The Essence Of Core Rinzai Zen

It has taken me some years to understand what Rinzai Zen is. In what follows, I’d like to outline the essence of what I’m calling “core Rinzai Zen.”

I. Expression of Rinzai Zen’s Essence

Consider these quotes from a Chan (Chinese Zen) master and a Buddhist philosopher:

Guishan Lingyou (Chan master, 771-853): “Inquire exhaustively into the Dharma Principle, / Take awakening as your standard.”

Masao Abe (Japanese Buddhist philosopher, 1915-2006): Zen is “direct pointing at man’s Mind.”

Rinzai Zen is a religion whose sole purpose is to be a vehicle for the practitioner who yearns to wake up to man’s essential nature. That’s it!

Guishan Lingyou pithily alludes to how.

II. Warrior Spirit, Gentle Heart

Two dispositions are often jammed together when we hear about Rinzai Zen. One I’ll call “the warrior spirit,” the other “the gentle heart.”

Rinzai Zen teachers harangue their students, urging them to take with the utmost seriousness the great matter of birth and death. Here, to underscore this point, is one Zen chant: “Life and death are of grave importance / impermanent and swift. / Wake up all of you! Do not waste your life!”

From this point of view, it is vitally important to keep rousing oneself to remember what is at stake: to awaken to Buddha nature. Thus what is roused is the warrior spirit, whose purpose is to ensure (as I’ll come to shortly) that one keeps the koan vibrantly alive and that one keeps coming to zazen (seated practice) with a sense of urgency, freshness, and, perhaps above all, resolve.

Yet Rinzai Zen is completely misunderstood if it’s thought that it is immensely effortful, if it’s presumed that one is going to “push through” to enlightenment. Not so! In fact, completely off the mark! When seated in zazen, one must, rather, give oneself over to the gentle heart and rest fully into being. So resting, one quiets seeking mind, for it is seeking mind that continually turns one away from what is already here, always already underfoot.

The warrior spirit ensures that there is resolve and enthusiasm while the gentle heart enables one, in ways that are loosely akin to yin yoga, to relax every fiber of one’s being.

III. The Practice (1): Zazen

Unlike other traditions like Advaita Vedanta, Zen, at least initially, privileges the pretzeled seated position above the other three modes (walking, standing, and lying down). Unlike more intellectual approaches, Zen believes that study and argumentation can actually exacerbate “discriminating” or “discursive” mind.

It should be said that it’s not true that there is no room for study of, say, the Diamond Sutra in Zen. But what should be emphasized is that Zen cares so deeply about seated meditation just because the latter seems to be, for those of a certain constitution, the best “laboratory” in which one can very deeply explore the true nature of reality. My experience with sitting confirms this privileging or weighting. When the body is very still and the breathing regular, the investigation can really go deep–especially when zazen is done over and over again as it is true when one is on sesshin.

IV. The Practice (2): Koan

Essentially, a koan is a question that the discriminating mind cannot answer. The koan is in a virtuous circle with the warrior spirit: the more the koan has “flavor” (as one Chan master put it), the more the warrior spirit is roused; the more the warrior spirit is roused, the more the koan takes on a greater sense of mystery, presentness, and unavoidability.

The point of the koan, which could be said to be a “hyped-up” version of self-inquiry (Ramana Maharshi), is to stop seeking mind in its tracks and thus to reveal–right here–no-self to itself. (There are other points to koan; the first point, however, is to allow one to wake up. See, again, I. above.)

The koan is usually freshest during zazen. In fact, zazen and the koan come to be experienced as one and the same.

V. Ripening (3): Guidance from a Teacher

As I understand it, until one has ripened, one may not need to seek out a teacher. By “ripening,” I mean, in the very least, that one is able to maintain a state of samadhi.

At which point, we encounter what is a rather unique feature of Rinzai Zen: the one-on-one with the teacher.

In such encounters, the teacher is not there to do anything but belie the efforts of the discriminating mind, frustrate the ego-self looking for recognition, challenge the student to see where the practice is really at, and point to the nameless absolute. One-on-ones are not for the faint of heart not because the teacher is mean or hardhearted but because he or she, out of compassion, shall not provide the student with any consolation. What the teacher cares about is to help the student realize his or her true nature. That’s it!

VI. Putting It All Together

Rinzai Zen is a direct path to awakening. It draws those who have warrior spirits and requires those to sit with gentle, feminine hearts (call this a yin/yang dynamic, if you’d like). It affirms the centrality of the “psychotechnology” called zazen, citing, as evidence, not only Gotama’s waking up beneath bodhi tree but also, and more importantly, the direct experience of each practitioner. It utilizes the koan (or, indeed, multiple koan) as a tool or device to keep raising the temperature on the practitioners. And it places great value on the direct, immediate, sometimes intense encounter between student and teacher.

To put the matter incorrectly yet perhaps not unhelpfully, Rinzai Zen makes enlightenment into an obsession, into the singular focus of one’s life.