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Relating Tibetan and Zen Views

The Zen tradition consisted of 5 different schools when Dogen, who attained awakening under the guidance of Chinese master, Ju-tsing, felt that Dharma as taught by Buddha Shakyamuni is one system.  His view, known as Soto Zen, presents an undifferentiated approach.  Its position is that Buddha-nature exists in all beings and that enlightenment consists of realizing it through "relaxed meditation."  In this way it has much in common with the Tibetan Kagyu denomination.  Shakyamuni is the yidam (meditational deity or "object of veneration") and it is he who is depicted in the giant statue that shows the fingertips of both hands touching, while the thumbs form the circle of Emptiness.)

Pointing at the Moon

Wujin Chang, a nun, asked the Sixth Zen patriarch, Hui Neng, for help in understanding the Mahanirvana Sutra.  The master answered that he could not read, but if the nun would read it aloud for him, he would do his best to help her. The nun then asked, "If you can't even read the words, how can you understand the truth behind them?"

"Truth and words are unrelated. Truth can be compared to the moon," answered Hui Neng,  pointing to the moon with his finger, "And words can be compared to a finger.  I can use my finger to point out the moon, but my finger is not the moon, and you don't need my finger in order to be able to see the moon."

A representation of this kind of "pointing out" instruction often figures at the top of Tibetan tangkas representing the Wheel of Rebirth.

Absolute and Relative Truths

Skill or "Method" consists of knowing what to think, say or do, and when.

In the opening chapter of psychotherapist Mark Epstein's Thoughts Without a Thinker an anecdote appears about a meeting at the home of a Harvard University psychology professor of two prominent teachers of Buddha-dharma:

"These were teachers from two distinctly different Buddhist traditions who had never met and whose traditions had in fact had very little contact over the past thousand years. Before the worlds of Buddhism and Western psychology could come together, the various strands of Buddhism would have to encounter one another. We were to witness the first such dialogue. 

The teachers, seventy-year-old Kalu Rinpoche of Tibet, a veteran of years of solitary retreat, and the Zen master Seung Sahn, the first Korean Zen master to teach in the United States, were to test each other's understanding of the Buddha's teachings for the benefit of the on-looking Western students. This was to be a high form of what was being called  'dharma combat' ... and we were waiting with all the anticipation that such a historic encounter deserved. 

The two monks entered with swirling robes -- maroon and yellow for the Tibetan, austere grey and black for the Korean -- and were followed by retinues of younger monks and translators with shaven heads. They settled onto cushions in the familiar cross-legged positions, and the host made it clear that the younger Zen master was to begin. The Tibetan lama sat very still, fingering a wooden rosary (mala) with one hand while murmuring, "Om mani padme hum" continuously under his breath. 

The Zen master, who was already gaining renown for his method of hurling questions at his students until they were forced to admit their ignorance and then bellowing, "Keep that don't know mind!" at them, reached deep inside his robes and drew out an orange. 

"What is this?" he demanded of the lama. "What is this?" 

This was a typical opening question, and we could feel him ready to pounce on whatever response he was given. 

The Tibetan sat quietly fingering his mala and made no move to respond. 

"What is this?" the Zen master insisted, holding the orange up to the Tibetan's nose. 

Kalu Rinpoche bent very slowly to the Tibetan monk near to him who was serving as the translator, and they whispered back and forth for several minutes. Finally the translator addressed the room: 

"Rinpoche says, 'What is the matter with him? Don't they have oranges where he comes from?' " 

The dialogue progressed no further. 

~ anecdote "When two masters meet" from Atanu; posted at  CMTan's site.

Note: Khyabje Kalu Rinpoche died in 1989.


This school of Japanese Buddhism was founded by Kobo Daishi (774-835) known as Kukai.  It is a Mantrayana school; that is, a Vajrayana sect in which recitation of mantra is the main support for practice.  


undifferentiated: Not yet separated into Hina- , Maha- , and Vajra-yana.  Shakyamuni is said to have taught 84,000 different approaches. 

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