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.

Impermanence, Interdependence, and Awakening: Reflections on Passage 3:2 of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki (Part 2)

I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen Zazenkai on April 3, 2021A video follows the text.

Once, a certain nun asked:

            “Even lay women practice and study the buddha-dharma.  As for nuns, even though we have some faults, I feel there is no reason to say we go against the buddha-dharma.  What do you think?”

            Dōgen admonished:

            “That is not the correct view.  Lay women might attain the Way as a result of practicing the buddha-dharma as they are.  However, no monk or nun attains it unless he or she has the mind of one who has left home.  This is not because the buddha-dharma discriminates between one person and another, but rather because the person doesn’t enter the dharma.  There must be a difference in the attitude of lay people and those who have left home.  A layman who has the mind of a monk or a nun who has left home will be released from samsara.  A monk or a nun who has the mind of a lay person has double faults.  Their attitudes should be quite different.  It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely is difficult.  The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.  Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift.  Do not let your mind slacken.  If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely.  I don’t think that the names provisionally used to distinguish monks and nuns from lay people are at all important.”

In my last talk, we looked at this passage in terms of the intention—the mindset and heart-set—Dōgen is encouraging all of us to have, monks and laypeople alike.  The nun to whom Dōgen was responding implies that she enjoys some special spiritual status merely because she lives in a monastery, wears religious garb, has shaven her head, prays frequently, and begs for her food.

Dōgen, as you’ll recall, is the 13th century founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, and this nun presumably would have been living at his monastery.  The Zuimonki, the text in which we find this exchange, is a collection of brief talks and instructions Dōgen gave to the monks and nuns there.

Dōgen makes clear that one can do all the things the nun is doing in his monastery without having a genuine aspiration for the Way, and also that one can have a genuine aspiration for the Way without doing all of those things, or doing them all day, every day.  Attaining the Way is not about going through the motions.  It’s not performative. We attain nothing by doing the things Zen practitioners do—meditation, observing the precepts, and so on—unless we do them with the mindset and heart-set about which Dōgen speaks.  

In fact, that mindset and heart-set ultimately require that we drop the idea of attainment altogether.  We must drop our self-aggrandizement projects—our projects that are about elevating or enhancing the self—as well as our self-protection projects—our projects that are about avoiding things we believe dimmish the self.  This doesn’t mean we should abandon all personal wishes and projects, and that we shouldn’t protect them when they are threatened.  We can and should—we must—have our unique personal projects.  The world needs us—and what else would each of us be doing here, anyway?   It also doesn’t mean we can’t object to mistreatment.  

But we’re not seeking the Way if our projects are primarily about elevating or protecting the self; if our goal is to find a safe, exalted place for oneself, expecting to stay there forever.  That is a false notion of refuge.  

Dōgen’s monastery exists—and, yes, it still exists today—and other monasteries throughout the world exist, in part, because they are pressure cookers for exposing and dismantling our self-enhancement and self-protection projects, and for cutting through our delusion—our ignorance of the true nature of existence.  Monasteries are environments purpose-made to nurture, forge, test, and refine a genuine aspiration for the Way.  

Dōgen makes clear both that a genuine aspiration for the Way is the key ingredient of Zen practice—the yeast of our practice, if you will—and that we do not need to live in a monastery to have it.  Eight hundred years later, we’re finally seeing that notion spread widely through the Lay Zen movement, not unlike what happened during the Christian Reformation.  Whether we live in a monastery or an apartment building, however, a genuine aspiration for the Way is about a total shift in one’s disposition.

We focused on the “aspiration” half of the phrase “aspiration for the Way” in my last talk.  Today our focus is on the other half of this phrase:  “the Way.”  What are we aspiring for, or to?

Dōgen says, “[i]t is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely [is difficult].  The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.  Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift.  Do not let your mind slacken.  If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely.”

The world Dōgen encourages us to abandon is not our physical environment or existence; it is not our present life circumstance.  Nor is Dōgen telling us that there is some ethereal, spiritual realm we can enter—that we can peel apart the fabric of existence and slip into another realm, like an actor walking through a slit in the green screen on a movie set that had made us think there was a mountain range in the background.  

It’s the Passover and Easter season, so I’ll borrow a biblical metaphor—this one from the Christian scriptures.  Dōgen is talking about Saint Paul’s experience reported in the Acts of the Apostles, where we read, “And immediately something like fish scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized”  (9:18).  In Zen, we would call this kenshō:  seeing into our own true nature; experiencing it firsthand.  An example from Jewish scripture might be Moses’s encounter with the burning bush.  Attaining the Way involves a radical reorientation and renewal of our experience of the world and of ourselves.  A disruption of our prior way of knowing and being.

Before this shift, we perceive and orient to experience as a subject in a realm full of objects; things and other beings.  It’s a wooden building block view of the world, in which other things and beings are instrumentalized for our own needs and purposes, even when our actions appear to be benevolent.   Everything else is a wooden toy block with a brightly-painted letter on it.  “A” for apple, “B” for bachelor’s degree, “C” for child, “J” for job, “S” for spouse, and so on.  We’re like an oversized infant grasping for some blocks and stacking them ever higher, all the more glory to me, while casting other blocks aside.  It’s a world of discrete objects and agents acting on one another.  Most everyone else also is orienting to the world in this way, of course.

This view isn’t wrong, exactly.  It’s one truth; it’s part of the truth.  We run into trouble, however, if it’s all we see.  In Buddhist thought, this view is regarded as the Lower Truth, or Lower Reality.  If the Lower Truth is our one-and-only-truth, we’re trapped in samsara—endless cycles of self-aggrandizing grasping for blocks and self-protective pushing blocks away, all of which just sustains and compounds needless suffering; our own and others’.

The Higher Truth is emptiness and its correlates: impermanence, interdependence, and no-self.  Nothing is fixed or permanent.  Everything is dependently co-arising; everything is comprised of and contingent upon everything else.  And so all concepts, like self and wooden block, subject and object, ultimately are empty.  

Dōgen is encouraging us to earnestly seek the Higher Truth; not as a philosophical idea, as it may seem I am presenting it here, but as our lived experience.  The Higher Truth is in our bones; it is our bones.  We must seek it there; know and feel it there.  “Don’t let your mind slacken,” Dōgen says.  Cultivate this aspiration.  Orient your whole life toward this.

By the way, one issue I have with the contemporary mindfulness movement is that it emphasizes attention much more than intention.  In personal and spiritual maturity, they are essentially the same thing.  Early in our journey, however, intention—our aspiration for the Way, having the mind and heart of a home-leaver—is the key thing.

We may get a sudden, powerful insight into our true nature, as Paul did.  Sometimes a transformative realization comes quickly.  But, as you’ve also heard me say many times before, even if one has such an experience, this knowing in one’s bones almost always develops slowly, over years of practice, if we maintain a genuine aspiration for the Way.  

As we absorb the Higher Truth, the fixed sense of subject and object we once had dissolves.  Apples are still apples, and children are still children, but now we see all in a new light, and we are much less likely to crassly instrumentalize other things and people, however subtly, and supposedly benevolently or justifiably, we had done so—though, sadly, we are not immune, as sexual misconduct and other improprieties by some contemporary Zen teachers remind us.

From the perspective of the Higher Truth, there is no Way to attain; or, put differently, we have already attained it and can’t drift from it. From the perspective of the Lower Truth, however, we can lose our way when our aspiration flags, or when we’re deluding ourselves about our aspiration for the Way and how we’re expressing it—and this sometimes happens even to seasoned practitioners. The aspiration to awaken Dōgen encourages us to develop is something he also would encourage us to continually maintain. 

Actually, to be fair both to the nun to whom Dōgen responded and to ourselves, most everyone who comes to Zen practice comes with gaining ideas—with self-aggrandizement and self-protection projects, however subtle, that they’re pursuing through practice.  In fact, one element of Shakyamuni Buddha’s brilliance as a teacher was to start from our experience of suffering.  That’s certainly where his journey began, according to traditional accounts of his life.  Who doesn’t suffer, and who doesn’t want to alleviate one’s own suffering?

Unlike many other religions or philosophies, however, Buddhism illuminates how our default ways of trying to escape our suffering—grasping for more of what we think will produce a personal paradise, pushing away what we think prevents us from getting there, relying on dogmatic beliefs, and so forth—tend not to provide lasting relief.  Zen offers a different, very practical path to walk.  It does so with awareness that we may set foot on that path with distorted ideas about how to end our suffering, and that we may continue to pursue these doomed projects for some time.

The Way to which we aspire is total realization of, and non-resistance to, the fundamental emptiness of all phenomena, including this self I’m always talking about.  But, again, attaining the Way—one phrase Dōgen uses for what we in the West have come to call enlightenment in Buddhism—is not about grasping this as an idea.  It’s ultimately more about forgetting it as an idea.  Enlightenment in this sense—Zen’s notion of enlightenment—has little to do with the Enlightenment in the modern West, which tends to elevate rational thought above all other ways of knowing and being.  Zen’s notion of enlightenment is not opposed to rational thought in the least, but it is much more expansive, and it is wisely conscious of the myriad ways over-reliance on discursive cognition can trip us up.

Knowing the Higher Truth in our bones is about realizing and living it in, and as, the Lower Truth.  In the world of things and beings.  Nirvana and samsara are one.  This is returning to the marketplace with open hands: the final image in The Ten Ox Herding pictures, which provide a visual metaphor for the spiritual journey in Zen.  We forget the Higher Truth, while living it as the Lower Truth.

To have a genuine aspiration for the Way is to have faith in, and orient to, the fundamental wholeness and integration of all things, oneself among them.  We are distinct, but we are not separate.  We and all phenomena are interpenetrating.  Interwoven.  Even these words imply too much separateness. 

A heart that has attained the Way may want some things “for itself,” so to speak, but this won’t be about self-aggrandizement or self-protection.  It’s about being at one with our own karma—another phrase we use for enlightenment.  Responding to the cries and joys of the world in ways that make good use of one’s wholesome interests, talents, and potential.

The pioneering Western Zen teacher, Robert Aitken, who died a few years ago, offered his typewriter as an example of what I’m getting at here.  Are he and the typewriter existing and paired in some ultimate, permanent sense?  No.  If you asked to borrow it, might he lend it to you?  Yes.  If you asked whether you could have it, however, the answer would be no.  Aitken Roshi kept his typewriter not out of a selfish, self-aggrandizing, self-protective impulse, but because he needed it to write books that spread the Dharma and helped others experience the liberation he had experienced.  Teaching Zen and writing Dharma books, he had attained the Way.  He was at one with his own karma.  

Being at one with our own karma may well feel good; if so, we should appreciate it.  But don’t think you personally will gain merit by virtue of being at one with your own karma.  We can’t know whether the nun in our text ultimately was at one with her karma living in Dōgen’s monastery, but the question she asks Dōgen is premised upon the assumption that she gains merit by living as a monastic.  

Attaining the Way is simply about leaving home to discover home.  As I said last time, across Buddhist regions, leaving home has meant going to live in a monastery, which traditional Buddhist cultures have regarded as the typical way to be “all in” on the path.  But Dōgen refigures the phrase in this text, showing us that it’s really about a shift in our disposition, not our residence.  Finding ourselves at home, and realizing we never left.  For millennia, this is what people have left their physical homes to live in monasteries in order to discover.  Isn’t it nice to know we can discover it right where we are?

Let me close by reading that key portion of our text again, and following it with another lovely quote I recently heard:

“It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely [is difficult].  The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.  Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift.  Do not let your mind slacken.  If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely.”

Impermanence is swift: faster than the speed of light.  Impermanence is light.  Impermanence is the solid ground of our being.  We should remain constantly mindful of our impermanence.  It sounds a bit macabre, perhaps, but this awareness brings the world to life.

We’re evoking mindfulness of our impermanence when we chant The Five Remembrances or the Evening Gatha.  Other traditions have similar practices.  To return again to Christianity, as tomorrow is Easter—Easter is an interesting word in the context of this talk, isn’t it?: Easter, from East, the direction from which the sun rises.  In Christianity, we have the ethic and practice of momento mori, which is a reminder of the inevitability of death.  

This word momento also is interesting.  Here, it means recalling, or recollecting, but it’s obviously also related to the word moment.  “Life-and-death,” all three of these words joined to one another by hyphens, “is the Great Matter,” capital G, capital M, Dōgen tells us.  We walk the knife’s edge of life-and-death in this present moment, whether we’re aware of it or not.  From the perspective of the Higher Truth, there is no birth and no death.  From the perspective of the Lower Truth, life and death are urgent, and very real.

The ethic and practice of momento mori actually originates in classical Greek thought.  One example of it in the Christian context would be medieval Christian monks keeping a human skull on their desks—often depicted in art with a worm crawling out of one eye socket.  Some modern social scientific studies demonstrate how these reminders of our mortality—awareness of which most of us unconsciously try to avoid most of the time—make people temporarily more tolerant of and compassionate toward people with a different worldview or identity; people outside one’s own reference group.  Imagine how the world might be if, rather than reflexively, unconsciously avoiding this awareness, it had seeped into the bone marrow of each and every one of us.

Here’s that final quote I promised:  I recently heard a historian who studies the reasons we wage war repeat something a female soldier had said about a sensation she and many other soldiers apparently experience.  This soldier said, “When you know you might die, everything is alive.  Every leaf matters.“

I hope none of us ever has to go to war to fully grasp our impermanence.  Zen practice invites us to realize it in the context of our everyday lives.  When we do, everything is alive, and we know we are that leaf, and that we matter, and how.

Aspiration for the Way: Reflections on Passage 3:2 of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki (Part 1)

I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on March 25, 2021. A video follows the text.

Once, a certain nun asked:

            “Even lay women practice and study the buddha-dharma.  As for nuns, even though we have some faults, I feel there is no reason to say we go against the buddha-dharma.  What do you think?”

            Dōgen admonished:

            “That is not the correct view.  Lay women might attain the Way as a result of practicing the buddha-dharma as they are.  However, no monk or nun attains it unless he or she has the mind of one who has left home.  This is not because the buddha-dharma discriminates between one person and another, but rather because the person doesn’t enter the dharma.  There must be a difference in the attitude of lay people and those who have left home.  A layman who has the mind of a monk or a nun who has left home will be released from samsara.  A monk or a nun who has the mind of a lay person has double faults.  Their attitudes should be quite different.  It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely is difficult.  The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.  Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift.  Do not let your mind slacken.  If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely.  I don’t think that the names provisionally used to distinguish monks and nuns from lay people are at all important.”

This reading comes from one of Dōgen’s lesser-known texts, Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki.  Dōgen, as you know, is the 13th century founder of the Sōtō Zen school in Japan.  He left us four texts.  This one is the first, at least in terms of when the material in it was produced during his teaching career. 

The names of all of Dōgen’s texts begin with Shōbōgenzō, which means “treasury of the true Dharma eye.”  It’s a reference to the transmission of the Dharma—the teachings; insight—between Shakyamuni Buddha and Mahākāśyapa, his first successor.  In a famous sermon, Shakyamuni simply held up a flower and twirled it.  Most people seemed confused, but Mahākāśyapa flashed a knowing smile.  In Zen lore, this is when Zen began: with that first, teacher-to-student transmission.

Zuimonki, the second word in the title of this Dōgen text, means something like “easy to understand,” or “simplified.”  One translation of the text goes by the title A Primer of Sōtō Zen.  It consists of short, straightforward talks Dōgen gave to monks, nuns and laypeople in the first few years after the creation of Eihiji, the monastery he founded in Japan.  

The passage I just read is remarkable in a couple of ways.  First, he’s addressing nuns:  female monastics.  There were women in Dōgen’s community, which, sadly, was radical at the time.  Second, Dōgen is correcting one of these monastics’ view regarding distinctions between monks and laypeople.  It’s this second remarkable aspect of this passage that I want to focus on tonight.

In Dōgen’s time—and long before, and long after, and even still, in some parts of the world today—to be a serious Zen practitioner, or Buddhist of any stripe, meant to be a monastic.  It was thought that you really couldn’t “attain the Way,” the phrase Dōgen uses here for enlightenment, unless you were a monastic. 

The nun in this passage is clearly starting from the premise that she occupies a higher spiritual status than a layperson, simply because she is a monastic.  This might appear arrogant to many of us today, but she was expressing a widely-held view at the time.  And, remember:  she’s at Dōgen’s monastery.  Dōgen himself also clearly thinks being a monk is the typical way to be “all in” on the Zen path, as he makes clear elsewhere in this text.  

But the nun’s question really goes beyond this point.  She essentially asks, “Even if we’re screwing up as monastics, maybe by breaking a few rules or not always practicing with great diligence, aren’t we better than laypeople simply because we live in this monastery?  We get spiritual brownie points because of the clothes we wear, because we beg for our meals, because we pray for others much of the day—just by going through the motions—don’t we?”

Dōgen makes clear that attaining the Way is not about that.  He says, “no monk or nun attains [the Way] unless he has the mind of one who has left home.”  Home-leaving refers superficially to leaving one’s home to enter a monastery, but Dōgen makes clear that physically moving your quarters is not really what home-leaving is about.  The word “monk”—from the word mono—implies a mind and heart that is focused on just one thing.  Focused upon, and completely centered in, the Way.  If you enter this monastery without that frame of mind and heart, without that intention and aspiration, you have not truly left home, Dōgen is saying.  In fact, he says, “A layman who has the mind of a monk or a nun who has left home will be released from samsara.”  

Being released from samsara and attaining the Way are the same thing, Dōgen makes clear later in the passage.  In classical Buddhism, samsara is the cycle of birth and death.  Viewed from the perspective of everyday awareness, before attaining the Way, it is the world of our suffering—the world people take up the path hoping, in some sense, to escape.  It is the world in which we are subject to the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion.  For our purposes here, their alternate translations may be more useful:  Greed is grasping for that which we desire; that which we think will enhance the self.  Aversion is pushing away that which we don’t want; that which we think will diminish the self.  Delusion is a specific sort of ignorance: not seeing the world as it is.

So what is attaining the Way, exactly?  Dōgen gives us a pointer.  “It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely [is difficult].  The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.”  And here’s the key bit:  “Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift.  Do not let your mind slacken.  If you abandon the world”—if you leave home; if you give your heart to this—”you should abandon [the world] completely.”

The opposite of ignorance—of seeing oneself and the world in the wrong way, as a realm in which the goal is to find a safe, exalted place for oneself, expecting to stay there forever—is to see the world and one’s life as they are—impermanent—and to appreciate one’s life accordingly.  Dōgen makes clear it’s our mindset and heart-set that matter, not where we live, nor labels like monk and layperson.  

For Dōgen, aspiration for the Way is the key thing.  We all can and should have the mind and heart of a monastic, whether or not we live in a monastery.  To have the mind and heart of a monastic is to have a mind and a heart that is not divided; that is “all in.”  In other words, we must submit.  If we live in a monastery—and, I should add, if we’re a layperson and we go to a Zen center—and if we practice for, or expect, self-aggrandizement, we will not attain the Way.  It’s the nature of our practice to discover, our self-aggrandizement projects again, and again and again—they get more and more subtle, and barely perceptible.

We can’t serve two masters, as the saying goes.  We can’t attain the way with a mind and heart divided. Having the mind and heart Dōgen speaks of, or at least the deep desire to have this mind and heart, is what Zen practice is about.  Plain and simple.

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.