Book Review — The Zen Teaching of Huang Po

The Zen teaching of Huang Po translated by John Blofeld
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Huang Po’s Zen was based on a view which he ascribed to the legendary fifth century sage Bodhidharma who, he wrote, only came from the west to point to the One Mind.
The Mind with a capital M was another word for the absolute or the totality of existence.

You may ask why it is called Mind rather than Asparagus? After all it is the basis of more asparaguses than thinkers or thoughts.

The main reason was probably the influence of the Yogachara or Mind Only school which was popular with Chinese Zenists but that pushes the question back to Why did the Yogacharans believe that the totality of existence was a universal Mind?

They usually proclaimed that this fact became self-evident if the seeker 1. critically examined and abandoned false views about reality and 2. learned to silence the little mind or intellect in the practise of meditation (Sanskrit dhyana, Chinese chan, Japanese zen)

When the little mind became a silent no mind then reality shone like the sun unobscured by clouds and one discovered that this ultimate reality was one’s own true mind.

And what was the relationship between one’s own true mind and ultimate reality. No relationship, because one’s true mind and Reality were one and the same. Reality was the true mind of each and every thinking being. So it made some sense to call Reality the true mind or simply Mind.

This view generated a simple approach to enlightenment: turn off little mind and bingo! Your true mind, Mind itself, is no longer obscured. You are enlightened.

But, imagine for a moment that you have no thoughts, or that you have managed to dial down the volume of mental noise.

You can see that all your immediate experience is your own consciousness, consisting of sensations, memories, perceptions and mental images of the parts of your body and its world that are not in contact with your senses.

Should you take the view that there is no physical body and no physical world outside of your consciousness?
If you hear a tree falling in the forest does that mean that it made no sound because there was no tree, no forest and no ears? That your portion of the universal mind just cooked up all those things? It’s a little like the anti-evolutionist idea that God just planted the fossil record to confuse us.

Huang Po wrote: “Outside Mind there is nothing. The green hills which everywhere meet your gaze and that void sky you see glistening above the earth—not a hairsbreadth of any of them exists outside the concepts you have formed for yourself!”

“Then how can it even be a matter for discussion that the real Buddha has no mouth and preaches no Dharma, or that real hearing requires no ears, for who could hear it?”

In other words after enlightenment there is nothing but a perfect emptiness which is occasionally clouded with dreamlike impressions of a phenomenal world in which a dreamlike self still tastes dream food, does dream dishes and visits dream dentists.”

By this reckoning it would be hard to tell a zen master from a burned out crackhead or someone in a state of severe dissociation from reality.

Huang Po was probably not severely dissociated but passionate and clever in his preaching about the grand delusion of the One Mind and the joy of intellectual suicide.

With the theory of the Universal Mind as a monistic absolute, medieval Buddhists took a wonderful insight—that the individual mind is a portion of the universe—and developed it into the grandiose and nonsensical idea that the universe is a vast mind.

Similar delusions were developed by western philosophers and theologians as well, and I think the root of the problem was the fact that, for most of history, nothing was really known about the human brain. Here’s the jacket blurb on a recent book by Carl Zimmer.

Soul Made Flesh tells the story of a dramatic turning point in history–the discovery of the role and importance of the human brain. The secrets of the brain were uncovered in seventeenth century England, against a deadly backdrop of civil war, regicide, and plague. At the beginning of this turbulent century, no one knew how the brain worked; they didn’t even know what an intact brain looked like. By the century’s close, the science of the brain had been established, helping to overturn misconceptions about the body and to unseat philosophies about the mind and the universe that had ruled Western thought for centuries. Presiding over the rise of this new science was the founder of modern neurology, Thomas Willis, a fascinating yet forgotten figure who stood at the center of an extraordinary group of natural philosophers known as the Oxford Circle. Soul Made Flesh chronicles their groundbreaking revelations and gory experiments that first enshrined the brain as the chemical engine of reason, emotion, and madness–as the very seat of the human soul.

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