What are ‘not establishing letters’ and ‘a separate transmission apart from the teachings’?
Seon Master Huangbo said,
When one reaches here, one will then know that the Patriarch’s coming from the West, directly pointing at the mind, seeing the nature and being enlightened, is not in words. (Chuanxin fayao).
Directly seeing the mind and being enlightened is Seon. “Directly pointing at the human mind and seeing the nature and becoming Buddha,” shows this principle very well. Seon is separate from all language and letters (do not establish letters). The genuine Buddha-dharma cannot be put into scriptures. The practical content that transcends the scriptures and steps forth towards the world of enlightenment without obstruction (see the nature and become Buddha) is Seon.
Here the most important thing is directly pointing at and seeing the mind (directly pointing at the human mind). If one sees that mind, that is seeing the nature and becoming Buddha. However, because these four phrases of “not establishing letters, a separate transmission outside of the teachings, directly pointing at the human mind, and seeing the nature and becoming Buddha,” are the common foundations that show the true face of Seon, they are joined together. These four phrases were expressed in one standard verse in the recorded sayings, the Zuting shiyuan composed by Seon Master Muan Shanqing:
When the patriarchs transmitted the Dharma, at first they did so together with the Tripitaka (three collections) of sutra, vinaya and śāstra, but Patriarch Bodhidharma after transmitting mind only, tried to smash attachment and elucidate the fundamental meaning. This is the so-called, “transmission of the teaching apart from the teaching, do not depend on letters, directly point at the mind, and see the nature and be enlightened.” (Zuting shiyuan, fascicle 5)
The teaching of a “separate transmission outside of the teaching and not establishing letters” (gyo–oe byoljeon bullip munja) clearly shows that Seon is the practice that sees the moon and not the finger. In this the Seon practitioners transcend the limits that bind one to the finger and so cannot see the moon. They must directly enter into that core by the shortcut.
Incidents such as Seon Master Danxia burning a Buddha-statue or Seon Master Deshan burning the sutras can only be found in the tradition of Seon practice. This is the state of beyond the bounds that transcends the frame of thought. However, despite saying that it is transmitted separately outside of the scriptures, this does not mean that the attitude of ignoring the scriptures is correct. Here the words, “outside of the scriptures” means do not be attached to the letters in the scriptures. Really this is because for a person who sees the moon, all things become the truth.
Seon is the awakening to the original place of the real-life mind that precedes letters. It is not explanation or a method of understanding, but directly seeing the true reality of the mind as it is. If one sees, one is enlightened at that point. The directly pointing at the mind, seeing that nature and becoming Buddha of “directly pointing at the human mind, seeing the nature and becoming Buddha” speaks of this principle. As a means of directly pointing at the human mind, generations of patriarchs used Seon dialogue, twisted noses, slapped cheeks, yelled and struck with staffs. Ganhwa Seon stands in this tradition of not establishing letters.