I’m having a hard time relaxing this afternoon, perhaps due to the half cup of coffee I had this morning (a quarter-cup before zazen and a quarter-cup after), but just as likely due to the intensity radiating fromthe sesshin participants. Although I’m not sitting this one, (you could say I'm sitting this one out, har har) the event itself generates a thick atmosphere of silence and, if not peace, at least focus.
I listened to another talk by Rōshi this morning, a continuation of yesterday’s and the one the day before. He has been talking about the famous “polishing a tile” koan:
During the K'ai Yuan era (713 - 741) an ascetic named Tao-I was dwelling in the Ch'uan Fa Temple; all day he sat meditating. Huai Jang knew that he was a vessel of Dharma, and went to question him: "Great Worthy, what are you aiming at by sitting meditation?"
Ma replied, "I aim to become a Buddha."
Jang then took a tile and began to rub it on a rock in front of the hermitage; Ma asked him what he was doing rubbing the tile.
Jang said, "I am polishing it to make a mirror."
Ma said, "How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?"
Jang said, “Granted that rubbing a tile will not make a mirror, how can sitting meditation make a Buddha?"
Ma asked, "Then what would be right?"
Jang said, "It is like the case of an ox pulling a cart: if the cart does not go, would it be right to hit the cart or would it be right to hit the ox?" Ma didn't reply.
Jang went on to say, "Do you think you are practicing sitting meditation, or do you think you are practicing sitting Buddahood? If you are practicing sitting meditation, meditation is not sitting or lying. If you are practicing sitting Buddahood, 'Buddha' is not a fixed form. In the midst of transitory things, one should neither grasp nor reject. If you keep the Buddha seated, this is murdering the Buddha; if you cling to the form of sitting, this is not attaining its inner principle."
Rōshi’s teaching, I have decided, is “skillful frustration.” He tightens the strings of paradox, tighter and tighter, until what? Until it snaps? What snaps? What is snapping?
I say, Zen is the advanced teaching. Zen is grad school. Zen is tantra. Zen corrects by demolishing false views, dichotomies and dualities. Zen is a wrecking ball.
Again, again: Zen is stepping off the hundred-foot pole*—But what is its usefulness prior to that point? How do we climb the pole in the first place? How do we get off the ground? (The ground is pain—wallowing in it and causing it.)
Huai-jang says to Ma-tsu, “Are you training yourself in zazen? Are you striving to become a sitting Buddha? If you are training yourself in zazen, [let me tell you that the substance of] zazen is neither sitting nor lying down. If you are training yourself to become a sitting Buddha, [let me tell you that] Buddha has no one form [such as sitting] . . . . If you try to become a sitting Buddha, this is no less than killing the Buddha. If you cling to the sitting form you will not attain the essential truth.” (Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen) In other words, don’t become attached to sitting. But who is attached to sitting? Ma-tsu at this point is already an outstanding student, has already, in fact, received the mind-seal. He has just spent a decade meditating, post-transmission, in a thatched hut.
The situation is reminiscent of one in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra in which the protagonist Vimalakirti levels this critique against the eminent meditation master Shariputra as the latter sits peacefully engrossed under a tree: “That is no way to absorb yourself in contemplation,” he says. “You should absorb yourself in such a way that you can manifest the nature of an ordinary person without abandoning your cultivated spiritual nature.” He continues, “You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you are released in liberation without abandoning the passions that are the province of the world.”
Sitting is well and good, Huai-jang and Vimalakirti seem to say, but what else can you do?
Yet I’m sorry to say it, but I don’t know a single person to whom this critique applies. I picture “meditation masters” like Shariputra, advanced yogis, sadhus and ascetics enjoying an unproductive, secluded and “quietistic” life somewhere in the wilderness. Granted, if such people existed, they would be hard to get to know—but nonetheless, I don’t think it’s a problem that plagues American spirituality, and it certainly isn’t a problem facing me and my closest dharma friends. So it seems that Zen won that debate! It’s a beautiful mistake, but one that we don’t have to make anymore.
These teachings, on “polishing a tile” and on practicing within the world without loosing one’s state of absorption, are given as an encouraging shove to those all too comfortably perched one hundred feet above the earth—but what about the rest of us, stumbling blindly, in anguish and pain, in the dusty world below?
How does Zen help?
Is this the right medicine?
There’s a sesshin on, and I’m going to go sit.
*The Gateless Gate Case forty-six
Master Shih-shuang asked, “How will you step forward form the top of a hundred-foot pole?” Commenting on this, another ancient master said, “Even though one who is sitting on the top of a hundred-foot pole has entered the way of awakening, it is not yet authentic. She must step forward from the top of the pole and manifest her whole body throughout the ten directions. He must step forward from the top of that pole and manifest his whole body throughout the ten directions."