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

Scholar Monks: Xuanzang

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.

Xuanzang (loosely pronounced shwen-zahng) lived in Tang Dynasty China during the 7th century (1). The tale of this scholar monk’s life is nothing short of epic. At 26, he had studied the most advanced Buddhist theories and philosophies available to him in China, and found that there were questions that couldn’t be answered. So he decided to break the imperial decree against international travel and set off for India in search of the true teachings.

It took three years of travel before arriving at the Buddhist university of Nalanda in northern India. During his trek, he dodged an attempted stabbing by his guide, traversed deserts and high mountain passes, and refused numerous offers from kings to stay and hold positions in their royal courts, once fasting for three days to convince a particularly stubborn ruler. He was dedicated to moving forward with his quest.

xuan_zang

An image of Xuanzang from the Dunhuang Caves, China (2)

Once arriving at Nalanda, a tremendous center for Buddhist study at the time, Xuanzang studied under the abbot for five years, reading Buddhist texts, studying math, logic, and Sankrit, and writing treatises. On his way back to China he lost some scriptures in a river crossing and waited months for replacements. He continued through Dunhuang, in Western China where this image is from, and arrived back in his homeland after being gone for 16 years.

Back in China, Xuanzang became a topic of interest of the emperor, who endorsed a giant translation project, led by Xuanzang, to convert the nearly 700 sutras and relics Xuanzang brought back from India. Xuanzang trained many in the imperial court in Buddhism, including the crown prince, although he declined an official position, stating that his life’s work was to clarify Buddha’s teaching. Interestingly, he did not write any commentaries on the texts, he translated.

Xuanzang’s legacy is vast. He greatly influenced the development of Buddhism in China, contributing to the founding of numerous new schools of thought and introducing Chinese Buddhisms to hundreds of new texts. The Heart Sutra, a brief and profound text that is considered by Zen to capture the essence of Buddhism, was translated by Xuanzang. It is the most widely chanted Zen text in the world. The Journey West, a 16th century Chinese epic tale involving a monk protected by a monkey king and other fantastic creatures, is based on the life and writings of Xuanzang. For any fans of the anime series Dragonball, a number of the themes of The Journey West would look very familiar.

Some key points, as I see them: Xuanzang was persistent in his single-minded focus to clarify spiritual teachings. He refused multiple offers from many kings and an emperor to take positions of power within their governments. That didn’t keep him from benefitting from the patronage of those governments, though. He went to great lengths to study, gather materials of study, and translate those materials, though not to comment on them. His writings were concentrated on theoretical issues and one exposition of the geographies he traversed in his travels.

What can we learn from this scholar monk? Perhaps, don’t get sucked in by power, but rather direct it for the benefit of many. Don’t lose track of what’s important to you, what drives you forward in your learning and practice. Maintain focus. Seek truth. Study with people you admire.

What are some of your takeaways? Please share any thoughts in the comments.

Notes

(1) All of my information on Xuanzang I take from the fantastic book by Kazuaki Tanahashi, The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala, 2014.

(2) The image of Xuanzang is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Xuan_ Zang.jpg