Posted inBlue Cliff, Henry's Messages, Koans

The Meeting: Zen’s Challenge to An Individual, Interior Spirituality, Part 3 of 7

April 24, 2017

In the “four marks of Zen” attributed to the great ancestor Bodhidharma, Zen is identified as a “mind-to-mind transmission outside scripture.”

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of The Meeting

Zen Buddhism’s ancestral narrative begins when the Buddha recognizes his disciple Kashyapa as his one true successor. During an assembly on Vulture Peak attended by hundreds of his most accomplished disciples, Buddha holds up a flower and twirls it in his fingers. All those present sit silently, without response. There is, though, one exception—Kashyapa—who looks up and smiles. At that moment, something happens that enables the Buddha to declare: “I have the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the treasury of the true Dharma eye, the true form of no-form; this I now entrust to Kashyapa.”

What happened was a meeting—a special kind of meeting, a mutual recognition, discovery, communion—an order of meeting that would come to be enshrined at the heart of Zen. The iconic encounter of the Buddha and Kashyapa becomes the emblem of the whole ensuing transmission down the generations to the present day. From Zen’s point of view, while Shakyamuni Buddha may have been fulfilled as a human being at the moment of his great awakening, it is only at this moment of meeting with his successor decades later that he is fulfilled as a teacher. Thus Zen is born.

In the “four marks of Zen” attributed to the great ancestor Bodhidharma, Zen is identified as a “mind-to-mind transmission outside scripture.”

Ever since that first meeting on Vulture Peak, the transmission has been handed down through a kind of “eternal return,” in Mircea Eliade’s phrase, of that archetypal encounter between Buddha and Kashyapa. The understanding that brought together the Buddha and Kashyapa is reenacted and renewed in the forms of Zen life and practice. Many koans, for example, which form the core of Zen lore, are records of attempts at just such a meeting; some of these find their fulfillment, while others do not. Either way, the meeting is the matter. Such encounter dialogues, as they are sometimes called, are both the means and the content of much of Zen training.

The encounters between teacher and student, which are so central to Zen, are most often based on examining the legendary encounters that are the stuff of koans. In this way, stories of past meetings are taken up as devices to facilitate ever deeper meeting in the present. The story of the succession of Zen’s sixth Chinese ancestor, Huineng, is one of the most famous of these. Huineng is said to have experienced a sudden awakening on hearing a line of the Diamond Sutra, following which he makes his way to the monastery of the fifth ancestor, Hongren. As an illiterate member of an ethnic minority, Huineng is not permitted to become a monk, and instead is put to work pounding rice. But Hongren comes to recognize Huineng’s state of mind and secretly invites him to an all-night meeting, in the course of which Huineng’s “dharma eye” is further opened. It is here that the potential of Huineng’s earlier awakening is released, deepened, and made dynamic.

Later, a leading monk of the community, jealous at Huineng’s having received Hongren’s robe and bowl, the emblems of succession, chases Huineng into the mountains, where Hongren has advised him to hide. The monk finally catches up with him, whereupon Huineng immediately proposes a seminal Zen koan to him: “Just as you were chasing after me, what was your original face before even your parents were born?” At this, it is said, the monk has a great awakening. Trembling, sweating, weeping, all enmity and envy forgotten, he bows to Huineng: “Now you, lay brother, are my master.”

Whatever else this story may be about, it is also about reconciliation and forgiveness. As a result of an experience of opening, the enmity is suddenly dropped. The two men truly meet—“truly” in the sense of a shared revelatory dropping of preconceptions. Freed of earlier constrictions and limitations, they now connect in a way in which both are humbled by gratitude and compassion. They go on to recognize this as having come about through their mutual discipleships under master Hongren. As Master Setcho, compiler of the koan collection Blue Cliff Record, would comment some three centuries later, the three men—Hongren, Huineng, and the monk—are all “skewered on one skewer.”

Click to read Part 4.


Written by Henry Shukman and originally published as The Meeting: Zen’s Challenge to An Individual, Interior Spirituality in Tricycle, Spring 2017 .

Images: 1) Silhouette by Vuralyavas, 2) Amazing by Bessi, CC0 Public Domain from

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