Zen as Philosophical Discipline
by Kris Deva North
Founding Master of the Zen School of Shiatsu
In the library at Dharamsala they were dressed for debate, mallas wrapped around biceps, robes
round shoulders, arms free to gesticulate. The words of Shakyamuni Buddha had finally been committed
to writing four centuries after being spoken. So many words - fifty years of teachings compressed
into eighty volumes of scripture.
The patriarchs debated philosophical disciplines and such matters as the relative karmic
consequences of killing a real person or of killing an imaginary person.
"Enough," declared the rebel, Bodhidarma "How can we gain merit picking to pieces such unlikely
"Then how are we supposed to understand the scriptures?" said the Rinpoche, the one aware of his
"Dhyan. Meditate. Just do it," replied Bodhidarma, gathering his robe about him, crossing his
legs into lotus and gazing at the foot of the wall.
Later he rose and walked through the snowy Himalaya passes into Tibet, to find the ideas of the
Buddha enlivened there with demons and deities, dakhinis and bodhisattvas, sustained by hierarchical
monasticism, entrenched in illusion, with form, ritual and ceremony.
"For illusion to exist it must be observed, therefore the observer exists" he mused, "who must be
just as real as the illusion."
Wandering east along mossy trails, he felt thoughts and words clouding the moment of clarity.
"It is only my own experience that is real to me, as is our own to each of us, as was his own
to Shakyamuni. He tried to communicate this, but had to use words. Can we do without words, empty
the mind of all experience?"
"Or let go searching" remarked Lao Tse, asleep by the wayside.
Bodhidarma stopped. "How do you know I seek?"
"You move, therefore you seek. Whatever it is, is already there. You know it, even if you cannot
define or describe it. Do you dance?"
"Of course," replied Bodhidarma, "what spiritual teacher doesn’t?"
The Patriarch and the Celestial Master circled in stately rhythm, singing to the rocky hills.
Sang Lao Tse: "Being in the ordinary way, strolling through life, supremely at leisure."
Responded Bodhidarma: "Living each day intensely, as if your hair were on fire!"
"Tis simple to understand but not to explain," trilled the Sage.
Bodhidarma slowed, a slight frown creasing the fearsome brow.
"The idea of seeing your face before you were born is actually quite hard to understand and cannot
be explained at all."
"No understanding, no explanation," sang Lao Tse, "no thought, no talk,
just mystic quietism,
dancing or working,
healing or fighting,
loving or losing,
singing a song or sewing a seam,
coming or going, yet always at home."
"Ah," Bodhidarma beamed "mystic quietism - sitting in meditation, contemplating koans."
Lao Tse grinned as he hopped around a stone "Just sitting, just living, its all meditation.
Beyond definition, beyond description, beyond using words to promote the idea of no-words. Ch’an.
Just do it. "
"Long speech" said the Patriarch.
"You’re getting the idea," said the Sage, mounting an ox, "you only need words to heal, to comfort
and to teach." He sat still on its back as the ox plodded away, calling over his shoulder, "let good
fortune jump on you."
Bodhidarma strolled into the rising sun, contemplating the moment of not thinking, of connection
with reality. When you start to think, he thought, you’re back in mind and the moment has become of
the past. Our lives are spent heading for the future, away from the past, while the present slips by
unnoticed. Our lives are spent. We spend our lives. We spend. And yet to stop the mind thinking
is like asking the heart to stop beating. Is no-mind a philosophy? Is not-thinking a discipline?
There must be more to it than that!
He met the Yellow Emperor by way of the Dragon Gate and asked him "Why are we here?"
"Are we here? and if we are, why not? Do we need a reason? What reason could there be? To sit in
meditation until arms and legs wither? To pray to a god? To renounce society or to live in society?
To live right? What is right?"
With a mental shrug Bodhidarma gave up, and watched the dawn of subtle clear light and heard at last
the silent thunder: "Neither seek the truth nor cherish opinions. Zen. Just get on with it."
First published in and reproduced here by permission of Qi Magazine.