The Infinite Ocean

Lately I’ve been reading Zen Under the Gun: Four Zen Masters from Turbulent Times. It is a collection of zen lessons from four zen masters who lived in turbulent periods in Chinese history. The lessons are translated and assembled by J.C. Cleary, a Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University.

The first lesson I want to examine is The Infinite Ocean by Chinese Zen master Hengchuan (1222 – 1289). The lesson reads:

Hengchuan held up the staff and said, “The ocean of reality-nature has no shores. Mountains, rivers, and the great earth are waves on this ocean. Sun, moon, and stars are waves on this ocean. It flows into the nostrils of all the buddhas of past, present, and future. If all of you want to emerge [from your bubble of delusion and witness this ocean], go slowly and gently reawaken.”

In this lesson Hengchuan’s staff symbolizes the teaching function and salvific work of the Zen adepts. The ocean of reality-nature refers to the system of natural laws that constitute the natural order of the universe. This natural order is everywhere and everything. Hengchuan expounds on this by saying the mountains, rivers, earth, the sun, and the moon are all facets, or waves, of this single, underlying reality. All Buddhas are part of, and can correctly perceive, this true nature of reality. If you want to escape your bubble of delusion, or your misconceptions about the nature of reality which causes suffering, then you must reexamine the world freshly without the fallacious preconceptions that you have built up.

This nature of reality is the natural order of things all around us – not the categorizations, labels, biases, and feelings we have may have about it. Reality is the territory, and our perceptions are the map. If our map is incorrect we will be deluded about the territory. If one is able to correctly perceive the nature of the universe, then one will not be deluded into the wrong thinking and wrong action that causes suffering. If one can shed their preconceptions, reawaken, and examine the world for what it is with a fresh pair of eyes, then one can perceive the true nature of reality like the Buddhas perceive it.

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