Chapter Fourteen

Beginner’s Mind


One hand clapping makes a sound

in the land where flying geese

move forward in the same place

and the winds of time

fluxing and refluxing at a constant rate

strum a strange kind of differential analysis,

where consequence is inconsequence

and blind logic, drowned in the spirit bottle,

lets loose the joyful goose.

In the upside down dance

the world is still

moving in a flash of lightening’s speed

and the silent watcher

heeding the spectral junk on darkening waters

climbs downwards for his tea.



The Zen Quest, May 26th 1954

My visit to Ngong Ping Monastery had rekindled my interest in Buddhism, which had begun while reading Christmas Humphreys’ book on the subject3* during our voyage out East. I had felt a considerable sympathy for many Buddhist ideas and could not dismiss them as easily as I did most of the metaphysical notions of Christianity. As a biologist with an interest in evolutionary theory, mystical notions in the interpretation of life seemed to me as out of place as Yannang too had averred.

One day I expressed my interest to Ma Meng. I was visiting his home near the university and he mentioned the matter to his father, Professor Ma Kiam, a much revered man of letters in Hong Kong. The old man was taking a kindly interest in me and had already shown me some wonderful classical paintings. He wrote a letter of introduction to Yen Shiliang, a businessman who had trained on retreats with the famous and very Venerable Master Hsu Yun, the key teacher of Zen Buddhism in China early this century. Yen Shiliang, he told me, was a most lucid expositor of Ch’an and, if I could join his discussion group, I would learn much.

I guessed that a young English army officer would not be the type of person Mr Yen would expect to have in his group, especially since I knew no Chinese. He responded kindly to the letter of introduction, however, and invited me along. I started attending the weekly meetings. There were two Chinese doctors, several businessmen and Mr Yen himself. We met in one of the doctors’ consulting rooms where we had tea and talked.

Yen Shiliang was discussing the famous Platform Sutra of Hui Neng who lived between ad 638 and 713. The Sutra has two parts. The first purports to be a biography of this famous master. He was an illiterate woodsman who, on hearing some words of the Diamond Sutra chanted by a nun, immediately perceived their significance and had a moment of deep insight. He sought out the teachings by going to a monastery. The insight he had gained spontaneously turned out to be more profound than that of any monk there but, for a long time, the abbot of the monastery could not acknowledge this for fear of evoking the jealousy of the monks. The story is a wonderful account of human failings, doubts, self-judgement, sloth and intuition. After Hui Neng won a competition in which a single verse of insight was required, he was secretly given transmission and became the next patriarch of the sect. He had to run and hide from persecution by other monks but eventually emerged to teach. The second part of the Sutra contains his teachings.

Mr Yen read a passage from the Sutra in Cantonese and then put it into fluent English for my benefit. Although most of the participants knew some English, I was the only European present and felt this effort to communicate to be a very kind gesture. Mr Yen then launched into a personal commentary on the text.

Our discussions focused on the method of obtaining the central Buddhist experience – the state of enlightenment. To the Theravadin school of Ceylon and Burma this is only attained after many lifetimes of diligent self-discipline and abstention from all the attractions of this world. In China and Japan, the Zen school, called Ch’an in Chinese, emphasises a form of insight, which is a sudden recognition of the ground of all objective and subjective phenomena. This insight is believed to constitute the core of the Buddha’s discovery. Such a realisation is, at first, merely a glimpse of the basis of mind beyond the personal constructions of the self, but, later, it provides a security of mind which cannot be touched by circumstance. To attain this insight there must first be awareness.

Awareness cannot be an object of striving nor can it be treated as a goal because, when this is so, the mind is divided. Attachment to an idea of what it might be and an ambition to succeed in something not yet understood constitutes a serious error. In the appropriate awareness there must be no discriminatory thought, no clinging to belongings, place or form, no desire even to become aware, for so to desire is to prevent realisation, by splitting the mind between what one is and what one wants.

Mr Yen paraphrased the story for us.4* The Master had asked, “Think of your body as a tree and your mind as a mirror held by it. How will you preserve its clarity?” He was using the metaphor of the mirror for the condition of awareness that is simply a direct appreciation of what is, without judgement or obscuration by thought.

The senior monk had answered, “I would clean and polish the mirror keeping it free from all stain and blemish. I would feed and prune the tree, keeping it healthy and keeping both free from dirt and harm.”

When Hui Neng heard of this answer he blurted out, “But – but – there is no mirror, there is no tree. Where does the dirt come from?”

The master made no comment at the time but he knew Hui Neng had the deeper insight. Hui Neng knew from experience, as, of course, did the master, that when awareness was present, there was just a vast spacious clarity with no intellectual content and that concepts like mirror or tree had then no meaning.

The senior monk typified what is called the Gradual School focusing on persistent effort to attain cleanliness, to reach nirvana, to understand truth, to become an Arhat – enlightened. In this approach there is time, there is the aim to reach a goal. But all these methods and goals are no different from ideas about Heavens and Gods. They are wishful projections of the mind filled with desire for another state.

“Intentions and goals,” Mr Yen told us, “are complementary to one another and express the desires of the self. Without intention there is no goal, without a goal no intention. Should one of them be satisfied, the other disappears. If you reach heaven without understanding desire, a vista of further heavens soon arises. This is the wheel of suffering driven by beginningless desire.”

He went on, “Gradual change and slow modification remain within the midst of conditions. This is not a fundamental shift, no bursting through the bounds of fate set upon us by our environment and our conditioning. There is no direct realisation of the ground. Gradual paths remain relative to conditions and hence continue to express them.

“You must know,” he continued, “that the realisation of the truth is unconditional, outside convention, swift, sudden, like a flash of lightening through cloud, the abrupt opening of a door or the sudden dropping of a bucket. Such flashes may be brief and barely noticed but they are the first steps to total light.

“Let me tell you an old story,” he went on. “When Dhamo (Cantonese for Bodhidharma), the founder of Ch’an in China, first appeared before the Emperor he bowed low. The Emperor told him about how he had given gifts to the poor, to monasteries and in support of the teachings and wondered what his merit might be, merit to secure him a beneficial rebirth. The Emperor asked whether he had any virtue. The reply was immediate, ‘None whatsoever.’

“Understandably, the Emperor was both hurt and surprised.

“‘What then is the first principle of Buddhism?’ he cried.

“‘Vast emptiness,’ said Dhamo.

“The Emperor, not understanding and doubtless feeling exasperated, demanded testily, ‘Who then stands before me?’

“‘I haven’t the faintest idea,’ said Dhamo.”

Yen Shiliang explained, “In this dramatic manner, Dhamo, who was speaking from inside his realisation, tried to show the Emperor that the presumptions of the mind are a hindrance for in its very thinking it sets up conditions. Thoughts consist of attachments to objects or ideas; any such attachment will prevent the realisation of which we are speaking. It is not possible to become aware of the ‘nothing that is something’ if one’s mind is puzzling over the ‘something that is nothing’!

“So often we gasp at the beauty of a view or practice a meditation that brings us to stillness of the mind: for a moment the mind is poised on the brink of awareness and then some thought creeps in, sticking it to a prior understanding as glue might do. The whole purpose of Ch’an is to topple the self over into a sea of awareness if only for an instant. It is this loss of self-reference, that is essential. One may find that a timeless second reveals that time itself is empty of self. There is no way to such an experience. It either happens or it does not.”

One of the doctors objected, “It is all very well to speak of the uselessness of the gradual approach, yet even the Buddha himself went though intense training, asceticism and learning.”

Mr Yen paused. “Yes, that is true but there is a qualitative difference between the gradual and the sudden. The Buddha became aware that great learning, much reading, wise talking, even ascetic practices, all comprised mental activities supporting a personal view of the self which, merely circles around a central conceptless awareness. When he gave up his attachment to self, he immediately found the peace and enlightenment he sought. The Buddha revealed the manner in which such things are made real to one in personal experience. He never said that his exact words should be followed to the letter.

The basis for becoming aware can perhaps be prepared for in some ways; reading the teachings, for example, and comprehending them; or practising meditation, but if the mind is focused by an intention which necessarily centres on the self, no awareness arises. This is why Dhamo and the Patriarchs emphasise the uselessness of the scriptures in this regard. The way requires a sudden leap under the guidance of the master which comes about in its own time. This is passing the Gateless Gate or walking the No Way Way. Learning and understanding of worldly matters are only stepping stones, not prerequisites. An illiterate can uncover enlightenment.”

Another time Mr Yen pursued the notion of stepping stones further. Even on the faster path it is often only little by little that we advance.

“A businessman once asked a monk to show him the Way. They travelled together for a long time, over high mountains, through fertile valleys where the rice crop was rich every year. After a while they hit upon a desert. For days they wandered seeking to cross it. At last the pupil cried out, ‘I cannot go on. I no longer see a path. It is impossible. We must return to the security of the last frontier fort.’

“‘Right!’ said the monk, ‘we will stop right here. See, there are trees around us.’

“At once an oasis appeared around them with a large hotel by a shining lake. They stayed for a month and one morning the monk asked, ‘Do you think you have found the way? Are you happy here in this beautiful oasis?’

“‘Yes,’ said the man, ‘I feel as if I am well on the way and in this place I have found much happiness.’

“‘So well and good,’ said his guide. ‘It is time to continue the journey.’

“Once more there was only the whine of the desert wind eddying the sand over the dunes.”

So it is, Mr Yen told us, with all forms of worldly happiness and learning. After reading a book; after some material achievement or career advancement; after living a while in a happy place, one has to beware of stagnation. Real insight always lies in the flux of things, in a moving on. It is no good building up treasures on earth ‘where moth and rust corrupt’ or becoming fixated on certain places or teachers. This goal of Zen, which is no goal at all, lies within and beyond such things. It is time to move on.

“Even if you met the Buddha and stayed with him learning great wisdom, there would come a time when you would have to leave him and carry on alone. It is you who have to make the discovery, Mr Crook, whatever the Buddha’s discovery may have been to him is of no use to you. These discoveries are lonely matters. When you are crossing a river do not get attached to a stepping stone. These explorations always involve enquiries to which there are no answers on the original level of the investigation. Pause a moment within the question and without moving from it: lo – the solution is found within the problem itself.”

One Monday, I arrived in good time, before the room had been cleared of patients. Mr Yen had arrived too and we had Chinese tea and some of his home-made cakes together. He had had some extracts from the Sutra typed up for me in English by his own translation. This was a great help and I was touched for all the books were otherwise available only in Chinese and quite unintelligible to me.

We discussed that part of the Sutra where the Fifth Patriarch calls his successor-elect to him in the dead of night and passes to him the robe and bowl. He imparts to him some of the vital teachings especially the line from the Diamond Sutra: ‘Use the mind empty of projecting thoughts.’

“The projecting, thought-filled foreground of awareness is anything produced by the bias of one’s conditioning which creates interpretations of what one hears and sees. Such interpretation distances one from an immediate experience. Sometimes this is called the influence of ‘Me and Mine’ because such conditioning is always related to one’s personal wants and to the maintenance of an image of oneself.

“When you look at a drinking glass you assume the image you have of it to be really there but, when you look away, how do you know it remains or has any reality at all? This ‘reality’ resides in an inference which continues after perception. The connection between ‘what is’ and ‘what is seen by the mind’ lies in inference and inference inherits all the projecting background of our personal and collective past. The glass is only such because of its functional use, its social meaning, its manufacture according to specification. Seen otherwise, it is a silicon compound which, when we shift our frame of reference to a physical vocabulary, is of a certain atomic structure floating in space. Yet the immediate apprehension of the glass in my hand is direct, immediate. There need be no interpretation. I drink the wine!

“To see reality in direct, uninterpreted awareness, mental and personal bias and the very image of one’s self, which you may feel to be so important, all need to drop away. If we tinge an object with what we expect or would like it to be, it becomes a social confection. Without such a tinge, things in Zen are seen naked, just as they are. And this applies especially to your very own understanding of yourself, to your proud self-image. You see, Buddhism is a kind of psychological nudism!

“When the Patriarch was teaching him this, Hui Neng found it matching his personal experience and exclaimed: ‘Who could have expected that the root of mind is originally naked of self and pure?

“‘Who could have expected that the root of mind is without thought of either becoming or extinction?

“‘Who could have thought that the root of mind was without self yet self-sustaining?

“‘Who could have expected that the root of mind cannot be shaken or changed?

“‘Who could have expected that the root of mind manifests all in all?

“When you experience the root of mind yourself, Mr Crook, you will be able to confirm this, expressing it not in the same words but in your own. Such an expression, however it may take shape, will tell a Master that you know for yourself. This communication may then lead to a transmission of the teaching; that is a mutual acknowledgement of understanding between master and practitioner. The root of mind is simply the experience of being without judgements, criticisms, valuation, discrimination. We may simply call it ‘awareness’. What awareness is aware of stands immediately before it. No interpretations project themselves upon the clear space.”

I felt this connected with something I had known before in my life. How, though, was I to experience it again?




Exactly so

During our group discussion that evening I raised a question that had been bothering me. In the Prajnaparamita Sutras the No Soul doctrine of the Buddha expands into an insight revealing the emptiness of all things due to their impermanence. Yet in Buddhism there is also the idea of self-reincarnation.

“In Buddhism there appear to be two tendencies, the idea of no soul and the idea of personal reincarnation. If there is no soul how can there be reincarnation?”

Mr Yen argued that there was indeed no soul in the European or Christian sense of that word. What was thought to be reincarnated was the totality of unexpended causes left behind at the end of a life and which have their effects in the next, settling upon the unborn child in the womb, the child itself of course being biological reincarnation.

“If, then, at death all bones, sinews and flesh dissolve to dust, atoms, energy, nothingness, how is it that this little package of unexpended causes retains its identity?” I persisted.

And that was as far as I got. Until then we had had a to-ing and fro-ing of question and answer but now Mr Yen shifted to a different tack.

“Who could know the answer to that?” he responded. “Whatever clever speculation we may enjoy, the only answer to that question lies within yourself. Who knows? Who could know? My dear Sir, who are you? What are you? When you look at your own unexpended causes and their origins perhaps something can be found. Do you not recognise in yourself themes that come from a very distant past, before you were born? Only the enlightened can solve such a paradox and perhaps the solution is not communicable. Orient yourself first towards the central experience and then perhaps the issue may become clear, or the question perhaps unnecessary. The premises are mistaken so there is no answer on the plane of insight. You are too much attached to reasoning and puzzling things out. Only the direct experience counts.”

Defensively, I remarked that I had asked not so much for myself as to comprehend the Buddhist teaching on the subject.

Mr Yen’s eyes twinkled with a rapier-like humour.

“My dear Sir. If you ask for the sake of knowing the doctrine you are still asking for yourself!”

We all laughed and agreed that question and answer were fair ones. Somewhere, however, the Buddha had said that such questions tended not to edification. Only a direct knowing counts.

“So,” I said, still trying to clear the matter up. “The question is of no importance because it does not matter whether one believes the anatta doctrine of no soul or the notion of reincarnation or either or neither. In fact it does not matter whether one calls oneself a Buddhist or a Christian for, in reality, names have no ultimate meaning. They are just contextual expressions in particular cultures, relative themes functioning as social conventions bolstering personal security. Belief and opinion are of no importance if the true knowing is there, or at least the apprehension of its possibility. Words and arguments matter not a jot if one knows.”

I had asked out of a sense of befuddlement and a slight irritation. Mr Yen held me with a look.

“Exactly so,” he said.

Then it seemed I had answered my own question and a feeling of exhilaration, of escape from the meshes of definition and seeking to understand, came over me. Strangely enough the answer really did seem to lie in the problem!

I felt my questioning had put Mr Yen on his mettle for he seemed very pleased with the evening’s talk and thanked me for my contribution. Everyone seemed very satisfied and we all went out chuckling in the polite Chinese way.

These questions were more subtle and difficult than those of any conversation I had had in England. Rarely had I found myself outmanoeuvred in a discussion of religious or psycho-metaphysical matters. If there was a shift in viewpoint to be made, it was usually I who made it. Usually I was able to persuade or at least hold my own in such discussions. Indeed I must have been an insufferable student. At university I used to attend Christian meetings and wait until the speaker used the word God. I would then ask him to define God, remarking that without a definition I could not see how his talk could proceed. Basing his talk in conventional assumptions, no speaker was ever able to answer me.

Here I am up against a very different interlocutor. I can argue, with ability and precision, the premises and inferences tidily related, and Mr Yen will follow me, give a partial answer along the same lines and then, suddenly, with a look and a few deft phrases of equally clear reasoning, he sweeps all my contribution to one side. Lo and behold, the conversation has entered another dimension, still the same subject, still logical, yet in a realm in which only he is master and in which I can only hover along behind, trying to follow his fluent discourse and the extending reach of his mind. It is all very good for me!

The two doctors are in much the same position as I. Mr Yen sweeps them along just as neatly. He is a past master at conversation, never getting into an argument yet always bringing his viewpoint home with sound reasons. What is new for me is the way he calls on the intuitive as well as the intellectual intelligence. It is this which gives his words such added power and makes them fly.

These Buddhist ideas do not rest on logical reasoning alone. Reason only “circles about and about for evermore” bringing us back in through the door through which we went. He seems to speak justly when he says “One either knows or one does not.” So far this knowing is however only within his dimension, not mine. It is as if he suddenly uses an entirely fresh verbal ‘conjugation’ which shifts the whole context of a conversation into another register.

One of the regimental subalterns, with whom I discussed these ideas, calls them all “false dreams and vain imaginings.” Maybe so, but then what isn’t and who is to judge? The whole subject calls for a kind of empathy that very few Westerners seem to have. Yet some of my Western acquaintances here, who have lived long in the East, seem familiar with it, Professor Kirby, Mr A.C. Scott and Brook Bernacchi seem to move easily in these dimensions. Only a few of my younger army friends have any idea of what I am talking about. Mr Yen tells me that Europeans have from time to time attended his meetings but not often. Certainly I am twenty years younger than most of the participants who go there now. Yet I find it difficult to say how old Chinese people are. Mr Yen might be thirty, he might be eighty. What is time and where is memory? What was Mr Yen? What is Mr Yen?