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Before There Was Stress Reduction There Was No Thought


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004

Master Wuzhu is your typical Zen Master: he reads minds, hides himself away in inaccessible mountains and tells earthy stories. Most importantly, he jettisons all conventional religious practices, and he did this about twelve hundred years before Alan Watts, Esalen or MBSR. What makes him unique in the annals of Chan/Zen is that his followers compiled a book about his antecedents, anecdotes and aphorisms at a time (roughly 780 C.E.) when Zen was not yet a powerful religious network evolving its way into the heart of the cultures of China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Captured in an earnest and quirky manner in the Lidai fabao ji (Record of the Dharma-Jewel Through the Ages), Master Wuzhu's teachings were not part of a known "brand." Some of the features of the Lidai fabao ji would show up in later, mainstream works, but it was literally lost in the sands of time, walled up in a cave-temple in an oasis town in the Gobi desert, waiting to be fortuitously rediscovered in 1900.

Chan/Zen formed itself around a contentious issue: how do you teach Buddhist practice if you reject all forms of practice as misleading? Forms of practice are misleading because they make something concrete out of something that is not even abstract. As Master Wuzhu puts it: "When there is true no-thought, no-thought itself is not." This "formless practice" immediately makes the everyday challenge of making distinctions and choices even more challenging. Or does it?

If non-dual enlightenment is neither good nor evil, is this a dangerous thing to teach? How do you encourage people to get a move on in their practice while telling them there's nowhere to go? Should you be paid for doing this? Did Wuzhu's female disciple Liaojianxing compile the Lidai fabao ji? And, finally, what kind of sound does a paddy-crab make?

In the Lidai fabao ji these issues -- antinomianism, formless practice, support of monastics, the role of women and out-of-the-box teaching -- are presented through accessible dialogues and stories. Yet they have roots in complex Buddhist philosophical scriptures and treatises. Many of Wuzhu's teachings echo a style used in the Prajñāpāramita (Perfection of Wisdom) literature, which often links antithetical characteristics to express what is meant by "emptiness." Thus, one line of the Heart Sūtra reads: "no old age and death, and also no extinction of them." This in turn generated the Mādhaymaka (Middle Way) contemplative analysis of the codependent arising of phenomena. Through use of a neither/nor, both/and dialectic, the Mādhaymaka practitioner becomes accustomed to seeing that things neither exist nor not-exist, both exist and not-exist.

So, when I find myself wondering whether it would have mattered to Wuzhu that we are still interested in reading about him, I suspect he would have not-cared -- and he would have cared, very much.



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