Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Mid-Winter's Tale

Eka was of lofty virtue. He was a magnanimous and cultured person, said to have been adored by both gods and demons, by both monks and laymen. He resided for a long time between the rivers Ii and Lo, during which time he read extensively on a wide variety of subjects. He would be considered that rare person who is seldom encountered in any country. Because of the loftiness of his virtue and the dignity of his virtuous ways, one day a strange and wondrous being, a guardian deity who for a long time had been doing his own training in the Way, suddenly appeared before him and said, “If you really desire to receive the fruits of your efforts, why do you linger here? The Great Way is not far off. You must go south!”

The next day, Eka suddenly had a stabbing headache. His teacher at the time, Zen Master Kōzan Hōjō of Dragon Gate Mountain in Loyang, was about to treat his condition when a voice from out of the blue said, “This is not an ordinary headache but is due to a condition of the skull.” Eka then told his teacher about his encounter with the strange and wondrous being. When the teacher looked at the top of Eka’s head, he saw that five lumps had swelled up like mountain peaks on his skull, and he said, “This feature of yours is an auspicious sign, and you will surely have an awakening to the Truth. This strange and wondrous being’s telling you to go south is because Great Master Bodhidharma resides there at Shōrin-ji Temple, and is destined to be your Master.” Heeding these instructions, Eka then left in order to train with Bodhidharma, who at the time was practicing shikantaza in a cave atop a remote mountain peak.

It was December and the mid-winter weather was cold. A deep snow covered the ground, burying the mountains and concealing the peaks. Even if there had not been any snow, we can well imagine that a winter’s night deep in the mountains atop a high peak is not the time or place to be outside. It was so dreadfully cold that the joints of bamboo would split open. Nevertheless, Eka sought his way to Bodhidharma's peak, plowing through the drifts.

Despite the dangers, he eventually reached Bodhidharma's cave, but was not given permission to enter. Bodhidharma did not even seem to bother to turn around and look at him. So Eka waited, and through the night he never dozed off or sat down or took any rest. He stood firm, without moving, waiting for the dawn to break, as the night snow continued mercilessly on, piling up layer upon layer until it was up to his waist. His tears froze upon his cheeks as they fell, drop by drop. But seeing his tears only led him to cry more, and reflecting upon himself only led him to reflect more deeply upon himself. He thought, “When people in the past sought the truth, they broke their own bones to take out the marrow, they drew their own blood to save others from starvation, they spread their own hair over mud, and they threw themselves off cliffs to feed tigers. Those of old were like this, so what kind of person am I?”

Here Eka was thinking about some classic Buddhist stories. The Bodhisattva Jōtai is said to have once visited the Bodhisattva Hōyū and heard the great teaching of real wisdom for the first time, but as he had nothing to serve as an offering, he sold his own body and served his own marrow as an offering. Another story concerns a king of Jambudvīpa who once stabbed himself and served up his own blood in order to save a hungry demon. It is elsewhere said that in a previous life the Buddha revered people who had already realized the truth so much that he spread his hair over a muddy puddle so that they could walk over it. And finally, Makasatta, the third son of the king of Makara, is said to have once seen a mother tiger that was suckling seven cubs and was about to die of hunger, so he jumped off a cliff to feed the tiger his own body.

Reflecting on these ancient stories, Eka thought, "Those of old were like this, so what kind of person am I?” Students of today, we are reminded, should not forget this statement. When this is forgotten, even for an instant, we sink into eon upon eon of delusion.

As he thought such thoughts, Eka became more and more determined. This was possible because he had been cleansing himself of any self-serving motives or hidden agendas. Further, he did not see even this self-cleansing as a means to any end; he was becoming free from all ulterior motives.

To imagine what it was like that night, as dawn approached, is enough to break one’s heart. The hairs on one’s flesh bristle with cold and fear at the very thought. But unfortunately for poor Eka, that is where we need to leave him for now, cold and shivering in the waist-deep snow while waiting for Bodhidharma to acknowledge him, but with growing resolve and purity, until we can next pick up this story again.

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