Last things first. I’ve said it before, and at the risk of repeating myself, will say it again: Buddha was not a Buddhist, any more than Christ was a Christian. Obviously, there was no such thing as Buddhism at the time of Siddhartha; and there was no such thing as Christianity at the time of Jesus. This is not meant to be a scholarly statement of historicity, nor is it intended to stir up controversy. Instead, I am suggesting that in considering our own, personal practice, our perspective needs to be informed by that of the ancient Masters (Harmony of Sameness and Difference):
Not understanding the Way before your eyes
How do you know the Path you walk?
No such thing as Buddhism
From a strictly Zen perspective, even today, there is still no such thing as “Buddhism.” If we misunderstand that Buddhism — that is, the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and his followers — is pointing to anything other than, or separate from, reality itself, our “first step is mistaken.”
If we mistake the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path for a doctrine about reality — rather than the outline of an approach to directly apprehending reality in our own experience — we have relegated Zen Buddhism to just another idea, philosophy, or belief system.
If we do apprehend the “Way before our eyes,” however (not “understanding” is a translator’s choice — even Buddha did not understand the Way), we will see directly into the insight of Buddha, penetrating to the only, singular point that he was actually making. This point is a turning-point, however, not an intellectual one (Precious Mirror Samadhi):
The meaning does not reside in the words
But a pivotal moment brings it forth
Move and you are trapped
Miss and you fall into doubt and vacillation
And this point, this “pivotal moment,” like any point, is so small — zero dimension on all axes — that it might easily be overlooked, or neglected (Precious Mirror Samadhi):
You would do well to respect this
Do not neglect it
So small it enters where there is no gap
So vast it transcends dimension
A hairsbreadth deviation
And you are out of tune
So this point is also inconceivably vast; it is beyond conventional measurement. Like the “eternal moment,” emphasized by Matsuoka Roshi, the “real time” of our existence. The deviation of a “hairsbreadth” represents a huge gap, by today’s standards of micro-measurement in physics; but it will suffice to make the point, that if we are only slightly to the left or right of center, as on an analog radio dial, all we will receive is static. We have to be tuned to just the right frequency, in order to “hear the true dharma” (Dogen’s Vow).