Zen Minimalism

Among various Buddhism teachings, Zen is quite minimalistic. It tries to return to the source, which is not necessarily fundamental but uniquely radical.

Traditionally, Bodhidharma, an Indian Buddhist monk, transmitted Zen (Chan) teachings to China during the fifth or sixth century. He is known as Daruma (達磨) in Japan with this popularized doll.

His way of teaching was unconventional, radical, and abrupt. Some even might find it unkind, which is indeed one of the characteristics of Zen Buddhism. It could be one of the bases for koan (公案, a set of questions for Zen meditation) as well.

In his meditation, Bodhidharma gazed at a wall for nine years. This action is known as Bodhidharma’s nine-year of wall-gazing. Why he chose to stare at the wall and why he spent nine years? Perhaps, only when these whys don’t matter anymore, we could see his point of pointless.

While Bodhidharma was sitting in front of the wall, one monk Dazu Huike (487–593, 大祖慧可) visited, asking Bodhidharma to become his student. Being ignored many times, Huike eventually cut down his arm to show his determination. And yet, Bodhidharma didn’t move at all.

Huike said Bodhidharma, “How can I pacify my mind in eagerness to learn from you?”

Bodhidharma replied, “Bring your mind to me. I will pacify it.” After struggling with this request, Huike finally answered, “I can’t find it. There is no such thing as my mind.”

Bodhidharma said, “I have already pacified you.”

Another anecdote is about the teaching of non-merit (無功徳).

One day, Bodhidharma visited Emperor Wu of Liang, a fervent patron of Buddhism in China. And the Emperor proudly showed off his contributions to Buddhism such as the massive amount of donations, building temples and monasteries as well as various infrastructure projects.

Wu asked Bodhidharma, “What could be the merit for my good works?”

Bodhidharma replied, “None. Good deeds done with worldly intent bring good karma, but no merit for heaven.”

Wu asked, “So what is the highest meaning of the Noble Truth?” Bodhidharma replied, “There is no Noble Truth; there is only Emptiness.”

Asking Wu, “Then, who is standing before me?” Bodhidharma’s answer: “I know not, Your Majesty.”

There are a lot of unnecessary things around us. These things make us proud and disturbed. Our illusory mind generates them. With these decorations, we become blind and miss the point.

Paradoxically enough, most of the time, our best efforts become pointless, while what we found something pointless could bring us to the realization and awakening.

Lao Tzu said as follows:

Abandon holiness
Discard cleverness and the people will benefit a hundredfold
Abandon the rules of “kindness”
Discard “righteous” actions and the people will return to their own natural affections
Abandon book learning
Discard the rules of behavior and the people will have no worries
Abandon plots and schemes
Discard profit-seeking and the people will not become thieves

These lessons are mere elaborations
The essence of my teachings is this:
See with original purity
Embrace with original simplicity
Reduce what you have
Decrease what you want

Tao Te Ching

Here, we see the so-called Zen Minimalism. For example, the picture hanging on the wall of a room in the Zen temples has an image called Sansuiga (山水画). Below is Early Spring, painted by Northern Song dynasty artist Guo Xi (c.1020 – c. 1090 AD)

Even more radically, some temples have such garden like karesansui (枯山水). It literally means the withered mountain-water. One of the famous gardens is the rock garden at Ryōan-ji (built late 15th century) in Kyoto.

These artworks represent the spirit of “less is more.” Contemplating on them, we would realize no such a thing as mind. It desperately generates decorations and deceptively seeks after the worldly merits. Only when we forget ourselves, our heart could be in heaven.

To study the Way is to study the Self. To study the Self is to forget the self. 

Master Dogen

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Matthew 6:19-21

Image by Kip Ferguson (for the top photo)

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