“As I see it, there isn’t so much to do. Just be ordinary—put on your robes, eat your food, and pass the time doing nothing.” —Master Linji, Teaching 18
In master Linji’s time, some Buddhist terms were used so often they became meaningless. People chewed on terms like “liberation” and “enlightenment” until they lost their power. It’s no different today. People use words that tire our ears. We hear the words “freedom” and “security” on talk radio, television, and in the newspaper so often that they’ve lost their effectiveness or their meaning has been distorted. When words are overused, even the most beautiful words can lose their true meaning. For example, the word “love” is a wonderful word. When we like to eat hamburger, we say, “I love hamburger.” So what’s left for the meaning of the word “love”?
It’s the same with Buddhist words. Someone may be able to speak beautifully about compassion, wisdom, or non-self, but this doesn’t necessarily help others. And the speaker may still have a big self or treat others badly; his eloquent speech may be only empty words. We can get tired of all these words, even the word “Buddha.” So to wake people up, Master Linji [Japanese, Rinzai] invented new terms and new ways of saying things that would respond to the needs of his time. For example, Master Linji invented the term “businessless person,” the person who has nowhere to go and nothing to do. This was his ideal example of what a person could be. In Theravada Buddhism, the ideal person was the arhat, someone who practiced to attain his own enlightenment. In Mahayana Buddhism, the ideal person was the bodhisattva, a compassionate being who, on the path of enlightenment, helped others.
According to Master Linji, the businessless person is someone who doesn’t run after enlightenment or grasp at anything, even if that thing is the Buddha. This person has simply stopped. She is no longer caught by anything, even theories or teachings. The businessless person is the true person inside each one of us. This is the essential teaching of Master Linji.
When we learn to stop and be truly alive in the present moment, we are in touch with what’s going on within and around us. We aren’t carried away by the past, the future, our thinking, ideas, emotions, and projects. Often we think that our ideas about things are the reality of that thing. Our notion of the Buddha may just be an idea and may be far from reality. Buddha is not a reality that exists outside of us, but is our own true nature. The Buddha outside ourselves was a human being who was born, lived, and died. For us to seek such a Buddha would be to seek a shadow, a ghost Buddha, and at some point our idea of Buddha would become an obstacle for us.
Master Linji said that when we meet the ghost Buddha, we should cut off his head. Whether we’re looking inside our outside ourselves, we need to cut off the head of whatever we meet, and abandon the views and ideas we have about things, including our ideas about Buddhism and Buddhist teachings. Buddhist teachings are not exalted words and scriptures existing outside us on a high shelf in the temple, but are medicine for our ills. Buddhist teachings are skillful means to cure our ignorance, craving, and anger, as well as our habit of seeking things outside and not having confidence in ourselves.
Insight can’t be found in sutras, commentaries, verbal expression, or —isms. Liberation and awakened understanding can’t be found by devoting ourselves to the study of the Buddhist scriptures. This is like trying to find fresh water in dry bones. Returning to the present moment, using our clear mind which exists right here and now, we can be in touch with liberation and enlightenment, as well as with the Buddha and the patriarchs as living realities right in this moment. The person who has nothing to do is sovereign unto herself. She doesn’t need to put on airs or leave any trace behind. The true person is an active participant, engaged in her environment while remaining unoppressed by it. Although all phenomena are going through the various appearances of birth, abiding, changing, and dying, the true person doesn’t become a victim of sadness, happiness, love, or hate. She lives in awareness as an ordinary person, whether standing, walking, lying down, or sitting. She doesn’t act a part, even the part of a great Zen master. This is what Master Linji means by “being sovereign wherever you are and using that place as your seat of awakening.”
We may wonder, “If a person has no direction, isn’t yearning to realize an ideal, doesn’t have an aim in life, then who will help living beings be liberated, who will rescue those who are drowning in the ocean of suffering?” A Buddha is a person who has no more business to do and isn’t looking for anything. In doing nothing, in simply stopping, we can live freely and true to ourselves and our liberation will contribute to the liberation of all beings.
From Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go (2007) by Thich Nhat Hanh. Reprinted with permission of Parallax Press.
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