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  • Zen Keys
  • Written by Thich Nhat Hanh
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Zen Keys

A Guide to Zen Practice

Written by Thich Nhat HanhAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Thich Nhat Hanh

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Synopsis

Thich Nhat Hanh brings his warmth and clarity to this unique explication of Zen Buddhism. Beginning with a discussion of daily life in a Zen monastery, Nhat Hanh illustrates the character of Zen as practiced in Vietnam, and gives the reader clear explanations of the central elements of Zen practice and philosophy. Thorough attention is given to concepts such as Awareness and Impermanence, and to contemporary issues such as the conflicts between modern technology and spirituality. The final section includes a set of 43 koans from the 13th century Vietnamese master, Tran Thai Tong, which are translated here for the first time into English. Originally published in 1974, Zen Keys has been unavailable for several years but is now reissued by popular demand. Readers will find it as fresh today as when it was first written, and will be struck by the timelessness of its insights. What makes this work particularly compelling is that Nhat Hanh is able to invigorate what in other presentations may seem like empty abstract principles. The example he has set in his own life as a relentless advocate for peace brings strength and a realistic understanding to idealistic Buddhist goals. In Zen Keys, Thich Nhat Hanh presents the philosophy which has enabled him to be mindful of peace in every moment. An excellent introduction from Philip Kapleau (author of the classic Three Pillars Of Zen ) provides background on the emerging American Zen tradition.

Excerpt

I


THE PRACTICE OF MINDFULNESS


THE LITTLE BOOK


I entered Tu Hioeu Zen Monastery in the Imperial City of Huee when I was sixteen years old. After a brief adjustment to monastic life, I presented myself before the monk responsible for my training and asked him to teach me the Zen ''way.'' He gave me a small book, The Little Manual of Practice, printed in Chinese characters, and asked me to learn it by heart.

I thanked him and went to my room to study. This book—which is famous in Zen circles—is divided into three parts: 1) ''Practice in Everyday Life''; 2) ''Essential Practices for a Novice''; and 3) ''The Teachings of Zen Master Kuai Chan.'' There is no philosophy at all in this book. All three parts discuss only practical problems. The first part teaches how to calm and concentrate the mind. The second discusses the precepts and other practices essential to monastic life. The third is a beautiful exhortation to Zen students to encourage them to remember that their time and life are precious and should not be vainly dissipated. I was assured that not only young novices begin with this book, but that monks even forty and fifty also followed its prescriptions.

Before entering the monastery, I had already received some Western education, and I had the impression that the methods of teaching Buddhism in the monasteries were a little old-fashioned. First we were asked to learn the whole book by heart. Then we were to begin practicing without even being given the theoretical principles underlying it. I shared these concerns with another novice, who told me, ''This is the way followed here. If you want to learn Zen, you must accept it.'' So I resigned myself to beginning my practice in the traditional way.

The first part of The Little Manual, ''Practice in Everyday Life,'' contains gathas, short verses that bring the energy of mindfulness to each act of daily life. For example, when I wash my hands, I bring forth this thought: ''Water flows over these hands. May I use them skillfully to preserve our precious planet.'' When I am sitting in the meditation hall, I think: ''Sitting here is like sitting under the bodhi tree. My body is mindfulness itself, entirely free from distraction.'' And even when using the toilet, I say to myself: ''Defiled or immaculate, increasing or decreasing—these concepts exist only in our minds. The reality of interbeing is unsurpassed.''

''Practice in Everyday Life'' contains a total of fifty gathas. We have to practice intelligently so that we can compose others when we need them. The ones in the manual are only examples. We should modify or even change them and write others more suited to our needs and contemporary conditions. Suppose I am about to use the telephone. There is no gatha for using the telephone in The Little Manual, because at the time the book was written there were no telephones. I have invented a number of gathas, like the following: ''Words can travel thousands of miles. May my words create mutual understanding and love. May they be beautiful as gems, as lovely as flowers.'' I have compiled a book of traditional and modern gathas entitled Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living, for your use in the practice.

When I was sixteen, I thought The Little Manual was written for young people and those just beginning the practice of Zen. I thought this method was just for preparation. But today, more than fifty years later, I know that The Little Manual is the very essence of Zen Buddhism.


NECESSARY AWARENESS


I remember a short conversation between the Buddha and a philosopher of his time.

''I have heard that Buddhism is a doctrine of enlightenment. What is your method? What do you practice every day?''

''We walk, we eat, we wash ourselves, we sit down . . .''

''What is so special about that? Everyone walks, eats, washes, sits down . . .''

''Sir, when we walk, we are aware that we are walking; when we eat, we are aware that we are eating. . . . When others walk, eat, wash, or sit down, they are generally not aware of what they are doing.''

In Buddhism, mindfulness is the key. Mindfulness is the energy that sheds light on all things and all activities, producing the power of concentration, bringing forth deep insight and awakening. Mindfulness is at the base of all Buddhist practice.


To shed light on all things? This is the point of departure. If I live without mindfulness, in forgetfulness, I am, as Albert Camus says in his novel The Stranger, living ''like a dead person.'' The ancient Zen masters used to say, ''If we live in forgetfulness, we die in a dream.'' How many among us live ''like a dead person''! The first thing we have to do is to return to life, to wake up and be mindful of each thing we do. Are we aware when we are eating, drinking, sitting in meditation? Or are we wasting our time, living in forgetfulness?


To produce the power of concentration? Mindfulness helps us focus our attention on and know what we are doing. Usually we are a prisoner of society. Our energies are dispersed here and there. Our body and our mind are not in harmony. To begin to be aware of what we are doing, saying, and thinking is to begin to resist the invasion by our surroundings and by all of our wrong perceptions. When the lamp of awareness is lit, our whole being lights up, and each passing thought and emotion is also lit up. Self-confidence is reestablished, the shadows of illusion no longer overwhelm us, and our concentration develops to its fullest. We wash our hands, dress, perform everyday actions as before, but now we are aware of our actions, words, and thoughts.


The practice of mindfulness is not only for novices. It is a lifelong practice for everyone, even the Buddha himself. The power of mindfulness and concentration is the spiritual force behind all of the great men and women of human history.


To bring forth deep insight and awakening? The aim of Zen Buddhism is a clear vision of reality, seeing things as they are, and that is acquired by the power of concentration. This clear vision is enlightenment. Enlightenment is always enlightenment about something. It is not abstract.


MINDFULNESS


This process—to shed light on all things, to produce the power of concentration, and to bring forth deep insight and awakening—is called in Buddhism the ''Threefold Training'': Sila (precepts), samadhi (concentration), and prajña (insight). The word ''sila'' also means mindfulness, because the essence of the precepts is mindfulness. Precepts in Buddhism are not imposed by some outside authority. They arise from our own insight based on the practice of mindfulness. To be attached to the form without understanding the essence is to fall into what Buddhism calls attachment to rules. We realize insight by practicing mindfulness of our body, feelings, mind, and the objects of our mind, which are the world. That is why the first part of The Little Manual consists of mindfulness verses to memorize, and is called ''Practice in Everyday Life.''

When a scientist works in her laboratory, she does not smoke, eat sweets, or listen to the radio. The scientist refrains from doing these things not because they are immoral, but because she knows that they impede perfect concentration on the object of her study. It is the same in Zen. The precepts help us live in mindfulness.

In Zen, insight cannot be obtained just by the intellect—study, hypothesis, analysis, synthesis. The Zen student must use his or her entire being as an instrument of realization; the intellect is only one part of our being, and a part that often pulls us away from living reality, which is the very substance of Zen. That is why The Little Manual does not present Buddhism as a theory—it introduces the practitioner directly into the daily practice of Zen.

In the monastery, the practitioner does everything in mindfulness: carries water, looks for firewood, prepares food, plants lettuce. . . . Although we learn to meditate in the sitting position, we also learn to be mindful while carrying water, cooking, or planting lettuce. We know that to carry water is not merely a utilitarian action, it is the very essence of Zen. If we do not practice while carrying water, it is a waste of time to seclude ourselves in a monastery. But if we are mindful of each thing we do, even if we do the exact same things as others, we can enter directly into the world of Zen.

A Zen master observes the student in silence, while the student tries to bring the practice into every moment of life. The student may feel that he is not receiving enough attention, but his ways and acts cannot escape the observation of the master. The master can see if the student is or is not ''awake.'' If, for example, the student shuts the door noisily or carelessly, he is demonstrating a lack of mindfulness. Closing the door gently is not in itself a virtuous act, but awareness of the fact that you are closing the door is an expression of real practice. In this case, the master simply reminds the student to close the door gently, to be mindful. The master does this not only to respect the quiet of the monastery, but to point out to the student that he was not practicing mindfulness, that his acts were not majestic or subtle. It is said in Buddhism that there are ninety thousand ''subtle gestures'' to practice. These gestures and acts are expressions of the presence of mindfulness. All that we say, think, and do in mindfulness are described as having ''the flavor of Zen.''

If a practitioner hears himself reproached for lacking the ''flavor of Zen'' in what he says and does, he should recognize that he is being reminded to live his life in mindfulness.


II


A CUP OF TEA


SEEING INTO ONE'S OWN NATURE


In all Zen temples, there are fine portraits of Bodhidharma. The one in my monastery was a Chinese work in ink, depicting the Indian monk with intense, vigorous features. His eyebrows, eyes, and chin express a determined spirit. Bodhidharma lived, it is said, in the fifth century, and is considered to be the First Ancestral Teacher of Zen Buddhism in China. It might be that many of the things reported about his life are not valid historically, but the personality and mind of this monk, as described through the tradition, have made him the ideal person for all who aspire to Zen enlightenment.

His is the picture of someone who has attained perfect self-mastery, complete freedom, and tremendous spiritual power that allow him to regard happiness, unhappiness, and all vicissitudes of life with absolute calmness and clarity. The essence of his personality does not come from a position taken about the problem of absolute reality nor from an indomitable will, but from a deep insight into his own mind and all living reality. The Zen phrase used is ''seeing into one's own nature.'' When one has reached this enlightenment, one sees all wrong views dissolve within oneself. A new vision that produces deep peace, great tranquillity, and a spiritual strength characterized by the absence of fear is born. Seeing into one's own nature is the goal of Zen.


BODHIDHARMA'S STATEMENT


Seeing into one's own nature is not the fruit of study or research. It is a profound insight derived from living in the heart of reality, in perfect mindfulness. According to Bodhidharma, Zen is:


a special transmission outside the scriptures, not based on words or letters, a direct pointing to the heart of reality so that we might see into our own nature and wake up.


In the fifth century, when Bodhidharma came to China, Chinese Buddhists were studying Buddhist texts that had recently been translated. They were occupied more with systematizing the ideas and forming Buddhist sects than with practicing meditation. Bodhidharma's statement was like a thunder clap to wake them up and bring them to the practice and the experiential spirit of Buddhism.

Because it is like thunder, Bodhidharma's statement may seem extreme. But if we examine the relationship between Zen and Indian Buddhism, we see that Bodhidharma's pronouncement is very much in the same spirit as the teaching of the Buddha.

Bodhidharma said:


Zen has been transmitted directly by the Buddha and has nothing at all to do with the scriptures and doctrines you are studying.


At first glance, it may seem that Zen is a kind of secret teaching transmitted from master to disciple, not passed on by writing or comment—a spiritual heritage that only initiates can understand. One could not even talk about teaching it, since Zen cannot be taught through symbols; it passes directly from master to student, from ''mind to mind.'' The image often used is a seal imprinted on the mind, not of wood, copper, or ivory, but a ''mind seal.'' The word ''transmission'' denotes the transmission of this mind seal. Zen itself is a mind seal. The enormous canon of Buddhist scriptures might be of Buddhism, but not of Zen Buddhism. Zen is not found in the scriptures, because Zen ''is not based on words or letters.'' This interpretation is often given to Bodhidharma's dictum by commentators.

This misunderstanding occurs because these commentators overlook the intimate ties between Zen and early Buddhism. The frowning upon describing ultimate reality by words is common to all teachings of the Buddha. Bodhidharma's statement is very much in this tradition and is merely a drastic way to bring people to a direct spiritual experience.


THE BUDDHIST REVOLUTION


Buddhism was born toward the end of the sixth century B.C.E. The word ''Buddhism'' comes from the Sanskrit verb Budh, which in the Vedic scriptures foremostly signifies ''to know,'' then ''to wake up.'' The one who knows, the one who wakes up, is called a buddha. The Chinese have translated the word ''buddha'' as ''an awakened person.'' Buddhism is, therefore, a doctrine of awakening, a doctrine of insight and understanding.

But the Buddha made it known from the beginning that this awakening, this understanding, can only be acquired by the practice of the ''Way'' and not by studies or speculation. Liberation, in Buddhism, comes about through understanding and not by grace or merit.

The rise of Buddhism in India must be considered a new vision of humanity and life. This vision was expounded first as a reaction against the Brahmanic practices and beliefs that dominated the society of the time. What was this society? From the intellectual standpoint, the authority of the Brahmanic tradition dominated all: the Vedic revelation, the divine supremacy of Brahma, and the miraculous power of sacrifice were the three fundamentals one could not dispute. From the standpoint of belief, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva were the object of all the schools. From the philosophical standpoint, the thoughts of the Vedas and Upanishads were the basis of all philosophical concepts. Sankhya, Yoga, and the six philosophical schools were born and developed on this basis. Buddhism was thoroughly opposed to absolute Vedic authority and to all the points of view stemming from it. From the standpoint of belief, Buddhism rejected all deisms and all forms of sacrifice. From the social point of view, Buddhism combated the caste system, accepting untouchables in the order at the same level as a king. (Buddha, having met an untouchable who carried night soil, brought him to the edge of the river to wash him, then accepted him into the Buddhist community, despite the extreme protests of the others.) From the intellectual standpoint, it rigorously rejected the notion of a Self (Atman), which is the very heart of Brahmanism.
Thich Nhat Hanh

About Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh - Zen Keys
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, and peacemaker who was nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize. The author of many books, including Living Buddha, Living Christ, he lives in France in the monastic community known as Plum Village and lectures and gives retreats regularly in North America.

  • Zen Keys by Thich Nhat Hanh
  • December 01, 1994
  • Philosophy - Eastern
  • Harmony
  • $14.95
  • 9780385475617

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