As is well known, Buddhism arrived in China, probably in the first century CE, and evolved gradually into the tradition that now we term ‘Zen’. Two key exponents in this lengthy process of development were Bodhidharma (5th century CE) and the sixth patriarch (that is, the individual Hui-neng (638-713 CE) who is generally recognised as the founder of the fully-formed Zen tradition. Hui-neng is regarded as the sixth in the lineage of the Zen patriarchs in China that originated with Bodhidharma, roughly two centuries previously.
Already long established in China were two further traditions- Confucianism and Taoism (or ‘Daoism’ in more recent usage). For a long time Taoism and Buddhism in China were often confused or conflated, even argued by some scholars to have been effectively the same ‘religion’. Both had long historical roots. In effect, Zen developed as the oriental version of Mahayaya Buddhism which had flowered in India between 100 BCE and the first few centuries CE, whilst Taoism can be attributed to its (possibly legendary) founder Lao Tzu, a near contemporary of Confucius who himself lived from 551-479 BCE.
It seems clear that these two traditions, Buddhism and Taoism, originating independently in approximately the same period in (respectively) India and China, came gradually to influence and inter-penetrate each other in the Far East. As a consequence, one way of casting new light on Mahayana Buddhism (in its manifestation in China but also in Japan, Korea, and elsewhere in the far east) is to trace the influence that Taoism had on it.
One of the characteristic principles of Taoism is that the sage does not ‘take action’, rather he or she mirrors the world as it reveals or manifests itself. Of course, this rather vague statement might be interpreted in different ways. Is it meant literally? Does it mean that the wise man or woman does absolutely nothing? Or perhaps does it mean the sage merely withdraws temporarily from activity when engaging in regular meditation (as many Buddhists might maintain)? Yet I think in the Taoist tradition non-action means rather more than this, and the key to understanding non-action lies in the concept of ‘mirroring’.
In Taoism the sage is ‘the mirror of heaven and earth’. For the concept ‘heaven and earth’ a modern audience would probably understand ‘nature’, the natural world as it is presented to us, a world that includes humanity as one of its components, but not necessarily a component that is more important than others. When the sage simply reflects what is seen and encountered, he or she is still, and it is from this point of stillness that successful, and indeed practical, action can be taken.
In this way individual spontaneity is achieved by living the life generated by the natural world, and in particular by not adding anything to that world as generated independently of human involvement. Such spontaneity involves a mirroring which counsels practitioners not to follow the human passions that obscure a clear mirroring, passions which put selfhood and self-interest above the greater natural order. The sage or cultivated person is thereby ‘self-dissolving’. Essentially, all genuine power emanates from ‘heaven’ or from natural processes, and the wise person simply allows nature to act through his or her body. (See for example A.C. Graham: Chuang-Tzu, The Inner Chapters, pp. 14-18).
In this way acting in accordance with nature or ‘heaven and earth’ is a sort of personal ‘non-doing’ because the interests of the person are subordinated to the interests of nature as a whole. We might say, in modern Darwinian parlance, that the interests of the individual to survive and reproduce, to fight, flee, feed and fornicate, are subordinated to the interests of the planet, of the wider environment in which the individual is located.
In this way, Taoism, albeit in origin some five centuries older than the Buddhism that arrived in China in the first century CE, contains much that is familiar to the Buddhist practitioner. If we then jump forward another two millennia to the sixteenth century CE we can find an account of Mahayana Buddhism that echoes Taoism in so many ways. In D.T.Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, the author quotes from Yengo (1566-1642):-
‘It is presented right to your face, and at this moment the whole thing is handed over to you. For an intelligent fellow, one word should suffice to convince him of the truth of it, but even then error has crept in. Much more so when it is committed to paper and ink, or given up to wordy demonstration or to logical quibble, then it slips farther away from you. The great truth of Zen is possessed by everybody. Look into your own being and seek it not through others. Your own mind is above all forms; it is free and quiet and sufficient; it eternally stamps itself in your six senses and four elements. In its light all is absorbed. Hush the dualism of subject and object, forget both, transcend the intellect, sever yourself from the understanding, and directly penetrate deep into the identity of the Buddha-mind; outside of this there are no realities…..Zen has nothing to do with letters, words or sutras. It only requests you to grasp the point directly and therein to find your peaceful abode. When the mind is disturbed, the understanding stirred, things are recognized, notions are entertained, ghostly spirits are conjured, and prejudices grow rampant. Zen will then forever be lost in the maze….
‘….when a state of perfect motionless and unawareness is obtained all the signs of life will depart and also every trace of limitation will vanish. Not a single idea will disturb your consciousness, when lo! all of a sudden you will come to realise a light abounding in full gladness. It is like coming across a light in thick darkness: it is like receiving treasure in poverty……so light, so easy, so free you are. Your very existence has been delivered from all limitations; you have become open, light and transparent. You gain an illuminating insight into the very nature of things, which now appear to you as so many fairylike flowers having no graspable realities. Here is manifested the unsophisticated self which is the original face of your being; here is shown all bare the most beautiful landscape of your birthplace. There is but one straight passage open and unobstructed through and through. This is so when you surrender all- your body, your life, and all that belongs to your inmost self. This is where you gain peace, ease, non-doing, and inexpressible delight. All the sutras and sastras are no more than communications of this fact; all the sages, ancient as well as modern, have exhausted their ingenuity and imagination to no other purpose than to point the way to this. It is like unlocking the door to a treasury; when the entrance is once gained, every object coming into your view is yours, every opportunity that presents itself is available for your use; for are they not, however multitudinous, all possessions obtainable within the original being of yourself? Every treasure there is but waiting your pleasure and utilisation. This is what is meant by “Once gained, eternally gained, even to the end of time.” Yet really there is nothing gained; what you have gained is no gain, and yet there is something truly gained in this.’
The reality is ‘presented right to your face....’. The ‘whole thing is handed over to you.’ The mind is ‘free and quiet and sufficient’; mind is already complete, perfect, without blemish. Mind, freed from the fetters of self and subject, can go anywhere and has no limitations. There are no secrets, and from the very beginning nothing has been kept from you. There is ‘peace, ease, non-doing and inexpressible delight.’ Once this is recognised, all that requires to be cultivated is the habit of attending to what arises transparently in the mind, what the human mind reflects or mirrors of the natural world, what is reflected without adding anything to it. There is nothing gained in this because, in a sense, it was always there, always present under and within ‘heaven and earth.’ Yet from a narrow individual perspective a treasure is ‘truly gained’.
In this way, the Buddhist injunction to save all beings from suffering is identified not with frenetic action but with perfect repose. The Boddhisatva and the Taoist sage are at one.