Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Seamless Tomb

"For [following] the family style of relying on grasses and the mind of grasping trees, the best place to practice is the monastery. One rap on the sitting platform and three hits on the drum expound and transmit the subtle, wondrous sounds of the Tathagata. At this very time, what do you Koshoji students say?"

After a pause, Dogen said: "South of the Xiang River and north of the Tan, there is a golden country where the countless common people sink into the ground."
- Dogen, Dharma Hall discourse No. 1 from The Eihei Koroku, Taigen Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumura, translators

Koshoji monastery was on the outskirts of Kyoto and was thus accessible to lay students. The Japanese word for "monastery" is sorin, literally "shrubs and woods," referring to a gathering place of monks or a residential practice place. Although "relying on grasses" and "grasping at trees" are usually Zen expressions for relying on mere intellectual understanding, here Dogen is playing on words, and uses grasses and trees positively as the forms and lifestyle that are used for practice in the monastery.

"South of the Xiang River and north of the Tan" is from a poem by Tangen (Danyuan Yingzhen), describing the style of his master, the National Teacher Chu (Nanyang Huizhong), himself a disciple of the sixth ancestor. National Teacher Chu was probably close to 100 years of age when the Emperor asked him, "One hundred years after you die, what would you wish?"

According to the Book of Equanimity, the National Teacher said "Build me a seamless tomb."

The Emperor replied, "I beg you, what style of tomb would that be?" The National Teacher remained silent for a while, and then asked, "Do you understand?" The Emperor said "I don't understand."

The National Teacher said, "I have a Dharma disciple by the name of Tangen who knows all about it." Later, the Emperor requested the meaning from Tangen, who replied:

"South of the Xiang River and north of the Tan
Yellow gold within fills the whole country.
A ferry boat under the shadowless tree.
In the crystal palace, there is no one who knows."

"South of the Xiang River and north of the Tan" denotes all of China, which to the Chinese was like saying the whole world. Together with the second line, the meaning is that wherever you are can be a golden country. There is no difference between heaven and earth.

National Teacher Chu used to advise his monks to not think in terms of good or evil. If our minds try to distinguish even a hair's breadth of difference, then there is a seam, and heaven and earth are infinitely split apart. To the National Teacher, the whole world was a seamless whole, and the seamless tomb he is telling the Emperor to build is the realization of this seamless nature of reality. He is telling the Emperor that 100 years after he dies, he wishes that all sentient beings, starting with the Emperor, attain realization of the seamless reality of the dharma.

In his discourse, Dogen is telling his monks that the monastery is the best place for their style of practice. In relative terms, this would be correct. But Dogen's mind does not discriminate, is not stuck to the relative. So after a pause, he reminds his monks, and possibly the lay practioners in attendance, that all the whole world is in fact nothing less than the Buddha land itself, and that even lay practioners can realize the National Teacher's seamless tomb. This is the truth in absolute terms. The best place to practice relying on grasses and the mind of grasping trees is in the shrubs and woods, but in all the golden world common people can realize their own seamless tombs.

Driving to the zendo last night, I saw that the Southern magnolias along Briarcliff Road are already starting to blossom. Here, their yellow leaves are still dropping.

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