We’ve Gotten Rinzai Zen All Wrong

From the outside, Rinzai Zen Buddhism can look strict, militant, disciplined, stern, and cold. And it can seem herculeanly effortful. To a degree, some of these appearances are true, but let’s listen to the man himself as he offers up the true Dharma.

Which man? To Linji (Jap. Rinzai) from The Record of Linji:

If you want to be free to live or to die, to go or to stay as you would put on or take off clothes, then right now recognize the one listening to my discourse, the one who has no form, no characteristics, no root, no source, no dwelling place, and yet is bright and vigorous. Of all his various responsive activities, none leaves any traces. Thus the more you chase him the father away he goes, and the more you seek him the more he turns away; this is called the ‘Mystery’ (The Record of Linji, ed. Ruth Fuller Sasaki and Thomas Kirchner, p. 14).

Boy, now that doesn’t sound like Zen from the outside, does it? Is Rinzai suggesting that one sit for hours? Not here (though if you don’t have your “spiritual eye opened,” then sitting zazen might just be the ticket). Is he haranguing us for not applying intense efforts? Not at all! The pointing–so truly Chan–couldn’t be more direct: just “right now recognize the one listening to my discourse.” That’s all!

Well, but who is this one? Not who you might think. He–you–has “no form, no characteristics, no root, no source, no dwelling place,” and yet undeniably he–you–is right here, is listening right now, is clear and “bright and vigorous.”

OK, well, I better run after him, hadn’t I? After all, won’t he be hard to catch?

Wrong again. The essential point of Zen is to stop seeking, stop chasing, stop swerving, stop the shenanigans. In fact, you can’t “sink back” into him because you’re already sitting right on top of him! You can’t “ascend” to him because he’s already at the very ground of everything. All talk of “up,” “down,” “toward,” and “away” are really moot since he is the very air you breathe right now.

This is the heart of Zen: you gotta quit all that and then–ha ha ha!–it’ll be clear that the one reading these words is none other than the one writing them. What a great joke.