Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Day of Indulgence

Last May, I announced that the Zen Center was starting its summer ango (three-month practice period). At that time, I jumped into a frequent practice pattern - attending the center nearly every day, sitting at home for extra long on the days that I missed.

Then I had to go to Portland for a week. On returning, I found work very busy and demanding, and before I knew it, I was back to my same old pattern - opening the Center every Monday, attending when it was convenient, sitting at home on a hit-and-miss pattern. So much for ango.

Traditionally, ango was held during the summer monsoons, when you had to seek shelter indoors anyway. On the last day of ango, known as the day of indulgence, monks would reflect and confess on their misdeeds.

Back in the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, that old ascetic, Mahakasyapa, was leading a summer ango. On the day of indulgence, Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, suddenly arrives at the retreat for the first time of the entire summer. Mahakasyapa asks Manjushri, "Where have you been practicing the retreat this summer?" Manjushri answers, "This summer I have practiced at three places - a month playing with children at an elementary school, a month at King Prasenajit's harem, and a month at a bordello."

I'm tempted to add, "and the rest of the time I squandered." The ancient texts do not state just what Manjushri was doing at the harem and the bordello, but that old ascetic Mahakasyapa figured that, well, if you hang around a barber shop long enough, sooner or later you're going to get a haircut.

Mahakasyapa decides to expel Manjushri from the order right there and then. As he is about to strike a wooden block to formally announce Manjushri's expulsion, he suddenly has a vison of a hundred thousand million multiverses - alternate universes, Buddha lands. In each of these multiverses, at the place of the Buddha, stands Manjushri, and by each Manjushri there stands a Mahakasyapa ready to expel him. Mahakasyapa finds that even using all of his might, he cannot lift the clapper to strike the block. At that moment, the Buddha approached him and asked, "Which Manjushri are you now going to expel?" Mahakasyapa was dumbfounded and did not respond.

Zen Master Engo (1063-1135), editor of The Blue Cliff Record, said, "A bell not struck does not ring. A drum not hit does not sound. Mahakasyapa is moored in the main harbor. Manjushri sits away in the ten directions. At the present moment, there is a lovely scene of a Buddhist event. How regrettable to miss a move! . . .If Mahakasyapa had immediately given the bell a crack - imagine! How would the Buddha have restored the perfect tranquility?"

Dogen said, "So the World Honored One practices the retreat at one place and Manjushri practices the retreat at three places, but neither ever fails to practice the retreat."

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