no form, no stinginess

From the Bodhidharma Anthology by Jeffrey Broughton: Entering the path through practice – Dharma.

The fourth and final practice of entering the path is to see the Dharma in its subtle nature.

The Dharma substance has no stinginess; in terms of your life and property, practice giving, your mind free of parsimony.

We tend to live a life of constant negotiations.  Giving and taking.  Giving only if there is recompense.  I came across this quote and saw the fullness of generosity is in everything we are.

“I was not aware of the moment when I first crossed the threshold of this life. What was the power that made me open out into this vast mystery like a bud in the forest at midnight? When in the morning I looked upon the light I felt in a moment that I was no stranger in this world, that the inscrutable without name and form had taken me in its arms in the form of my own mother. Even so, in death the same unknown will appear as ever known to me. And because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well. The child cries out when from the right breast the mother takes it away to find in the very next moment its consolation in the left one”.  Tagore

Thank you for all you give to your world.

letting go of holding on

From the Bodhidharma Anthology by Jeffrey Broughton: Entering the path through practice – seeking nothing.

The sutra says: “Seeking is all suffering; seeking nothing is joy.”

I love the twists and turns of this third practice.  Seek nothing.  This is joy.  Yet joy is one of the worldly winds that blow up the dust storms!  Gotcha!

And yet.  And yet…

Much of our path has likely been laid down by seeking and joy in the finding.  Now here’s the part we forget: it’s also tamped down by the letting go and the losing.

Broughton footnotes a story about Merit and Darkness who are sisters.  They travel together and it is not possible to invite one in without the other.  Nor is it possible to drive one away without the other leaving too.  While I like this fable, it only addresses the extremes of our clinging and aversion.  To stretch the metaphor, we can’t shine the light on one segment of our path without casting others into darkness.  Practice requires attention not only to our clinging to the lit path and aversion to the dark beyond but also to the edge where light meets dark.  This is liminal ground where transformation occurs; its presence in awareness is constantly negotiated by our open-heartedness.

In my own practice, I try (oh, I try and try) to stay with the transitions between light and dark, earth and air, heaven and hell.  The extreme manifestations are no-brainers to meet and resolve.  It’s the sliding away and into from one to the other and back again that calls for a deeper commitment.  This is where a rigid holding on to what is, what it must become, what it cannot emerge as results in suffering.

This practice of not seeking, wishing for nothing, is a practice of unhooking from a specific outcome, untying the knot that keeps us chained to the shifting winds of fortune.  It is in the merging and emerging of lightness and darkness.

winds of joy, light at my feet

From Bodhidharma Anthology by Jeffrey Broughton: Entering through practice – equanimity

The second entrance to the path is through the practice of following conditions or (Red Pine) adapting to conditions.  

(S)entient beings lack a self and are all whirled around by conditions and karma; suffering and joy are to be equally accepted, for both arise from conditions.

When life throws up these dust storms that blind me or the days grow darker and darker, my support circles point to the light at the end of the tunnel.  I understand that in their love for us and their wish to speed up the journey through the dark or bumpy parts, they’d like us to look into the distance and grasp that this experience is impermanent.  However, it’s a risky process which can carry us too quickly away from the reality of what is right here.

The light at the end of the tunnel is actually more useful when it shines right here in tunnel at my feet.  

Bodhidharma’s teachings suggest that we are vulnerable to being swept away by the winds of joy and the dust storms of suffering.  To attach to each one unduly makes no sense because the conditions that created them are not sustainable.  (Oh yes, I can definitely continue to make myself miserable but that’s not the same misery I started out with.  Check it out for yourself!)  To reject either unconsciously is dangerous because this creates a loss of intimacy with ourselves and others.  To become confused about the origins of them is pointless because the causes and conditions lie in an intricate and oft-times tangled web of action and reaction.

Unmoved by the winds of joy*, one is mysteriously in accordance with the path.

Now you may thank that this reduces you to zombie-like blob, careening off the walls and lamp posts of your path.  At their extreme, all statements are untenable and likely false.  To be unmoved is to be steady in the experience of joy, to be connected deeply with it.  So deeply that there is a spaciousness that arises which can contain the entire spectrum of variability in each joy, sorrow, contentment, pain, love, and anguish.

The adaptability we practice is not to the great brush strokes of impermanence.  It is to the rhythmic variation in the winds of joy and woe.

Auguries of Innocence
William Blake 

It is right it should be so:
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

*”Winds of Joy here may refer to the eight winds or eight worldly conditions.  For a brilliant story read here.

requited injury

Continuing with the Bodhidharma Anthology by Jeffrey Broughton: Entering by practice.

This is the second way to enter the path.  Having established ourselves in the practice through principle, we have four ways to enter the path through practice.  The first is the practice of requiting injury or (Red Pine) suffering injustice.

I don’t like this practice.  It requires me to give up my self-rightness.  You read that correctly.  I am frequently right.  And when I’m not, I use all my left-brain power of data crunching to baffle-gab you with statistics so that you can’t deny that – at the very least – I am a formidable foe.  Some time back a friend sent me this amazing photo.  It pretty much sums up my reaction to being unjustly treated.  Don’t you just love it?  I know you’re not like that at all.  You probably meet injustice exactly the way Bodhidharma says you should, by letting go of  – unrequiting – the injury.

Actually, of the two translations, I do prefer Jeffrey Broughton’s version to Red Pine’s “suffering injustice.”  It feels less like I’d run the risk of being a doormat.  And in that little snippet is the truth of needing to defend madly against injustice (perceived or real).  There is a fear that if I let this one in, a legion of injustices will rampage through the door.

However, to face the injustice, to look deeply into its causes and conditions reveals things about me that I may not want to know.  Bodhidharma teaches that the cause of present injustice lies in the myriad unknowable actions I partook of in the past.  I’m not much of an adherent to the theory of direct karmic consequences but it is worth while reflecting on the ways in which I was one of the motley characters in the drama of my ego’s demise.  

The sutra says: “When you meet suffering, do not be sad.  Why?  Because you comprehend the underlying reason behind it.”

That opens up many doors of discernment, doesn’t it?  The underlying reasons can be as simple as blind dumb luck or being in the wrong place at the right time to learn a lesson about mindfulness.  In my case, it’s more likely being delusional about the level of power I hold that seems to confer a sense of invincibility or rightness to my actions.  

When (the above) thought arises, one is yoked with principle.

You remember “principle” from yesterday’s post: all beings are “identical to the True Nature” and we are blinded to this by the dust storms in our heart; that is supposed to mitigate our choices of the wrong-headed path.  However, it’s probably more likely that because we are blinded to the reality of our interconnections, we act in ways that create injustice and suffering.  Regardless, the arising of a perception of injustice is a powerful mindful bell of this reality of interconnectedness.  

The take-away lesson is that if I don’t learn this the good karma way, I will get a chance to learn it the tough karma way.

blowing away the covering of adventitious dust

From the Bodhidharma Anthology by Jeffrey Broughton, Text 2: Two Entrances

Now, in entering the path there are many roads.  To summarize them, they reduce to two types.  The first is entrance by principle and the second entrance by practice.  Entering by principle means that one awakens to the thesis by means of the teachings, and one deeply believes that all living beings, common and sagely, are identical to the True Nature; that it is merely because of the unreal covering of adventitious dust that the True Nature is not revealed.

Bodhidharma continues, saying that “wall-gazing” or “those who meditate on walls (Red Pine)” come to this realization that we are, none of us, different or separate from each other.  

I’ve read this passage over and over.  It makes sense; it doesn’t make sense.  I know it but I don’t sense into it.  I know it as I sense into it.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve sat with the question of my path.  What is it?  What is its form, its content, its texture, its sound, taste, touch, smell?  I am well-enough versed in the zennish jargon to spin some yarn around this questioning.  And I’m sufficiently high-functioning in my delusional process to believe it – and skillful enough to draw you into a folie à deux.  And then it hit me: it’s all dust.

There’s nothing to resolve.  I’m dust.  You’re dust.  We all fall down!

Earlier last week, I was consulting with a friend whose profession comes in very handy when I need to have tight-lipped conversations about threat assessment and ways to create safety.  (Apparently hiring a hunk of a body-guard is not part of the plan!)  I mentioned that all this talk about threat and protective strategies ran counter to my principles.  As difficult as it may be, I work hard at not launching my strategies from a base of fear.  That path of gut-wrenching anxiety, fear, is well-known and not one I care to travel because it’s viral and an accelerant to an already volatile and unpredictable process.

Besides, I understand what’s happening in this dynamic.  We respond from our suffering and project its cause on the nearest, closest, most intimate target, I explained.  Caught in our delusion, we believe the suffering to be the threat and conflate it with the person we believe is causing that suffering.  It’s handy.  It’s the adventitious dust that grinds into the eyeballs and has us shaking a fist to the Fates and all beings.  If there is any difference between me and the other, it is only in the shape of the dust piles.

And a resolution only needs one of us to know this.

carving bodhidharma

Mind is like the wood or stone from which a person carves an image. If he carves a dragon or a tiger, and seeing it fears it, he is like a stupid person creating a picture of hell and then afraid to face it. If he does not fear it, then his unnecessary thoughts will vanish. Part of the mind produces sight, sound, taste, odor and sensibility, and from them raises greed, anger and ignorance with al] their accompanying likes and dislikes.


Have a good weekend staring down the carvings of your fears!

tracking godot

Book Review of Tracking Bodhidharma: A journey to the heart of Chinese culture by Andy Ferguson.

Of Bodhidharma and the roots of Zen, Heinrich Dumoulin writes, “Faithful and scholars alike have a heart for exploring origins. (p.85)”  It is inescapable that the conundrum of the shady past of Zen and its growth as a powerful religious entity would lead to many searches of the provenance of its founder.  Historians and scholars have long sought the legitimacy of Zen in its characters and temples and their labours still have Zen teachers casting a leftward glance down when confronted with the gaps in its lineage.

At my most irreverent, I think we need a Zen version of “The Book of Mormon.”  It would play off-off-Broadway with catchy tunes like “Have a cuppa eyelid tea!”  and “Tap dancing without my left shoe.”  Of course, the central character would be a grizzled old sage (about 1000 years old) who came from India, landed in South China, and meandered his way to the North.  He would be an equal-opportunity iconoclast, taking on sycophants and political officials alike.  And, in the closing scene, he would thumb his nose at the audience and make a Cinderella exit, leaving a threadbare slipper center stage.

Dumoulin and Red Pine, my two primary biographic sources of Bodhidharma’s life, are unequivocal that the legend is hard to separate from fact.  While there is a trail of evidence that suggests Bodhidharma came to China, the documentation (basically three texts composed of  what are likely second-hand accounts and post-hoc additions) is wobbly in its reliability.  However, we do love our legends and even the inimitable Dumoulin caves to accredit them by saying he knows of “no Japanese historian of Zen (who) has denied the historicity of Bodhidharma.” (p.89)  

So, with that being the best I have for establishing the provenance of Zen’s most mysterious character, I found Tracking Bodhidharma by Andy Ferguson an intriguing – if sometimes frustrating – read.  Ferguson brings to the book a solid background of Chinese language and literature; even better, he leads trips to Chinese Zen historical sites.  In his writing, he projects an interesting image of someone dedicated to learning from an ancient culture yet hesitant to connect through the unavoidable Western style of questioning everything.  It forms a fascinating mix for the barely-informed reader and rather ignorant Zen student (myself; your lineage in Zen may be longer) who is nevertheless a True Believer in the existence of Bodhidharma.  While that part of me was intrigued by the quest to find Bodhidharma, my own shady past as an art conservator chafed at the thready inferences of the existence of Zen’s founder.

Ferguson stakes his intention in the footpath of his journey immediately.  Tracking Bodhidharma is important to understand the trajectory and influence of the man on the vast culture of East Asia.  Tracking Bodhidharma is also a “personal journey” to explore the “origins and significance” of the Buddhist tradition in which Ferguson himself has practiced for decades.  Powerful intentions.  If they are not fully realized, given the scope of the topic and convolutions of negotiating travel through a very different culture, one can be very forgiving.

The journey is not an easy one.  Ferguson takes us through details of trying to get around in China; an image of a land of contradictions and stochastic interactions suffuses the pages.  Thankfully he speaks the language and understands the culture because the quest jumps from temple to temple, region to region.  As if tracking the author in real space/time, the narrative does a lot jumping: from historical detail to personal reverie, from politics to religious philosophy.  It’s not necessarily a bad technique to cover centuries and mileage; I certainly enjoyed learning about the layout of temples and the significance of the different halls of worship.  It was also interesting to read of the ramifications of the political upheaval of the Communist era.  The later links Ferguson draws of the risks in alliances between faith leaders and political agendas are also interesting.  The chapters on Emperor Wu and other figures of his court and the descriptions of Shaolin Temple and Bodhidharma’s cave are fascinating.  Yet, like Samuel Beckett’s wayfarers in Waiting for Godot, I wait for Bodhidharma to show up, all the while listening to the play between Ferguson’s text and my own convictions about this figure we’re both sure exists.

Dealing with a figure made of our desires to have a hook in the past makes Ferguson’s job difficult.  Just as it was for all who went before him, the evidence is meager and it is hard not to get caught in a circularity of inferences.  Ferguson explains that Bodhidharma refused to align with any political figure; his predecessor got in trouble for doing so and vowed never to do that again.  So, Bodhidharma must have received that wisdom from his predecessor (hence proving his existence?).  Of course, we had yet to establish through his evidence that Bodhidharma existed in the first place for the sequence to unfold.  In another chapter, Ferguson appeals to a scholar’s logic that persecutions in one area would have been a good rationale for monastics to move to Nanjing …and that gives weight to the hypothesis that Bodhidharma taught in Nanjing (he would have moved there during the persecutions).  Compelling but not quite the line of argumentation that is typical of establishing the existence of a historical character.  (I know I’m being pedantic and picky to boot but it does stall the story.)

Nevertheless, the book is rich with detail and works wonderfully as a personal travelogue.  Intricacies of getting to temples, staying there, and practicing there are richly described.  As for the “journey,” I would have liked more of Ferguson’s own inner landscape woven into the external ones he painted for us sitting in historically rich mountains and sites some of us may never visit.  And perhaps that was my personal difficulty: I kept wanting a dharma talk when he arrived at many of these sites.  We are, after all, on the trail of the Patriarch, the fellow who set the standard for practice, who gave no quarter on issues of integrity and devotion to the realization of bodhicitta.  Ferguson’s passion, as evidenced by his histo-politico statements, suggests he has the chops to pull off a paragraph or two linking his quest to the Bloodstream Sermon.

In end, “Buddhas don’t save buddhas.”  The true search for Bodhidharma may be a deeply personal one that we complete only when we find our own true nature.  So however you realize your quest, Tracking Bodhidharma will certainly give you many layers in which to seek it out.  Like all quests, it takes a tremendous effort to dig in the mythological while trying to do justice to the historical.  Ferguson is certainly commended for the attempt.