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Kannon (Guan Yin)

Right Mindfulness, Cont.

The Chan attitude is one of respect for other religions. Those of us who select Chan Buddhism do so because it offers a path which suits our particular needs. Most of us reject religious ga-ga, supernatural hocus pocus, hellfire and brimstone, star-ordained destinies, reincarnated 'channels' and all the other questionable tenets of popular faiths which include, of course, many varieties of Buddhism.

This does not mean that because we reject certain forms of worship we can reject the worshippers. Sri Ramakrishna, the great Indian saint of modern Vedanta, was once asked to comment upon the licentiousness of certain 'lefthanded' tantric worshippers. Though the men and women involved would have qualified for flogging in most civilized countries, Ramakrishna refused to condemn them, explaining that each man must approach God from where he is at the moment he makes his decision to approach God. Wherever he is, he must work his way forward from there. And those ahead of him must look back compassionately, appreciating as they do the greatness of any distance between a man and his salvation.

'God bless you' is a very Buddhist thing to say. And any man who cannot bow reverently before a statue of old Shakyamuni or show a Crucifix proper respect is too arrogant for his own good.

The Chan attitude also requires us to live in the present, to accept what we have with good grace without always scheming to alter events in order to provide for a more profitable or enjoyable future. The most famous story in all of Chan literature concerns just such an attitude:

A man of Chan was walking along the ledge of a high mountain path when he was suddenly confronted by a tiger. To escape, he grabbed hold of a sapling and lowered himself over the edge of the precipice. While he clung there - the snarling mouth of the tiger a few feet above him and the base of the cliff a quarter-mile below him - he felt the sapling's roots slowly begin to tear away. He could find no foothold or anything else to grab. As he dangled there, wondering what he should do next, he noticed a strawberry growing out of a cleft. He picked it and ate it and remarked that especially considering the time of year, it was particularly sweet.

This old story illustrates the Chan attitude of living in or concentrating on the present moment, of being so secure in our salvation that we can find happiness in whatever circumstance we find ourselves, even including the prospect of imminent death. We accept misfortunes which we are powerless to change and try to focus our attention on those natural pleasures which make our Buddhist Way so beautiful. Death is an ineluctable fact of life but dissatisfaction with the present moment is self-inflicted misery, a kind of chronic death during life instead of at an acute conclusion of it.

Chan is power. Skill in our Chan practice is the means by which we acquire or insure an abiding Chan attitude. If, for example, we are hungry and we have no immediate access to food, or we are experiencing other kinds of pain, we can meditate our way out of distress. We need not sit and whine. Sexual urgings, otherwise unmanageable, can be harnessed through "conservative" Daoist yoga or Buddhist tantra. The problem then becomes a marvelous solution. If we are cold, concentration upon the fire chakra can warm us pleasurably. The laws of physics are somewhat difficult to break. At least until we are safely into the Tenth World' Void, we cannot fly, levitate, walk on water or through walls. But we can get control of our senses and we can conquer fear. Our religion offers us the sublime power of ecstasy; and anyone who can experience ecstasy is usually not all that desirous of penetrating concrete.

The control we require is limited to these ordinary and quite pedestrian challenges. There is a story about the Buddha who once, while waiting for a ferry, was challenged by another guru's servant. "My master," bragged the servant, "could have crossed this river alone. He trained himself for many years until he acquired the power to walk on water." The Buddha looked at the penny fare he held in his hand. "Why," he asked, "would he expend so much effort in acquiring something he could purchase so cheaply?"

Peace, joy and freedom are powers available to anyone who dedicates himself to his Chan practice... peace despite peril, joy despite loss, freedom despite the most wretched constraints.

In other popular forms of Buddhism, the attitude of the man of Chan who found himself hanging over the edge of a cliff would have been different. The man would likely have experienced concern for his past deeds and his next life. He would have damned the tiger as an evil agent of Mara. The contemplation of a strawberry's sensory pleasure would have seemed, at such a critical moment, rather indecent. Not so in Chan. If the last nice thing between us and destruction is a strawberry, so be it. We are then obliged to deal in sweetness.

This attitude did not originate in Mahayana Buddhism. It is pure Chan in that it is derived directly from Daoism. In John Wu and Thomas Merton's excellent translation of Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu) we find:

"The man through whom the Dao flows freely harms no one but never thinks of himself as gentle. The man through whom the Dao flows freely doesn't worry about the future but never criticizes others who do. He's not ambitious to make money but doesn't make a virtue of being poor. He goes his way without depending on others but doesn't take pride in being independent. Fame and wealth don't tempt him and he shrugs off insults and rude treatment. Above all, he never makes judgments about what is good and what is evil. According to ancient wisdom, 'The man of Dao is transparent. Perfect virtue leaves no residue. The greatest man is Nobody.'"

Perhaps Chan's most revealing glimpse of the attitude of sainthood is found in Japanese Zen's charming story of the monk Tozan Osho, a version of which is found in Katsuki Sekida's "Zen Training":

The Buddhist monk Tozan Osho was so kind and selfless that his holy ways brought him great fame, a fame which spread to heaven, itself. God, hearing of this gentle monk, grew curious and decided to come to earth to have a look at him. But when God arrived at Tozan Osho's monastery He discovered that the monk, being so unstained by ego, was made of the same pure Mind substance as Himself! And, as the eye cannot see itself, God could not see Tozan Osho! Not wishing to have come such a distance for nothing, God formed a plan. He waited until nightfall and while the monk slept, He entered the granary, removed a bushel of rice and scattered it all over the courtyard. Then He waited. In the morning when the gentle monk came outside and saw the waste he exclaimed, "Oh, who could have done such a terrible thing!" And in that instant God got a look at Tozan Osho.

The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 15: Right Mindfulness: Page 2 of 2

Last modified: July 11, 2004
©1996 Ming Zhen Shakya (Chuan Yuan Shakya)