In today’s modern American koan, “No Monk Clean and Shining,” we are presented with two practitioners who are standing next to a recently waxed black car.
The first monk says, “That’s as close as any of us will ever get to being free from dust.”
The second monk says, “I can only hope to find peace in the midst of dust.”
The dialogue is brief yet, like all koans, it says a lot and raises a few questions. So let me offer a bit of commentary.
The tone of sarcasm from the first monk is inescapable. Clearly her world is thickly covered in dust. Do I detect a note of despair? The second monk is not clear either. Looking for peace is like crying out for thirst in the midst of water. Yet he won’t just conjure a drink, will he? Both are right that dust is inescapable. But how to be peace in the midst of the world’s dust? By seeing dust as no-dust!
This koan harkens back to the dialectic in the Platform Sutra of Huineng. It was the late 7th Century at a monastery in China. The Head Monk was expected to become the successor to the Abbot. Demonstrating his practice, he wrote this poem:
The body is the Tree of Wisdom.
The Mind is like a mirror bright.
Polish it, polish it at all times.
So that the dust will not alight.
Hearing the above poem, Huineng wrote the following demonstration of his practice:
The Tree of Wisdom does not exist.
There is no stand for the mirror bright.
Originally, there is not one thing.
So where could dust possibly alight?
In the end it was Huineng who became the 6th Chinese Ancestor. The Head Monk didn’t have it all wrong. He’s right that we must practice constantly in order to manifest our inherent wisdom. However, it’s his way of practice that’s a bit off. Practicing in order to get rid of the dust in our lives – be it difficult relationships, money problems, fear of losing a loved one or a cherished belonging, or despair over the state of the world – is a mistake. It ignores the fact all things are expressions of the truth.
The fundamental teaching of Buddhism is that it’s possible to find complete peace and equanimity in the midst of a mundane life, which is inevitably full of problems and joys. For me, this is what makes the Four Noble Truths the inspiration of a lifetime. There is suffering (truth #1), and there is a path to the cessation of suffering (truth #4), not by getting rid of things, but by transforming that which causes suffering into that which manifests awakening. This is the true practice of the direct, embodied experience of emptiness, impermanence and the world as it is.
A few days ago I met someone who has a fervid belief in one of the Christian traditions. Inexplicably, as he was describing his faith he stopped and declared, “You must accept things as they really are.” How right he is! So, please, wash your car and see yourself as the pure activity of washing car, an expression of the perfection of a mundane life.