What is Zen? Madyamaka
Statue of Nagarjuna
Whatever is dependent arising
We declare that to be emptiness
That is dependent designation
And is itself the middle way.
There is some uncertainty over whether or not Nagajuna wished to formulate any doctrines whatsoever. His method was to undermine or take away the notions of his interlocutors. Anything that was asserted he would snatch away. This complete removal of reliance on ‘notions’ was the way he taught sunyata or emptiness.
In other words rather than saying this or that about it he showed it.
This was a method used by the later Zen Masters and is framed in Bodhidharma’s verse
‘not dependent on words and phrases’.
In the end we can say that he did assert some things. Philosophically he disagreed with the early Abidharma that the elements called ‘dharmas’ existed independently of conception or Mind/Heart. This laid the foundation for the other pinnacle of Mahayana the Yogacara with its ‘Mind-only’ or ‘Consciousness-only’ school.
One day a monk asked the great Master Joshu
“Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”
Master Joshu replied “MU!” (meaning “NO!”)
At another time a monk also asked the same question and the Master replied “Uu” (meaning “YES!”)
So we can see that the old masters responded in accord with the one who asks the question. The Master does not take his stand on words alone rather he goes in accord with the situation. This - being able to see the situation clearly and to respond compassionately - is part of the development of the Zen student. It is the skill-in-means available to him.
There is a story of the monk who goes to the abbot to complain about another monk.
“He has a comfortable mattress, and he is given more to eat than the rest of us. How is this right?”
The abbot replies “Before you came to the monastery what did you do?”
“I was a shepherd.”
“And you slept on rough ground, under the stars in all weathers, with not much food too?”
“Yes, of course – I was a poor man.”
“That monk of whom you complain comes from a wealthy family, he had servants to wait on him and delicacies whenever he called for them. His bed was soft with silk sheets and no luxury was denied him.
Now you see how he as exchanged all that for our life; he has truly come down in the material world. But for you it is quite different you have regular meals, access to medicines, shelter from the bad weather and a simple bed to lie on. In fact you have done rather well for yourself!”
The monk did not complain after that.
So we can see that the abbot too was responding, not to the letter of the rule, but to the whole circumstance and this was probably why he was the abbot!
When it comes to the rule or the words do we stick to them or do we reject them?
Nagajuna could see that we tend to get stuck on one or other extreme and declare it to be the whole truth. But the Buddha taught the middle way. There is a middle way which reflects the wholeness of the circumstances which goes beyond a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer. It is this which is a deeper understanding of this most fundamental of the Buddha’s teachings.
However care must be taken, it is not enough to think that ‘I’ can reject the rule or the words when it suits me to do so. It was always out of compassion and taking in the reality of the whole situation this is what motivated the old masters.
Image: "Nagarjuna at Samye Ling Monastery". Licensed under Copyrighted free use via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nagarjuna_at_Samye_Ling_Monastery.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Nagarjuna_at_Samye_Ling_Monastery.JPG