According to Buddhist scripture, even if people are learned, as long as they do not put their learning into practice, they are no different from the ignorant. This is also true of mundane activities; to understand the principles and talk about them may be quite easy, but actual performance is not so easy.
Many learned people only profess and do not actually refine their minds. This is why they do not reach the attainments of the sages whose books they study.
When Confucius was alive he taught his students the principles of humaneness, justice, courtesy, intelligence, and truthfulness and had them practice these principles. When Confucius testified that so-and-so had learned humaneness, or so-in-son had learned justice, he was referring to people whose hearts were humane or just, not to people who had merely learned how to talk about humaneness and justice but had no humaneness or justice in their hearts.
Later students of Confucianism however, claimed to be masters of Confucian teaching as soon as they had learned definitions of humaneness and justice, without having cultivated humaneness or justice in their hearts.
The same was also true of Buddhism. When Buddha was in the world, not all of his followers were geniuses who attained liberation promptly and became free, but even those of mediocre and lesser faculties who heeded Buddha’s instructions and put them into practice attained benefits according to their abilities. Even after Buddha’s death, all those who practiced the teaching appropriately gained some benefit. This was because they followed Buddhism only for liberation and for the salvation of all living beings, not for social status and material profit.
In later times, many people, both laity and clergy, followed and studied Buddhism for the sake of reputation and material profit. Therefore they did not advance in actual self-cultivation and refinement. They thought it was enough to learn the doctrines of the various schools. As a result, the more learned they were, the more conceited they became.
In consequence of all this, whereas ordinary people have just the usual personal ego, students of Buddhism added to that a religious ego. Therefore even scholars of outstanding erudition might be no different from the most wretched miscreants in terms of their actual way of living and manner of being.
Zen teaching says that it is better to practice a little than to talk a lot. Zen masters have therefore recommended that learned understanding be subordinated to study through personal experience.
The time nevertheless came when even Zen students were given to literary pursuits and became so proud of their erudition that they were not ashamed of having no real experience of enlightenment.
No Set Track
Zen teaching has no set track or fixed pattern. Sometimes it explains mundane principles, sometimes it expounds transmundane doctrines. In any case, the purpose is to dissolve people’s sticking points and relieve them of their bondage. Therefore there is no dogma or doctrinal orthodoxy; the only issue is what will effectively liberate and enlighten people.
According to an ancient Zen saying, “If you understand, you can use it on the road; if you do not understand, it becomes a mundane convention.” Even if people are given mystic teachings for transcendence, if they do not understand them, the teachings become conventional doctrines.
On the other hand, if hearing explanation of worldly principles frees people from clinging and bondage, with the result that they unite directly with the fundamental, then these worldly principles are in that sense profound teachings.
Muso Kokushi (1275-1351)
Excerpted from Dream Conversations On Buddhism and Zen translated by Thomas Cleary 1994
Muso is touching on points we have covered many times over the years. It is so easy to fool ourselves with our understandings. Too often there is confusion in thinking that knowing the meaning of a word equals the experience and manifestation of that principle. Muso aptly draws on Confucius and his style of teaching, where his students had to really incorporate the principles into their actions to master the teaching.
To whatever degree we live the principles we aspire to, we become the real manifestation of Buddhism, Zen, or even Confucian ideals. Otherwise the teachings become like superficial encounters, very inspiring during a lecture or retreat, but just another experience that ultimately fades without any deep impact.
What an open mind to recognize also that liberation can come from many places…, “the only issue is what will effectively liberate and enlighten people.”
Whether we have a teacher or not, it is still up to us to take the teaching into ourselves, stay with it long enough to see what to do with it, and then remember it each day….our life koan we refine over a lifetime.