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You are here : Home > Books > Mahayana > Vietnamese Buddhism
Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go
Waking Up to Who You Are


Extract :
The Person with Nothing to Do

MANY STUDENTS of Buddhism are the children of Master Linji, even if they don't know his name. In the Zen tradition, the spirit of Master Linji is in everything we're taught and everything we do.

Master Linji lived during the Tang dynasty in China. He was born in western Shandong province, just south of the Huang Ho (Yellow) River, sometime between 8io and 815. When he was still young, he left his family and traveled north to study with Zen Patriarch Huangbo in his monastery near Hongzhou in Jiangxi province, just south of the Yangzi River. It was a time of political instability in China. There was government repression of Buddhism, which culminated in a decree, issued in 845 by the emperor Tang Wu Zong, ordering all monks and nuns to disrobe and return to lay life. Many temples and statues were destroyed, particularly in the cities. Monasteries in outlying areas were less affected.

After several years, the young Linji was sent by his teacher to study briefly with the reclusive monk Dayu, after which time he returned to live with the monks at Patriarch Huangbo's temple. Later he had his own temple in Zhengzhou, Hebei province, where he taught in his signature direct and dramatic style. As was the custom in China at the time, he took his name, Linji, from the name of the mountain on which he lived and taught. He resided there until he passed away in 867. He never wrote down his teachings, but his students recorded and compiled them in The Record of Master Linji.

As a young monk, Linji studied diligently and gained a deep and extensive knowledge of the Tripitaka, the three baskets of the Buddhist teachings: the sutras, commentaries, and vinaya (monastic precepts). He noticed that although many monks studied very diligently, their studies didn't influence their understanding and transformation. They appeared to be seeking knowledge only to increase their fame or position in the temple. So Master Linji let go of his studies in order to follow true Zen practice.

Many of us have spent our whole lives learning, questioning, and searching. But even on the path of enlightenment, if all we do is study, we're wasting our time and that of our teacher. This doesn't mean we shouldn't study; study and practice help each other. But what's important is not the goal we're seeking-even if that goal is enlightenment-but living each moment of our daily life truly and fully.

Master Linji had a solid knowledge of the Buddhist canon, but his teaching method was based on his confidence that human beings need only to wake up to their true nature and live as ordinary people. Master Linji didn't call himself a Zen master. He called himself a "good spiritual friend:' someone who could help others on the path. Master Linji called the one who had insight to teach "the host:' and the student, the one who comes to learn, "the guest?'

In Master Linji's time, some Buddhist terms were used so often they became meaningless. People chewed on words like "liberation" and "enlightenment" until they lost their power. It's no different today. People use words that tire our ears. We hear the words "freedom" and "security" on talk radio, television, and in the newspaper so often that they've lost their effectiveness. When words are overused, even the most beautiful words can lose their true meaning. For example, the word "love" is a wonderful word. When we like to eat hamburger, we say, "I love hamburger?' So what's left of the deeper meaning of the word "love"?

It's the same with Buddhist words. Someone may be able to speak beautifully about compassion, wisdom, or nonself, but this doesn't necessarfly help others. And the speaker may still have a big self or treat others badly. His eloquent speech may be only empty words. We can get tired of all these words, even the word "Buddha?' So to wake people up, Master Linji invented new terms and new ways of saying things that would respond to the needs of his time.

For example, Master Linji invented the term the "businessless person:' the person who has nothing to do and nowhere to go. This was his ideal example of what a person could be. In Theravada Buddhism, the ideal person was the arl-zat, someone who practiced to attain enlightenment. In Mahayana Buddhism, the ideal person was the bodhisattva, a compassionate being who, on the path of enlightenment, helped others.

According to Master Linji, the businessless person is someone who doesn't run after enlightenment or grasp at anything, even if that thing is the Buddha. This person has simply stopped. She is no longer caught by anything, even theories or teachings. The businessless person is the true person inside each one of us. This is the essential teaching of Master Linji.

When we learn to stop and be truly alive in the present moment, we are in touch with what's going on within and around us. We aren't carried away by the past, the future, our thinking, ideas, emotions, and projects. Often we think that our ideas about things are the reality of that thing. Our notion of the Buddha may just be an idea and may be far from reality. The Buddha outside ourselves was a human being who was born, lived, and died. For us to seek such a Buddha would be to seek a shadow, a ghost Buddha, and at some point our idea of Buddha would become an obstacle for us.

Master Linji said that when we meet the ghost Buddha, we should cut off his head. Whether we're looking inside or outside ourselves, we need to cut off the head of whatever we meet, and abandon the views and ideas we have about things, including our ideas about Buddhism and Buddhist teachings. Buddhist teachings are not exalted words and scriptures existing outside us, sitting on a high shelf in the temple, but are medicine for our ills. Buddhist teachings are skillful means to cure our ignorance, craving, anger, as well as our habit of seeking things outside and not having confidence in ourselves.

Insight can't be found in sutras, commentaries, or Dharma talks. Liberation and awakened understanding can't be found by devoting ourselves to the study of the Buddhist scriptures. This is like hoping to find fresh water in dry bones. Returning to the present moment, using our clear mind which exists right here and now, we can be in touch with liberation and enlightenment, as well as with the Buddha and all his disciples as living realities right in this moment.

The person who has nothing to do is sovereign of herself. She doesn't need to put on airs or leave any trace behind. The true person is an active participant, engaged in her environment while remaining unoppressed by it. Although all phenomena are going through the various appearances of birth, abiding, changing, and dying, the true person doesn't become a victim of sadness, happiness, love, or hate. She lives in awareness as an ordinary person, whether standing, walking, lying down, or sitting. She doesn't act a part, even the part of a great Zen master. This is what Master Linji means by "be sovereign wherever you are and use that place as your seat of awakening."

We may wonder, "If a person has no direction, isn't yearning to realize an ideal, and doesn't have an aim in life, then who will help living beings be liberated, who will rescue those who are drowning in the ocean of suffering?" A Buddha is a person who has no more business to do and isn't looking for anything. In doing nothing, in simply stopping, we can live freely and true to ourselves and our liberation will contribute to the liberation of all beings.

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