Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Three Essentials of Gaofeng Yuanmiao

When I first began to study Zen, I was very inspired by Philip Kapleau's book The Three Pillars of Zen.  The three pillars that Kapleau and his teachers talk about are: great faith, great doubt and great determination.  I have made them the core of my own practice and teaching ever since encountering them.  I always loved that Zen practice appears to need all three qualities.  Without faith, doubt and determination make for a grim practice.  Without determination, faith and doubt keep see-sawing back and forth, and our practice endlessly circles around.  And without doubt, faith and determination can turn us into cheerful proselytizers, without ever touching the deepest roots of this great mystery of being human.  The quality of doubt especially seemed unique to Zen.  Doubt is considered to be one of the hindrances in early Buddhist teachings and modern Insight practice.  To value doubt, which has been so prevalent in my own life, seemed just right.

Recently two  Zen teacher friends recommended that I look into a book published in 1600 in China, which came to influence countless Zen practitioners in both China and Japan, and was a favorite of the 18th century Japanese Zen master Hakuin Ekaku.   Jeffrey Broughton, a translator and scholar I have admired for other works, has brought his insight into the Chinese and Japanese languages to this book, The Chan Whip Anthology, originally written and collected by Yunqi Zhuhong, a Chinese Chan master.  I was excited to discover that the three pillars of Zen are referred to in the Chan Whip as the three essentials, and that they were taught originally by Zhuhong's Dharma ancestor Gaofeng Yuanmiao, who lived in the 13th century. 

Broughton translates the original Chinese characters for the three essentials as "great confidence," "determination of great fury," and "the sensation of great indecision-and-apprehension."  Great confidence feels more accurate to me than great faith.  To have great confidence in this path of Zen is to know that you have come home, and that, no matter what happens, you will continue to align with this feeling of being in the tradition that feels so right.  And rather than simply talking about great determination, Broughton adds this feeling of fury -- a fire in the mind, heart and belly that keeps burning.  And then there is indecision-and-apprehension, a feeling that is hard to explain in English, but that is familiar to anyone who has practiced the way of Zen seriously.   We have a sense of things not being right,
similar to but not exactly a feeling of anxiety. 

It's easy to value confidence, but this new translation helps me also value anger and fear, which transform, through the alchemy of Zen practice, into passion and not-knowing.  Broughton's choice of English words for these three essentials also helps us to find the practice in our bodies, not just through the vehicle of thinking.  And that, happily, returns us to the basics of Zen practice:  sitting upright and unmoving, present to everything that arises. 

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