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

Walking the Streets with Ancient Conversations

We Zen monks walk through the deep mountains and valleys, through the brightly lit streets and dark alleys of the cities of this world, with stories of ancient conversations up our sleeves, or in our bosoms, stories of people who enacted buddha’s teaching together and realized the way, stories that encourage us to continue walking the path of devotion to the welfare of all beings. (1)

— Reb Anderson

I read this passage a few nights ago and it touched me deeply. Conversations are ubiquitous in the Zen tradition, conversations between students and teachers, wayseekers and adepts, puffed up egoists and realized peasants. Conversations are the medium through which one’s realization is tested and revealed, and are often paradoxical and bizarre. At least, they appear to be paradoxical and bizarre when viewed from a particular paradigm.

Version 2

Monks walk the world with stories of ancient conversations in their hearts, stories that cultivate sincere devotion practice, and devotion to all beings. I realized when I read this passage that I had been viewing conversations from the same paradigm that struggles to understand the apparently odd conversations that make up these stories.

In the next paragraph, Anderson describes bringing the objects and language of breakfast to a guest that is staying with him. In coming to his guest, they enter into a conversation called “breakfast,” a conversation in which he and his guest, “together with all things, dependently coproduce breakfast” (2).

This draws from the Buddhist teaching of dependent co-arising, in which all things arise out of all things, and nothing is separate or independent from anything else. One way to understand this teaching is to consider all the beings who efforted in order to bring you an egg you have for breakfast: the beings who packaged, transported, and stocked the egg; the beings who built the vehicles, roads, and buildings in which that egg was housed; the beings who fed and cared for the chicken that produced the egg; the beings that grew the food that fed all the beings that efforted to bring you this egg. This is one way of looking at dependent co-arising.

And so, when I, following Anderson, come to my guest, we, together with all things, dependently co-produce the conversation that is breakfast. This conversation is beyond-mutual: there are far more than two parties coproducing the conversation. And really, there are no parties. There is no separation between me and my guest and all things. We are the conversation that is breakfast.

There was a moment in which I understood this directly. As I write it now, my understanding is conceptual, intellectual; it is relative knowledge. I must keep practicing to know it directly.

Notes

(1) Reb Anderson, Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (Berkeley, CA: Rodmell Press, 2000) 166.

(2) Anderson, Being Upright, 166.

Scholar Monks: Martin Luther King, Jr.

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.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” (1)

Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably the most notable scholar monk in the history of the United States. He came from a family of ministers and was himself ordained during his undergraduate studies, where the president of the college impressed upon King the power of Christianity to enact social change. King went on to complete doctoral work in systematic theology seven years later and became a minister-scholar. He considered continuing in the academy but accepted a position as a pastor in Alabama instead.

mlk

King soon found himself at the head of a civil rights movement in which his academic acumen and religious leadership skills were exceptionally well suited and effectively deployed. He integrated Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence with Christian social action to undertake powerful social action toward the recognition of the rights of African-American people in the U.S. and the rights of all people within and outside of the U.S.

King’s social leadership contributed significantly to changes in national civil rights legislation in the U.S. Toward the end of his life, he included efforts against poverty and American militarism in his mission, continuing to draw on Christian social gospel principles and nonviolent practices.

As the only American scholar monk, and indeed the only non-president, to have a national holiday that honors him, I feel it important and appropriate to examine King’s life and work within the context of our discussion about scholar monks in the world today. King’s religious beliefs, training, and leadership, and his academic knowledge and abilities were regularly deployed together in his public speaking, preaching, and writings. From what I have read, it seems that King’s higher studies were an extension of his ministry and were deeply integrated into his ministry.

Precision with words and knowledge were utilized by King to do the good work that he deemed necessary as a follower of Christ and God. For King, this good work was the work of social action and social change. Similar to Xuanzang, in a different time, place, and in different ways, King worked toward the well-being of many, for the benefit of others, motivated and guided by his faith and his role as an ordained person.

I think all of us who live by vows, who have committed to a way that is larger than ourselves, have much to learn from Martin Luther King, Jr. His teaching, his work, and his way of life is as relevant as ever in this time of racial conflict, violence, and institutional oppression. Let us continue to consider King’s words, those that I have quoted above and the many others that he spoke and penned, as we usher in a new political era this Friday.

As always, please share your voice and your words through comments here or by contacting me personally.

Notes

(1) These words were spoken during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. All of the biographical information for this post comes from The King Center website: “About Dr. King: Overview.” TheKingCenter.org. Accessed January 16, 2017. http://thekingcenter.org/about-dr-king

(2) Image from http://www.uky.edu/mlk/content/about-dr-king

Beginnings

“Were it the case that a fly had reason and could rationally seek out the eternal abyss of divine being, from which it came forth, we say that God, insofar as he is God, could not fulfill or satisfy the fly. Therefore pray God that we may be free of God.”

– Meister Eckhart (1)

Quotes like these leave me with more questions than answers, and this is why I am starting this blog. I am a student of many things: spirituality, psychology, theology, social work, religion, geography, humanity. Whenever my inquiry takes me deeper into something, I often find both clarity and incomprehension at the same time. My questions are met by more questions and more questions. In the face of these questions, I often ground myself in practice.

And hence the title of this blog: Scholar Monk. There are traditions among world religions in which the stewards of the knowledge of a tradition are also dedicated practitioners (more on this in a later blog). They are both scholars and monks, intellectuals and priests, researching and studying their belief systems while ministering to others. I have long been attracted to the idea of the scholar monk, and, not surprisingly, have sort of become one.

I find for myself that knowledge and practice must go together. Too much knowledge and I become detached from reality, stuck in my head, intellectualizing everything. Too much practice and I lose touch with the world of space and time, a world in which egos often interact with each other, rather than souls. This is the world in which we live and work. In losing touch with this world, I lose my capacity to engage with it.

And so I will do my best to follow in the footsteps of scholar monks of old, engaging in the world of egos while remaining grounded in my knowledge and practice, and doing my best to serve truth along the way. As I undertake this life, I continue to find more and more questions along the way, questions that I will wonder at together, with you, through this blog. Questions that I don’t expect to find answers to, and yet I find value in the inquiry iteself.

In closing, Meister Eckhart seems to be a fitting person with whom to begin this dialogue, since, as Etienne Gilson put it, “One never feels safe in talking about Meister Eckhart. He seldom speaks twice un identically the same way, and the problem always is to know whether he is saying the same thing in a different way or if he is saying different things” (2). An appropriate guide, I think, for exploring the paradoxes of the world and wandering through questions upon questions. I ask that you join me in this space of inquiry, seeking understanding and a way to be in the world.

 

Notes

(1) As translated by Michael A. Sells in his Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 1.

(2) Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, 2nd ed. (Toronto, Ontario: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1952), 38.