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Grappling With the Green-eyed Monster

Sitting & Ritual, Study & Arts, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment

A long, long time ago there was a monk who had been working in the kitchen and then, overnight, was promoted to Abbot of a prestigious monastery. The retiring Abbot felt sure that this would cause a stir. So he sent the new Abbot on a journey, on a long walk, and told him not to come back for three years, to allow time for people to absorb the news. As expected, many of the other monks in the monastery were upset and actually set out in pursuit of the new Abbot.

Have you ever felt like one of the monks that went after the new Abbot? Have you ever thought, "who is this fool that landed that job?" Perhaps you have had the feeling that someone didn't deserve some special recognition they had received, or that they weren't qualified for some role for which they had been chosen. Maybe you have felt envy that someone you knew received a special gift. These days there is a lot of envy in the public discourse, people who are expressing dismay or upset or anger at the recognition given to others, or the gifts that are given to others. This is sometimes cloaked in "critique," or it is sometimes cloaked in "indignation." Yet, often, this is a form of envy.

Envy is defined by Merriam-Webster as, "the painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage." Notice that the smart folks who compile the dictionary mention that pain is involved. Notice that they also acknowledge that envy has to do with what we want for ourselves, regardless of whether we are actually able to obtain it. For this reason, envy has also been called "the green-eyed monster." When we are caught by envy, it can create suffering and states of mind that lead to other harmful thoughts and actions. Again, this seems to be clearly displayed in the public discourse, and occasionally even celebrated.

So how can one practice skillfully with envy? A teaching from Shantideva, the 8th Century Indian Buddhist scholar, comes to mind. He taught:

If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying?
If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?

That is, a skillful practitioner will recognize that envy is a judgement that rejects, or simply ignores the present state of things. A practitioner will recognize that envy is based in a story about how things "should" be, according to one's own point of view. Shantideva's teaching suggests a different approach. Instead of being caught by the story, simply consider the present moment and an appropriate response. Can you do something about it? If so, then there is no need for envy, because you can set about doing something.  Is there nothing you can do about it? If there is nothing that can be done, then there is even less reason to be caught by the story of what "should" be. You can simply see it as a figment of your imagination. Thus, a skillful approach to working with envy is to see that it is a feeling that arises because of inattention to the present reality.

But what happened to the new Abbot and his pursuers?

The dialogue that ensued when Huishun, the leader of the pursuing group, caught up to Huineng is recorded in the "Platform Sutra" and the collection of koans titled "No Barrier." Here is Thomas Cleary's translation:

When the Ancestor saw Huishun coming, he set down the robe and the bowl (that he had been given by the former Abbot as proof of his succession to Abbot of the monastery). He said to Huishun, "This robe symbolizes faith; could it be right to fight over it? You can take it away."

Huineng, 7th Century Chinese Ch'an Master

Huineng, 7th Century Chinese Ch'an Master

This act is itself a profound teaching. The robe symbolizes faith, because it was said to be the very robe that the Buddha gave to Mahakasyapa. Whether or not that is historically accurate is not as important as the fact that, for many people in and outside the monastery, the robe was dear. In fact, one way to think about any Zen robe, monastic or lay, is that it represents deep trust - the trust between the person who gave it and the person who received it, the trust of the person who gave it to the giver, and so on, stretching back for centuries.

However, the pivotal teaching that Huineng demonstrates with this act is that it is neither the robe nor the bowl that make him the Abbot. It is his unique, insightful expression of Dharma, his understanding of his own life as a teaching. So he can truthfully say that it is alright if someone else were to take the robe. The robe doesn't make the man, in this case or ever.  Yet someone who truly understands that, and can live that way, is unusual. We would do well to remember this when encountering Buddhist teachers, and people in every walk of life.

Returning to the story:

Huishun tried to pick up the robe but it was immovable, like a mountain. In fear, he said, "I have come for the teaching, not the robe. Please instruct me."

The pursuer has a sudden change of heart. He realizes that he cannot steal this venerated object from Huineng. He cannot steal the role of Abbot from Huineng. He cannot steal the Dharma from Huineng. So he wisely asks for the Dharma instead, even though he is feeling fearful. Perhaps it is this very recognition of his own fear that turns him toward the teaching. That would be a very skillful response, one that would reflect his years of practice.

The Abbot said, "Not thinking good, not thinking evil, right at this very moment, what is your original face?" 

This is the kernel of the koan. The first part of the question is a pointer that the response is one that is free of dualistic judgments, one that sets aside the mentality of dividing things or people into right and wrong. It points to the mind that recognizes the inherent harmony of all things, which is always present because they are all inter-dependent.

The second part of the question is a pointer to the immediacy of the response. It is not something that requires long years of study, though it may be informed by them, but rather emerges spontaneously in the present. That is to say, we live in the moment now, and the moment now is fully imbued with that which we are seeking. It is not something that awaits far off in the future.

The last part of the question tells us what kind of expression the Abbot is trying to elicit. He asks to see Huishun's "original face," sometimes also known as "your face before your parents were born." That is, Huineng is asking Ming to demonstrate his buddanature, the great activity which perfectly resolves all conditions in every moment. It is a function that is completely neutral, beyond any concept of right and wrong, though not obstructing either right or wrong.

In tears, Huishun bowed and asked, "Is there any meaning beyond the esoteric intent of the esoteric words you have just spoken?" The Abbot replied, "What I have just told you is not esoteric. If you turn your attention around to your own state, the secret is after all in you." 

From Huishun's reply it is clear that he has not fully penetrated the Abbot's question. In this case "esoteric" means "secret" or" hidden." Huishun's question implies that he has just received some special teaching from the Huineng. Huishun believes he has now become an "insider." Immediately correcting this misunderstanding, Huineng tells him that he is the "secret teaching" that he seeks. This is true for all of us.

The special gift, the special recognition that we seek is already ours. Practice is to give it to ourselves. It is simply a matter of turning our attention to align with inherent awareness. Then there is no longer any need to feel envious of someone else things or their role. You yourself have the most precious thing, the highest, most perfect Dharma. Though there are secret ceremonies and teachings you have not yet heard, those things will not, in and of themselves, enlighten you. There is no secret handshake or password that will make you a Buddha. You are already of the nature of Buddha, but when you look for it to come from somewhere else, you won't find it. If you try to steal it from someone, you rob yourself of the chance to express it. 

Does this mean that there aren't people who are unqualified for their jobs, or who have received a gift that you might like to have? No, it may actually be the case. However, even when that is true, you cannot take anything that is truly valuable from someone else. That is, the most valuable thing in the world is the Dharma, and only you can find your own Dharma, with the support and trust of those who devote their lives to pointing it out to you. Having found the Dharma and living from that place, you can find a skillful, pain-free response to a world that is subjectively imperfect. 

In the end, Huishun told Huineng, "You are my teacher."

May we all find our teachers, inward and outward and everywhere, so that we might vanquish the green-eyed monster within.