Tuesday, July 29, 2014


So behold poor Tokusan, a once proud and pious scholar, a fierce and steadfast expert on the Diamond Sutra, brought low by his inability to answer a simple question from an elderly dumpling vendor on the road. He is now practicing under Ryūtan, a teacher of the very school of Buddhism that he had previously vowed to destroy.

Ryūtan blows out a candle, and Tokusan all at once experiences what he perceives as a great realization, and makes his bows to his teacher.  But as Zen Master Dogen, who presumably knows a thing or two about these matters, observes, "We see merely that his paper candle was blown out, which is not enough for the transmission of the torch."  His teacher, instead of validating his experience with some words such as "You are like this, I am like this, the Buddha and the Patriarchs are like this,"  instead just asks him "What have you seen?"  In other words, "Why the heck are you bowing?"

Contrast this to Hui-Neng's words when another fierce, steadfast monk, the monk Ming, had his moment of realization. Hui-Neng tells Ming, "You have realized your true self, and anything deeper belongs to you alone." When Ming says that from now on, Hui-Neng will be his teacher, Hui-Neng deflects the compliment and says that they both have Hongren as their teacher, and that Ming should hold fast to what he had learned from him.

But Ryūtan merely asks Tokusan, "What have you seen?" and Tokusan replies that he has seen that his teacher is never to be doubted.  Great.  He still hasn't found his own light, hasn't yet become a lamp unto himself as the Buddha was purported too have said  (Ryūtan's blowing out the candle was a way of telling Tokusan that  he had to find his own light in the darkness). Where he formerly relied too much on the scriptures of the Diamond Sutra, Tokusan was now relying too much on his teacher.  Just one substitute for his own light after another.

But Ryūtan, with almost inconceivable, grandmotherly kindness, does not tell him this, does not throw muddy water over Tokusan's enthusiasm, but instead goes along with his charade of "enlightenment."  Ryūtan  tells the assembly the next day that there is one among them who is fierce of spirit ("fangs like trees of swords" and so on) and steadfast in his pursuit ("strike him with a stick and he won't even look away"), and that someday Tokusan will himself become a great Zen teacher and the abbot of his own monastery.

Someday.  But, as Ryūtan did not add, just not yet.

The 13th Century chronicler Mumon considers the whole affair to have been nothing more than a farce.

2 comments:

Jo Hammers said...

Finding our individual paths and the lessons that grow like weeds or flowers on them, brings us to greater understandings. Your blog is a pop up flower on my path. Enjoyed the story. morningtalkswithjohammers.blogspot.com

Shokai said...

Thanks for the kind words!