Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Three Zen Stories & A Practice

Why did Tanusan want the rice cakes?

There is a story about the Zen monk Tanusan who in his travels met an old woman and asked if he could buy rice cakes from her. The old woman fetched the food for him and asked him what the scrolls were that he was carrying. Tokusan replied that they were commentaries on the Diamond Sutra and that she would not understand. But she surprised him, "It is written somewhere among them," she said, "that the heart of the past can't be caught; the heart of the present can't be caught; the heart of the future can't be caught. If none of these hearts are possible to grasp, then with which of these hearts do you want to eat the rice cakes?" Tokusan was stunned into silence. He had no answer to why he wanted to satisfy his hunger. If as the sutra said none of the three hearts could be grasped, where then was the heart which could be satisfied? In embarrassment, he asked the old woman if she knew a teacher in those parts who could enlighten him. 

The old woman thereupon mentioned the name Ryūtan, telling Tokusan to visit him. Tokusan went to Ryūtan’s temple as he was told, performed the proper salutations, and then left. That evening he went to the master’s room and stood there awaiting counsel until night set in. Ryūtan then turned to him and said: “Why don’t you leave?" Tokusan was about to leave when he noticed that it was dark outside. He returned to the master’s room and said: “It is dark outside.” Ryūtan took a paper torch and offered it to him. Tokusan was about to take it when Ryūtan blew out the flame. Tokusan suddenly experienced great enlightenment.

This expresses the idea of enlightenment as a "special transmission, not dependent on words and phrases" as Bodhidharma put it. Words and phrases are inadequate and cannot convey lived experience. And yet they can point the way, as this Zen story tries to do.

Fear & Desire that Take us Away from our Heart

A Tibetan story tells of a monk who, while meditating in his room, believed he saw a spider descending in front of him, growing larger and larger over time. When he ran scared to his master, the master gave him a piece of chalk, calmed him down and said, next time it happens draw a cross on the spider's abdomen and come to me. With trepidation, he went back to meditation and the spider came again, and he watched it grow huge before him, then did as the master instructed and ran to him again. The master lifted the monk's shirt, and there was the cross on his belly.

Another story tells of a monk who saw a golden ball before him in meditation. As he reached for it, it drew back. He got off the meditation cushion, and it moved away from him. He chased it up a tree, and in the smallest branches it vanished, leaving him stranded up the tree suddenly aware of his fear of falling, the fear only arising with the disappearance of the desire. 

Fears and desires that lead us away from ourselves both originate in the mind. “No mind, no problem” as Zen Master Seung Sahn liked to say.

When Zen came to China...

When Zen came to China, an eighty-year old Confucian scholar undertook a long and difficult journey to meet the master of Zen. After he had arrived and rested, the two met. The Confucian scholar began the discussion with a several-hour exposition of Confucianism and its subsequent commentaries to see if the Confucian and Zen wisdom could find common ground and learn from each other. Once he had finished, the Zen master told him about Zen, "to cause as little harm as possible, to do good, and to purify the heart". He then stopped. These are in fact words from the Dhammapada, or sayings of the Buddha. "Is that it?" the Confucian fumed, "Have I come all this way, risking my life for some kind of jingle that any child could come up with?" "What more is there?" said the Zen monk. 

We would like to think that the Confucian saw the nature of his predicament, but there the story ends. The fact he undertook the journey shows that despite all his wisdom, he still had a nagging doubt, that perhaps there was something in Zen that could complete his wisdom and satisfy him. We'd like to think he found it: the truth is very simple.

Watching the Witness

Zen is epitomised by the practice of zazen, literally "just sitting", which is then carried into daily life, "just walking", "just eating", whatever it is we are doing, doing that fully. Zazen is thus a mindfulness training to help us stay mindful within the busy world. So, let us conclude with an experiment which can be tried in meditation and then practiced throughout the day. 

Stop and as you watch your thoughts, ask yourself, "who is the thinker?". This takes us out of the immediate sense of reaction, of cause-and-effect, to a sense of being a witness. Can you even go a deeper level again, and watch this one who watches? This practice is supposed to open up the light of pure consciousness: "By watching the mind, the mind disappears. By watching the witness, the witness expands and becomes universal." 

Whether we experience this or not, the more practical point is that whenever we are attracted to things we like, or repelled by things we do not like, the one who watches can detach and see this impartially. 

Even suffering and annoyances become lessons, and we need not try to avoid them: like Tanusan's shame in the first story which he did not try to bluff his way out of, but also the meditator's feelings of fear and desire in the second story, or the Confucian scholar's disappointment after his long trip! In all three stories, the uncomfortable experiences carried seeds for possible enlightenment — if we look with the right perspective.


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

—Jelaluddin Rumi
trans. Coleman Barks

Photo: "Watching the Self who Watches" —okei (17th Sept.)

Source: This is adapted from a dhamma talk given by Martin Goodson.

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