Scholar Monks: Deshan, the Old Woman, and Rice Cakes

This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.

This is a Chan story from ninth century China (1).

“Deshan Xuanjian was a great scholar of the Diamond Sutra, but he was not a Chan practitioner. He was traveling south in search of the Dharma, carrying his commentaries on the Diamond Sutra with him. In the course of his travels he came across an old woman on the roadside selling tea and rice cakes. He asked her, ‘Who are you?’

She responded, ‘I am an old woman selling rice cakes.’ When he asked if he could buy some refreshments from her, she inquired, ‘Venerable priest, what are you carrying in your bag?’

He said, ‘I am a scholar of the Diamond Sutra, and here I have all my notes and commentaries.’

Hearing this, the old woman said, ‘I have heard that, according to the Diamond Sutra, past mind is ungraspable, present mind is ungraspable, and future mind is ungraspable. So where is the mind that you wish to refresh with rice cakes, oh scholar? If you can answer this, you may buy a rice cake from me. If not, you’ll have to go elsewhere for refreshment.’

Deshan was unable to reply. The old woman then directed him to a Chan master nearby. Deshan burned all his notes and commentaries the next day.” (2)

Books burning in fire
Who is the monk, who is the scholar, and who is the scholar monk in this story? The old woman presents herself as an ordinary person, and the story does not even give her a name. Yet she reveals deep knowledge of the Dharma and tests Deshan with a question he cannot answer (3).

Deshan presents himself as a scholar, but his knowledge is limited. He carries his extensive works with him, and yet he is still seeking the Dharma. One might presume that, despite all his study, he too knows he is missing something. The old woman, upon first meeting him, addresses him as priest, not scholar. What does she know that he does not?

When Deshan burns his notes and commentaries, does he stop being a scholar? His academic studies brought him south in search of truth, brought him to the teacher selling rice cakes on the roadside. Yet ultimately he needs to let go of his commentaries and notes and seek a different kind of knowledge.

How many scholars pile up publications in the name of knowledge, carrying around their C.V. and pointing to it whenever anyone asks who they are? I already feel the pull of the publishing frenzy and the desire to build a monumental CV that rivals the Tower of Babel, and I am only just out of a Masters program!

How many nameless masters are out there, testing the knowledge of these scholars? Who are the scholars? Who are the monks? Who are the scholar monks?

 

Notes

(1) Chan is a school of Chinese Buddhism that emphasizes meditation. Chan comes from the Sanskrit “dhyana,” which means deep meditation, and is most well known by its Japanese name, Zen. See Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 217-222.

(2) In Florence Kaplow and Susan Moon (eds.), The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2013), p. 256.

(3) Reb Anderson describes Dharma as having at least three levels of meaning: “Dharma is ‘freedom from any difference between ourselves and buddha’; it is also ‘the truth that is realized by a buddha’; and it is ‘the transformation of that truth into scriptures and other forms of teaching.’” From Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (Berkeley, CA: Rodmell Press, 2001), p. 41.

(4) The image of the burning text in this post is from http://biblioterapiaitaliana.blogspot.com/2015/03/filosofia-spicciola-sui-roghi-di-libri.html

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