Dennis Bradford

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An independent human is one of true worth.

Yasutani Roshi: “If you would be a man of true worth and not a phantom, you must be able to walk upright by yourself, dependent on nothing”[quoted from The Three Pillars of Zen, which is listed below].

Sadly, most of us are still phantoms and will die that way.

We are dependent on thought-forms; we cling to them as though they were real. Therefore, we fail to abide in unity.

Although spontaneous glimpses of it occur without practicing, becoming independent requires three things.

Kao-feng Yuan-miao (1238-1295) formulated the requisites for breaking through: great faith, great doubt, and great aspiration.  Lacking any one of these is being like a three-legged cauldron with one leg broken off.

Which is the most important of the three?

Zen Master Hakuin wrote in his spiritual autobiography Wild Ivy: “The most important of the three is the great, burning aspiration. You may possess an abundance of deep-rooted faith and a great doubt as well, but if the burning aspiration is not present . . . you will be incapable of curing the besetting illnesses of mankind and liberating sentient beings.”

Therefore: “Strive diligently, all of you! Do not allow yourselves to be content with meager gains.”

Master Hakuin and Yasutani Roshi are speaking of koan practice, which is a shortcut to enlightenment (kensho, satori, spiritual awakening, direct awareness of Being). Although there may be other ways to break through, it is impossible to be an independent human being without enlightenment.

Both men stress the importance of continual practice.

Master Hakuin: “It means immersing yourself totally in your practice at all times and in all your daily activities – walking, standing, sitting, or lying down.”

Yasutani Roshi: “Unless it accords with your everyday activities Zen is merely an embellishment. . . How can you achieve this unity? By holding to Mu [a first koan] tenaciously day and night! Do not separate yourself from it under any circumstances! Focus you mind on it constantly. . . carry on steadfastly for one, two, three, or even five years without remission, constantly vigilant.”

Nobody does this without great, burning aspiration.

Should one do it? Should one strive to be independent?

Master Hakuin: “It is the One Great Matter of human life: striving with fierce and courageous determination to bore through the barrier into kensho.”


The only alternative is remaining dependent.

Yasutani Roshi: “[M]ost of us cannot function independent of money, social standing, honor, companionship, authority, or else we feel the need to identify ourselves with an organization or an ideology. If you would be a man of true worth and not a phantom, you must be able to walk upright by yourself, dependent on nothing.”

Enlightenment is directly grasping the nature of what-is. It cannot be conceptualized, understood by mere thinking.

Why is spiritual enlightenment beneficial?

Yasutani Roshi: “When you truly understand the fundamental principle you will not be anxious about your life or your death. You will then attain a steadfast mind and be happy in your daily life. . . Miraculously, everything is radically transformed though remaining as it is.”

Each of us will either become independent of attachments or not. According to those who have broken through, there is no greater blessing or higher aim of human life.

Master Hakuin: “body and mind falling completely away . . . the great emancipation.”

There are three classes of humans: those who are independent, those who are dependent and trying to free themselves, and those who are dependent and not trying to free themselves.

If you are in the third class and would like to be in the first class, understand that being in the second class is stressful. Stress occurs when two forces are pulling against each other.

Even if you are in the second class and devoting yourself to your practice energetically and wholeheartedly, you cannot attain unthinking absorption in your practice until your defilements have burned away. As purity increases you seem unable to go back and unable to go forward.

This is why becoming independent is not for the faint of heart!

As Mumon famously put it in his commentary on Mu: “It will be just as if you swallowed a red-hot iron ball, which you cannot spit out even if you try.” [Sekida, tr.]

Would you pass the barrier of the patriarchs and realize independence?

As difficult as it is, it’s not just a matter of breaking through: it’s a matter of living the liberated life. Enlightenment is capable of indefinite expansion.

Master Hakuin: “What is to be valued above all else is the practice that comes after satori is achieved. What is that practice? It is practice that puts the Mind of Enlightenment first and foremost. . . What is the Mind of Enlighenment? It is . . . a matter of doing good—benefiting others . . . “

Being independent means living a life of genuinely serving others.


As always, if you know someone who might benefit from this post, please forward it.

References: Roshi Philip Kapleau’s  The Three Pillars of Zen and Wild Ivy:  The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin.

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