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.

Researching and Writing Angst

I am now writing my Master’s thesis, a project I have been working on for about 6 months in earnest. Today is the day I stop researching and begin the nitty gritty of putting all my thoughts and research onto paper. It hasn’t been easy to make the shift. I keep stumbling across footnotes, journal articles, and books that I feel I must read in order to bring them into the conversation. Lately I’ve felt like this:

Read_All_The-Things

Another take on a classic image (1)

But this level of zeal isn’t always good for my health. And anyhow, that process can be endless, and the time has come to stop jumping into rabbit holes and to start crawling back out of them.

I have been surprised at the level of angst this process arouses in me. I don’t consider myself a very anxious person, but when it comes to research and writing, I get gripped. I read and I read and I read, feeling like I know nothing. Then after a while, I start to get it and begin creating critical ideas of my own. This feels good, even groovy at times. Then I read something that has ideas similar to my own, and the groove is gone. Despair comes in: how have I been reading all this material and I still have nothing original to say??? So I dive even more fervently into reading and note-taking, until I start to feel alright again, and the cycle continues.

I have a hypothesis as to what’s going on here: I attach my self-worth to my work. If my work is good, then I am good. If my work is shit, then I am shit. Producing high quality work means that I am a worthwhile person, and so any inkling that the work is not perfect arouses anxiety. Of course, this paradigm is problematic in many ways. No amount or quality of work can ever repair a feeling of worthlessness. Feeling worthless is a delusion that must be worked through via other means.

One way I try to break through this angsty business is to keep a shrine righManjusrit next to my desk. The shrine consists of images of two bodhisattvas (2), an incense holder and a candle. The two bodhisattvas are Manjusri (3), the bodhisattva of wisdom who wields a sword to cut through delusion, and a second bodhisattva, whose name I do not know, who is sitting in steadfast meditation. Whenever I sit down to work, I light the candle, offer incense, and ask that I may cultivate wisdom, cut through delusion, and be steadfast in my practice. Building this ritual into my work is slowly transforming my work into work practice, in Zen called samu. Instead of multiplying my suffering through work, I am trying to understand it.

How do you deal with anxiety in your work, academic or otherwise?

Notes

(1) This image is originally from the fantastic blog Hyperbole and a Half. I created this image with the help of Meme Generator.

(2) A bodhisattva is a being who has committed to staying in the world of suffering lifetime after lifetime until all beings realize their true nature.

(3) The image to the right is of Manjusri. I obtained this image from http://www.buddhamuseum.com/sm-manjusri_52.html

Lotus in Muddy Water

I read the following passage last night:

In times of famine the daughters of farmers in Japan sometimes allowed themselves to be sold to brothels in order to save their families. It was considered an act of self-sacrifice and filial piety. Under such circumstances, these women did not necessarily lose their self-respect; they were sometimes called lotuses in muddy water. (1)

I was deeply moved by this passage, my heart wrenching and my eyes tearing. I have been listening to the audiobook of The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women. This fantastic text compiles stories from across the centuries since Buddha of women teachers, sages, and laypeople who embody Buddhist teachings, and pairs each story with a woman teacher of our time as a commentator. So, the roles women have played in the transmission of the teachings have been fresh in my mind.

I did not realize it until last night when I read the quoted passage, but I have been chanting something similar for years.

Lotus in muddy water

Photo by Dave Chan (2)

At sesshin (intensive practice periods) at Hakubai Temple, we eat meals in a style called oryoki. Oryoki is a precise method of eating that allows one to bring their practice into their eating, and to receive and serve food without talking. I’ll speak more on oryoki in a later post.

At various points during the meal we chant the meal chant in which we honor Buddhas, bodhisattvas and ancestors, remember the effort that brought us the food, make offerings, and consider the diligence of our practice, among other things. The final line of the chant, spoken by the leader, is:

May we exist in muddy water with purity like a lotus. Thus we bow to Buddha.

I have always thought of the muddy water as the world of suffering and delusion, and the purity of the lotus as an example we should follow when taking our practice into the world. But now my view of this verse is transformed.

In The Hidden Lamp, there is a story of Ohashi, a woman who sold herself to a brothel to support her family (3). She performed her work, but suffered from pain and sadness from dwelling on her life before the brothel. She met the teacher Hakuin, who told her that realization can happen in any circumstances, and she later awoke to her true nature.

Every time I chant this verse I will remember the women who maintained their practice and realized truth even amidst the most horrid circumstances. And I will do my best to follow their example by being a lotus in muddy water.

Notes

(1) Reb Anderson, Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (Rodmell Press: Kindle Edition, 2000), p. 115.

(2) I could not find the original photo from Dave Chan’s blogspot site, but you can find his work here: https://www.facebook.com/DAVECHAN0801. I retrieved the photo from http://brandybrost.weebly.com/blog/kuan-yin-vale-of-shadows

(3) Florence Kaplow and Susan Moon (eds.), The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2013), p. 41.

Monks Get Up Early

Monks get up early. This is one of those things that my teacher told me matter-of-factly. He regularly describes doing what’s needed in the moment in the same fashion: if you’re hungry, eat; if you’re tired, rest; if you see a piece of trash on the ground, pick it up. So, monks get up early.

He expanded on it a little with an example. On Black Friday, people get up early to wait in line at department stores to get the best deals. They are motivated to get up early so that they can be at the front of the line, ahead of all the other shoppers, and therefore have the best selection of things to buy at the best prices. They get up early, and they wait in line.

Monks get up early to wait in line, too. But they are not interested in getting the best spot. They are not interested in getting the best prices. They get up early to wait in line because that’s where the people are. The people are in line, waiting.

Monks get up early so that they can be at the front of the line. They are not interested in getting through first. Actually, they aren’t trying to get through at all. At the front of the line, monks can help others through the door.

dscn3458

There is another reason monks get up early, and that is because it is a conducive time to meditate, while the rest of the world is still sleeping or just waking up. I was reminded of this today while reading the Gospel of Mark. Jesus, having just healed a woman with a fever the day before, goes out into the pre-dawn darkness, to a place in the wilderness, and prays.

Early in the morning, at a remote spot, Jesus makes time for his practice. He starts his day with prayer. Then, when he is done, he can be at the front of the line, helping people through the door.

This was a helpful reminder for me. When I live my life in the world, my tendency is to get to bed later and then sleep a little later to get sufficient rest. This has been the pattern for me over the past month. I had forgotten that monks get up early. Now I remember.

The Benefits of Being a Monk

There is a New Year’s sesshin each year at Hakubai Temple in Boulder, Colorado. A sesshin is an intensive practice period that mimics monastic life and involves a lot of sitting and walking meditation, work practice, eating practice, chantings, and dharma talks. Dharma talks are given by a teacher, in our case the abbot of the temple, Hakubai Zenji, and cover various themes, including Buddhist doctrine and how to live in the world.

img_1356

The lotus pond at Hakubai in summer

The theme of this year’s sesshin was “how to make meaning in a purposeless universe” and the dharma talks followed this thread. The benefits of being a monk came up a couple times in our talks about worldly meaning. I found both references to be puzzling, though relevant to our discussion on this blog, and so I am sharing them with you here in order to think through them.

First, Hakubai Zenji talked of someone slapping you in the face. If you’re a monk, he said, that’s great! You think: look at this, they’re slapping a monk in the face. I took this to mean that since you are a monk, you don’t care what other people think of you, because you are not attached to your worldly person. Of course, this is easier said than done! It may be easy to not get ruffled when someone you don’t know says something nasty to you, but a slap in the face is a bit more intimate.

One of the currents of our talks over the course of the sesshin was that meaning may not be important in the realm of the absolute but that it is important in the relative realm. In Zen, it is said that there is no birth, no death; no beginning, no end; no meaning, no meaninglessness. But clearly in the world of objects, the world of space-time, beings are born and die, things come to an end, and people constantly struggle with meaning and meaninglessness.

When we talk about scholarship, this is an activity of the relative realm. Conceptual knowledge and discourse requires a subject and object, observer and observed. And therefore it would seem that making meaning is also something worth considering in the world of the scholar.

When a scholar is slapped in the face, how do they react? With polemics? A nasty review of the slapper’s next book? From what little experience I have, the Academy cultivates bloated egos, and bloated egos tend to burst when they are slapped. Would the reaction look different if the scholar was not attached to their scholarship? I think so. But getting to that place in an academic ecosystem of intense attachment and identification takes work.

The second statement: one of the benefits of being a monk is that no one expects anything of you. Later on, Hajubai Zenji added that when you are sitting all the time, doing nothing, people think you’re crazy or useless. As I get ready to launch myself into further academic work, I find I keep falling into this pit of other people’s expectations. Publish like a mad person! Sacrifice your marriage for your PhD! Present papers everywhere! I don’t care about any of this stuff, nor am I interested in playing these games. Yet I get sucked in time and time again to believing that the expectations of others are my own. They’re not. I’ll just keep on sitting, doing my best to do nothing, if that’s what needs doing.

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