Q. I was reading Hui-Neng's Platform Sutra and he talks of "crushing the 84,000 defilements." I wonder what "defilement" can mean in Zen. Is there anyone to be defiled?
A. The Zen notion of "defilement" is subtler than the standard Buddhist one, and it's also more directly useful in everyday life. In Zen, a "defilement" is a clinging-thought, a mental fixation on a sound, a form or a color. Master Takuan Soho says that in learning swordsmanship, this is a "suki," a moment of absence from your whole mind and body, that allows the enemy to cut you down. WHACK! When your head is full of thoughts you stop being able to see what's right in front of you. Such "defilements" are in themselves just transient and momentary, and so present no special problem. However, supposing "you" get into the habit of forming clinging-thoughts, and fixating on a sound, a form or a color, and acting on these fixations in the belief that they're more real than your sensory experience. In that case, you are said by the Zen Masters to be suddenly "transmigrating" through the Three Worlds and the Six Realms. This is a colorful way of saying that you've lost sight of the True Nature. You confuse your "self" now with this mental fixation, now with that one. It's like a chunk of ice forgetting that it's originally water. Stop thinking for just a little while and you'll be right as rain again.
Q. Why do you say "water" is always there first, before "ice"?
A. Who's talking about "what's there first?" Ice isn't something other than water, so there's no problem about which comes first or not. The Zen point is that thinking freezes the field of sensory experiencing into rigid shapes (names-and-forms). The shapes are transient because they'll eventually melt again. Yet they're taken by ignorance for the reality. Once the shapes melt, it becomes clear there's only one substance "in" and "behind" them. It is just your Original Mind. Since there's no "two" to oppose to the "one," it's not even "one." You do not need to add a dharma of water to a dharma of ice, because they're not inherently (originally) different!
This, in Zen, is the unity of "substance" and "function." However, something mysterious happens when a person habitually identifies with a name-and-form, which is not the substance or the function, but a sort of mental snapshot, a "thought" about It. Such is the laughable idea of different "things" existing separately in space and time, a "self" that is opposed to "others," and so on. This is clinging-thinking, or ignorance.
Q. What's wrong with ignorance?
A. Congratulations! You've just created all 84,000 defilements. That was just a little joke, by the way. Still, it illustrates the Zen notion of "defilement" -- not having attachments as such, but to be unable to get out of the endless stupidity of your thinking. If you have 84,000 thoughts, and you're taken in by them, then you have 84,000 defilements. However, you actually "have" nothing at all. There are no defilements, there is only idiotic thinking. See it directly and wake up!
Q. Why do you insist that there's even a person to see It directly and wake up, or not?
Q. Master Rinzai called him "the True Person Who is No-Person." So listen closely, because I'm speaking to you. If you have 84,000 thoughts and you are taken in by them, they are "defilements" according to Zen. If you are not taken in by them, they are not even thoughts, because where is there any defined thinker of thoughts? Do thoughts think themselves? So, are you taken in by them, or not?
A. This is illogical. Why should it make any difference if I'm taken in or not if I'm the "True Person" Rinzai speaks of?
Q. Let's backtrack. You asked me to explain the Zen use of the word "defilements." I explained it. The explanation goes beyond conceptual terms, as it points directly to experience. If you are facing an enemy holding a sword, and you start thinking about where and when he's going to hit you, you will be cut down. If being cut down doesn't make a difference to you, bravo! Nonetheless, that's the Zen notion of "defilement." Your spontaneity is hindered by thinking. The "you" that gets taken in by thinking is a "user illusion" of thinking itself. What question do you still have?
A. I'm not worried about being hindered by my thinking. Why are you?
Q. I don't tell you to be worried about it. If you enjoy sticking to your 84,000 thoughts and the hallucinatory user-illusion that there is a small "someone" behind them to be hindered or not hindered anything, then by all means, do so!
If you hold your hand in front of your face while the train is passing Mt Fuji, you won't see Mt Fuji. You'll just see your hand. Maybe that's more interesting to you. But you asked me to explain the Zen notion of "defilement." I explained it. It's like a hand obstructing your view of Mt. Fuji. Just don't say Mt. Fuji is worthless to look at until you've seen it.
Zen is just this -- either wake up or don't. See Mt Fuji or look at your hand. Just shut up with the arguing and complaining!