The question of sudden enlightenment | Daily News

The question of sudden enlightenment

August 29 happened to be a fascinating moment of bliss for those of us who gathered at the Social Sciences Auditorium at Kelaniya University. This happened to be the simple launching ceremony of a scholarly book titled as ‘A Manual of Zen’ translated from the original Chinese work into English by the two scholars Dr Bhikkhu Ho Beop and Professor S B Hettiarachchi both attached to English Research Centre of Buddhist Texts. This is the first one in a series of Buddhist texts. The original work, perhaps as stated by the two translators, is a work known as Epistle of Da Hui or Letter Sermons of Master Da Hui Pu Jue. Published in English in 2018, the introduction goes to say that the Zen meditation has been the main method for most Korean as well as some other countries in the tradition of seeking enlightenment from the very inception of its introduction from countries such as China and Japan.

The history of the expansion of Zen into other countries has been a serious study undertaken by scholars like D T Suzuki, Paul Reps, Christmas Humphreys, Allen Watts, Lucien Stryle, Takashi Ikemoto and our own scholar Venerable Professor Walpola Rahula Thera. In my address gracing the occasion at the invitation of Social Sciences Faculty Dean Professor Chandana Abeyratne, I drew the attention of the audience as regards some of the salient factors linked to the local narrative traditions as an inspiration from the Zen stories, Zen poems, Zen prayers and Zen sayings.

Zen stories

Two local scholars, Professor Chandima Vijebandara and Professor H M Moratuwagama are credited with translating quite a number of Zen stories from English into Sinhala. We observed a Zen communication culture springing up gradually via media channels for the most part on blissful ‘sudden enlightenment’ or satori as it is known to Zennists all around the world.

Originally the term Zen has sprung up from the Sanskrit word Dhyana from which sprang up the Chinese Chan and Seon in Korean. Zen tradition is being linked into the occidental popular culture as a result of the intrinsic conflict of the spiritual nuances as well as the realistic momentary bliss it embraces the promoters of popular cultural aspects in the US such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac have often pointed out the introspective nature of Zen as it influenced them in their creative communication patterns.

While working in the BBC World Service, an Indian producer of Music programmes once told me that some of the Indian lyric writers in Hindu and film music directors have utilised the Zen spirit into their respective functions. One of the songs as he pointed out appears in the Hindi Film of the late fifties named as Do Anken Barahat. The song begins with the words, Ye mabik there vande ham. This song was sung melodiously by Nayana Shamali Rajapaksa. Nayana, a music teacher, elaborated the meaning underlying in the song. This too entertained the gathering. Followed by this, a Mass Communication Senior Lecturer, a scholar in Buddhist doctrinal studies, presented a well known Zen story selected from a collection of Zen stories (Zen Kathandara published by Godage in 2004.)

Struggling girl

This simple Zen story narrates the journey of two monks. As they pass through a muddy road, both of them see a struggling young girl. The elderly priest removed his upper dress, drew close to the girl, lifted her in his arms and placed her ashore so that she could resume the journey. The other priest, young in age, showed signs of virtue and kept silent throughout the journey. The elderly priest noticed the silence and questioned why. In response, the silent monks broke the ice.

“What you have done is not at all in keeping with the virtuous qualities of a Buddhist monk, for you have lifted a young girl and allowed her to get out of mire full of mud.”

The elderly monk replied:

“I have lifted her and let her go on her journey. I have done the needful. But you are still carrying her on your back.”

This moment of illumination is what the Zen scholars denote as awakening or sudden enlightenment or satori. Those who have read and seriously concentrates on Zen stories, as well as Zen poems, are awakened.

Zen question

While at Amaravathi, the forest sanctuary in London, I had the chance of selecting a few books on Zen. One work is titled as ‘Zen Questions’ compiled by Robert Allen with illustrations by Andre Sollier. This book answers the most commonly asked questions concerning the philosophy, principles and practice of Zen. A reader finds the work filled with anecdotes or tales as meditative situations drawn from both the ancient and the modern world.

One such question goes as, what is Zen? The answer is a traditional definition that goes as follows.

“Outside teaching,

Apart from tradition, not founded on words

And letters

Pointing directly to the human mind,

Seeing into one’s nature

And attaining Buddhahood.”

As noted in the history of religion, it is one saintly scholar Bodhidharma, or Daruma who introduced Zen to China and Japan. Though the Zen does not grossly detour from the essential teachings of the Buddha, the scholars have often pointed out that it had stemmed from various sources of Mahayana thought especially Yogachara the Vajra Sutra and other Prajna Paramita literature. The Zen scholars are quite relaxed and constantly in search of the mental states of happiness in silence. As such, Zen emphasised creativity and spirituality not undermining reality around. There are several terms used to denote the state of mind in the past of Dr Suzuki. He denotes the state of mind as achieved via Zen meditation as ‘no-min- or the mind freed from bonds and obstacles. As a result of the spread of Zen, several scholars of thought have appeared. Most essential point is that it is a practice rather than a theory.

In Zen, dialogues ensue between a teacher and a pupil. This is a koan practice which needs to be developed.


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