Tag Archives: China

Gifts that Pass Through Your Hands

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Pleasant Hill view

At the time of the dawning of the Mahayana the paramitas were described as six lights on the awakening activity of a Buddhist practitioner. This was near the beginning of the Common Era (CE), and it was a period in which the Mahayana was neither a school nor a sect of Buddhism. Instead, it was a clarification of the path of a practitioner whose aspiration is to turn all beneficial karmic activity into the ultimate gift, the gift of awakening. The Mahayana was an exposition of the practice of a bodhisattva.

The Sanskrit paramita is often translated as “perfection,” though to understand it as a final objective is to miss the mark. The paramitas are actually mutually interdependent activities that inspire and inform any being dedicated to awakening, just as much as they benefit others. Thus, to expect that the paramitas might one day be completed is to forget the virtuous circle of practice in which the giver also receives, in which the giver is also the gift.

Perhaps for that reason the first of the paramitas is dana (pronounced like “Donna”). This word means giving or generosity, and it is said to encompass all of the other paramitas which are: sila or morality, kshanti or patience, virya or energy, dhyana or concentration, and prajna or wisdom. In fact, it can be said that each paramita is a complete practice because each paramita includes all of the others. Taken as whole, I see the first two paramitas as based in compassion, the last two as based in wisdom, and the entire path balanced by allowing what is and applying oneself wholeheartedly.

Returning to dana paramita, it was traditionally understood that the laity gave material goods and the monastics gave the teaching of Dharma. In many ways this is a balanced approach when monastics are renunciates who depend on others for their food, clothing, medicine and lodging. However, over time this distinction was blurred as monastics came to own land and other material goods, and lay practitioners became respected as disciples and teachers. In China, for example, alms collection was not as well received as in India, and Ch’an monasteries began tending rice paddies to sustain themselves. Also at that time, roughly estimated to be the 8th and 9th Centuries, Layman Pang and his daughter Ling Zhao became renowned as examples of profound and playful Dharma.

jizos 2006

Today when I think about giving, the underlying intention seems at least as important as the thing given. Giving might be motivated by a desire for one’s own benefit – such as to accumulate merit, or to influence someone to like you or to give you something in return. It might be motivated by a wish for another’s well being or progress on a spiritual path. Or it might be motivated by the wish to benefit everyone.

However, it is not until I see that the gifts I give are not mine that dana paramita can be practiced.  Even the teachings or material objects which I seemingly produce temporally arise out of interconnectedness, and therefore cannot truly be seen as my own. Knowing this I can give because all of life is a gift. I can give because these gifts must pass through my hands. I can give because I understand that karma is the only gift that persists, the only true legacy anyone leaves.

So please let the many gifts pass through your hands that they might awaken the whole world.

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The Three Flavors

Dialogue with Master Changcha, as recorded in the Essentials of the United Lamps of our  [Zen] School  and featured in the Unfathomable Depths, a new Zen text on an ancient Chinese poem 

snail-md

K’s Introduction:

The Master speaks of the monk’s sword, but it is his own that cuts thoroughly. The monk reveals his inquiring mind, but ends with a thump. All the fog in the world couldn’t soak his robes, so it’s best that he follow the path. How about you? Can you taste all the flavors at once?

Encounter:

A monk asked, “I am not yet clear about the right opportunity for enlightenment. Please give me instruction.”

The master replied, “In the uneven pine and bamboo grove, the fog is thin; because of the many layers of mountains, the moon comes out late.”

The monk intended to say something else, but the master said, “Before using your sword and armor, your body has already been exposed.

The monk asked, “What do you mean?

The master replied, “The good knife does not cut the bamboo before the frost comes. The ink painting can only praise the dragon on the sea.

The monk circled the master’s seat and then left.

The master said, “If you close your eyes and eat a snail, it will at once be sour, tart, and bitter.

K’s Brief Commentary:

A monk asked, “I am not yet clear about the right opportunity for enlightenment. Please give me instruction.”

Is there ever a wrong opportunity? Get off your duff!

The master replied, “In the uneven pine and bamboo grove, the fog is thin; because of the many layers of mountains, the moon comes out late.”

When caught by differences, you will find yourself up to your hips in mud.

The monk intended to say something else, but the master said, “Before using your sword and armor, your body has already been exposed.”

What’s the use of a sharp tongue when you’ve already bared your backside?

The monk asked, “What do you mean?”

At least he hopes his breath isn’t wasted.

The master replied, “The good knife does not cut the bamboo before the frost comes. The ink painting can only praise the dragon on the sea.”

A hot hand won’t help you now. Another kind of rice cake isn’t any more tasty.

The monk circled the master’s seat and then left.

He’d better pack a spare pair of sandals.

The master said, “If you close your eyes and eat a snail, it will at once be sour, tart, and bitter.”

There are not two sides to this coin; this delicacy is lost on many.

K’s Prose Commentary:

Master Changcha’s student reveals his particular form of delusion in the opening question. It seems this fellow feels there is some magic moment that will arise from his practice. So he’s waiting around for something special, and in the meantime, he happens to encounter the teacher. At least he’s come to a clear one. Changcha tries to tell him not to get caught up in differences. That is, though there are people of varying colors and practices, the magic moment is every moment, since all things are expressions of the original function. Experiencing things in this way, just drinking tea is an awakening moment.

The awakened way doesn’t wait for an opportunity that seems right. Still, if it doesn’t feel right, you will always make faces when eating snails.

Still, it seems the monk is stuck and before he can continue Changcha does him a favor, telling him that he can see the monk’s confusion. In good faith the monk persists, asking about the Master’s teaching, but ends up walking out. It seems his magic moment hasn’t arrived when, in fact, it’s already here. That could be a long road for him. Yet Changcha goes the extra mile, leaving him with one last, skillful word. Three flavors in one, all discernable yet the eyes are closed. This is the flavor of enlightenment in the midst of the bland world, all the while infusing our delusions. with the freshest of scents. At the time of this dialogue I doubt that snails were a delicacy, but Changcha has now made it so.

A Monk Points Out the Dust

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.

Black Bugatti

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!

Sunrise 12/21/12

California Sunrise 12/21/12

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.