The Undying Lamp of Zen: the Testament of Zen Master Torei

There is zen and there is Zen. There is Zen Buddhism, and then there is Zen Buddhism. That may sound like a Zen koan, but the point is that Zen comes in many flavors an shapes.

There’s the Zen of Zen gardens, the Zen of direct enlightenment without reference to tradition, and there’s the Zen of Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism is, like other kinds of Buddhism, a tradition. It has rituals and priests. Within Zen Buddhism there are various traditions again. One of those traditions is Rinzai. Rinzai stresses the koan more than Soto, which stresses sitting.

Alright – those are the basics. If you want to learn more about the actual traditions of Rinzai Zen, it’s path to enlightenment etc. there’s a new book out at Shambhala publications which will help you do just that. It’s the book under review here: ‘The Undying Lamp of Zen: The Testament of Zen Master Torei, translated by Thomas Cleary’.

I was surprised to learn, on rereading the introduction, that the book was actually written in the 18th century. It reads like a primer on Zen Buddhism today. For instance:

The matter of learning from a teacher is most essential. People of old who arrived at the source of seeing nature, passed through many barriers clearly and completely without a dot of doubt, and traveled freely through the world opening big mouths in discussion, only came to know the transcendental message of Zen after they finally ran into Zen masters of great vision. Then they sincerely sought certainty and wound up with the duty of the teacher’s succession, bearing the debt of Dharma, never to forget it for a moment. This is called Dharma succession. Since ancient times the designated succession of the ancestral teachers has always been like this. (p. 88)

While that’s still not likely to make this book a popular one, it is a statement that in this day and age is still true and needs to be remembered.

In lofty-minded people who genuinely work on the path, when the effort of inner seeking builds up and the power of concentration is full, then ordinary ideation and conscious feelings are all inactivated; reason and speech come to an end, and even the searching mind disappears at the same time. Even the breath nearly stops. This is the time when the Great Way appears. (p. 39)

Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Clearly something else, compared to those books telling us how to get successful, or find our purpose or anything like that.

Just let go of pain and loss and affirmation and negation all at once, and examine directly right where you are: when sitting, examine while sitting; when active, examine while active; when lying down, examine while lying down; when eating, examine while eating; when speaking, examine while speaking; when doing all tasks, examine while doing all tasks. (p. 29)

Now that’s more like the Zen we’re used to hearing about isn’t it? There’s more where that came from…

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