Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Dried Shit Stick

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For some time now there has been a burr growing under my saddle which I have hesitated to acknowledge—the manner whereby we obscure clarity with holy robes. In Zen circles (and well beyond) this apparent piety takes many forms. We chant with an aura of mystery and a special tone of voice. We use archaic language from cultures now dead. We employ a sort of pecking order or stature structure within our sanghas—toward what end? Such means are normal and accepted as standard everywhere, and yet it is disturbing when this happens among folk who should know better.

In ninth-century China, Chan Master Yúnmén Wényan (known in Japan as Ummon Zenji) made quite an amazing impact by deflating all such forms of piety. His most famous one-liner stemmed from a question posed to him by a monk. The question from the monk was, “What’s the Buddha?” His answer: “A dried shit-stick.” If that doesn’t strip away holy robes it is hard to imagine what would. And how should such an obvious statement of disrespect be understood? The modern-day equivalent of a ninth century “shit stick” would be Charmin toilet tissue used to wipe excrement from our anus and then flush it down the toilet. Getting rid of our egos is a most useful endeavor but once that is accomplished we need to resist attaching ourselves to the means and just flush it down the toilet. And this is true for all endeavors: Once a task is completed we need to move on and let go—being present in each moment without clinging to the past or bound up in a yet-to-be future.

This principle of non-attachment applies even to what is believed to be the Buddhist truth. “Before we understand, we depend on instruction. After we understand, instruction is irrelevant. The dharmas taught by the Tathagata sometimes teach existence and sometimes teach non-existence. They are all medicines suited to the illness. There is no single teaching. But in understanding such flexible teachings, if we should become attached to existence or to non-existence, we will be stricken by the illness of dharma-attachment (inflexible truth). Teachings are only teachings. None of them are real.”Chi-fo (aka Feng-seng)

Recently I was privileged to watch a talk given by a modern day Zen Master—Roshi Shodo Harado. It was one of the clearest, unpretentious talks I have ever heard about the Zen path and it directly confronted this issue. What he said was simple: that the goal of Zen is to root out and penetrate beyond the ego down to our pure nature. His message was gentle and naked. He made no attempt to mystify his message and because of this, it was perfectly obvious that this was a man of great depth with no need to spin anything.

I wasn’t around in ninth-century China and thus didn’t hear Master Yúnmén’s talk so I can only guess about his meaning, which resonates with statements made by other Zen Masters such as Bodhidharma in his encounter with Emperor Wu. When asked what measure of merit he would garner for his support of Buddhism, Bodhidharma said “None at all.”

The point of Bodhidharma’s response; the point of Master Yúnmén and the point of Roshi Harado is the same—At the level of our pure nature we are all equal, and short of that depth we are all trapped in the ego-delusive thought that we are someone special who deserves exalted stature or reward. There are no clothes, or robes of piety—however grand, that sufficiently dress up the ego. All such clothing is nothing more than a “dried shit stick.” And once we arrive at the truth of ourselves it is time to let go and move on with insight freed of the baggage of dharma addiction. If you want to grasp this in other terms, consider the words of Ch’an Master Lin-chi: Being a true man (or woman if you prefer) without rank.
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