Yesterday I was doing more research into the subject of perennial philosophy. It has a long history going back to Agostino Steuco (1497–1548) who was influenced by the neo-Platonic philosophy of Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499).
“For Ficino the path to gnosis, though perfected by Plato, had a distant origin, and he revived and refined the ancient notion of a secret, esoteric, and what Steuco would later call perennial wisdom, a prisca theologia, that had preceded and prepared for Christianity as the climactic Platonic revelation” (Michael J. B. Allen, Marsilio Ficino, p. xvi).
What caught my attention was the phrase, “path to gnosis” which I took to be just about where Zen Buddhism is coming from. It is certainly not a path to moral excellence or a path of ‘just sitting’ in the belief that practice and enlightenment are one and the same thing. We might also understand that the word Zen, which comes from the Sanskrit word, dhyâna, helps us to clear a path that takes us to gnosis.
Gnosis, in the context of Zen Buddhism, would mean the knowing of our true nature which has many other names such as One Mind, in which case we would realize the One Mind which transcends samsara and certainly our corporal body together with its troubling and imperfect mentations. The One Mind is described this way in the treatise, Awakening of Faith attributed to Asvaghosha.
"The Mind in terms of the Absolute is the one World of Reality (Dharmadhatu) and the essence of all phases of existence in their totality. That which is called "the essential nature of the Mind" is unborn and is imperishable. It is only through illusions that all things come to be differentiated. If one is freed from illusions, then to him there will be no appearances (lakshana) of objects regarded as absolutely independent existences; therefore all things from the beginning transcend all forms of verbalization, description, and conceptualization and are, in the final analysis, undifferentiated, free from alteration, and indestructible. They are only of the One Mind; hence the name Suchness. All explanations by words are provisional and without validity, for they are merely used in accordance with illusions and are incapable of denoting Suchness. The term Suchness likewise has no attributes, which can be verbally specified. The term Suchness is, so to speak, the limit of verbalization wherein a word is used to put an end to words. But the essence of Suchness itself cannot be put an end to, for all things in their Absolute aspect are real; nor is there anything which needs to be pointed out as real, for all things are equally in the state of Suchness. It should be understood that all things are incapable of being verbally explained or thought of; hence the name Suchness."
To fully appreciate the subtlety of the above words, gnosis of our true nature is necessary. Short of gnosis, we must have complete faith in these words inasmuch as they are describing an actual transcendent state otherwise called ultimate reality. Incidentally, we can call this gnosis, gnosis of our true nature, One Mind, Dharmadhatu, the essence of all, the essence of Mind, Suchness, etc. What is important for us is to attain gnosis of our true self or nature. Without gnosis, Zen is not yet complete. We still must seek. To help the not-yet-awakened adept along, let’s say that Zen is the path to gnosis of our true nature.