Sunday, January 23, 2011

This weekend's zazenkai in Chattanooga went off wonderfully. We probably had 15 to 16 people present at the mid-afternoon height, at least half of whom were newcomers or attending the Chattanooga Center for the first time.

The success was entirely due to a team effort of the Chattanooga sangha, from organizing, to obtaining food, to publicity, and so on, but mostly the success was due to the sincere effort and earnest practice of all the participants.

I spent Saturday night at a Day's Inn in Chattanooga just a couple of blocks from the event and then led the Sunday morning service. For the dharma talk, I told the story of The First Zazenkai, which is basically the story of Bodhidharma and Eka from where we last left off:

Noble Eka, having traveled across the high mountains of eastern China in the cold of December, was standing in waist deep snow outside of Bodhidharma's cave, cold tears freezing to his face. Inside the cave, Bodhidharma was in deep shikantaza (just sitting), the natural state of an enlightened being. Zen Master Dogen tells us that practice is not to be considered the path to enlightenment, but that practice and enlightenment are one and the same thing, so it stands to reason that an enlightened person is naturally in a state of practice unless it's time to eat, or sleep, or answer nature when it calls. In other words, practice for an enlightened one is not something set aside in one's life, it is one's life and what one does unless there's something else that requires doing. So as there was nothing else for Bodhidharma to do in China, he sat, just sat, practicing shikantaza.

Meanwhile, as he waited outside, despite the hardship, despite the suffering, Eka began looking within himself and began to enter a state that could be called "just waiting;" that is, he began to let go off all aspirations and attachments and simply waited outside for Bodhidharma to recognize him, not for his own sake, not for any gain, but to continue the propagation of the buddhadharma for the sake of all living beings.

In this ignoring of Eka, it could be said, Bodhidharma had already started teaching him, and the two of them had already entered into a teacher-student relationship. For as Bodhidharma continued to sit in shikantaza, Eka strengthened his resolve while simultaneously letting go of any ambitions or ego attachments. It is this preliminary training, with the Master in deep shikantaza and the Student entering into practice, that I consider to be the first zazenkai - Master teaching student solely through the mutual practice of meditation.

But finally, at dawn, when the long cold night finally ended, the teacher emerged from the cave to verify his student's progress. Seeing him there, Bodhidharma took pity on Eka and asked, “What are you after, standing there in the snow for such a long time?” Thus questioned, his tears of sorrow falling in ever greater profusion, Eka said, “I simply ask that you, out of your great benevolence and compassion, open the gate to the sweet nectar so that I may ferry all beings to the Other Shore.” Having been answered in this way, Bodhidharma said, “The wondrous, unsurpassed way of all the Buddhas is to be most diligent over vast eons of time in ceaselessly practicing what is hard to practice and in ceaselessly enduring what seems beyond endurance. If you desire the true course whilst relying upon little virtue and less wisdom, or on a frivolous heart or on a prideful and conceited mind, surely you will toil in vain.” When he heard these words, Eka was by turns edified and encouraged.

But what happened next is a little hard to explain and likely even harder for us to understand. There are basically two versions of the next event, the blood-and-guts legendary version, the most common version of the story, and a more interpretive, politically correct version. I'll tell the legendary version first in all of it's blood-and-guts glory, and then the P.C. interpretation.

Eka, encouraged by Bodhidharma's words, knew he had to make one more demonstration to prove his worthiness to the Master. So, hidden from Bodhidharma's view, he secretly took out his keen-edged sword and with one quick stroke, cut off his left forearm. When he placed it before Bodhidharma, the Master saw that Eka was indeed a worthy vessel of the dharma and accepted him as his first student.

Now, that story is a little distasteful by modern standards as we tend not to consider self-mutilation as an activity that should be rewarded or as characteristic of an enlightened being. But it is not known how much of this story is factual and how much of it is legendary. The modern, interpretive version of the story focuses on the term "keen-edge sword" and considers it to be the figurative Keen-Edge Sword of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. The Keen-Edge Sword of Manjushri is a symbol for the wisdom that cuts through all delusion and separates us from dualistic thinking. So in this modern, P.C. interpretation, Eka is inspired by Bodhidharma's words to arouse wisdom and finally cut himself free from any last vestiges of clinging and grasping, figuratively represented by his left arm, and he then presents himself and his understanding to Bodhidharma for the Master's approval. This version of the story is more in accord with modern sensibilities and mores, but you're free to choose whichever version of the story suits your tastes.

In any event, upon his presentation to the Master, whatever it is that he actually did present, Bodhidharma remarked, "In their seeking the Way, all the Buddhas, from the first, have laid down their own bodies for the sake of the Dharma. Now you have cut yourself free right before me, which is proof that there is also good in what you are seeking.”

So, with these words, Bodhidharma accepted Eka as his first student. But very subtly, another profound thing also happened just there. Bodhidharma had sat in shikantaza for nine years in the cave as there was nothing else that needed to be done, and was willing and able to sit there for the rest of his life if it so came to pass. But now he had realized that Eka was a worthy vessel of the dharma and that there was now something else to do. So the narrative Next Thing has finally arrived in our story, although not necessarily for Bodhidharma, for our story of his life is not his life, it is our story.

But from that time on, Eka had entry to Bodhidharma's innermost private quarters. For the next eight years, he served as attendant to the Master through thousands of myriad endeavors. Truly, he was a great, reliable spiritual friend for both ordinary people as well as for those in loftier positions, and he was a great teacher of the Way.

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