Of the many posts I’ve made over the years, this one may be among the most important.
Some time ago I wrote about a message of wisdom from within a Christian context. That message was about different forms of life and the call by Jesus to surrender from one form to gain a different form: Death of the old, life of the new. That exact same message comes from the second chapter of the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra in the form of the allegorical story reflecting a dialogue between a common man by the name of Cunda and The Buddha. The wisdom expressed from these two sources is the same message of surrender: Releasing from one form of life and receiving a different form of life. Does it matter from which source this wisdom comes? Genuine wisdom from any other source would remain genuine wisdom.
Various forms of surrender are like Lao Tzu’s ten thousand things which arise from the seed of wisdom. The seed is essential life and that seed manifests in many ways, one of which I’ll share today. But before I deal with specific forms I want to examine what it means to surrender, in any form. Surrender is release. We let go of one thing and when we do we receive something else; a sort of trade. Nature abhors the vacuum. The fundamental idea is that we can’t focus on two things at the same time, at least not this side of complete release.
Here’s my first example of surrender: The one that completely transformed my life—Pie, as in “Pie in the sky”. Suppose you had a gift which you didn’t know you had. Without knowing, the gift would be of no value to you. The only way the gift would be of value would be if you knew that you had it. If you didn’t know (but were intent upon getting it) it would be like not eating pie but instead trying to grasp Pie in the sky. For too many years that is exactly what I did.
When I first began Zen practice, my teacher in his great wisdom, encouraged me to go for broke to gain enlightenment. Authentic Zen masters are like doctors of spiritual diseases who exercise refined judgment when working with ill students. They craft appropriate remedies for each student, known in Sanskrit as upāya: expedient means. There is no one solution which fits all students since each person is spiritually ill with a unique sickness. Every illness requires just one tailor-made remedy from an infinite list of ten thousand remedies.
Dayi Daoxin (the fourth Chan patriarch) had this to say regarding crafting specific teachings: “Therefore the Sūtra (Nirvana Sūtra) says: Since there are numberless (types of) capacities among sentient beings, the buddhas, preach the Dharma in numberless ways. Since the Dharma is preached in numberless ways, the meanings are also numberless. Numberless meanings are born from the One Reality. The One reality is formless, but there is no form that it does not give form to, it is called the true form. This is total purity.”
My teacher knew what I needed better than I did and prescribed a unique dose of medicine for my illness which is most common. I was very sick with the illness known as accomplishment—never being good enough and always pressing for greater and greater degrees of worth. The medicine was therefore “more pressing”. There was no way for me to understand his wisdom at that time. That knowing took more than a quarter of a century for me to fathom, which came about only by completely exhausting myself in the quest for being good enough.
Twenty-five years later, when the time was right—when I was fully ripened—I fell like a perfect plum. By this time I had moved to a different city and had a new teacher who prescribed a different dose of medicine which came in the form of the message, there is no enlightenment to attain. To be perfectly honest I was extraordinarily angry when hearing this message and felt as if I had been manipulated for 25 years and encouraged to chase a non-existent windmill. I had completely trusted my first teacher and thought he had deceived me. It took me a full year more before I got it and when I did, I fell ker-plunck right down into myself like a ripe plum. And as soon as I did get it, I threw back my head and laughed myself silly until tears rolled down my cheeks. I still laugh every time I think about it.
Without realizing at all, what I had been doing was trying to grasp air which was already in my hand: the pie in the sky (the payoff for my persistence and diligence) was already in my stomach where it had always been, already digested. There was no way for me to get what I already had and there was no way to be good enough since I, like everyone, came into this world complete, yet I was persuaded I was incomplete. No one will never get more complete since that is an oxymoron. There is no attainment, just like it says in the Heart Sutra, which I had repeated a million times but never understood. THAT is what surrender is all about. Letting go and getting what we already have. That is enlightenment, not some “pie in the sky.” Trading away illusions (the ideas) and getting reality, is a very good trade!
By the way, this expression “Pie in the sky” came from a book “The Preacher and the Slave,” a composition by legendary labor hero Joe Hill. The song became part of the widely distributed ‘little red songbooks’ around 1910. The complete verse goes like this:
“You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”
Well, there are still slaves today: The ones we make of ourselves all by ourselves. This illness of accomplishment is vast. From birth, we are encouraged to get better. The message comes from every dimension of our world to become somebody. But there is no becoming somebody. We already are somebody, just not the somebody we think we are. The real truth is the pie is already in our gut, not in the sky, bye and bye.
We are like Eskimos with plenty of snowballs but are being duped into believing that we need more. If you want to put that into a spiritual context reflect upon Zen Master Hakuin’s Song of Zazen: “How near the truth, yet how far we seek. Like one in water crying, ‘I thirst!’ Like the son of a rich man wandering poor on this earth we endlessly circle the six worlds. The cause of our sorrow is ego delusion.” And if you prefer the same message from a Christian context, try the parable of the Prodigal Son, who wandered away from his birthright of splendor and ate from the trough of pigs. Wisdom from any source remains genuine wisdom. It’s the message. Not the messenger that matters.