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Your Venerable State

Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

In recent days I’ve had quite a few encounters with the inescapable sufferings of illness, aging and death. While there are many Buddhist teachings about these experiences, one in particular stands out to me lately. It is the koan of Master Ma. The case goes likes this:

Master Ma was unwell. The Head Monk came to him and asked, “How is your venerable state these days?” Master Ma replied, “Sun-face Buddha, Moon-face Buddha.”

The student’s question can also be understood as, “What is your condition?” or “How are you?” It may be an inquiry into the Master’s health, into his awakening, or into his enlightened nature. The Master’s response incorporates a reference to the Sutra of Buddha Names in which it is said that the Sun-face Buddha lives for 1800 years, and the Moon-face Buddha lives for one day and one night. So it’s easy to interpret this dialogue to mean that the Student is inquiring about whether the Master’s awakening is intact, and the Master responds with a phrase that means that whether he lives for a long time or a short time, he will always be a Buddha.
However, that view might not reflect the teaching of this dialogue. First, it’s helpful to investigate the practice of a Buddha. What is the practice of a Buddha? Whether long-lived or short-lived, a Buddha’s practice is to point all beings toward their true nature, and to embody true nature. This means that a Buddha is practicing all the time, demonstrating an awakening life by living an awakening life.

Moon over Mount Diablo

Moon over Mount Diablo


Next, it’s helpful to investigate sickness and death. What is the practice that is appropriate to sickness and death? Shakyamuni Buddha instructed his disciples to study sickness, aging, and death as a means of developing insight. Specifically, he encouraged them to study corpses and places where cremations took place. To what end? According to the Buddha, studying the inevitable decay of the body would offer insight into impermanence and, therefore, into the teaching of no self. It would also lessen the practitioner's concern with the appearance of the body.

So, putting all that together, I believe that Master Ma’s reply actually means something like, “Whether for a short time or a long time, illness is simply something else to practice with when you are a Buddha, which is right now.” That is to say, any kind of suffering is simply something else to practice with because you are already with the capacity to realize Buddhahood.

This kind of insight is invaluable. This is Right View. The problems of your life are simply the material for your practice. And the joys of your life are equally material for your practice. It is up to you to turn them in that way.

It brings to mind a time many years ago when my daughter taught me a lesson. She was about seven years old, and had taken to giving her best friend her belongings. Shoes, toys, books, clothes – all ended up at Alicia’s house. And I, as the purchaser of those items, was a bit distressed about it. I wondered why my daughter didn’t have enough shoes, when I’d gone to the trouble of buying her plenty of them.

 

So, one day, I sat her down and asked her why she was giving away her things. Without saying so, I wondered whether she didn’t like the things I was buying her, or whether perhaps Alicia’s family didn’t have enough money to buy her shoes. My daughter’s reply was astonishing. She said, “Mommy, to me, those are just my old shoes or toys that I don’t even play with anymore but, to Alicia, they are a gift. It makes her happy.” I was speechless. Here was my daughter talking about practicing sympathetic joy, one of the four Sublime Abodes, while I worried about the details! In one sentence my seven year old had reminded me that I could choose to see life as a problem or as a practice.


And so it was with Master Ma, who told his disciple not to worry about his illness, but to practice with it. I try to walk in his shoes even today.

 

Trusting in Mind

Study & Arts, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment
There is no path that comes from anything but sincere trust.
— Eihei Dogen Zenji

So many of the messages we hear these days are based in a severe lack of trust. They are intended to arouse suspicion and fear, and to rally the spending of vast resources on fighting and defending against future fights. Stated in this manner, it may be obvious that this state of affairs is not optimal. Yet how to develop trust? 

The story of the Buddha's teaching for Kisa Gotami is one which speaks to just this question. Her story is recorded in the "Theri Gatha," the stories of the foremost nuns, women Arhats, of the Buddha's time. It is a compendium of their "gatha" or teaching verses. 

The young woman Gotami lived in Savatti, and she was of the lowest caste. She was very poor and thin, and thus came to be called Kisa or "haggard" Gotami. It happened that she and a wealthy merchant fell in love and were married. Their relationship was a joy, but the man's parents hated Kisa Gotami because she of her impoverished state. 

Eventually they conceived a child together, and Kisa Gotami gave birth to a boy. Then the in-laws were happy with her, and respected her as the mother of their son's heir.The story that is recorded says that she "felt a great burden was lifted" when her husband's family began to treat her more kindly.

However, the baby boy died very suddenly, and Kisa Gotami was overcome with grief. She felt not only the grief of a parent losing a child, but also was filled with fear at what her in laws and her husband would do and say to her. So she simply refused to accept that the child had died.

Carrying the child's body from house to house, she went around asking for medicine for the baby. This kind of absolute denial could be viewed as a form of mental illness, and many people scorned her or simply tried to ignore her. Some simply said that medicine would not help a dead baby. However, one person showed compassion for her. Although we don't know this person's name, they did a wonderful and powerful thing for Gotami, and for all of us who hear this teaching today. This person suggested that Kisa Gotami go visit "the ultimate physician," Shakyamuni Buddha. He would be able to help her.

So Kisa Gotami, still carrying the child, set out for the Jeta Grove where the Buddha was staying and teaching, at Anathapindika's monastery. He was giving a discourse when she arrived, but she interrupted saying, "Please give me medicine for my child." The Buddha replied, "I know of a medicine." Then he instructed her to obtain a small number of mustard seeds from any household in which there had not been a death.

Kisa Gotami set off again and, arriving at the first house, asked whether they had mustard seeds and whether she could have a few of them. The people said, yes, of course they had the seeds and would be willing to give her some. Then Kisa Gotami asked whether there had been a death in this family's household, thinking that this was the less significant of the two conditions the Buddha had set. The family replied, yes, of course, there had been many deaths in their family over time. So Gotami said she could not accept the seeds from them, and would go on to another family. Diligently she went from house to house, until she finally realized that there was no family in which there had not been a death. Everyone had experienced losses; there would be no mustard seeds for the Buddha. At last, she realized that death is a part of our shared human experience, and that her own child had died. She took care of the child's body, and returned to the Buddha to become a nun and eventually a fully realized teacher.

There are many, many lessons in this poignant story, but the one I want to raise up today is about trust. Gotami went to the Buddha in the belief that he could help her and her child. She put her trust in him and in his instructions. The Buddha did not fail her. but he did not need her to trust in him. He turned her trust, so that she would realize the teaching for herself. He didn't lecture her about impermanence, no self, or karma. He didn't promise eternal life. He simply relied on her faith in him to propel her on her own path of inquiry into the true nature of things, a path on which she could come face-to-face with the reality of life and death, and with the willingness of others to help.

Thus, one very important lesson of this story is that the mind of inquiry is a very powerful thing. It can help us to develop trust in our ability to respond skillfully to the events of our lives. It can reveal truths about the nature of life that we may not be ready, or able to accept in other ways. It can impel us on the path of practice, and it can bring us into a more intimate relationship with the people, places and things of our world. In intimate relationship to all things, we begin to trust in the teachings of impermanence and karma and transformation. No wonder Zen practice places so much emphasis on the mind of inquiry.

How touching, though, is Kisa Gotami's verse on this teaching after her realization.

The Sage has emphasized and praised noble friendship for the world. If one stays with a noble friend, even a fool will become a wise person. Stay with those of good heart, for the wisdom of those who stay with them grows, and while one is staying with them, from every kind of ‘dukkha’ is freed.

In these words we hear Kisa Gotami's appreciation for Dharma friendships and for the Buddha's teaching. We hear her speak of finding her own wisdom and solacement and, most importantly, of the value of friendship with the world. This friendship is itself a form of trust, the trust in one's ability to be fully present for life, no matter what painful or joyful conditions might arise.

May each of you find your own friendship with the kind-hearted and with the world, and may you trust in this very life, which is a path of realization.