Pointing the finger to Zen
by Robert Chu

Often in Chinese martial arts, we are told the origins of the arts are also tied to Zen (Chan in Chinese). In my opinion, although Zen stems from traditional Buddhism, it is a system of liberation from a more religious, faith driven Buddhism, as might be other forms of Buddhism where chanting, rituals, mudras, mantras and sutras may seem more important than experiencing enlightenment for oneself. Zen is a vessel to cross over quickly, and for you to experience the awakened mind directly, as a result, Zen is more of an approach to realizing the mind, a philosophy, more than a religion. In many ways, high level mastery of a martial art is awakening and understanding, much like Zen is to Buddhism.
Often when we study Zen, we are presented with confusing stories, called koans (kung an in Chinese), and seated meditation. As I feel a student needs a roadmap to learning, and often finding a learned master is difficult, perhaps my few words here can be of use.
Although Zen is a teaching that must be realized outside normal transmission and points directly to the mind, for one to get a real understanding of Zen, one should at least have some background in three important sutras. The first of these is the Heart Sutra (Xin Jing in Chinese), also called the Prajna Paramita Sutra. It is very short, yet very profound. Basically the main point of this text is to explain the cross over from ignorance to wisdom. As the sutra says, "Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form. So too are feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness." It is a direct pointing of the mind in an enlightened state. For the advanced martial artist, this profound statement gives us much to contemplate.
The second Sutra one should study is the Diamond Sutra (Jin Gang Jing in Chinese), also called the Vajra Prajna Paramita Sutra. The basis of the Diamond Sutra is the perception of opposites, seeing yin and yang and how it changes. It is said that the 6th patriarch inheritor, Hui Neng, came to enlightenment when he over heard a passage recited from the Diamond Sutra, " One should practice that thought which is nowhere attached". The sutra is of medium length and pretty simple to understand. When one perceives Yin and Yang, and finds oneself are stuck in between them, it is best to step away and perceive the middle way.
Although Bodhidharma (Ta Mo in Chinese) is considered the first patriarch and brought Zen to China, his teachings did not flourish until the time of Hui Neng, the 6th Patriarch. Ta Mo brought the concept to China, but it flowered and flourished under Hui Neng. The 6th Patriarch Altar Sutra is the major text of study and his example points the way. Written in plain language, the story describes Hui Neng, an illiterate woodcutter who inherits the 5th patriarch's robe and bowl (handed down for 5 generations from Bodhidharma) and his life and teachings. I had read this work previously under D. T. Suzuki's, "The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind", but recently reading another version of the book given to me by my student, Randy Lum, I received more insight to the Zen teachings I was exposed to in my youth. I highly recommend "The Sixth Patriarch's Sutra" published by the Buddhist Translation Text Society with commentary by the late master Hsuan Hua, the 45th Dharma successor. Master Hsuan Hua inherited the mind seal from Hsu Yun, the 44th Dharma successor, and the subject of three volumes, "Ch'an and Zen Teachings" written by Charles Luk. All of these works are available for order online, and some of these sutras are readily downloadable off of various internet sites.
With these comprehended, a good foundation is laid. When you have read these deeply and comprehended them, it is best to study other classics including the Surangama Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, Vimalakirti Sutra, Song of Enlightenment, Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, and other sutras. These will clarify the koan study, famous in books like "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones" by Paul Reps. From here, one can read the writings of the great masters, from the five schools of Zen that flourished after Hui Neng, Kuei Yang, Lin Chi, Tsao Tung, Yun Men, and Fa Yen.
I hope my few words can point the way to a deep study of comprehending Zen and hope it can help improve your martial arts and life as well.