August 23, 2010

Parables in Ch’an, and the experience of Western intellectuals in a contemporary Taiwanese Buddhist monastery

The ultimate teachings of Ch’an or Zen practice are conceived of as beyond words and the grasp of language. As such, it is often through parables and analogies that one can begin to infer the ultimate teachings imparted through Zen teaching and practice. One popular analogy to understand the relationship between Ch’an and language is that of the finger pointing at the moon. Just as the finger provides direction towards the moon, the finger is not itself the moon. Similarly, the written, conventional teachings of Ch’an do not in themselves contain the ultimate teachings. Teachings of Ch’an can only provide the path, while it is the practitioner who must travel the path and realize wisdom (prajna) themselves.

For me, one attraction to Ch’an practice is the emphasis on self-cultivation-- that through meditation and mindfulness practice, a natural attainment of higher mental states and awareness occurs. Another draw is that Ch’an masters are an eccentric bunch, and within the confines of language, they try to teach their disciples through humor, and even mockery. So I just want to share a few examples of some quintessential Ch’an stories recounted during the program that were also relevant to us as western-educated folks in a Buddhist monastic setting. These probably aren’t completely accurate, but you can get the gist.

Story #1: A scholar was meditating across a river from a Ch’an master. The scholar felt inspired to write a poem to demonstrate his mastery of meditation to his master. In the last two lines of the poem he wrote, “Eight winds from all directions blow, I sit on a golden lotus unmoved.” He sent the poem via courier to the master across the river. Upon his return, the scholar asked the courier what his response was, the courier handed the scholar what the master had written, one word, “FART.” The scholar was so infuriated and insulted by this response that he jumped into the boat and rowed across the river to see the master himself. The Ch’an master was waiting on the shore, expecting the scholar. The Ch’an master said to the scholar, you are hardly unmoved if even a fart will blow you across the river.:)

The story demonstrates how quickly and easily the ego is provoked, either inflated by praise or insulted and defensive by criticism. It is only the truly practiced one who will be unmoved by both. 

Story #2: A scholar and a Ch’an master were sitting in meditation. Curious about how the master would respond, the scholar posed a question to him, “what do I look like when I am sitting in meditation?” The Ch’an master gave it some thought, and responded, “A Buddha.” The scholar was smugly satisfied and continued on his meditation. Shortly after, the Ch’an master asked the scholar what he looked like. Thinking he had to come up with something witty in response to prove his attainment, he said to the master, “you look like a pile of horse shit.” The Ch’an master did not respond. The scholar, thinking he had finally outsmarted the master excitedly returned home that evening and told the story to a girl. The girl, more perceptive than the scholar, told him after his account, “You fool! How you perceive others is a reflection of your own mind. What the master told you about how you appear, that is only a reflection of his own mind. And what you said of him, that is a reflection of your own mind.”

Both of these stories poke fun at the scholar, who is likely intellectually well developed, but is consequently full of hubris and a ‘know-it-all’ attitude. This situation, meeting of scholar and Ch’an master, is also especially relevant to the Woodenfish program, wherein critical, intelligent Western students meet and study with actual practitioners or masters. For many students, including myself, a Buddhist monastery like Fo Guang Shan is a place where, in order to cultivate anything new and meaningful within, our ingrained cynicism needs to die, or at least go into hibernation. Another parable often thrown around during Woodenfish is the story of ‘emptying your cup.’

A scholar went to visit a Ch’an master. As the master was speaking, the scholar interjected with his own opinions. The master began to serve more tea, and poured so much additional tea into the scholar's cup that it spilled out over the cup onto the table. The confused scholar tried to stop him, "What are you doing? The cup is full, there is no room for more tea!" The master responded, "Like this cup, you come with such a full mind of its own opinions, there is no room for anything new. In order to taste my tea, you must first empty your cup."

I can be a pretty cynical person, and dropping that veil through which we evaluate the world, and actually emptying your cup can be a constantly trying task. Cultural and intellectual superiority complexes prove to be more of a hindrance than a tool of objectivity. Trying to outsmart the master is usually just asking for a total fail, and it's only when we can drop the cynicism and cultural baggage, and open our eyes/ears/mind that a worthwhile and meaningful experience can occur. When many western students first arrive and see the large edifices of Fo Guang Shan and its seeming extravagances or oddities, ie the Pure Land cave, it can be difficult to know what to make of the scene. The cynic will first naturally question the monetary channels of development, and the intentions out of which such a massive establishment was created, and how it is sustained. At the most critical level, the cynic will refuse to consider that anything valuable or legitimate could come from something they first view as superficially contradictory to what they’ve studied and come to know as "Buddhism." The western critic/cynic may posit, this is not any kind of Buddhism I have ever studied, and since I have studied everything, this is not Buddhism. Except it is. The only one on the losing end of this sort of analysis is the visitor/intellectual critic, and that is truly a shame.

At the other extreme, total abandon of rational thinking and lack of careful analysis is an equally reckless position. Therefore a middle way of sorts should be sought. An approach that strikes a balance of constructive and contextualized analysis is important, and also very challenging. Cultural and temporal contextualization (for Woodenfish, that means Taiwan, 2010, Humanistic Buddhism) must situate observations, as well a generally open, respectful, and humble self. In terms of lived Buddhist experience, searching for origins or seals of authenticity, or trying to find the "real" Buddhism, is completely missing the point. For Buddhists, the concept of expedient means explains these very different paths to enlightenment. We all are moving in the same direction, but based on our past and current situation, will respond better to different teachings and different practices. It is not the inherent quality of a teaching or scripture that will aid in one's spiritual advancement, but rather the intention and diligence of the seeker in properly utilizing and interacting with the teachings. Rather than looking outward to criticize what others do, it's always most important to look inward at one's own actions, and one's own mind.

1 comment:

karma said...

Your writing is excellent! It's definitely more than dharma smitten. Rarely does one see with such simple and deeper perception.