4. Personal Transformation: Cases Reflecting Doubt, Experience, and Expression

From: Zen Koans

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Going to Extremes in Pursuit of Spiritual Freedom Buddhism as a major world religious tradition and the Zen school in particular are often characterized as representing a middle path that navigates between extreme ideological stances. These standpoints cover philosophical principles, such as absolutism versus relativism and theism versus atheism, as well as psychological outlooks, including optimism as opposed to pessimism or passionate attachment as opposed to indifference. According to the basic Buddhist approach, any and all theoretical or emotional views, however reasonable they may seem, when taken to their logical conclusion, will invariably lead to a problematic position reflecting an underlying fixation or obsession. Stubborn adherence to an extreme view must be avoided and abandoned at all costs in order to shed delusion and pave the way for a realization of enlightenment. For example, seeing all values as relative and qualified without preference or partiality may seem to constitute a positive objective approach, but if this ideological stance results in an inability to make distinctions or causes arbitrary decisions, it turns into a deficiency. In addition, love is a sentiment well respected for greatly benefiting other people, but if the feeling defaults to blind loyalty so as to protect a favored person at the expense of the group, then this virtue quickly becomes counterproductive. However, reversing course from endorsing one set of extreme views by moving to the other end of the spectrum in holding fast to the contradictory standpoints of monism CHAPTER 4 Personal Transformation Cases Reflecting Doubt, Experience, and Expression 98 zen koans or indifference does not constitute a viable alternative. Instead, this swing only compounds the degree of incomprehension. The need to adopt a middle path reached not by a weak sense of compromise but by not succumbing to either of two problematic options that can be considered extreme is articulated in the verse comment on Gateless Gate case 2. This koan deals with the perennial question of whether a Zen master who has reached the state of transcendence remains bound by or is free from the law of karmic causality . If freedom from cause and effect prevails, then the master can feel above the law and commit transgressions without consequence, but if bondage to causality is the unbreakable law of the universe, then what constitutes the certification of the Zen master’s enlightenment ? Wumen’s poem says that whichever side of the debate is chosen is somewhat misguided: Bound by or free from causality— Two sides of the coin. Free from or bound by causality, A thousand errors and tens of thousands of mistakes! Therefore, clinging to a potentially detrimental conceptual construct , no matter how logically necessary it may appear to be at first, in effect creates what is called “the tail of the buffalo.” This bizarre image, suggested by Gateless Gate case 38, indicates that any lingering attachment to a potentially extreme viewpoint, even if it functions on a subconscious level, causes an insurmountable impasse. The obstacle prevents the animal from passing through a window although the larger portions of head, torso, and legs are pushed along. The symbolism suggests that the “telltale tail” removes the ignorant party from any chance of fully and finally overcoming the causes of suffering. According to Wumen’s verse comment, “This tiny little tail, / What a strange thing it is!” The main issue in Buddhist spirituality is achieving the transformation necessary for enlightenment. In most Buddhist schools, the assumption is that if one is born into the world as a human being, one is not yet enlightened and needs to follow specific practices in order to uproot desire and come to know things as they are. In Zen, by contrast, the presumption that became widespread was that people’s Personal Transformation 99 minds are inherently luminous, and so enlightenment is not so much a discovery or a change of nature as a recovery and reconciliation with the nature one possesses but does not fathom. This is not an attainment or a gain at all, but a realization of Buddha-nature in everyday life. In that sense, what makes Zen practice inherently a dilemma causing great doubt is the paradox of becoming what one already is, which is a difficult feat given acquired deficient habits. Koans are designed to facilitate pushing practitioners into the living dynamic of this dilemma in order to help catapult them to a standpoint that ultimately breaks through it. Despite this emphasis on taking a middle path, attaining personal transformation as the entrée to the...