rohatsu highlights 4: the unnamed buddhas

Elder Ting asked Lin-chi,
“Master, what is the great meaning of Buddha’s teachings?”
Lin-chi came down from his seat, slapped Ting and pushed him away.
Ting was stunned and stood motionless.
A monk nearby said, “Ting, why do you not bow?”
At the moment Ting bowed, he awakened.

Enkyo roshi told this story and I expected the direction to be something about being one with the bow.  Or maybe that asking impertinent questions only gets you smacked by Old Guys. Or something about the Noble Trueness of being Lin-chi which is license to behave with disconstraint.  Instead she said, “Isn’t it interesting to see all the unnamed buddhas in our lives who speak up and bring us to our practice.”  (That’s not verbatim; remember I’m still in Rohatsu fog.)  The point was that Elder Ting would not have crossed to the other shore without the gentle nudge of the anonymous bodhisattva on the sidelines.  I would add that Elder Ting also would not have awakened if his own body had not responded out of a deep training that now made it instinctive to surrender the ego.

I’ve come to love this story for all its many layers of humility and humanness.  I imagine Elder Ting practising diligently every morning.  He gets up in the dark to brush off the mats, prepare the altar, and arrange the flowers placed there the night before and now slightly wilting from the cold.  His robes fall to the floor from the bones of his shoulders, hanging disconsolate from age and weather.  He is a man proud of his efforts and his years of digging into the dharma; and yet, there is something that eludes him.  There in the candle wick that catches from the ember he holds to it, there in the incense tip that flames then settles into a glow.  It eludes him.  He sweeps his arms out and closes the palms together in gassho.  He drops to his knees and prostrates, fully embracing the earth under him.  Over and over, making no assumptions that his age or accumulated wisdom release him from this act of humility.  Somewhere in this flow, he believes, is the essence of the teachings.  And yet, it eludes him.  Moment after moment, day after day, year after year, he practises, believing that this great meaning of the Buddha’s teachings will reveal itself.  I wonder if he didn’t begin to feel a dryness in the repeated actions, if that doesn’t underlie the question he posed to Master Linchi, “What is the great meaning of the Buddha’s teachings?”

This is just my take on it and, much of it, my projection into the creature, Ting.  I can empathize fully with the sting of Lin-chi’s slap.  Been there, got it, sold the rights to that story.  But I never noticed the miracle that happened right after.

Elder Ting is standing there stunned.  How could this be?  I can imagine (projecting again): After all I’ve practised?  After all I’ve done?  After what I’ve accomplished?  WTF!  (I’m wondering about the Chinese characters for WTF.)  This a door knob moment.  This is a take-my-marbles-home moment.  But before he can exhale into that retreat, the unnamed buddha speaks up.  He moves into the pivotal space between the in- and out-breath.  “Why don’t you bow, Elder Ting?”  Yes.  Why don’t you simply do what you have been practising all along lo these many years?  Your mind has recoiled but your body has not.  It knows what is needed to meet this moment authentically.

Is it Elder Ting who bows?

Is it the universe of invisible and unnamed buddhas he embodied in that moment?

It occurs to me that I didn’t get here alone.  Caught in the sting of Lin-chi’s slap, I tend to forget that.  With the generosity of all the unnamed buddhas, I return to practice.

Thank you, all you unnamed and invisible buddhas, for practising,


3 thoughts on “rohatsu highlights 4: the unnamed buddhas

  1. I love your fleshing out of the story. And no I wouldn’t have guessed the point of the story but such an important one. And yes isn’t that it, as you end the story, something kicks in and the fruits of our training produce a response.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful exploration of Elder Ting’s unique moment.

    I wonder how constrained we (speaking collectively) are by our notions of humility. The humble person is, perhaps, mild and meek, quiet and unassuming.

    But, as I sit with your telling, I don’t see Elder Ting as operating within these conventional notions of humility. Actually, when he asked his question, he was perhaps then functioning within convention. But, with the encouragement of his fellow, he stepped beyond convention to respond to what was required of him in that moment.

    Perhaps that’s all that humility is: our willingness to give ourselves up to the moment. Was Linchi humble when he struck the elder?

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