The Wisdom Of No Technique

Kyogen, a Zen monk of ninth-century China, was a disciple of Kuei Shan and a Buddhist scholar. One day Kuei Shan said to Kyogen, “I don’t want to know what you have learned from your studies. Just say in a word what your original being was before your parents gave you birth and prior to your capacity to discriminate.”

Kyogen was confounded; he did not know what to say. Following several restless days reflecting and pondering, he returned to Kuei Shan with an answer. It was rejected. Kyogen desperately begged for the answer, but Kuei Shan told him, “Whatever I say is according to my understanding. It will not benefit you.” Discouraged at his inability to find a satisfactory answer, Kyogen threw away his books and gave up scholarly studies. He left Kuei Shan’s monastery to become a hermit.

One day, while Kyogen was weeding around his hermitage, a stone struck a bamboo stalk. The sound opened his mind. In gratitude, he lit incense and bowed in the direction of his teacher’s mountain, saying, “Your kindness is beyond that of my parents. If you had said anything that day, this could not have happened.”

Tozan, founder of the Soto Zen School in China, also lived in the ninth century. At a ceremony on the anniversary of the death of his teacher, Yun Yen, a monk asked, “When you were with Yun Yen, what instruction did he give you?” Tozan replied, “When I was there, he neither instructed nor directed me.” The monk then asked, “So why do you celebrate him?” Tozan said, “I don’t revere him for his virtue or learning but because he did not tell me any secrets.”

The decision to engage in a spiritual practice is usually accompanied by an expectation that we will learn something profound. We hope to understand the “secret” of life or to find answers to our spiritual questions. So when we begin, we feel anticipation, even excitement. However, we soon discover that explanations and “secrets” do not readily emerge. In our impatience, we start to look for a technique that will make things easier or more comfortable, a way that will help reveal “secrets.”

In recent years, many books, seminars, and television and radio programs about spirituality have appeared. They reflect a deep yearning to know the truth about life. At the same time, they also express a desire for an easy way to get the “secret.” Many writers and trainers now make a living offering tips and techniques for “how to practice in daily life,” “how to get enlightened,” or “how to stop your mind.”

Relying on this way of “learning,” of acquiring information provided by others, does not help resolve our spiritual yearning.   Spiritual understanding requires learning in a different way. If we  insist in learning in the usual way, we will  become discouraged, just like Kyogen. To understand who we are, to know ourselves at the most fundamental level–to know our original being–is not possible by absorbing someone else’s words.

In the Zen tradition, good teachers do not explain things very much. When asked by a new student for an explanation of Zen, Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen teacher who founded San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara monastery, simply invited the young man to join him in early morning meditation practice.

On another occasion, he was asked to explain the best way to establish Zen in America. He stood up and said, “I have nothing to say,” and silently left the room. Another teacher, in response to a question about what technique he used to encourage people, replied, “We use the most important technique: people’s own sincerity.”

As the stories of Kyogen and Tozan illustrate, searching for techniques to answer spiritual questions, or to help with the difficulties of an impatient, wandering mind, is a mistake. Such searching only makes the mind wander even further. The only “technique” is to let go of old ideas, both our own and others’, and to continuously try to keep our awareness focused in the present.