What Is The Heart of Zen? Reflections On The Transmission of Luminosity

What Is The Heart of Zen? Reflections On The Transmission of Luminosity

The Record of the Transmission of Illumination (J. Denkoroku) by Keizan Jokin Zenji (1264-1325) is one of the most important dharma texts available to us today - so important that the great master Harada Sogaku Roshi (1871-1961) chose it for his reformed koan curriculum.

In a recent post, I shared Keizan's sudden awakening (J., satori) - "A Black Lacquer Person Runs Through the Night."

As I said in that last post, Tetsugan Sensei and I are working through the last eight chapters of Denkoroku with our Vine of Obstacles Zen students. This includes the last six generations in China and the first two in Japan. I'll get back to those great teachers at the end of this post when I share some data about their awakenings and how they are characterized in the Denkoroku.

In this post, in addition to responding to the question, "what is the heart of Zen?", I hope to give you a taste of the teaching of the great master Keizan. I've been describing Keizan's tone to students as one of friendly luminosity. He weaves the truth of inherent freedom and luminosity together with the necessity to realize it personally and powerfully in our own life practice. These two aspects are like two chopsticks in that they allow us to pluck the jewel, satori, from the grasp of delusion.

Here's an example

from Chapter 49: Xuedou Zhijian (J. Setchō Chikan; 1105–1192):

"The buddha-dharma of Śākya the Honored One fills innumerable realms. There is nowhere it does not reach. If you inquire until you arrive at understanding, how could you fail to arrive? This human body is not easy to receive. It is something you came to receive through the strength of good karmic roots in the past. If you once reach this place, you will be entirely liberated. It is neither male nor female, neither god nor demon, neither ordinary nor sagely, neither monk nor householder. There is no place where it might be gathered up. When you try to see it, it does not reach your eyes.

"If you are able to reach this standpoint, although you are called a monk, you are not a monk; although you are called a householder, you are not a householder. You will not be confused by the six sense faculties, and you will not be controlled by the six consciousnesses. If you do not reach it, you will go on in this way, being completely confused and bound by matters. Wouldn’t that be awful? Originally, you are fully equipped, but you still must spend energy in working to reach it. It is all the more regrettable that, although people are lacking nothing, they undergo any number of transmigrations because they are confused once by what their eyes see."

The last sentence that I've underlined above, "...you are fully equipped, but you still must spend energy in working to reach it," says it all. This is a clear pointer to what is possible through this practice - "you will be entirely liberated." And a clear pointer to the consequences of not giving ourselves completely to the Buddha Way - "you will go on in this way (confused and controlled), being completely confused and bound by matters."

Luminosity Is Not Awareness of Awareness

Also from Chapter 49:

"At this time, although there is nothing further for you to say about it, still there is the singular radiance. This is not like the presence of the moon or the presence of the sun in a blue sky. The entire sky itself is the moon, so there is no illuminating of anything at all. The entire world is the sun, so there is absolutely no place where it shines."

Many folks engaged in spiritual pursuits today confuse the light of consciousness with this singular radiance. Keizan goes to great lengths to refute this one-sided view. So in Chapter 51: Eihei Dogen, Keizan says,

“A step further is the singular numinous light, always constant across the kalpas. Intently contemplate this in detail, and you are certain to reach it. If you are able to illuminate this mind, then there is no grasping of body mind, and no things or self whatsoever to bear. Therefore, it is said, 'body mind sloughed off.'”

And in Chapter 52: Koun Ejo:

"As that which is perfectly attained, it shines brightly of its own accord. As that which is perfectly empty, at root it is numinous luminosity. Therefore, it is called 'pure and stripped bare,' it is called 'naked and washed clean,' it is called 'perfectly alert and perfectly obvious,' and it is called 'perfectly clear and perfectly bright.'”

What is Transmitted?

In the fall, '22, I shared a post, Soto Zen's Dirty Little Secret, that detailed the consignment transmission between the forty-third and forth-fourth generations in the Caodong (J. Soto) transmission of Zen. This episode undermines the Soto claim to face-to-face transmission from the Buddha through until now and so casts shadow on the legitimacy of transmission. It highlights the importance of the question, "What is the heart of Zen?"

A short version of this story is that Dayang Jingxuan (942–1027) was getting old and had no successors that he thought would outlive him and/or who had sufficient clarity for the lineage to continue. About that time, a young monk who had already had received a Linji (J. Rinzai) transmission, Fushan Fayuan (991-1067; known as Yuanjian Fayuan in the Denkoroku), came and studied with Dayang. They found that they were in perfect accord, so Dayang offered to give him transmission. Fushan, however, didn't want to accept another transmission (he may have already been carrying two Linji lines) and so declined. He offered, though, to accept Dayang's lineage and hold it on a consignment basis, and if someone appropriate came along, he'd give that person Dayang's Caodong lineage. In fact, such a person did appear, Touzi Yiqing (1032-1083).

In Denkoroku Keizan digs into the controversy in detail and then shares the sudden satori of the last seven generations in China and the first two in Japan, as if to remove all doubt about the lineage's legitimacy.

Importantly, when characterizing the awakening experiences of all the ancestors following Dayang, Keizan uses the character for satori 悟 in each case. This follows the through-line of the text's 53 teachers - that same character is used in almost every case. Three of the Soto ancestors "suddenly uncovered awakening" (開悟), two "suddenly realized great awakening,"  (大悟), one "suddenly accorded with awakening" (豁然契悟), one "suddenly opened awakening" (開悟頓悟), and one "suddenly reflected awakening" (悟省悟). Suddenly.

What is transmitted? Satori. And a collection of skillful means that can lead the zealous student to satori as well as a collection of skillful means that can light the way for post-satori training.

Now I'm also called to point out (again) that there are those in contemporary Soto Zen who mumble an answer to this question, "What is the heart of Zen?" along the lines of "just sitting," "no attainment," and "gradual awakening." Although I take their word that they honestly are disclosing what they have received, that in no way means that what they've received is the heart of the transmission in Soto Zen. Many lineages appear to be in the zombie state, to borrow from Meido Moore Roshi - they have the form of practice, but they lack the living heart of it.

A careful study of Keizan's Denkoroku will certainly disabuse the confused about the heart of the great matter and hopefully breathe a little life into the rotting and festering body of the present Soto school.

The heart of the matter is satori. That is all.

Note: All quotations from Denkoroku are from The Record of the Transmission of Illumination, Volume 1, trans., William M. Bodiford (Tokyo: Soto shu Shumucho, 2017). Modified slightly by the author.