I gave this talk on Saturday, September 3, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center. A recording follows at the end of this post.
This is from the Record of Tung-shan:
[Tung-shan asked Yün-yen why he could not hear nonsentient beings expound the Dharma.
Yün-yen raised his fly whisk and said, “Can you hear it yet?”
Tung-shan replied, “No, I can’t.”
Yün-yen said, “You can’t even hear it when I expound the Dharma; how do you expect to hear when a nonsentient being expounds the Dharma?”
Tung-shan asked, “In which sutra is it taught that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma?”
Yün-yen replied, “Haven’t you seen it? In the Amitabha Sutra it says, “Water birds, tree groves, all without exception recite the Buddha’s name, recite the Dharma.”
Reflecting on this, Tung-shan composed the following verse:
How amazing, how amazing!
Hard to comprehend that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma.
It simply cannot be heard with the ear.
But when sound is heard with the eye, then it is understood.
Tung-shan is the Chinese teacher to whom the Soto Zen stream in which we swim traces its start. He lived in the Ninth Century and was a contemporary of Lin-chi, to whom the Rinzai stream traces its start. These two streams really weren’t so different then, and they aren’t so different now, but we humans tend to magnify and objectify distinctions to assure ourselves we exist.
Today I want us to consider Tung-shan’s journey as we reflect on this tendency to amplify and thingify distinctions. It was a journey on foot to the center of the universe. Let’s also consider how our practice can help us relax that tendency and the good things that may come from this relaxation.
As we meet Tung-shan in this reading, he’s been traveling around for some time visiting teachers. He’s been searching for someone who could answer the burning question that fueled his wandering: If inanimate objects expound the Dharma, why can’t I hear them?
There was a big debate in this era about the nature of, well, nature. Existence. What does it mean to be alive? Who and what counts existentially? I move. Rocks don’t (unless I move them). The difference seems to be about some vital life energy that I have and the rock doesn’t seem to have, or at least to have so evidently. Maybe it’s also about the will and cognition, which I seem to have and the rock doesn’t seem to have.
But what about the temple dog? It seems somewhere in-between the rock and me? Does the dog have it, too? Tung-shan was a contemporary of Chao-chuo, to whom another monk famously asked whether the temple dog has Buddha Nature.
Many people before and after Tung-shan, including some of us, also have had a burning question. Dōgen wanted to know why we must practice if we’re Buddhas from the start. I wanted to know when I could stop practicing: where does practice lead and when will I get there? Tung-shan’s question, Dōgen’s question and mine, the monk’s question about whether a dog has Buddha Nature, and maybe also your questions are really all the same sort of question: Do I have Buddha Nature? Who or what am I? Am I okay in the universe?
Though questions like these arise and agitate us from a much deeper, pre-cognitive place, our neocortex, the verbal part of our brain, turns them into linguistic formulations. And so we go looking for linguistic formulation answers.
“Tung-shan asked, `In which sutra is it taught that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma?’”
Tung-shan is doing what brainy people do: seeking a tidy conceptual understanding, rather than just standing under, standing in, truly meeting, and trusting his own experience. He doesn’t know yet, or doesn’t yet trust, that his very life is the non-conceptual answer he’s seeking. A conceptual answer—an object of thought—will never satisfy.
It’s ironic, but this thought-producing faculty of ours both seeks conceptual answers to the type of questions it produces and senses that no conceptual answer it could produce is likely to put an end to its restless questioning. You’re sitting in a zendo, so you probably have learned that the standard fare in most religious traditions—beliefs, or ideas that have become rigid objects—ultimately can’t satiate and stabilize us. They might be capable of anchoring us for some time, but many of us begin to feel unmoored despite them. We ultimately must develop comfort with being unmoored, and so discovering ourselves as the ocean itself—not as an idea; not as a belief.
How does Yün-yen respond when Tung-shan asks which sutra—which textual, conceptual authority—verifies the claim that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma? He skillfully points to a text that points to water birds and tree groves. And Tung-shan has an initial opening.
Yün-yen had tried to open this gate for Tung-shan earlier in their conversation by holding up his whisk. But Tung-shan couldn’t hear the whisk expounding the Dharma. Tung-shan was a senior Zen adept at the time, so (supposedly) “advancing” on the Zen path. But as one (supposedly) advances on the Zen path we encounter the same old obstacles in more subtle forms. One can imagine Tung-shan thinking, “Don’t hold up your whisk, you old fool. Don’t offer me that standard Zen trope.” Meeting a whisk or a finger, or three pounds of flax, or the oak tree in the courtyard this way also is meeting it conceptually. The I is declaring it can sum up, contain, and possess Yün-yen’s presentation of the whisk within its ideas about it, about Zen, and about tropes.
Tung-shan continued his wandering for some time after his extended stay with Yün-yen. It often takes some time to integrate an initial opening to the reality that the light shines in and as all things, including oneself. It can take years for that realization to sink in, ripen, and transform us. We ultimately find this transformation never ends, because we and all things, sentient and nonsentient, are transformation. And by now we should know that the notions of sentient and nonsentient are just labels assigned by the analytical part of our mind; useful for some purposes, perhaps, but also likely to be harmful in other ways if we thingify them and lose sight of this thingifying.
Tung-shan had a second, deeper opening sometime after he left Yün-yen. He glimpsed his own reflection in a river as he crossed it. Rather than becoming narrowly transfixed on that relative manifestation of the light that shines in and as all things, as Narcissus did upon seeing his reflected image, Tung-shan realized in that instant that he himself expounds the Dharma. In that instant, he realized his kinship with all things. With whisks, with all the ancestors of meditation in the still halls, with ants and sticks and grizzly bears.
Zen doesn’t ask us to believe anything. It simply entices and supports us toward the sort of shift in perception and experience that Tung-shan had. To a life both beyond and encompassing all ideas and beliefs. A life in which we can take diverse ideas seriously, on their own, always limited merits, but in which we don’t mistake the whisk (or the universe or existence) for our ideas about it.
This has everything to do with ethics, the subject of Jill’s talk last Saturday and the Precepts Discussion Group that begins on Wednesday. We’re really talking about one of two essential elements of Zen’s approach to ethics. This first element is compassion. True compassion for oneself arises from perceiving oneself as Buddha. True compassion for other people arises from perceiving them as Buddha. True compassion for water birds and tree groves—for the environment that encompasses and is all beings—arises from perceiving this realm as Buddha.
The other cornerstone of Zen ethics is wisdom: use of our discriminating awareness, now appropriately embraced and guided by compassion. Our analytical mind is again part of the equation, but with our tendency to magnify and thingify distinctions, and to isolate and elevate or diminish oneself, in view and modulated down.
We act wisely and ethically when both capacities are working in concert.
Earlier I said Tung-shan’s journey was a journey to the center of the universe. Physicists today tell us that the center of the universe is everywhere. That each of us—indeed, everything—is the center of the universe.
As Hakuin’s successor, Torei Enji writes in his beautiful enlightenment poem, “Boddhisattva’s Vow”:
This truth never fails: in every moment and every place
things can’t help but shine with this light.
Realizing this, our Ancestors gave reverent care to animals, birds, and all beings.
Tung-shan glimpsed this reality, then progressively let go into it and lived it.
Each of us is called to do the same.
We, too, are called to turn our ear to see the water birds.
Open our eyes to hear our face in the babbling brook.