What is Enlightenment?

I gave this talk on Saturday, November 5, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

This is Case 6 in The Gateless Gate, The World-Honored One Twirls a Flower:

Once, in ancient times, when the World-Honored One was at Mount Grdhrakūta, he twirled a flower before his assembled disciples. All were silent. Only Mahākāśyapa broke into a smile.

The World-Honored One said, “I have the eye of the treasury of right Dharma, the subtle mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, and the flawless gate of the teaching. It is not established upon words and phrases. It is a special transmission outside tradition. I now entrust this to Mahākāśyapa.

The title of this talk is “What is Enlightenment?” I want to respond to this question very directly today. This always has been a tricky thing to do, and it’s especially tricky these days.

It’s always been tricky because—as so much Zen literature tells us—words can’t capture it, even as they are it. We can never get our minds around it because we are trying to make subject object, and there ultimately are no objects; no subject either, really. It’s sort of like wrapping paper trying to wrap itself.

Speaking about enlightenment is especially tricky, or maybe even dangerous, these days because the Zen tradition is evolving in important and necessary ways in response to justifiable critiques of how some of our predecessors have represented and related to the notion of enlightenment. Enlightenment sometimes has been portrayed as a personal attainment that elevates one above others in presumed worldly and metaphysical hierarchies.

This representation of enlightenment is misaligned with Western Buddhism’s growing—and very welcome—emphasis on social justice, on the natural world (with us very much just one feature of it), and on less hierarchical, more egalitarian forms of community life. Zen’s core teachings arguably always have pointed us in these directions, but there’s too often been an element of pride, elitism, and authority games in how enlightenment has been represented in practice. The notion of “Zen stink” is a corrective to all that, but also proves its existence.

Anyway, like others who have been aware of the challenges and dangers of addressing this topic directly, I feel compelled to do so periodically. People frequently ask me some version of this question, and maybe the same happens to you. The word enlightenment is so magnetically attractive to so many people, there’s so much confusion surrounding it, and this confusion carries real potential for harm. As one of my favorite law school professors used to say, there’s good confusion and bad confusion; productive, generative confusion and unproductive, even harmful confusion. The idea of enlightenment, as opposed to the reality of it, seems to produce both types of confusion.

I guess this is all a way of saying, here I go. I’m doing the best I can, and I hope this is useful to some of you.

I could have opened this talk with any number of readings, but I chose the famous koan I read earlier for several reasons. In Zen lore, this is where it all begins.

In the second part of this koan we hear that Zen is “not established upon words and phrases.” It is a “special transmission [from teacher to student] outside [Buddhist] tradition.” I think it’s very likely this stuff about the Buddha making self-aggrandizing claims about his own insight and authority and his transmission of that authority to Mahakasyapa was added to reinforce the credibility and claims to authority of early Zen teachers in whose footsteps we walk. There were a lot of disagreements among schools of Buddhism and emerging sects of Zen in those days. There still are disagreements today.

So let’s focus on the first part of the koan. The Buddha “twirled a flower before his assembled disciples. All were silent. Only Mahakasyapa broke into a smile.” I think it’s much more probable that something like this really happened.

Heard from one perspective, it sounds like this is a story about an esoteric, secret teaching only Mahakasyapa gets; a realization he alone attains. But is this the best reading of the story? This clearly is a koan about enlightenment as a core feature of our tradition. But what is enlightenment?

Here’s my understanding: Enlightenment is this unfathomably vast and wonderous universe; multiverse, perhaps. Boundless. Enlightenment is this vast and wonderous universe just as it is right now, with me as a feature of it. You and I and all features of this wonderous universe are distinct, but in no sense are we separate.

When the Buddha holds up a flower and twirls it, that is what he’s saying. This is it! Behold!

We can also talk about enlightenment experiences, and that is what Mahakasyapa’s smile of recognition represents. When we are aware that this wonderous universe, with oneself as part of it, is enlightenment, that is an enlightenment experience. The universe is looking itself in the mirror in these moments. The wrapping paper is unwrapping itself; recognizing the unity of giver, receiver, and gift, as we chant during Oryoki practice (meal practice during susshin).

But—and this is important—all those listening silently to the Buddha who didn’t flash a smile of recognition are no less enlightened—no less enlightenment, that is to say—than Mahakasyapa with his knowing smile.

Talking about all this renders the notions of enlightenment and enlightenment experiences too noun-like when what I’d really like to convey is more of a verb-like quality— changing, awakening, interbeing. That verb-like spirit is conveyed in the dedication verse we heard chanted earlier this morning: “Infinite realms of light and dark convey the Buddha mind. Birds and trees and stars and we ourselves come forth in perfect harmony.”

Have you ever seen a lava lamp? You know what I’m talking about, right? Imagine a large blob floating around inside the lamp. It’s shaped like one of those inflatable punching clowns kids play with. The blob has a large, oblong body, a thin neck, and a small head.

We can think of our conventional experience and awareness as a view from the head of this floating, shape-shifting blob when the head is all the head knows. But the whole blob is the realm of enlightenment, and the head is not separate from it. When the head realizes that— really realizes this, experientially, not just grasps it conceptually—that’s an enlightenment experience. That perspective and experience can sink into our bones, becoming pervasive and ever-present. We realize everything is the center of the universe, myself no less or more so.

What’s more: This realm of enlightenment, Indra’s Net, the Great Robe of Liberation, isn’t a blob. Not only is everything center, there’s no inside or outside. It’s boundless. It isn’t an it. Physicists like Carlo Rovelli, who have found inspiration in Buddhism, are discovering the universe is boundless and nothing exists apart from anything else. So I’m just describing the natural order, mind-blowing as this may seem from the perspective of our conventional awareness.

So what? What is this realization good for?

Well, here’s the negative response; what it’s not good for. It’s no good if we seek it and, once glimpsed, hope to possess it as a personal attainment, though many of us will try. It can’t be grasped that way—which is only to say it can’t be grasped at all.

I’ve titled this talk “What is Enlightenment?”—as a question in this specific form—for a personal historical reason. When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School in the mid-1990s, there was a modern-day New Age guru in the area that I used to see around Harvard from time to time. His name is Andrew Cohen, and his organization used to publish a magazine titled “What is Enlightenment?”

That question struck me as pompous then, at least when coming from Cohen, because Cohen himself struck me as pompous. I heard that question, coming from him, in a bait-and- hook sort of way. Like: “What is Enlightenment? Sure, let me tell you, since you’re dying to know but obviously don’t get it. It’s this thing I’ve got that you don’t have, but if you hang with me it may rub off on you.”

I saw Cohen around Cambridge a couple of times, always with a few fawning acolytes in tow. He clearly was as impressed with himself as they seemed to be with him. He was quite rude to them, in fact. Cohen’s organization ultimately collapsed as students, and even his own mother, came forth with allegations of psychological abuse and financial impropriety. If you relate to the notion of enlightenment that way, you’ll eventually get what you deserve—and those around you unfortunately won’t get what they deserve. It’s just rotten.

So don’t conceive of enlightenment as something in the realm of personal attainment. If we seek it that way, with neurotic compulsion, delusions of grandeur, and subtle or not-so- subtle aspirations for control, nothing good will come of it.

Many people who manifest as profoundly grounded, wise, and compassionate never have a dramatic enlightenment experience. I’m pretty sure that those of us who do are on the remedial plan. Some of us seem to need a cosmic jostling more than others. If you do have a dramatic enlightenment experience—well, good for you. That and $3.00 will get you a cup of coffee. Stabilizing, plumbing, and integrating that experience will be the journey of a lifetime.

And the positive answer to the “So What?” question? What is this realization good for, positively speaking?

It’s about the relationship between this realization and action—how we show up to life. As Torei Enji wrote in the verse Bodhisattva’s Vow, “Realizing this, our Ancestors gave reverent care to animals, birds, and all beings.”

In Western religious and humanist traditions, “contemplation” is a common word for the experience and embodied perspective we call “enlightenment” in Zen. Though he was no fan of religion, I think the great 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell got it right when he wrote about the relationship between action and contemplation; the relationship between the fruits of his own reflections and practice and how they compelled him to show up to life. In an essay On the Value of Philosophy, Russell said contemplation—or enlightenment as a personal experience, we might say—is that:

quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists [our] true freedom, and [our] liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

Beyond Belief II

I gave this talk on Saturday, October 1, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen CenterA recording is available here.

This is from the Record Dongshan (who I spoke about in my last talk, using Tung-shan, another way his name is translated to English):

When Dongshan was ready to leave his teacher Yunyan, Dongshan asked, “Later on, if someone asks me if I can depict your reality, or your teaching, how shall I reply?”

Yunyan paused, and then said, “Just this is it.”

When he heard that, Dongshan sank into thought. And Yunyan said, “You are in charge of this great matter. You must be most thoroughgoing.”

Dongshan left Yunyan and was still perplexed; he didn’t quite get it. As he proceeded he was wading across a stream, and seeing his reflection in the water, he had some understanding. He looked down in the stream and saw something, and then he wrote this poem:

“Just don’t seek from others or you’ll be far estranged from yourself. Now I go on alone, but everywhere I meet it. It now is me; I now am not it. One must understand in this way to merge with suchness.”

Let me repeat those last two lines: “It now is me; and I now am not it. One must understand in this way to merge with suchness.” One must understand that suchness is me, but not limited to me, to merge, or accord one’s experience of oneself, with suchness; with Yunyan’s “just this.

I just substituted the word “experience” for “understanding” because Dongshan isn’t telling us that we primarily must develop an intellectual understanding that I myself am suchness (though I am not the whole of it). He’s telling us we must come to know this beyond belief—in our bones. We must know it in such a thoroughgoing way that we forget it. No more wondering whether the dog, or we ourselves, or the stars in the sky, have buddha nature.

I began my last Saturday talk with a passage from the Record of Dongshan that precedes the one I just read. (You can find a recording of that talk on our website.) In that earlier reading, Dongshan asks his teacher Yunyan why he can’t hear nonsentient beings, like stone fences and tree groves, expound the Dharma. He’s read that nonsentient beings do, indeed, expound the Dharma, but he doesn’t (yet) experience them that way.

Yunyan responds by holding up his fly whisk. Dongshan, focusing on the object in Yunyan’s hand he still thinks can be contained by concepts like “nonsentient” and “inanimate,” misses that this gesture is also Yunyan himself expounding the Dharma. As teacher and student talk a bit more during this encounter, Dongshan has an initial opening. Still, his confusion persists. He’s glimpsed something, but he doesn’t yet grasp it securely—or, rather, he doesn’t yet see that what he has glimpsed grasps him.

I ended my talk last time by foreshadowing today’s reading. I mentioned that Dongshan eventually would have a wider and deeper, more penetrating, opening when he saw his reflection in a stream. In that moment, Dongshan would realize that he, like all else, constantly expounds the Dharma. Dongshan goes on to become an eminent teacher, of course, establishing the Chinese predecessor to the Soto School of Zen (in which we are situated) and leaving us The Five Ranks, one of our most important texts.

Good for Dongshan. But what about us? Can you also hear yourself expound the Dharma? Learning to hear what Dongshan heard, resonating with what he heard, is one aim of our practice, even as our practice expounds the Dharma whether it presently feels that way or not.

Learning to hear what Dongshan heard, resonating with what he heard. Resonating.

Sometimes as I sit, as my monkey mind stills and tension I hadn’t even been aware of begins to leave my body, I sense a sort of purring or humming. It’s not a sonic sensation exactly, it’s somehow vaguely more physical. I feel it subtly coursing through my body, I feel my body as it, and yet it doesn’t seem to originate from or be isolated to my body. It doesn’t seem to originate from or be isolated to any one thing. It seems to be a feature—a base level feature— of everything. At these moments, it seems I’m just consciously tuning into and noticing something that’s always there, even during moments when I’m not tuned into it consciously. There’s really no activity on my part, and yet I become aware that I’m a part of this. I’m just opening myself to experience beyond my four walls, so to speak. Beyond, or through, all walls. I’m making myself receptive.

I don’t have any idea whether I’m describing something that’s known to and verified or verifiable by science—some sort of wave energy humans are capable of sensing, which resonates in and through all phenomena at a specific frequency. It doesn’t really matter, because I experience this sensation as a Dharma gate whatever may explain it—even if it’s a figment of my imagination.

For me this sensation is one experience that transports me out of the myopia we seem to be prone to inhabit. Our small mind awareness. When this sensation arises, small mind begins to experience itself as lovingly and securely nestled in Great Mind. I experience myself as a distinct feature of Great Mind but not separate from it.

And I realize that this experience and Great Mind and all that exits, even myself, is not my doing. I didn’t will the totality of “just this” into existence. I don’t singlehandedly sustain it. I have some limited scope of agency over my own experience and the experience of others near me. I do contribute in small, mundane, mysterious ways to creation and the maintenance of it. I have some weaker (if still significant and potentially consequential) ability to cause ripples that affect others’ experience throughout space and time.

But I realize there is no justification for the grandiosity our small minds can claim for themselves when they don’t feel lovingly and securely nestled in Great Mind. Sometimes this grandiosity shows up in our stories that claim too much credit for things. And sometimes this grandiosity shows up in our stories that pin too much responsibility on oneself for unfavorable causes, conditions, and consequences; stories that leave us feeling too much guilt and shame.

If and as we cultivate an abiding sense of small mind nestled lovingly in Great Mind, we become increasingly free to develop and express our gifts, and to enjoy doing so, without a compulsion to attract attention or to boast publicly—or, perhaps more likely for many of us, even to boast privately, by elevating oneself above others in one’s own mind. From this perspective we can take appropriate responsibility for our own conduct and its consequences, feeling remorse and apologizing when we have caused harm, but knowing with great confidence that our admission won’t be used against us in a trial in which we can be banished from the Universe.

From this perspective of small mind feeling lovingly and securely nestled in Great Mind, concepts like sentient and nonsentient, animate and inanimate, fade. Everything expounds the Dharma. I hear, or feel, and know myself expounding the Dharma in my own way, and I experience everything else expounding the Dharma, too.

Suchness.

We know the universe ultimately has “got this.” And that “this” includes me.

What teaches you this? What reminds you of this, on or off the cushion? What helps you stay centered in this awareness and to be gentle with yourself if and as this awareness ebbs and flows? I look forward to our discussion.

Interdependence Day

Peter Coleman of Columbia University, a colleague in the conflict resolution field, just published an op-ed piece titled Divided States of America: Why we need an Interdependence Day to restore national unity. As Buddhists, we’re reminded constantly that every day is interdependence day.

And, still, I’m with Peter: This country and our communities could really use an annual, nationwide reminder and collective expression of our interdependence, with many more reminders and new structures and practices to promote thought, speech, and conduct in keeping with our interdependence during the rest of the year.

Nonsentient beings expound the Dharma

I gave this talk during our Full Moon Zen sit on August 26, 2021.

From the Record of Tung-shan (aka Ts’ao-tung):

Tung-shan accordingly took leave of Kuei-shan (aka Isan) [whom he had asked whether nonsentient beings expound the Dharma] and proceeded directly to Yün-yen’s. Making reference to his previous encounter with Kui-shan, he immediately asked what sort of person was able to hear the Dharma expounded by nonsentient beings.

Yun-yen said, “Nonsentient beings are able to hear it.”

“Can you hear it, Ho-shang (another name for Yun-yen)? asked Tung-shan.

Yun-yen replied, “If I could hear it, then you would not be able to hear the Dharma I teach.”

“Why can’t I hear it?” asked Tung-shan.

Yun-yen raised his fly whisk and said, “Can you hear it yet?”

Tung-shan replied, “No, I can’t.”

Yun-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?”

Yun-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 gatha:

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.

Today has been a scorcher in Boston.  The Earth is screaming, “Summer!”—and, also “Ouch! Climate change!”

Yet it’s almost September, and Fall is poking through.  Some trees are beginning to shed their leaves.  Birds and squirrels are busy gathering provisions.  Duck and geese are on the move.

The central character in the story I just read, Tung-shan, lived and taught in the 9th century.  In this story, he’s still an ordinary monk, wandering around visiting monasteries, seeking out teachers.  Later, he becomes a teacher who is regarded as the Chinese founder of the Soto Zen stream in which we’re situated.

In Tung-shan’s day, people were obsessed with a certain type of philosophical question. It’s a question that continues to preoccupy philosophers, physicists, neuroscientists, ecologists, and ordinary people, like you and me, to this day.

I seem to be alive and conscious. You seem to me to be alive and conscious. But, what else is alive and conscious? Birds? Trees? Stone walls?

Chou-chou, the teacher who gave a provocative “No!” when another young monk asked him whether the temple dog had Buddha nature, was a contemporary of Tung-shan.  

In the story we’re looking at tonight, Yün-yen, one of the teachers Tung-shan visited, gives Tung-shan the same answer Chou-chou gave the young monk who questioned him about the dog.  But, Yün-yen gives that answer in the form of a provocative “Yes!”

Yün-yen affirms that birds and trees expound the Dharma. Everything hums the song of the universe.

Tung-shan had been trying to reason his way to this realization, but seemingly wasn’t getting anywhere. He put his hand to his ear, hoping to hear what he thought he was listening for. His thinking mind was sure it must be hidden; an esoteric, coded message of some kind. A riddle only the thinking mind could solve. But all he heard was birdsong or silence—and, well, that just couldn’t be it, he thought.

Tung-shan sought answers in the sutras, as if words on a page could resolve the matter and put his heart at rest.

This encounter with Yün-yen does seem to have been a turning point for Tung-shan.  That’s evident from the verse he composed after it.

After this encounter with Yün-yen, who eventually made Tung-shan one of his successors, Tung-shan realizes we can’t “hear” birds and trees expounding the Dharma with the ear. We hear it with the eye.

In other words, we develop a new kind of insight; a new kind of perception.

Zen practice is about learning to hear with our eyes in this way.  It invites a shift in our perception; in our orientation.

This shift is what we call enlightenment.  It’s not something we can grasp for and achieve, like running a six-minute mile or baking a souffle that doesn’t collapse.  It’s something we seep into, and that seeps into us, through our practice.  Like tofu soaking up soy sauce; soy sauce permeating tofu.

Dōgen described the shift this way:

“Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters,” he said.

We’re like young Tung-shan, in other words. We see people and animals and plants and rocks. We’re sure people are conscious and consciousness is a good thing to “have.” The poor, dumb rocks don’t have it. Plants? We’re not so sure.

Dōgen goes on, “. . . after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; . . .”

As one begins to awaken to the awakened nature of all that is, many become lost in Oneness for a time.

Finally, Dōgen says, “after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.”

Rocks are rocks, yes, but now we do hear them expounding the Dharma.  Yün-yen’s whisk is Yün-yen’s whisk—and if he swats you with his whisk or his staff, as Zen teachers were prone to do in that era, believe me, you would feel it!  Getting whacked by Oneness stings!

But now we truly know that whisk is the One.  The relative and the Absolute are one and the same.  Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.

In the countless, slapstick-style koans in which a Zen adept has a breakthrough insight when a teacher slaps his face, or closes her leg in a door, or cuts off their finger, this is what one is realizing.

And, once we realize this, birds and trees and stones are no longer dead to us; the world is alive to us experientially, not alive as an idea. I have to believe that this shift is much needed today, on a broad scale, at this moment of global ecological crisis.

We often hear meditation practitioners, and some teachers, say that mediation is about developing our powers of attention and concentration.  I suppose mediation has that effect.  

But I prefer to think of our practice as more about attending, than attention—though one must be attentive to attend.  

Meditation is about attending.  Showing up.  Participating.  Taking part.  We are just a part—and every much a manifestation and microcosm of the One as anything else.  Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

Through our practice, we open up to our own experience; to all experience.  We come to sense the hum of the universe within and without.  Let it bubble up and seep in.  

And our ideas of within and without, up and in, begin to soften.

We turn our ear to see a bird.

Open our eyes to hear it sing.

Buddha’s Birthday

We acknowledged Hanamatsuri last Thursday, April 8: the Flower Festival in our Soto Zen stream, celebrating the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha.  Most spiritual traditions have a celebration of birth (and rebirth/renewal), and Zen is no different.  If we had been together physically, we would have celebrated in the traditional way, by circling a statue of baby Buddha surrounded by flowers, pouring sweet tea over it and chanting as we walk.  

Last Thursday, I just had baby Buddha pictured here nearby me as we sat together via Zoom.  

 
In the spirt of my recent talks about lay practice and home-leaving (without leaving home), here is a poem by Judith Collins about the 20-something Shakyamuni Buddha, his own baby, and home-leaving:


Shame on you Shakyamuni for setting

the precedent

of leaving home.

Did you think it was not there –

in your wife’s lovely face

or your baby’s laughter?

Did you think you had to go elsewhere

to find it?

Tsk, tsk.

I am here to show you

dear sir

that you needn’t step

even one sixteenth of an inch away – stay

here – elbows dripping with soapy water

stay here – spit up all over your chest

stay here – steam rising in lazy curls from

cream of wheat

Poor Shakyamuni – sitting under the Bo tree

miles away from home

Venus shone all the while

Women have long been unacknowledged for their historical dedication and contributions to the Zen tradition.  (I included “Ship of Compassion” is in our Sutra book, in part, because it is one of the relatively few, ancient verses we know was composed by a female Zen practitioner.)  Through the efforts of many women teachers and leaders today, this is beginning to change.  A recent San Francisco Zen Center program on this topic may be of interest, as may this book of new, “householder koans” by two senior women teachers in our White Plum lineage.

The Ox Doesn’t Know

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.

 

A footnote on my last talk

In my last talk, On Chanting, I expressed some discomfort with the traditional last line in the Verse of the Kesa, “Saving all sentient beings.”

That discomfort no doubt arises, to a great extent, because I grew up in a religious tradition and a country that both have missionary projects. That tradition and country offer much that is good; and both also have done harm and been insufficiently attuned to and respectful of different perspectives.

This said, I hasten to add that the intention behind the phrase carries an intention that I wholeheartedly affirm. I’m quibbling with words like “saving,” “sentient” and “beings” in the traditional translation, when expressed in this cultural context. “Working for the wellbeing of the whole”—the alternative I proposed—should, in fairness, be considered just another way to express that intention.

“Saving” in this context means awakening. It doesn’t mean people are damned without our efforts to save them. For humans, it means Buddhism invites us to, and supports us in, an inner turning, or transformation, that can and should be impetus for efforts toward outer (social and ecological) transformations in this day and age.

“Sentient” literally means breathing, though the idea in traditional Buddhist philosophy is more along the lines of conscious, or having subjective experience. Contemporary scientists who study consciousness debate its boundaries. At one end of the spectrum, some materialists see it as an attribute of humans only, arising only when material conditions are right, while others would grant that animals are sentient. At the other end, there are those who increasingly believe it is a property of the universe. Between these ends of the spectrum, we find people like Kristof Koch, who definitely considers all animals to have sentience, and who grants that it’s possible some measure of consciousness is an attribute of other life forms, and possibly even other forms of matter.

How big is the set to be labeled “beings”? I prefer to morph the question, using that ambiguous verb-noun “being” instead. This is being. All of it.

Saving all sentient beings. Working for the wellbeing of the whole.