Bowing Down to Pick Up Stones: A Reflection on Torei Enji’s “Bodhisattva’s Vow”


This post is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave tonight at the Greater Boston Zen Center.


I’d like to hold up and offer a few thoughts about a short passage from Torei Enji’s Bodhisattva’s Vow, a beautiful text that’s sometimes part of our liturgy.


Before I get there, let me say a bit about Torei Enji.  The reason for this mini biography will be clear in just a moment.


Enji was an 18th century Zen teacher. When he was just five, he met Hakuin, one of the most important Zen teachers of all time.  Among other things, Hakuin revived koan practice within the Rinzai tradition, and so contributed significantly to our own koan tradition.


Upon meeting Hakuin, Torei Enji resolved to become a monk.  It took a couple more years for him to convince his parents, so he was perhaps seven when he entered Hakuin’s monestary.  He eventually became its abbot, after Hakuin died.


Torei Enji’s Bodhisattva’s Vow includes this short passage:


“If someone turns against us, speaking ill of us and treating us bitterly, it’s best to bow down:  This is the Buddha appearing to us, finding ways to free us from our own attachments — the very ones that have made us suffer, again and again and again. ”


When I was five or six, about the age Enji was when he met Hakuin, my aunt Pat gave me a small cloth pouch full of polished stones.


Perhaps less dramatically, but still not altogether unlike Enji’s first encounter with Hakuin, this little offering was a signal event in my life.


I was fascinated by these stones; absolutely rapt by their rounded edges, brilliant colors, and high gloss finish.  They were the most unusual, beautiful objects I had ever seen.


I loved playing in the dirt when I was a kid, but these stones bore little resemblance to the stones I knew.  Most of the stones I’d seen had jagged edges, with dull finishes and colors.


Where did these stones come from? Pat brought me to her basement and showed me the little tumbler where, perhaps a month earlier, she had added a batch of the ordinary stones with which I was familiar, a few handfuls of sand, and a copious amount of water, and then flipped the power switch to start the cylinder turning day and night.


For weeks the stones collided, the sand agitated, the water lubricated and washed clean.  And those lackluster, ordinary stones became the exceptionally smooth, luminous objects that I found so captivating as a child.


Today I have a collection of small and mid-size stones that I’ve gathered from rivers and beaches around the world. I have stones from Maine and Rhode Island, from Oregon, from Greece, and elsewhere.  They sit in little glass containers or serve as paper weights around my office and home.  They’re among my most cherished possessions.


None of the stones I’ve collected are as smooth or shiny as the rocks Pat tumbled for me.  These days I’m more interested in the features of rocks that have been hewn by their normal environments.  I’m interested in their extraordinary ordinary features.


I selected each stone carefully in some special place.  Each is interesting to me for some quality it has:


It’s shape.  Some stones are quite angular; some are incredibly symmetrical; some are almost cylindrical.


It’s texture.  Certain larger, reddish stones on Block Island are a nearly-perfect oval shape, yet their surface is quite coarse.


It’s mass.  Small stones can be quite heavy, large ones quite light.


It’s color — or colors. Some are white as clouds, and almost glow from inside. Stones come in almost every shade of gray.


Veins within the stone.  My favorite stone so far is small and dark grey, is rounded and sort of triangular at the same time, and has a single brown ring around the circumference of one point.


What fascinated and inspired me about Pat’s stones, and what fascinates and inspires me about the stones I see everywhere today, as an adult, is the fact that all of these stones — each unique — is the product of countless meetings.


Of collisions.


Of friction.


Just like each of us.


Torei Enjei writes about our most challenging encounters and reminds us of their value.  They’re grist for our mills, for our tumblers.


Some of my most challenging encounters have come in the context of my most intimate relationships, including family relationships, like my relationship with my parents.  The depth of the love in these relationships can be so palpable, so solid and unquestionable, yet there also can be tension, perhaps because we live in such close quarters physically and/or psychologically.


(I imagine this sounds familiar, at least to some of you.)


My parents just spent two and a half weeks with us.  Extended visits in the recent past occasionally have had some stressful moments, in part because of some personal challenges some members of our family have faced in recent years, and the ways in which we’ve found it challenging, individually and collectively, to deal with this.  Normal life stuff, to be sure — and challenging, to be sure.


I wanted this visit to go well, but I was a bit anxious.  I was determined to keep an even keel if there were tension, working with and through it, and yet I knew how that can be hard for all concerned, including me.  There were any number of ways tension could arise — any number of potential triggers.


Like discussion of politics.  It’s funny how some topics, like politics or whatever, can be proxies for other topics, how they can be vehicles for circling around the heart of the matter.


As we entered the house after I picked my folks up from the airport, my parents walked through each room, observing what had changed since their last visit.


My dad noticed an Obama campaign poster hanging in one room — Shepard Fairey’s large “Vote” print.  “Oh, no, here we go,” I thought in a flash.


I saw my dad grimace, tilt his head slightly, and then seem to begin to speak.


And then something wonderful happened:  silence.  He just moved on.


I breathed a sigh of relief.


And there was no mention of politics during their entire visit.


We had a lovely time together.  Sure, there were little moments, but they really were little.  There were mostly lots of really pleasant moments.


I’d like to think we’ve each learned something from past moments of tension.  My dad and I sometimes have banged heads metaphorically since I was a kid, and I think some of our rough edges are becoming smoother as a result.


Incidentally, during my parents’ recent visit, my wife, Esther, and I were musing about parents generally.  Esther walked past our seven-year old son after this exchange and playfully said to him, “You can’t choose your parents, Ellis.”


To which Ellis replied, “Yeah, and you can’t even choose yourself!”


What a wonderfully disarming thought.  Many of us spend a great deal of time judging others by our own idiosyncratic standards.  We might also judge ourselves against some cosmic standard of perfection we’ve inherited or constructed.


But we are all products of conditions, and many of the conditions that influence who we are now preceded our birth.


We’ve each certainly made countless choices since our births, and those choices and their consequences are now part of our karma — the past conditions that influence the conditions of our present.  We can “choose ourselves” to a meaningful degree in this moment, and yet we’re always playing the hand dealt by prior moments.  Our capacity to influence the course of events large and small, great as it sometimes is for some of us, is doubtless less great than some of us often imagine.


Perhaps mindfulness of this can help us all be more gentle with ourselves and with others.


Encounters that are painful, where we feel misunderstood, judged unfairly, even maliciously attacked — they sometimes can be great teachers.


People’s behavior toward me often can provide clues about where my own rough edges lie.


Hard as it can be to accept, this can be the Buddha appearing to me, finding ways to bring my blind spots into view; or to make me own up to and work to transform those shortcomings or forms of selfishness or inclinations toward indifference of which I’m aware, but which I’d rather not address.  The very ones that have made me — and others — suffer again and again and again.


And sometimes they also provide opportunities to see others’ rough edges and to respond skillfully in ways that respect the fundamental dignity of all concerned, including oneself.  They can be invitations to some form of constructive engagement about what I know is not right, much as I might prefer to avoid conflict — to avoid any type of engagement that creates the risk of more uncomfortable feelings.


One way to read Torei Enji’s guidance that “it’s best to bow down” is that we should be passive, avoid confrontation, let it slide.  Letting it slide often is a good response, perhaps particularly for those of us with a tendency to fight fire with fire.


But I hear Enji saying something more nuanced: that it’s best to bow to this moment that has presented itself, just as it has presented itself, much the way we bow reverently here in the zendo.


Or the way we bow to pick up a stone.


It’s best to recognize these challenging moments as something precious, as gifts, as opportunities to respond creatively and skillfully — hard as that can be, particularly in the moment.


Each moment, including the very challenging ones, is a vast ocean of meetings.


Of fragmentation.


Of combining.


Of friction.


And of possibility.


And polishing.


There’s nothing to polish, and therefore no polishing, from one perspective, of course.


And, yet, in an equally valid sense, the to-and-fro of daily contact provides constant grist for our individual and collective mills.


In and through the rough and tumble of life — and regardless of whether one has smooth edges or jagged edges, a glossy finish or a dull one — we can’t help but shine like those stones my aunt Pat gave me.


The real question for each of us is whether we’ll open our eyes, open our hearts and minds, open our arms and hands, to that reality.