On Zen Buddhism

RLST 510 Midterm, Vered Arnon 

Part One. 

Hui Neng’s notion of “no thought” is similar to Lin Chi’s notion of “mind that does not differentiate”. Hui Neng’s notion of no-thought is the main doctrine of his teaching. According to his teaching, enlightenment is achieved through an instant of no-thought. No-thought refers to the principle of form being equal to emptiness. It is also represented by the Dharmakaya of the Trikaya. Through meditation one cuts off attachment to thoughts, first perceiving thoughts as things (Nirmanakaya) then recognising thoughts as empty (Samboghakaya) and then finally letting go of thoughts altogether though the recognition that the interdependency of form and emptiness reveals the true original nature of all (Dharmakaya).

Lin Chi’s “mind that does not differentiate” is the same as Hui Neng’s notion of “no-thought”. It is the basis of Lin Chi’s teaching as well. According to Lin Chi, not thinking and not acting is key to the progress towards enlightenment. One must not seek, one must not get “stuck”. Through realising the interdependency of attached thought (which can correlate to Hui Neng’s notion of Nirmanakaya) and non-attached thought (which can correlate to Hui Neng’s notion of Samboghakaya) one can achieve the state of the “mind that does not differentiate”. Lin Chi puts great emphasis on recognising the interdependency of things that seem to be opposite or incompatible. (Lin Chi focuses on interdependency while Hui Neng focuses on thought itself.) Lin Chi’s notion of mind that does not differentiate is key to his study of the koans, the koans give one a hinge from which to become “unstuck” and progress towards a state of nondifferentiation. Key to Lin Chi’s notion is that even being stuck is a manifestation of interdependancy. The realisation of and recognition of the pure interdependency brings one to a point that transcends differentiation and duality, thus enlightenment arises.

Both notions are the foundations of these thinkers’ views, and are also key to their understanding of how enlightenment is achieved.

Part Two.

According to the text of the Platform Sutra, there was a doctrinal split between the Northern and Southern schools of thought. The basic elements of this split consisted of the Northern perspective that the Alayavijnana, the highest level of consciousness, is both pure and impure, and the point is to realise the interdependency of the two states. Purity is not separate from impurity. Whereas the Southern school’s view was that the Alayavijnana is completely pure, and that it arises when one ‘wipes away’ or cleanses away the impurities from the lower levels of consciousness.

The Northern school adopts the view that combines Alayavijnana, the storehouse consciousness, with Tathagata-Garba, which is both the fundamental nature of all things, and is also the seeds of enlightenment. The Tathagata-Garba is both pure and impure because it is, according to this school, equated with Mind, and Mind contains both nirvana and samsara.

After the Platform Sutra, the next text to address the concept of overlapping alayavijnana with tathagata-garba is The Awakening of Faith. This contributes to the text being historically unreliable, suggesting that it might have been written later about the philosophy that developed later, rather than what was current during Hui Neng’s time. The doctrinal dispute didn’t actually errupt between the two schools until a couple of decades after Hui Neng’s death.

But in other ways, the text is historically reliable. The text contains many doctrinal inconsistencies, which accurately reflect the state in which ideas are developing. The Platform Sutra was the first in a new genre of literature. During Hui Neng’s time, people were still exploring different concepts and a single unified doctrine had not yet developed. The concepts were in the process of growth and refinement, and the text reflects an historically accurate picture of the different points of view that were in the process of coming together.

Part Three.

Both the Awakening of Faith and the Platform Sutra offer views of the Trikaya doctrine. The Awakening of Faith presents the doctrine with the Nirmanakaya and Samboghakaya representing two different aspects of Suchness, and the Dharmakaya representing the fundamental essence of Suchness.

Nirmanakaya represents worldly truth. It manifests form. It arises from the misperception that corporeal reality is concrete and limited. While the perception of limited corporeal reality is in a sense real, it is a very low level of truth, a partial and incomplete understanding. Samboghakaya rises above that, representing transcendence beyond form, limitlessness. It’s the flip side of Nirmanakaya. But while Samboghakaya recognises that corporeal limits are not true limits, it also is incomplete truth, or incomplete understanding, because it maintains a dualism between form and emptiness, limits and limitlessness. Dharmakaya represents the ultimate truth realised through enlightenment. It progresses through Nirmanakaya and Samboghakaya, and realises the interdependancy of the two. Dharmakaya is free of duality, it represents pure insight into truth without the misperceptions cause by attachment.

The Platform Sutra presents a similar view of the Trikaya. Again it is hierarchical. It describes the progression of thought from delusion to pure insight. The Nirmanakaya represents unstable fleeting thoughts. The Samboghakaya recognises the fleetingness of thoughts and touches on understanding, it represents the enjoyment of moving away from delusion and seeing things the way that they are. Dharmakaya is sunyata itself, pure ultimate reality, not the “positive thought” of Nirmanakaya, but “no-thought”, non-attached thought, free of duality and giving rise to prajna. It is true insight into the self-nature and the nature of all things.

Both texts present the Trikaya doctrine as a progression from delusion or partial truth, to duality, and then finally to ultimate understanding of reality. The Platform Sutra focuses on thoughts, while the Awakening of Faith focuses on understanding, but the two texts do not really differ in the elements of their doctrine. The idea of the present moment plays a role in both texts, since each thought occurs within and encompasses a moment, the present moment, thus the manifestation and understanding of the Trikaya is expressed through and contained within the present moment. Enlightenment, Dharmakaya, according to both of these texts, occurs within the present moment.

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