One of the Zen adepts I respect with greatest ardor is great Mazu Daoyi (709–788 C.E.) [Korean: Master Ma Jo; Jap.: Ma-tsu Tao-yi]. He was known for his shocking teaching style, utilizing everything from shouts and strange words to extraordinary actions to wake his students from their solipsisms and self-enclosed mind-traps. The school that flourished under him is regarded, universally, by scholars as “the golden age of chan [Zen]”.
I remember feeling deeply inspired, for years, by the story of his first big enlightenment: As a young monk, Mazu was renowned in the Zen Hall for his arduous practice. He sat in meditation intrepidly, without moving in the least. And even after the rest of the monks retired to sleep for the night, or on rest periods during the day, he routinely continued his sitting practice out in some clearing near the meditation hall. He was absolutely determined to attain his True Self, and not waste a minute otherwise!
One day, the Patriarch of the temple, seeing him sitting deep in meditation, went out and sat on a rock beside Mazu.
“Young monk, you are practicing very hard. Everyone really admires your practice! Why are you practicing so hard like this?”
Mazu replied, “I want to get enlightenment [in Sino-Korean the term “get enlightenment” is expressed “to become Buddha”].” And Mazu kept on with his strong sitting.
After a few moments, the Patriarch reached down. Picking up in one hand one of the rooftile shards that lay nearby, and grasping a rock in the other, the Patriarch began grinding them together. The scratchy-screeching grinding sound was unbearable!
Mazu could not take it any longer. “Master, what are you doing?”
The Master replied, “I’m rubbing the tile to make it a mirror.”
Mazu said, “That’s crazy! How can you make a mirror by rubbing a tile?”
The Master answered, “Just like you! If I can’t make a mirror by rubbing a tile, how can you achieve buddhahood [“become Buddha”] by sitting in meditation? When you want the horse to pull its cart, should you whip the cart or the horse?” When he heard these words, according to tradition, Mazu attained enlightenment.
As a teacher, Mazu really established the style of “wild teaching” and “spontaneous methods” which you to characterize many teachers from his age to the present.
“Mazu Daoyi, in order to shake his students out of routine consciousness, employed novel and unconventional teaching methods. Mazu is credited with the innovations of using katsu (sudden shouts), keisaku (unexpected strikes with a stick), and unexpectedly calling to a person by name as that person is leaving. This last is said to summon original consciousness, from which enlightenment arises. Mazu also employed silent gestures, non-responsive answers to questions, and was known to grab and twist the nose of a disciple. Utilizing this variety of unexpected shocks, his teaching methods challenged both habit and vanity, a push that might inspire sudden kensho.” (Wikipedia)
For many years, he taught simply, “Mind is Buddha. Buddha is mind.” When some monks became attached to these teaching words, and spouted them off as if having attained their true meaning, he changed it to, “It’s not Mind, not Buddha.” The teaching was equally the same point. But in this simple phrase, he was able to throw off the scent of the fakers, jumble their expectations, and set their Great Doubt back on firmer footing. Probably the tersest expression of an entire teaching of a tradition, and its apparent — seeming! — flipping, the greatest display of the teaching not having been moved by a single hair’s-breadth while renewing its impact and power:
“Mind = Buddha; Buddha = mind.”
And when people get too attached to that:
“Not Mind. Not Buddha.”
A monk once asked Mazu why he always taught, “Mind is the Buddha.” Mazu smiled wanly and answered, “Because I want to stop the crying of a baby.” The monk then persisted, “Well, then, when the crying has stopped, what is your teaching then?” “Not Mind, not Buddha”, he replied. Sweets might be given to a child to stop the crying-mind, but when the child becomes attached to sweets, and depends on them, a compassionate parent must take them away! How amazing!
It was the late afternoon of the day before he was to pass out of this world, and Mazu was in the midst of a serious illness. The Head Monk paid a visit to his chamber. “Master Mazu, how is your condition today?”
“Sun-face Buddha, moon-face Buddha,” Mazu replied. The next morning, he passed peacefully into Nirvana. [The names of the two Buddhas are from The Scripture of the Buddha’s Names: Moon-Face Buddha manifests for an extremely short time, just one night and one day; whereas Sun-Face Buddha manifests for exponentially longer, around 1,800 years. Thus, Mazu was answering the worried monks by reassuring them of the relativity of time, of impermanence and constant change: THIS is his “true” condition, and also that of the monks and of all of us.]