By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
The medieval Chinese Zen Master, Huang Po, made this statement, “If one does not actually realize the truth of Zen in one’s own experience, but simply learns it verbally and collects words, and claims to understand Zen, how can one solve the riddle of life and death?”
“Reality as realized in one’s own experience” is a powerful statement reflecting the importance of the difference between knowing something, and understanding it (prajna). They are not the same, and are 10,000 miles apart when your Buddhist practice has no floor. So, if this old Ch’an monk has mind-vision, and the study of Zen by verbal clues and language alone does not constitute an understanding of it, then what is he talking about? To study Buddhism we will need to consider what understanding is.
Consider that understanding is different from knowledge as something that we are always doing as we engage everyday experiences. So, as we eat, perform various tasks at work, even our thoughts are all ways of understanding as they presuppose the need for us to use various components and dimensions of our experience in order to perform them. Understanding is our awareness of the world around us; the way each of us is embedded in this world and oriented to it, and engaged with it. Understanding also implies degrees of comprehension, intelligence, ability to reach an agreement, and is fundamental to our ability to show compassion and sympathetic action.