Some errant Zennists really have it in for learning anything from what they call, in so many words, the works of dead Dharma teachers. They believe that only practicing with a living Zen master, face to face, will take them to yonder shore. But this is a fallacy, a fallacy for the reason that reading the works of dead Dharma teachers is not just book learning, and not all so-called Zen masters are awakened to the nature of Mind who are, therefore, unreliable.
From where exactly these Zennists get such hare brain opinions is beyond me. I suspect they have their genesis in the fact that reading the works of dead Dharma teachers is not easy for them. It is much easier to join some Zen center; putting one’s fate into the hands of some person whom they’ve never met before; assuming by the robes they’re wearing they’re pretty much Lord Buddha! Well, this is called credulity. It is more likely the result of karma—bad karma—because such people lack the capacity to sense the sublime.
We should not begrudge those with a good nose who can pick up the faint scent of the sublime in the dead words of dead Dharma teachers. Their dead words, we need to bear in mind, have never stopped pointing to the undying—unlike many of today’s living teachers whose words point to the dead. For example, even though Zen master Joshu is dead, that which animated him to utter Mu still lives on. It is in every sentient being—it cannot die. It moves our hands and feet according to the dead teacher, Bodhidharma. It teaches even now.
This brings me to the matter of today’s zazen or practice which amounts to what Zen master Hakuin called “dead sitting” in which the object contemplated is a dying body together with its dying breaths and thoughts. To be sure, there is nothing undying in this degenerate practice! Does the adept who sits in zazen see “this field” as Zen master Hongzhi, of silent illumination (mozhao) Zen, named it where “birth and death do not appear”? Hongzhi further described the field this way.
"The field of boundless emptiness is what exists from the very beginning. You must purify, cure, grind down, or brush away all the tendencies you have fabricated into apparent habits. Then you can reside in the clear circle of brightness" (Cultivating the Empty Field, p. 24).
“We all have the clear, wondrously bright field from the beginning. Many lifetimes of misunderstanding come only from distrust, hindrance, and screens of confusion that we create in a scenario of isolation” (ibid, p. 25).
The dead Dharma teachers of the past like Zen master Hongzhi and Zen master Hakuin also pointed to the undying which could be seen within us if we were persistent enough in looking for it—not just expecting it to show up out of the blue the longer we sit.
There is nothing wrong with studying with dead Dharma teachers and reading their dead words which still point to our undying Buddha-nature. What should be avoided is studying with living Dharma teachers who point to the dead; who fundamentally teach samsara—not nirvana.