What Do You Call it?

· Teachings · , , , , , , , ,

by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi


Book of Serenity Case 74

Fayan’s Non-Abiding

The Pointer

Plenty has myriad virtues; swept clear, there’s not a mote of dust.
Detached from all forms, identical to all things: taking a step atop a hundred foot pole,
the universe in all directions is one’s whole body—but tell me, where does it come from?

Main Case

A monk asked Fayan, “I hear that in the teachings there is a saying‚
‘From a non-abiding basis are established all things.’
What is the non-abiding basis?”
Fayan said, “Form arises before substantiation,
names arise from before naming.”


Without tracks, No news
The white clouds are rootless—What color is the pure breeze?
Spreading the canopy of the sky, mindless,
Holding the carriage of the earth, powerful;
Illumining the profound source of a thousand ages,
Making patterns for ten thousand forms.
Meetings for enlightenment in the atoms of all lands
in each place is Samantabhadra:
The door of the tower opens
everywhere is Maitreya.


The enlightened path is to practice and awaken to the Buddha mind that each and every one of us possesses. Though it is our very nature—it is never apart even for an instant—to directly realize this truth is both subtle and profound. To engage the teachings that point to self-nature is also a challenge. There are teachings that are challenging and so we need to engage them thoughtfully and carefully, and take time trying to understand what they are saying. This means that in the beginning we are using our rational mind to reflect on and understand conceptually what the dharma is pointing to—something that is itself, beyond all concepts and knowing.

There’s much available these days in terms of Dharma teachings and texts, and a great deal of what comes from contemporary teachers is quite accessible. That’s good as it helps students connect easily and personally with the Dhamra. But I think it’s also important to engage teachings that are ancient, that practitioners have studied for hundreds of years, and these can be quite challenging. I invite you into that process with this koan.

Master Fayan was asked by a student, “I hear that in the teachings there is the saying, from a non-abiding place all things are established?” If the 10,000 things—the whole phenomenal universe, everything we can perceive with our senses—returns to some basic space, what is that basic space? How does something arise from no thing?

Fayan says, Form arises before substantiation, names arise from before naming. Another old master from a Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Dzogchen teachings, Longchen Rabjam, spoke of it this way:

Within the expanse of spontaneous presence is the ground for all that arises. Empty in essence, continuous by nature. It has never existed as anything whatsoever and yet arises as anything at all. Within the expanse of the three Kayas (the three bodies of the Buddha) although samsara and nirvana arise naturally, they do not stray from this basic space. Such is the blissful realm that is the true nature of phenomena.

Spontaneous presence is Buddha mind, everyday mind, the mind of all sentient beings. Never absent, within this immeasureable presence, nothing can be found to exist. Not existing, nothing is ever missing.

In the commentary on Rabjam’s teaching it says,

Thus, given that awareness is pure by its very nature, its essence as emptiness is what we call the Dharmakaya, the body of the Buddha, the reality body. Its nature as lucidity, as clarity, as radiance, is the Sambogakaya, the body of bliss of the Buddha. The way in which its innate responsiveness arises is what we call the Nirmanakaya, the body of the Buddha that appears in the world. This great undiminishing treasure is the utterly lucid Mandala that abides as the ground of being. Even as anything at all arises within that context, be it awareness’s own manifestations as perceived purely by Buddhas, or as perceived impurely by ordinary beings, all of it is only the displays of basic space as the true nature a phenomena.

Photo by Mike Beauregar

Photo by Mike Beauregard

The emptiness which is the nature of all things—your basic nature, and the nature of every conceivable and inconceivable thing—is the Dharmakaya, the body of the Buddha. How that manifests in form, in natural radiance and luminosity and lucidity, is the Sambogakaya, the body that manifests all of the virtues of enlightened nature. Its responsiveness, how it responds to the world, to circumstances, to people, to the cries of the world, is the Nirmanakaya, the manifested body of the Buddha.

What this is showing is the inseparable, intimate relationship, not only of form and emptiness—the absolute and the relative, the fundamental and the phenomenal, the ground of being and everyday life—but also between that fundamental nature, that basic space, and compassion. Everything that arises out of that essential nature and its nature of arising is compassion in the human realm. That’s why wisdom and compassion are not two, they can’t be separated. As Daido Roshi often said, Wisdom without compassion is not true wisdom, compassion without wisdom is not true compassion.

Fayan says, Form arises before substantiation, names arise from before naming. What Fayan is drawing upon here is a basic teaching in Buddhism: nama-rupa. Nama is name, rupa is form. In the Twelve-fold Chain of Dependent Origination, the Buddha taught how we begin within delusion, where we are not seeing things clearly, and then move towards suffering in every possible form. How does that work? Delusion leads to karmic formations; in other words, the way we see and understand things—what we desire, how we act—and this is how we create karma. Karmic formations arise out of delusion, and that delusion then conditions our consciousness. It creates a sense of someone, what we call you and me. Name and form can also be understood in terms of the five skandhas: form; feelings—coming in contact with things and the sensations that arise out of that; perceptions—how our minds categorize those sensations that arise out of that contact; volitional formations—how we then respond to things; and, consciousness, our sense of the self.

Photo by Dr. Hans-Günter Wagner

Photo by Dr. Hans-Günter Wagner

Fayan is saying that form, which is everything material, arises before it becomes substantiated. What does that mean? ‘Name’ is everything involved in our cognition, our knowing. It’s what we do in our minds to define things. Forms arise before substantiation; the footnote says, “don’t hallucinate.” Names arise before naming; the footnote says, “what can you call it after all?”  Name and form are, after all, empty of name and form. They are empty in essence, continuous by nature, appearing moment after moment.

From the quote I read earlier, Longchen Rabjam says, “empty in essence it has never existed as anything whatsoever, yet it arises as everything. Because it has never existed as anything it can arise as everything.” What does this mean? Why is this important? These teachings are not just for intellectual pleasure. They’re to be studied, practiced and realized as one’s own direct, intimate experience. They’re pointing to what’s happening at every moment, not just once we’re enlightened. Whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we care or not, it is the inner workings of things.

Photo by Dmitry Sumin

Photo by Dmitry Sumin

In the Vimalakirti Sutra, Manjushri asks,
“What is the great compassion of a bodhisattva?” Vimalakirti says, “It is the giving of all accumulated virtues to all living beings.” Manjushri asks, “What is the great joy of the bodhisattva?” Vimalakirti says, “It is to be joyful and without regret in giving.” It’s to give everything and to be without regret.

Manjushri then asks, “What is the equanimity of the bodhisattva?” Vimalakirti says, “It’s what benefits both self and others.” He’s speaking about one of the Four Immeasurables, taking joy in the joy of others, benefiting both self and others, as what brings equanimity. Then Manjushri asks, “What should we resort to when terrified by the fear of life.” When the very presence of life itself brings us fear, to what then do you turn? Vimalikirti says, “A bodhisattva who is terrified by life should resort to the magnanimity of the Buddha.”  This is the great heart, the great generosity of the Buddha. Isn’t this interesting? When terrified by fear turn toward the deep heart of generosity of the Buddha. When tempted to fold in, open out. Don’t you and I both have this great heart of courage?

Manjushri asks, “Where should one who wishes to resort to the magnanimity of the Buddha take their stand?” Where do you put yourself? How do you position yourself as you are doing that? Vimalakirti said, “You should stand in equanimity.” Stand in equanimity toward all beings; see all beings as equal with no high or low, inferior or superior. Vimalakirti then says, “You should just live for the liberation of all living beings.” In other words, when terrified by life, cultivate generosity. How do you do that? By finding equanimity within your own mind, because when we are terrified of life we are not in equanimity. We are in a turbulent state, an agitated state. We’re easily caught up in things, we’re easily turned around, and it’s very difficult to see things clearly. But then how do we find that equanimity? Let your life be for the welfare of others. Isn’t that wonderful? In that moment when we are so consumed by ourselves, he says, let that moment, that mind, that basic space, be so large that it includes everyone.

Manjushri asks, “What should one who wishes to liberate all living beings do?” Vimalakirti says, “Liberate them from their passions.” Free them from everything that entangles them. Every thought, every emotion, every desire. Now of course when he’s talking about “them,” “liberate them,” implicit within that is you, liberate yourself. You. The one who’s doing all this. Me, the one who is terrified by life.

Manjusri asks, “How should one who wishes to eliminate passions apply themselves?” Vimalakirti says, “Appropriately.” This might sound very superficial, but appropriate here means in perfect accord, in complete harmony. Meeting this as it is, in perfect harmony. Manjushri then asks, “How do you apply yourself appropriately?” Vimalakirti says, “Don’t produce anything and don’t destroy anything.” Manjushri asks, “What should I not produce? What should I not destroy?” Vimalakirti says, “Don’t produce anything harmful, and don’t destroy anything good.” Manjushri asks, “What’s the root of good and evil?” and Vimalakirti says, “Form.” Everything that you see, everything that you touch, everything that you hear, everything that you taste, your physical body, the physical bodies of all beings. There can be no good or evil without some thing that we endow with those qualities.

Manjushri asks, “What is the root of form?” Vimalakirti says, “Desire.” Manjushri asks, “What is the root of desire?” Vimalakirti says, “Unreal mental constructions.” Constructions in our mind that are not real. Whether our thoughts and ideas are based in something true or not, the construction itself is just that, something that appears and passes away. It has no solidity; it’s just an energetic appearance in the mind.

Longchen Rabjam says, “Even as anything at all arises within, be it awareness’s own manifestations coming from pure perception, or from impure perception, this is only the display of basic space as the true nature of phenomena.”

Manjushri asks, “What’s the root of an unreal mental construction?” Vimalakirti says, “A false concept, a false view.” Manjushri asks, “What’s the root of false views?” Vimalakirti says, “Non-abiding.” Manjushri asks, “What’s the root of non-abiding?” Vimalakirti says, “Manjushri, when something is non-abiding, it can’t have any root.” It has no basis, there is no ground, and everything arises from this non-abiding. This means compassion and all that is good, and also all suffering and everything harmful.

In the pointer to the koan, it says, Plenty has myriad virtues. As things arise the world is filled with myriad virtues, it’s also filled with sickness, old age and death. It’s filled with oppression and justice and equality, all of that arises from the same basis, from the same non-dwelling. Non-abiding is the basis of all compassion and suffering, all of our sorrows and all of our virtues, our delusions and our enlightenment.

It’s important to understand this. Think about encountering hatred; hateful words, hateful thoughts, hateful views, hateful actions, people who are filled with hatred. Understand these as impure perceptions, false mental constructions arising out of unwholesome desires, based in false ideas, that rest on non-abiding, that have no ground. That’s why there are so many references to this world of ours as dreamlike, as illusory. We should not deny that it’s happening, and certainly not to deny the effects of actions which do cause harm. But how do we manifest compassion and not get so entangled within the disturbance in our mind that so easily arises when we face pain and conflict? How do we not create disturbances in our minds that other people get caught up in? This is why the heart of compassion is wisdom. The heart of practice is always this non-abiding basis.

 Photo by Thomas Leuthard

Photo by Thomas Leuthard

But how can you get to non-abiding? It has no place, you cannot grasp it. It appears only as form – it has no other appearance – and yet, when you try to locate it, it can’t be found.  When something is non-abiding, it can’t have any root.

If that seems abstract then just turn it around—how can you get to abiding? How do you stand on that? Well that’s easy. Just stand in that place that is fixed, where things seems permanent.  Define things as they appear without questioning whether you’re seeing them as they are or just as you’ve been conditioned to see. Empower things to stand alone and have inherent value and power to give you happiness or give you sadness. Has anyone ever found a single thing that has this nature? What we see when we look carefully is that whenever we create distance, we create suffering. And the greater the distance we keep, the greater the suffering. The more that distance dissolves, the greater the happiness.

When we enter into training, we engage what Bodhidharma called “a special transmission outside the scriptures.” ‘Special’ here doesn’t mean special to Zen, it means special in the sense of life-giving, beyond the realm of words and ideas. These very words themselves are intended, through practice, to free us of these words so that we can directly encounter the nature of mind, the nature of enlightenment.

What does this ‘non-abiding basis’ mean? Let go. Let go. Let go still more. Any subtle sign of anything can be held onto. As long as we’re still in that realm of capture and release, then we’re still in a world where there are threats. So in all things apply yourself appropriately. To practice non-abiding is to be in the world in a way that is true to the world.

There’s a passage in the Diamond Sutra that says,

You should enliven your mind without dwelling on anything. Not dwelling on anything means don’t dwell on form, don’t dwell on sound, don’t dwell on delusion, don’t dwell on enlightenment, don’t dwell on essence don’t dwell on function. Enlivening the mind means manifesting one mind in every place in every moment. If you enliven the mind dwelling on good, goodness appears. If you enliven the mind dwelling on evil, evil appears. The basic mind is concealed. If it doesn’t dwell on anything, anywhere, then the whole world is realized as one mind.

Avalokiteshvara realizes all beings are one essence. All beings have one nature. All beings arise from non-abiding. So practice is really just that, in zazen, in walking, reading a discourse and studying the Dharma. In having insight and noticing a moment where you respond differently, with more compassion, with more wisdom. Not dwelling in good, not dwelling in bad.

 Photo by Dark Sevier

Photo by Dark Sevier

It is so difficult to not abide in things when it seems like we need to. To abide doesn’t mean to not give it our attention. It doesn’t mean not to engage it. It means to engage it wholeheartedly. Wholeheartedly means non-abiding. Without residue, without traces. It means completely, with nothing left out. It is just one mind. This moment is the moment of practice. To begin awake, to end awake. To let go throughout. What is it then? It’s just this moment of practice. You begin awake, you end awake, you let go. The whole universe then radiates its spontaneous presence.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Roshi is the Head of the Mountains and River Order and the Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of New York City.

Book of Serenity is a collection of koans compiled during the 12th century and commented on by Master Wansong with poems by Master Hongzhi.

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