Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Zen, Learning and Enlightenment

I was staying in Uttar Kashi then, in Tapovan Kuti, originally a tiny one-room cottage that belonged to my grand teacher Swami Tapovanamji, later enlarged and developed by his disciple and my guru Swami Chinmayanandaji into a large ashram with scores of rooms with modern comforts. This is in Ujeili, on the lower slopes of Varanavat Mountain, facing Har Parbat across the Ganga in the east and the famous Valakhilya Mountains some distance away in the south east. It is a beautiful place, the whole area this side of the Ganga filled with ashrams.

I used to watch every day a serious looking young monk on the terrace of a nearby ashram. He would walk up and down on the terrace the whole day, with an open book in hand, and from the constant movement of his lips it was clear he was repeating and learning by heart the book. Eventually one day I asked him what the book was and he showed it to me. It was a commentary on the Brahma Sutras. On top of each page was the text of the Sutras, below it in a different font and size the vyakhya, and below that the tika in yet another font and size and still below the tippani. And what the young monk was doing was learning by heart the entire text – the sutras, the vyakhya, the tika, the tippani, all. During our conversation he told me his dream was to become a mahamandaleshwar – that is the head of large division of spiritual organizations, below the position of the Shankaracharya.

I do not know what later became of the young monk – this was in the late nineteen seventies and I never met or heard of him after that. But recently when I read the story Zen master Kyogen, this incident came to my mind. Kyogen was also a scholar of great learning and his story tells us that his very learning stood in the way of his achieving the goal of spirituality – enlightenment.

One day Isan, who was his friend from their days with their master Hyakujo, asked him, “Tell me, Kyogen, when you were with our master in his monastery, you were very brilliant. You used to answer a single question in ten different ways. Now answer this question: What is your real self? The self that existed before you came out of your mother’s womb, before you knew east from west?”

It is said that this question puzzled Kyogen completely. He searched for the right answer in his mind and came up with answer after answer, but every time Isan rejected it. Eventually Kyogen was reduced to saying, “I fail. Explain it to me.” And Isan said, “The answer I know is my answer. It will be of no use to you. Find your own answer.”
But of course Kyogen did not know how to find his own answer – that was his problem. The only thing he knew was to find answers from books – of which he had a huge collection. Once again he went through all his books, searching for the answer to Isan’s question. He found none. No book answered that question – at least, they did not answer it satisfactorily. Eventually he told himself, “A hundred pictures of rice cakes are not going to fill a single hungry stomach.” The story tells us that as this realization dawned, Kyogen gathered his books and destroyed them all.

The pursuit of the scholar was no more for him. It hadn’t taken him anywhere. He left his friend Isan, said goodbye to all monasteries and teachers, and became a grave keeper.

One day he was sweeping the grounds of the grave when something very ordinary happened. A stone that he had swept away went and struck a bamboo.

Kyogen stood speechless. He forgot himself. He forgot all his learning. He forgot the whole world. And then his stillness was broken by a burst of spontaneous laughter arising from him. He laughed as he had never laughed before in his entire life.

Kyogen had attained enlightenment. He had attained what all his books had not helped him attain, what he has been searching all his life. He was now a Buddha in his own right.

Kyogen performed a ritual of purification and then returned to his old friend Isan. He lighted incense before him and paid homage to him. “Great master,” Kyogen said addressing Isan, “thank you! You have been kinder to me than my own parents. Had you given to me the answer when I begged you to, I would have never attained it. I would have never reached where I stand today.”

It is customary for Zen masters to write a poem in celebration of their enlightenment. Here is the poem composed by Kyogen:

One stroke and all is gone.
No need of stratagem or cure.
Each and every action
Manifests the ancient way.
My spirit is never downcast,
I leave no tracks behind me,
Enlightenment is beyond speech,
Beyond gesture.
Those who are emancipated
Call it the unsurpassed.

In the Chhandogya Upanishad, Narada, the great scholar approaches Sanatkumara and asks him to teach him. In response, Sanatkumara asks Narada to tell him all that he already knows. Here is Narada’s response:

"Bhagavan, I know the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, the Atharva as the fourth Veda, the epics and ancient lore as the fifth, grammar which is the Veda of the Vedas, the rules of sacrifices, the science of numbers, the science of portents, the science of time, logic, ethics, etymology, the science of pronunciation, ceremonials, prosody, etc., the science of elemental spirits, the science of weapons, astronomy, the science of serpents and the fine arts. All this I know, venerable Sir.

"But, Bhagavan, with all this I know only words; I do not know the Self. I have heard from men like you that he who knows the Self overcomes sorrow. I am afflicted with sorrow. Please help me, Bhagavan, to cross over to the other side of sorrow."

Narada has learnt all that could be learnt – every branch of knowledge that existed in his days. And yet he is far from that knowledge which ends all sorrow, which takes you to the other side of sorrow, into enlightenment and bliss.

The highest knowledge can only be attained beyond words. It is attained in a world where no words exist, no language exists, where only silence exists – silence and stillness. Kyogen reaches that world when the stone strikes the bamboo. Chiyono, another Zen master, attains it when the old pail in which she was carrying water breaks, leaving no water and no moon in it. Tokusan attains enlightenment when his master suddenly blows out a burning candle.

The stories may be different, but in all cases enlightenment happens in silence and stillness, when we are ready for it. All preparations, all sadhanas, are to make us ready for it.