I gave this teisho Thursday night during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session. You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.
One day, when the Layman and Sung-shan were out for a walk, they saw an ox plowing the fields. The Layman pointed to the ox and said, “He’s having the time of his life, but he doesn’t know anything about it.”
Sung-shan said, “That is, unless Mr. P’ang wants to bring the issue to his attention.”
The Layman said, “My master always said he never knew what he was doing.”
Sung-shan said, “Since I never saw Shih-t’ou, it would be better if I didn’t say anything about it.”
The Layman said, “What would you have to say after you’d seen him?”
Sung-shan clapped his hands three times.
(Case 29, The Sayings of Layman P’ang)
Layman P’ang is an especially wonderful, enigmatic character in the history of Zen, which is a tradition that has more than its fair share of wonderful, enigmatic characters.
He was born around 740 CE and died in 808, so he lived during the Tang Dynasty. Many consider this the high point of ancient Chinese civilization.
P’ang lived in Hengyang, in Hunan Province of Southern China. It was a big city then, as it is now. It would be about a five hour drive due north from Hong Kong today. P’ang’s father was a government official, and perhaps even the governor of the area, so P’ang was well-to-do. We know he owned a house with enough land to have a gatehouse where he and others in the area met to meditate.
All Zen teachers today are successors of one of two masters from that time and place, Shih-t’ou and Ma-tsu. Each had monasteries on mountains outside Hengyang. The two great streams of Zen that still flow today originate with these teachers: the Soto School from Shih-t’ou, and the Rinzai School from Ma-tsu. This period was not just a high point in Chinese culture; it was a watershed moment in the development of the Zen tradition.
P’ang engaged deeply with both of these masters, which must have been truly extraordinary for anyone at the time. P’ang first met Shih-t’ou, and then lived at Ma-tsu’s monastery for a while, working closely with him. Ma-tsu ultimately made P’ang a teacher, but P’ang never became a monk, like at least one of his childhood friends we meet in these stories.
Throughout most of the history of the Zen tradition—throughout most of the history of all Buddhist traditions—the terms “monk” and “priest” were basically synonyms. There weren’t monks in monasteries and priests in the world, as there are today in many religious traditions. Being on the Zen path at that time, and even today in much of Asia, meant becoming a monk—an ordained person living in a monastery.
But here we have P’ang, student of two great teachers, Dharma heir of one of them, living in the world. P’ang and his wife, son and daughter, are said to have sunk all their personal possessions in a boat in the middle of a lake, donated their house to be made into a temple, and lived as wanderers from then on, supporting themselves by making and selling baskets.
The short stories in this book are mostly about P’ang’s encounters with the ordained (monastic) teachers of his era. In most of these stories, P’ang engages in playful games of spiritual one-upmanship with these teachers—predictably, coming out on top. Taking the piss out of them, as the Brits say, while seeing more deeply into the Great Matter than they do.
This little book is a classic—widely read in and beyond China for centuries. What a fascinating figure P’ang was; a truly extraordinary, ordinary person. He certainly foreshadowed what’s happening today in the West, where there are few monasteries, and lay teachers are on a trajectory to outnumber teachers who are ordained, if we don’t already.
What are we to make of this curious Zen adept—the only lay teacher in recorded Zen history for nearly 12 centuries—and this story about the ox who doesn’t know?
Sung-shan, P’ang’s companion in this story, was a disciple of Ma-tsu. Out on a walk, P’ang decides to have a little wise fun, in the playful jousting mode that’s so typical of anecdotes about encounters with Zen teachers.
P’ang points to the ox and says, “He’s having the time of his life, but he doesn’t know anything about it.” It might seem at first blush like P’ang is being sarcastic. “Look at that dumb ox. He can’t reflect on his experience, like we can.” But P’ang is paying the ox a high compliment, comparing it favorably to most humans, not looking down on it.
The ox is just doing its thing—oxing—living its life, undisturbed by the fact that he doesn’t know anything about it. He undoubtedly knows that his life is, but he presumably doesn’t know what or why his life is. And this doesn’t detract from his plowing.
One of the many Zen tidbits that has entered pop culture, the phrase “chop wood, carry water,” comes from Layman P’ang. “Chopping wood, chop wood,” he’s saying. “Carrying water, carry water.”
My carrying water is the universe carrying water. My mental chatter—complaining about my sore arms, wondering why this is my lot in life, or contemplating how the Big Bang led to H2O—doesn’t add anything to, or subtract anything from, carrying water. It’s just the universe chattering as the universe carries a bucket full of itself.
To be clear, if there’s a conversation that needs to be had about the equitable division of labor in your household or community, by all means, have it. When you do, that’s the universe having a conversation the universe needs to have. If your ambition or calling is something other than carrying water, pursue it. And study physics, by all means; it’s a wonderful and wonderous lens on all this, and immensely useful. But let’s not kid ourselves: Even if scientists find their Holy Grail—a grand unified theory of physics; a theory of everything—it will still be a theory, a description, and not the thing itself.
The price of our marvelous, human capacity for self-reflection seems to be a sort of cosmic forgetfulness. It’s as if we’ve wandered so far toward the edge of the universe that we’ve forgotten the universe has no edges. Wherever we wander, we can’t help but remain one of its infinite centers. There’s no getting lost in this universe, even when we feel lost.
We practice Zen to find ourselves at the center of the universe again—and everyone and everything else there with us, as center, too.
Paradoxical as it sounds, and as much as I hate to use the word “goal” when talking about Zen practice, the ox’s not knowing is the goal of our practice. The goal is no goal. We normally think of goals as something we achieve and possess for ourselves. Something we once lacked and have now obtained.
In Zen, our goal is the opposite of that. We already have what we’re looking for. We are it. Unlike the ox, however, we think there must be more to it. Something I must know about my life. Not so, yet there is something I must realize and experience as my life.
Sung-shan jovially invites P’ang to inform the ox that he’s having the time of his life.
P’ang declines. “My master always said he never knew what he was doing,” P’ang replies. My master also doesn’t know anything about all this, just like the ox.
“I haven’t met him,” Sung-Shan says, “so I wouldn’t know.”
“Even if you had,” P’ang replies, “what more would there be to say?”
In texts like this one, and a talk like mine now, guides on the Zen path are trying to express the inexpressible. Or, to say the same thing a bit differently, we’re heaping extra words on what the universe is saying right here, now.
It’s impossible to talk about it . . . and this talk is it, too. It’s all right here, right in front of our noses. Your nose is it.
Even as we are it, however, most of us are searching for it. We want an “it” we can sum up, and so contain, as an object of thought. Having developed this wonderfully useful capacity for discursive cognition, we’ve become transfixed by it. We search for answers to the heart’s deepest questions in the hall of mirrors it creates.
But those answers lie outside that box. Outside the realm of this-that thinking. In fact, the box we’re trapped in is itself contained in the realm “outside.” We just think we’re trapped!
I, Jeff (this), sees the moon (that). Zen practice—especially meditation and working with koans—relaxes the grip of this-that thinking, so the moon can reveal itself to you as you. We can’t will this realization—this revelation—but we can open ourselves to it. The moon tends to reveal itself fully in hearts that are wide open, and Zen practice is about opening hearts.
The ox and P’ang’s master both are the full moon. One is not “more” moon than the other. I do know, however, that we humans can know ourselves as manifestations of, and participants, in this awesome, incomprehensible, inescapable, luminous mystery that is . . . what? Mystery. Mystery manifest. This.
These little stories about this lay sage are thought to presage the koan tradition that eventually developed in Zen. I wonder whether this particular story about P’ang might also presage another wonderful part of the Zen tradition, The Ten Oxherding Pictures, which is one account of the spiritual journey. As portrayed in the Oxherding Pictures, the apex of Zen practice isn’t the moment of sudden illumination, when we see our true nature.
The apex is returning to the marketplace with open hands—to daily life in the world—with that awareness; animated by that awareness, but not thinking it makes us special, because now we see the full moon everywhere, and in everyone we meet. The tenth picture is Putai, the Laughing Buddha, entering the open market—an open heart, extending open hands.
We tend to think of the renunciates in monasteries or on mountaintops as the spiritual paragons. Layman P’ang, and the old fool in the marketplace, point to a different ideal—of awakening in the world, in the midst of the everyday sorts of lives lived by people like us. This is a fitting image and ideal for our time, I believe.
The sort of knowing we seek and cultivate through Zen practice is an awakened, vital, experiential, in-your-bones not knowing. “Not knowing is the most intimate,” Master Dizang famously said.
May you not know.
And may we, like the ox, have the time of our lives.