Zen: the Way to Deliverance from Ignorance

by Dr. Eshin Nishimura

Hanazono University, Kyoto


I am here today from Japan as a speaker in this symposium on the Footsteps to Enlightenment to address you from the perspective of Zen Buddhism. The reason I refer to "Zen Buddhism" rather than "Zen" is that I am a Zen priest of the Rinzai Zen School and not because I teach the study of Zen from an academic standpoint as a university professor. If an academic would suffice, there are numerous Zen scholars in America as well as in Europe who could address the subject.

The theme, Footsteps to Enlightenment, has two implications: the historical development of the practice of the way to enlightenment, and the fundamental implication of the method by which Buddhism has been practiced by its followers. Of these implications I feel that the focus of today's deliberations is on the latter. Such being the case, I would like to discuss the distinctive features of the actual practice of Zen Buddhism.

It is often said that life is a series of encounters. In my own life, if I had not encountered Zen Buddhism in my very early childhood, I would not have the opportunity of this encounter with all of you today. I was born the youngest child among six in a family that was a member of a Rinzai Zen temple. Blessed with a profound karmic relationship with the Buddha, I entered the priesthood at age two and left my parents to live in a Zen temple as a priestling. Sixty years since, I have lived the life of a Zen priest, with no second thoughts or regrets.

Zen Buddhism has become the very foundation of my life. Frankly speaking, although I value my encounters with people of other Buddhist schools or of other religions and strive to truly understand their religious beliefs, I find it impossible to put myself in a neutral position. The fact that I am a member of the Zen Buddhist Sangha, with its weighty and long historical traditions and customs, and that I am supported by the grave and burdensome responsibility toward this tradition is not to be denied.

Such being the case, my presentation today on Zen Buddhism may sound self-serving; however if this were so, there would be no purpose in my having been invited to this symposium all the way from Japan. Therefore, although I will discuss Zen Buddhism as I usually do, I would like to look at the Buddhist religion as a whole, and focus on the meaning of faith in the tariki (power other than self) of Pure Land Buddhism as compared to the path of Zen Buddhism and its extremist practice and training in jiriki (self-power), which may be in keeping with the intent of today's symposium.

How is it possible for me, a Zen priest, to approach the "faith in power other than self" rationale of Pure Land Buddhism with an attitude of profound understanding? There is a precise explanation for this. I graduated as a Zen Buddhist student in the Department of Buddhist Studies at Hanazono University in 1956. For four years in college I learned that Zen Buddhism is a school of Buddhism that involved experiencing zazen (the meditative practice of just sitting) and satori (awakening); to debate the teachings of the Buddha from an academic standpoint was secondary. Having had no real experience in zazen or satori, it was impossible for me to write my graduation paper. I was truly perplexed.

In the fall of 1955, I encountered by pure chance, a special edition of an academic publication called Riso (Ideals) commemorating the centennial of the death of Kierkegaard -- Kierkegaard and Modern Times. I realized that the writings of Kierkegaard, the ideology of "existence" and the teachings of "self-examination," which is taught as the essence of Zen Buddhism, were bonded in common roots. Thrilled, I submitted a thesis entitled, The Essence of Kierkegaard and Zen.

During an oral examination on my thesis, however, I was thoroughly criticized for nearly two hours by Dr. Shin'ichi Hisamatsu, my academic adviser, on my prejudiced view of Christianity. This experience shattered my heretofore arrogant self-satisfied dream regarding Zen Buddhism. For the first time, I was able to look at my religion, Zen Buddhism, from a detached, impersonal and relative perspective. The opening of my heart toward my own religion served at the same time to open my heart toward people of various religions other than my own.


My preamble has been rather lengthy, but I will now address the actual practice of Zen Buddhism from my personal experience. As I alluded to before, Zen Buddhism differentiates itself from other Buddhist schools (schools founded on particular sutras) referring to our school as the Busshin-shu (School with the Heart of the Buddha). What does this mean? In a way, the raison d'etre of Zen Buddhism, which, in certain ways evolved naturally, does not have its basis in the texts recording the Buddha's forty-nine years of preaching. Rather, it is based on the person of Prince Siddhartha, who questioned life and the world, renounced His kingdom and family at age twenty-nine, studied under the guidance of non-Buddhist masters for six years, participating in austere practice, and at age thirty-five attained enlightenment. Twenty-five thousand years later, each of us is attempting to experience the religious practice of Siddhartha with our own minds and bodies.

I would like to introduce a paradigm of the Zen practice according to the Zenke Kikan, a classic Zen literary work written in Korea. This document extrapolates the three essential requisites for the practitioner of Zen Buddhism. They are, "Great Suspicion," "Great Conviction," and "Great Endeavor." Should one of the requisites be lacking, practice would be as useless as a tripod with one broken leg.

Let us focus on Great Suspicion. As you already know, one of the reasons for Prince Siddhartha's renunciation of the material world was his encounter with the four views on existence exhibited when he walked beyond the four gates of his palace. Siddhartha, for the first time in his life, was confronted with the shocking reality that old age, illness, and death await every human being without exception. He realized the emptiness of his luxurious life, and this realization shook up his daily life from its roots, making him doubt his very existence.

The Buddha is later quoted to have said, "How ignorant I was, to have turned away when I first encountered the reality of old age, illness, and death in our existence." If the Buddha had not encountered these realities, he would have merely continued to live on His life in falsity and ignorance. And we would not have encountered Buddhism.

To hold profound doubt regarding contradictions in life is the springboard for launching the journey in search of truth. It is often said that Zen Buddhism is a religion of satori, as if attaining satori were the entirety of the Zen practice. This is a great misunderstanding. In Zen Buddhism it is taught that "great enlightenment lies under great doubt (from the Daizo Goroku)," meaning that profound doubt is the prerequisite for satori. Where there is no doubt, satori cannot be expected.

As taught in the Heikiganroku, "the answer lies in the question"; the Zen practitioner discovers meaning of great magnitude in the motive. One may practice zazen daily; however, if the motive were ambiguous, that person, for all eternity, would find no release from human suffering. "The one opportunity for dauntlessness lies in the singular aspiration for the realization of buddhahood. An idle practitioner takes an eternity to attain Nirvana," said Monk Ekaku Hakuin. The practice of Zen Buddhism should not be an idle passage of time. There are two alternatives for one about to embark on the practice of Zen Buddhism. That person does, or does not, have bodhi-citta (the spirit of aspiration for enlightenment). As Dogen wrote in his opening statement in the Gakudo Yojinshu, "Bodhi-citta is the spirit that sees the impermanence of life," which means to profoundly question the impermanent and ephemeral nature of life and society.

I have heard that those who hope to embrace religions that stress soteriology, such as Christianity and Pure Land Buddhism, hold as a prerequisite the self-realization of one's sins. If this is so, this motivation for faith, in comparison with that for Zen Buddhism, is rather sentimental. In the case of Zen Buddhism, it seems that the motivation for embracing this faith is more intellectual.

There are today, numerous Zen centers throughout the world where people live in Zen communities. But if life in the Zen center is merely perceived as an ideal existence detached from the tumultuous present-day society, it becomes sensual escapism and not a way to acquire the strength to live in full awareness of today's secular society. From the standpoint of Zen Buddhism, the true starting point is an examination of the reality of life and to hold genuine skepticism for the human suffering of those who have to live in this world. The thought of Zen Buddhism ought to be that only in this anguish and through the examination of this suffering can one attain resolution of this dilemma.


The second important prerequisite for the study of Zen Buddhism is Great Conviction. As long as Zen Buddhism is a school of Buddhism, faith must be a prerequisite for entrance into the Great Ocean of the Dharma, as described in the Flower Garland Sutra, "Faith is of utmost necessity for entrance into the ocean of Buddhism," and "Faith is the mother of all merit in Buddhism, increasing all virtues, eliminating all doubt, and manifesting supreme enlightenment."

In Pure Land Buddhism, "faith" probably means belief in Amida Buddha, which validates for the practitioner that this faith results in salvation for the common people by the grace of Amida Buddha. So it follows that faith in Pure Land Buddhism has to be the final and ultimate resting place for the practitioner.

From this standpoint, in concert with belief in the self-power of Zen Buddhism, referral to Great Conviction is a prerequisite for the initiation of the Zen practice. In other words, this applies to unshakable faith. Without faith, practice cannot be initiated. Faith, like doubt, is the moving force in the motivation for practice.

Put another way, it may be possible to look at the power other than self credo of Pure Land Buddhism as a contrasting belief; Great Conviction in Zen Buddhism can be described as faith within oneself, or a form of confidence in one's power. If Great Suspicion is the basic skepticism in one's existence, then to say that Great Conviction within oneself is a prerequisite for practice seems to be contradictory. It truly is a contradiction.

In the practice of Zen Buddhism, however, we must accept these contradictions. While holding doubt within oneself, one must validate the fact that only one can save oneself. It means not to rely on anything extrinsic but to face hopelessness with hopelessness. The basic koan (conundrum) in Zen Buddhism is, "What do you do when there is nothing else one can do?" We believe that there is nothing to do but to become one with the koan. Becoming one with the koan establishes faith in the believer. I believe that this is the foundation of Great Conviction.

Since there is no object to this faith, it has no alternative but to transform into a mass of faith. The faithful self and the self that is the object of faith must become one -- this is the meaning of Great Conviction in Zen Buddhism. The third patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China, Master Sosan, says in his Shinjinmei, "Faith is the object of faith, and the mind is where we place our faith. Only when the mind attains faith can one know that one is one's mind. It is as if one is an orb that emits light which then shines upon oneself. Therefore, faith and heart are not separate entities."

Great Conviction, as espoused by Zen Buddhism, is the person seeking emancipation to become one with his own person while harboring Great Suspicion. At this stage, the self that holds many doubts about one's existence and the self that seeks relief become melded into a single spirit. Emancipation means that this spirit becomes satiated and dissolves like an ice cube in the sun.


The third prerequisite in Zen practice is Great Endeavor. This means to stake one's life on the practice. The Soto Zen School, although also a school of Zen Buddhism, is different from the Rinzai School, which has adopted the traditional path of Kan'na Zen (enlightenment through koan), a practice which was established during the Sung Dynasty in China. It is taught that "religious truth can be acquired only after abandoning self," and undergoing a decisive religious experience is required. This means that one must dismantle and destroy one's "old" self. Usually, we live by our ego, and we live by self-awareness. The ego has to be totally and completely destroyed.

Beyond this juncture is a realm that one cannot enter without actual practice. The training is very perilous; one must be able to accept possible death. If one studies the Buppon Gyoshukyo, a biography of Sakyamuni Buddha, one learns that the Buddha practiced the Metsujinjo (the Samadhi of Cessation which renders the practitioner near death) after having mastered the Four meditations in the world of form and the Four Meditations in the world of the formless observed by the nonbuddhist practitioners. The practice of the Metsujinjo is referred to as Zazen Samadhi, which is so austere that a practitioner nearly transforms into the living dead. In the history of Zen Buddhism, those august masters who transmitted the true Dharma, without exception, experienced this state of near-death practice. However, this path, on which one must stake one's life, is only possible for the very stalwart; there must also be a mentor available who is right and peerless.

This practice of near-death endeavor may plunge one into a state of ecstasy in an ethereal realm or into a torturous realm as if one's whole body were being pierced by darts; it may also cause one to experience psychological manifestations of the Evil Realm that torment the practitioner. The practitioner has to have unshakable resolve in order to conquer these phenomena. This is Great Endeavor. Only when the practitioner succeeds in conquering this austere practice is he able to "enter the state of Tathagata immediately." He will joyously reside in the state of satori, released from the sufferings of existence from which he has tried to escape.

It would be superfluous to say that "only one person or perhaps only a half person" out of a hundred or a thousand, is able to achieve such an experience; the practice of Zen Buddhism is that austere, and well-nigh impossible for most human beings.

To practice Zen to perfection, therefore, is only possible for a small segment of the elite; ordinary people can only look toward these people as paragons and do as much as one can within one's capabilities. This is the common understanding of the practice of Zen Buddhism as traditionally transmitted through history; the zazen practiced today by society in general is but a poor imitation of the historically transmitted Zen practice by esteemed masters.

According to the teaching of traditional Zen Buddhism, even after having attained satori, one is merely at the threshold of Zen; the ensuing practice is even more critical. Practice subsequent to satori is called the "path that ascends to loftier heights," which means to go beyond satori. The ancients have said, "Advance further; take yet another step," and the meaning of this admonition is that "as one presses upward and onward, the master will not teach," which means that the patriarchs do not transmit anything further. To aspire to reach the tip of the rod is a monumental task; one is told to go a step beyond -- what does this imply? This is indeed the ultimate attainment that the practitioner of Zen Buddhism should pursue with great endeavor. The aim of Zen practice is to supersede satori. Satori is not the ultimate goal. In Zen Buddhism, Gotokuchi (the specific wisdom which is acquired after the fundamental wisdom) is strictly taught. This is the wisdom beyond the realms of the wisdom of satori, which makes it possible to understand the suffering of all sentient beings who cannot be encompassed by the wisdom of the Buddha. From the distant past, Zen Buddhism has perceived its ultimate existence as living with all sentient beings writhing in evil passions. Here, too, I feel that there is commonality between Zen and faith in Pure Land Buddhism.