“a special transmission outside the scriptures,
not founded upon words and letters.
pointing directly to the heart,
seeing into one’s own true nature,
What does this mean? What does it not mean?
Commonly this is taken to mean that Zen rejects scriptures and even writing. However, Zen practitioners do recite and study the scriptures and write vast amounts, so this is wide of the mark. In trying to understand this passage one should be more concerned with what it does say, rather than with what it seems to exclude.
The scrptures are necessarily either an outside view or a record. By outside view I mean the perspective of one who views a situation from a distance. Thus the scriptures can advocate and define compassion, but they cannot, by their nature, actually convey the experience of compassion, except, perhaps, sometimes via stories. Yet an encounter with another human being might do this.
Thus, the notion of “a special transmission outside the scriptures” refers to that extra quality that arises through direct encounter with a living being. Of course, there are some readers who have such developed empathic sensitivity that even in reading they can enter into an intimate connection with the author, so that we do have examples in the history of Buddhism of important transmissions occurring when a person ripe for sagehood read a particular passage written by a former saint long dead, but even then what is actually “transmitted” or “awakened” has the quality of a personal and unique person to person meeting. It is quite different from mere intellectual study and understanding.
The words and letters that appear do so in response to such experience. The encounter is the root and the words and letters are the branches and leafs. It is a question of prioritisation. We may say exactly the same in respect of other formalities. Zen is a special transmission outside the rituals and forms, not founded on procedures and conventions. The rituals, formalities, procedures and conventions grow up afterwards. They are a means of expression of the Dharma, but if the essence is not established first, then they are lacking in the vital content. However, when the vital element is present, then a ritual can itself become an encounter.
Thus, at a certain stage, one may need to abandon “sundry practices” so that pure faith may have space in which to appear. One then becomes “a person of no rank” who is completely without personal resource. However, once the peaceful mind of faith is established, all practices naturally can become means of expression of the true Dharma, and the “peaceful mind” becomes a generator of dynamic engagement. When things happen in this correct order, the stream is crossed and perspective is reversed.
To put this another way, what counts is not so much the content of a communication as its effect. The same words on different occasions may have different effect and dissimilar words on different occasions may lead to similar effects. The effect is that the heart is touched. Commonly the heart is locked away in a dark cave, hidden by a labyrinth of tortuous tunnels, traps and dead ends. Yet in a moment of intimate contact, suddenly all is clear and open. Yet to grasp this intellectually does not in itself mean that it actually happens.
The awakened person is natural. He or she is simply what they are. Their true nature is not an embarrassment, even though evidently it is ever so human. To meet such a person is disarming. The dark cave is no longer necessary. Dharma encounter is spacious. In such moments buddhahood is attained again and again.
If, with Dogen, we say that Buddha mind is mirror-like, we can understand that in such moments one responds to another just as reflections appear in the mirror. The mirror appropriates nothing, distorts nothing. In Buddhist language, the image cannot be defiled. This is spontaneity that opens the heart.
Paradoxically, the heart then generates forms of expression and Zen then issues as words and letters, rituals and styles, and thus brings the scriptures to life. It is, however, this living enactment that matters beyond theoretical understanding.