constructed distinctions such as mind/body, self/other, correct/incorrect, archer/bow, arrow/target, and so on. In short, satori is “to transcend dualities.”  

But my favorite rendering of this teaching is a poem that Chang lovingly translates from Zen Master Hung Chih:

Silently and serenely one forgets all words;
Clearly and vividly
That appears before him.
When one realizes it, it is vast and without edges;
In its Essence, one is clearly aware.
Singularly reflecting is this bright awareness,
Full of wonder is this pure reflection.
Dew and the moon,
Stars and streams,
Snow on pine trees,
And clouds hovering on the mountain peaks—
From darkness, they all become glowingly bright;
From obscurity, they all turn to resplendent light….
Oh look! The hundred rivers flow
In tumbling torrents
To the great ocean!