Tag Archives: shoes

It’s a Matter of Choice

Given that Americans are going to the polls this week, the topic of choice has been on my mind. How is it that I, or any practitioner, can skillfully discern when and how to take action? How is it that I, or any practitioner, can find the appropriate response to a situation or a decision when I fully acknowledge the continuously changing nature of the world? If there is no ground to stand on, how can I take a stand?

This dilemma reminds me of the koan of Nan-ch’uan (Nansen) and the cat. It’s said that Nan-ch’uan saw the monks of the East Halls and the monks of the West Halls fighting over a cat. He approached them, picked up the cat, and said, “If any of you can give me a reason not to kill the cat, then I won’t do it.” The monks were stunned and said nothing. So Nan-ch’uan cut the cat in half. Later, the Master encountered his disciple Chao-chou (Joshu) and asked, “What would you have done to save the cat?” Chao-chou put his sandals on his head and left the room. Nan-ch’uan said, “If you had been there, the cat would have been saved.”

Whether the cat was actually killed or not, we may never know, but one message from Nan-ch’uan is clear – failing to respond to the moment has its consequences. So you must say something, but what? If you simply apply your preference, you end up arguing with the other side. But is there an “other side?”

This is where the distinction between decision and discernment can be found. Typically, there are two practices that practitioners apply to any decision-making situation – zazen or seated meditation, and the precepts or ethical vows. So how is the great Master Nan-ch’uan upholding the precepts in this moment?

Pointing at the foundational teaching, Sekkei Harada Roshi said,

The meaning of the precepts is that there is no separation at any time, that we are one with all things. In other words, the true meaning of keeping the precepts is not to interfere with now…

However, the difficulty is in the details. In fact, this koan seems to fly in the face of one of the precepts. It is the first of the ten “grave” precepts which intones, “I vow not to kill.”

One way to think about it is that there are three perspectives on precepts practice: the ultimate, the mundane, and the maintained. And all three of them are necessary. Taking the ultimate view, there is no dualism at all and no conceptualization, so there can be no killing and no cat to be killed. From the mundane perspective, however, there was a being with fur and flesh, and there was a sword, both expressions of the ultimate. And then there is the cutting itself, a radical act of maintaining and upholding the precept in response to the delusion that presented itself at that moment. These three forms of precepts practice correspond to the three bodies of Buddha – Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya – and it is in the third, or transformation body, that we can study in order to see how the first two apply.

As Eihei Dogen Zenji describes it,

Carrying the self forward to confirm and verify the myriad things is delusion. When the myriad things come forward to confirm and verify the self, that is enlightenment.

That is to say, rather than deciding on our point of view and applying it to a given situation, we start by studying the way in which we are one with all things, and the way that causes, conditions and results effect one another. Then, an appropriate response will be clear.

Tenshin Reb Anderson Roshi puts it this way,

The precept of not killing life is not about restraint. It is about liberating our acts from delusion. It is concerned with awakened mind, which needs no restraint at all…

In other words, acting from the mind that recognizes the integrated nature of all things, and its manifestation in form and in activity, is inherently acting in accord with the precepts. There is no ground to stand on, and therefore no stand is needed. Instead, standing on no-ground we are an integral, skillful part of the great activity that is taking place in every moment. So, with this teaching in mind, I encourage you to put your sandals on your head, go out, and vote for a liberated life!

a monk's sandals

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Those Old Shoes

In recent days I’ve had quite a few encounters with the inescapable sufferings of illness, aging and death. While there are many Buddhist teachings about these experiences, one in particular stands out to me lately. It is the koan of Master Ma. The case goes likes this:

Master Ma was unwell. The Head Monk came to him and asked, “How is your venerable state these days?” Master Ma replied, “Sun-face Buddha, Moon-face Buddha.”

Moon over Mt. Diablo

The student’s question can also be understood as, “What is your condition?” or “How are you?” It may be an inquiry into the Master’s health, into his awakening, or into his enlightened nature. The Master’s response incorporates a reference to the Sutra of Buddha Names in which it is said that the Sun-face Buddha lives for 1800 years, and the Moon-face Buddha lives for one day and one night. So it’s easy to interpret this dialogue to mean that the Student is inquiring about whether the Master’s awakening is intact, and the Master responds with a phrase that means that whether he lives for a long time or a short time, he will always be a Buddha.

However, that view might not reflect the teaching of this dialogue. First, it’s helpful to investigate the practice of a Buddha. What is the practice of a Buddha? Whether long-lived or short-lived, a Buddha’s practice is to point all beings toward their true nature, and to embody true nature. This means that a Buddha is practicing all the time, demonstrating an awakened life by living an awakened life.

Then, it’s helpful to investigate sickness and death. What is the practice that is appropriate to sickness and death? Shakyamuni Buddha instructed his disciples to study sickness, aging, and death as a means of developing insight. Specifically, he encouraged them to study corpses and places where cremations took place. To what end? According to the Buddha, studying the inevitable decay of the body would offer insight into impermanence and, therefore, into the teaching of no self.

So, putting all that together, I believe that Master Ma’s reply actually means something like, “Whether for a short time or a long time, illness is simply something else to practice with when you are a Buddha, which is right now.” That is to say, any kind of suffering is simply something else to practice with because you already are a Buddha.

This kind of insight is invaluable. This is Right View. The problems of your life are simply the material for your practice. It is up to you to turn them in that way.

Van Gogh’s “A Pair of Shoes Black”

It brings to mind a time many years ago when my daughter taught me a lesson. She was about seven years old, and had taken to giving her best friend her belongings. Shoes, toys, books, clothes – all ended up at Alicia’s house. And I, as the purchaser of those items, was a bit distressed about it. I wondered why my daughter didn’t have enough shoes, when I’d gone to the trouble of buying her plenty of pair. So, one day, I sat her down and asked her why she was giving away her things. Without saying so, I wondered whether she didn’t like the things I was buying her, or whether perhaps Alicia’s family didn’t have enough money to buy her shoes. But my daughter’s reply was astonishing. She said “Mommy, to me, those are just my old shoes or toys that I don’t even play with anymore but, to Alicia, they are a gift. It makes her happy.” I was speechless. Here was my daughter talking about practicing sympathetic joy, one of the four Brahmaviharas, while I worried about the details! In one sentence my seven year old had reminded me that I could choose to see life as a problem or as a practice.

And so it was with Master Ma, who told his disciple not to worry about his illness, but to practice with it. I try to walk in his shoes even today.