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Sudden School Zen and Gradual School Zen

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya

Sudden School member, Yun Men (Ummon) Lineage

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.

Louis Sullivan, Architect. The Tall Office Building Esthetically Considered

When the purpose of a Quest is to attain insight into the nature of the material world’s “emptiness”; to acquire a self-mastery of body and mind; to be mindful always of one’s balancing center; and to be non-judgmentally aware of every moment’s thoughts – understanding how and why they have arisen; and to enter a contemplative void, what form does the method and setting take?

When the purpose of a Quest is to attain the spiritual summit’s ecstasy; to crown the top of mountain and mind with the Future Buddha’s effigy; to know even for a single moment what it is to be one with the Buddha Self; to replace loneliness with solitude; and, while in meditation’s transcendent reality, to mingle in androgynous rapture with the Bodhisattvas; what form does the method and setting take?

Generally speaking, the former is usually called the Path of Gradual Enlightenment or The Northern School, while the latter is usually called the Path of Sudden Enlightenment or The Southern School.

Few things in life are carved in stone, and certainly the form that Zen temples take to accommodate their diverse aims is not one of them. Yet it is interesting to see how Louis Sullivan’s dictum, Form follows function, does, as a general rule, apply to the settings in which these Quests occur.

As the term Gradual suggests, the methods of the Northern School usually consist in long periods of disciplined adherence to a daily practice of sitting in strict concentration – upon either eliminating thoughts or analyzing thoughts objectively. Visionary experiences are eschewed and pejoratively termed “Makyo” the Japanese version of “Maya.” Attendance is compulsory.

To insure that there will be no disruptive activities, such as snoring or restless posture adjustments, a monitor may be employed. He quietly patrols the aisles, carrying a stick, which he does not hesitate to use.

Breathing practices require either observing the breath or counting it: “a long breath being a long breath and a short breath being a short breath,” as it is colorfully put.

Practitioners sit on a hard kapok-stuffed Zafu (cushion) which provides the needed raised platform-edge for the practitioner’s spinal base to attain a 15 or 20 degree angle with the floor. In this way the body’s weight is distributed in a three pointed position: the knees and tailbone. When the spine is so elevated, it is much easier to take the full lotus posture.

Since such focussed attention is aided by silence and the absence of distracting decoration, temples favor the simplicity that we find in traditional Japanese interior design – clean lines, natural wood and stone, opaque window coverings with dark rectangular mullions, and only one or two flowers in an ikebana arrangement. Practitioners face the wall; and when there is insufficient wall space, they sit in precise linear arrangements.

As the term Sudden suggests, the methods of the Southern School are intended to detach ‘archetypal’ instinctive ties from the people, places, and things of the material world, and then to integrate these archetypal or divine characters into the individual psyche. These experiences have a revelatory nature and occur without warning.

Since this process is not aided by protracted introspections, the practice of disciplined periods of sitting in order to concentrate is disdainfully regarded: “You can make a mirror polishing a brick sooner than you can make a Buddha sitting on a cushion.” A variety of seed-engaged concentrations is employed to achieve meditation’s altered state of egoless consciousness; and deep structured breathing exercises, such as the Healing Breath, Alternate Nostril breathing, and the breath visualized as an object that is pushed through the various meridians are followed.

To aid in the process of detaching and then integrating archetypal projections, Southern School temples are more cathedral-like, ornate and filled with dramatically posed statues; wall decorations; elaborate altar pieces, enameled wood, bouquets of flowers; bells, chimes, and drums; and voices chanting. The reverberation of a temple drum entrains the heartbeat, the aorta, and the spinal cord that runs beside it. (No person who has ever heard the drummer at, for example, Yun Men (Ummon) Temple in China will ever forget the sound.)

In a meditation hall, Southern school participants come in and sit, and if they fall asleep, nobody bothers them. If someone snores, concentration upon the sound of snoring may be practiced. If a practitioner wants to stay awake, he signals the Tea Monk who brings him a cup of strong jasmine tea. Attendance is desired but not compelled – although on nights when the Abbot gives a Dharma talk, it is wise to be present.

The practitioner sits on an inclined-plane bamboo-slatted bench. His knees generally do not touch the floor. The bamboo slats are spaced apart so that air can circulate around them.

In the dining room, Northern practitioners sit in complete silence during meals and keep rigid postures and rules of etiquette; ‘Southern’ practitioners laugh and talk during meals and aside from saying Grace at the start of the meal, keep no other rules except to clean up after themselves.

Commentators from both schools often claim the exclusive Right of Way to the Path that leads to the Buddha Realm; in fact, although it cannot be denied that a certain amount of enmity occurs between the two groups, elements of each regimen are frequently compounded with elements of the other.

When a practitioner falls away from the Path, he may have fallen victim to the hazards within each system. An old fencing instruction describes a frequent source of failure: “Holding a saber is like holding a bird. If you hold it too tightly you squeeze it to death; if you hold it too loosely, it flies away.”

The Southern School’s loose approach to rules contains the risk that the practitioner will fly off, following some tangential interest, or he may experience an unrelenting euphoria. The Northern School’s strict application of rules may squeeze to death the practitioner’s spiritual enthusiasm, or he may succumb to robotic self-hypnosis.

The institution’s teaching staff may contribute to failure by not fully understanding the reasons behind some of the practices. For example, the Northern School favors facing the wall; the Southern school favors facing the center of the room. The reason for facing the wall is said to be Bodhidharma’s nine years of wall gazing at Shao Lin Ji. What is often overlooked is that those years were alleged to have been spent while he sat facing a whitewashed wall. This practice would constitute a pursuit of “The Ganzfeld Effect.” Science has discovered that when a person sits and stares at a bright, blank visual field that is devoid of features, such as a white wall or a sand dune, the light will be reflected back into his eyes, serotonin will be released, and he will enter an alpha rhythm state. Without that bright blank wall, a person sits in vain in front of a wall.

(Note: anyone who wants to experience the Ganzfeld Effect can take a ping-pong ball that has no writing on it, cut it in half along its seam, smooth the edges of each half with a file, take clear tape and tape each half over an eye, and then turn to face a bright light source. In record time, undulating grey or iridescent shapes will form and reform and the Alpha state will be attained.)

As to maintaining order in a meditation hall, in an established Southern School monastery in China, there are monks and nuns of all ages. Older monks and nuns often tend the sick during the night and, in the morning, come to the meditation hall where the restful atmosphere lulls them to sleep. Other monks and nuns have been working in the kitchen all night preparing breakfast. Most monasteries are in remote areas where the water is not potable and a huge vat of water intended for the day’s tea consumption must be filled and then boiled over a wood fire. Beating these people for the crime of falling asleep tends to seem uncivilized.

When a teacher restricts breathing exercises to the simple counting or observing the breath, he deprives the practitioner of the benefits of the Healing Breath or the breath-object circulation through the meridians. The Healing Breath, using the time-proportion of 4:16:8 for inhalation, retention, and exhalation, requires the practitioner to sit upright and inflate the chest to its absolute maximum and then to hold the breath steady and release it, first by letting it seep out of the nostrils and then by contracting the abdomen until it seems that the navel is touching the spine. This practice forces much marginally residual air from the lungs – air that is laden with bacteria and particulate matter from dust or other air pollutants. The body’s immune system is relieved of the burden of fighting off the effects of these unwelcome intruders. Additionally, the prolonged retention of the breath, acts exactly like the stretching of a muscle during a yoga exercise. When a muscle is under the tension of a gentle stretch, and then that tension is suddenly released, the muscle produces serotonin.

As to the strict requirements of maintaining the three-pointed Zazen posture, to whatever degree a practitioner experiences pain, he has gone 180 degrees away from where he wants to go. One of the reasons Southern School Zen does not particularly care to meditate in a group setting is that to enter a deep alpha state is to salivate profusely, a result of activating the para-sympathetic nervous system. To sit in a group, lost in sweet oblivion, with the mouth hanging open and drooling is to create an image most of us would like to forget. But this is the wonderful result of true meditation. Pain, however, induces the sympathetic nervous system to initiate the secretion of adrenalin in a fight or flight response. The mouth gets dry (think about standing up in front of a group and giving a speech when one is not used to speaking publicly). As the mouth dries, teeth stick to lips, the heart beats wildly, the blood pressure rises, epinephrine and Cortisol are released and as blood is withdrawn from the skin, hands feel clammy. The practitioner is as far away from alpha states as it is possible to get. Once that adrenalin is released it may take as much as 90 minutes for it to wash out of the system.

The full lotus posture is the best posture to take – and using a long meditation band or cloth to circle the small of the back and the knees is a marvel of comfort. But Lotus must be learned gradually so that no pain is ever felt. As the rule in Yoga states: “If you feel pain, you are doing it wrong.”

People who succeed in crossing the transcendental barrier and in achieving meditation’s altered state of egoless consciousness often push on into Samadhi, which is orgasmic ecstasy and, as such, is a valid reason for absenting oneself from a room full of Questors.

The presence of so much elaborate artwork in Southern School temples requires an explanation. A statue supplies an image which connects with an emotional counterpart within the observer, releasing and channeling its expression. In the making of Star Wars, for example, George Lukas famously discussed creating this vital cast of “engaging” characters with mythologist Joseph Campbell. Carl Jung first presented this pantheon of fundamental characters – “archetypes of the collective unconscious” – whose genetic templates influence and direct the emotional life of human beings. Literature and film succeed according to how well they invoke the counterparts of these characters within the psyche of the observer or reader.

When a practitioner sees a statue in a great temple and stops to “engage” it, he responds to it in a deep level of his psyche – a level that he does not consciously consider. At the beginning stage, he may need the comforting expression of the compassionate Guan Yin; or the reassurances of a Bodhisattva’s benign smile. He may need to respond internally to the allurements of the androgynous Bodhisattva Samantabhadra in her demure courtesan identity, or he may need to gain the brave resolve and inspiring courage of Samantabhadra in his heroic warrior identity. He may find spiritual fortitude in the fearsome sword-wielding Manju. As he nears the goal, he will recognize in them the characters he has come to know while he has been in the true meditative state.

buddhaflower.jpgPhoto credit:

The phenomenon of emotionally interacting with a work of art is not new to us. No mother of any religion can view Michelangelo’s Piet‡ with indifference. No soldier, regardless of the gear he carries, can see the great sculptor’sDavid, and not know how naked and alone he is when he stands and faces what is always to the single soul, an immense adversary. The image replicates itself deep in his psyche. He will not know how he had the strength to do it, but while he was in that adversary’s presence, he, like David, stood and held his ground. A Christian has an emotional response that accords with the image he reflects upon: Christ as the suffering figure on the Cross moves him to understand the pain and betrayal he, himself, has felt and also the forgiveness he is inspired to give. He may see Jesus as the gentle teacher whose heart is revealed in his Sermon on the Mount and he will strive to become a better person, one to whom someone could say, “I was hungry, and you fed me; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was in prison, and you visited me.”

Buddhists experience similar emotional responses upon seeing an effigy of the gentle Buddha who preached, in thunderous silence, the Flower Sermon and challenged us to transcend the material world and be one with that lotus. He will look upon the sacrificial suffering of the emaciated Buddha and see how despite losing everything else in the material world, his faith will sustain his serenity.

buddhafast.jpgFasting Buddha
Photo credit:

We engage these archetypal figures because they comfort and inspire and in doing so facilitate detachment and integration. The goal demands that we cease depending upon the people, places, and things of this material world to give us an identity and to define for us who we are. Foolishly we fail to realize that an attachment has two ends. While we fulfill our ego’s needs by tapping into what it has connected to, that entity has needs too, and it will draw from us whatever it needs to fulfill its clamorous demands.

In the Gospel of Luke 14:26 we read: “If a man come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” Christian mystics understand. Everyone else tries to tickle the lines in an attempt to lighten the mood of what they perceive to be an oppressive state. The instruction does not lead to oppression, it leads to freedom.

In Zen we have the mondo: The master instructs the novices, “You must kill your father, and your mother, and your friends, too. Destroy them all if you want to attain Zen.” One novice asks, “And you, Master. Must we kill you, too.” And the Master replies, “There is not enough of me left for you to get your hands on.” The master knows that the ego’s attachments are the umbilical cords through which it parasitically feeds, thickening the veil that it places between the interior Buddha Self, Amitabha, and the world. When the ego’s veil is thinned to a mirror’s reflection, we, at last, may see the world and all that’s in it, through the Buddha’s eyes.

Detachment is not easily accomplished. It requires enormous self-discipline.

We cannot purchase the bliss of Integration. We cannot put a price on Freedom.

Beginner’s Question: What is Zen?

Answer: A cauldron of boiling oil over a roaring fire.

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