Four perspectives on Zen to hold in mind Barry Magid February 13th 2021

This morning I’d like to offer some commentary on four lines from the Sandokai which sometimes gives people difficulty.

Ordinary life fits the absolute as a box and its lid.
The absolute works together with the relative like two arrows meeting in mid-air.
Reading words you should grasp the great reality.
Do not judge by any standards.

I thought we could approach these lines somewhat obliquely by way of a story told about Layman Pang. He apparently lived around the 8th century in China, the time of the Golden Age of Zen that’s recorded in the koan collections. He is said to have been a wealthy merchant who was able to devote his time to studying Zen under the great Master Baso. It’s said that he went to Baso asking, Where can I find a man who is not entangled by the ten thousand things in the world? Baso replied, I’ll tell you when you swallow the West River in one gulp. With this, Pang was enlightened.

If that itself seems mysterious, perhaps we could think of it in terms of him saying, How can I disentangle myself from all the things of the world, being a rich man? And Baso’s reply was something like, Don’t try to disentangle yourself from those things of the world. Become one with the world. Swallow the world, swallow the river with one gulp. Eliminate any separations between you and the world.

So Pang became one of the archetypes of lay practice in the classical texts along with Vimalakirti, a model of how even a layman could achieve enlightenment. It’s said that Pang, after his realization, put all his wealth onto a raft and set it out into the river and sank it. For some reason his wife didn’t kill him and his family stuck by him even when he made himself poor and then became, I believe, a basket weaver or a sandal maker. In any case this is a somewhat round-about introduction to the story of a monk who comes to Layman Pang for instruction.

The monk approached the Pang family to see what they could teach him about the practice of Zen. He asked Layman Pang, Tell me, is Zen hard or easy? Layman Pang replied, Very difficult, like throwing a stick trying to hit the moon. As you hear the rest of this story, try to hold in mind those four lines from the Sandokai and listen to how those lines are reflected in what follows.

Very difficult, like throwing a stick and trying to hit the moon. Somewhat daunted, the monk turned to Pang’s wife with the same question, but she answered, Oh no! Zen is very easy. It’s as easy as touching your nose when you wash your face. The monk was unsettled, and he got up to leave. But on the way out he ran into Pang’s son, and he said to him, Your father says it’s difficult, your mother says it’s easy. Who’s correct? The son replied, If you think it is difficult, it will be difficult. If you think it is easy, then it will be easy. Don’t make it difficult and easy. But the monk was not satisfied so finally he went to ask Layman Pang’s daughter. He said to her, Is Zen easy or difficult? Everyone in your family is giving me a different answer. Your father, hard. Your mother, easy, Your brother, both. So I ask you. Which is it? The daughter smiled. Zen is not difficult and it’s not easy. You’ll find the Great Master’s meaning balanced on the top of one hundred leaves of grass.

So I’d like to suggest that the four answers we get in this parable offer positions corresponding to the four lines in the Sandokai, and this is a typical kind of dialectic that we will find here and all throughout Dogen, where we see something stated as one thing, then its opposite, then neither, then both. We get all these permutations, each showing something from another perspective, none of which can be said to be defining the true perspective. It’s only the movement and combination of different perspectives that encompass our practice.

So in the Sandokai, the order is a little different. It starts with the position that is articulated by Pang’s wife, who said it is easy. Ordinary life fits the absolute like a box and its lid. They fit together perfectly. There’s no gap. This is the easy part. One is shaped exactly so it will fit onto the other. One way we can think about this in terms of practice is the idea that each moment you encounter is the absolute. It’s the relative with its particular thing in relation to all sorts of other particular things, but in any moment, that relative thing can be seen as just this. Just this moment, Just this thing. The absolute. That was basically Joko’s teaching, over and over, decade after decade.

But then the next line corresponds with Pang’s assertion that Zen is difficult, like throwing a stick and trying to hit the moon. Here it says, The absolute works together with the relative like two arrows meeting in mid-air. Picture two archers at the opposite ends of a football field unleashing their arrows at the same time. What’s the chance of those two arrows ever meeting, hitting each other in mid-air over the 50-yard line? No matter how skillful you are, you can do that ten thousand million times and never have it happen. Like throwing a stick and trying to hit the moon.

And here, Pang’s answer says, As long as you think of Zen as something separate from you, distant, like the moon, you’ll never be able to hit it. You’ll never be able to reach it. And that’s what happens in practice when we think enlightenment is some rare, special experience that we’re forever chasing, trying to make happen. As long as we separate out the absolute from the relative and make it a separate thing that we’re going to look for, we never see it in plain sight. We don’t see it when it’s right under our nose. It’s as easy as touching your nose when you wash your face. As long as we think that Zen is a matter of cultivating an almost superhuman, extraordinary feat, a capacity, like being one of these archers whose arrows will meet in mid-air, we’ve created an impossible task for ourselves. Zen is very, very difficult.

The son’s response corresponds to the fourth line: Do not judge by any standards. He says, If you think it’s difficult, it’s difficult. If you think it’s easy, it’s easy. Don’t make it difficult and easy. It’s impossible not to divide your world up that way. Just sitting, neither difficult nor easy. Just sitting. Don’t turn it into a project that you can do well or badly. I often quote Dogen, that zazen is not a technique of meditation. A technique is something that you could do well or badly, and always be asking, Am I doing it right? Am I doing it wrong? Is this working? Am I there yet? So the whole realm of techniques gets you caught up in difficult and easy. How do we step outside of that in just sitting?

The final position, from the daughter, corresponds with the line, Reading words you should grasp the great reality. Now that’s intended to sound paradoxical because the great reality in Zen is something that’s supposed to be beyond words and concepts. The great reality is this realm of not knowing. And yet, since reading words you should grasp reality, that doesn’t mean by reading you should know of some concept of the great reality. It doesn’t mean your reading is going to give you some kind of intellectual approach to reality. It means that the great reality is not separate from anything. It’s not even separate from words.

When the son says, Don’t get caught up in concepts, don’t get stuck in difficult or easy, that in itself inadvertently creates a new kind of dualism, as though there’s some way you should be not caught up in concepts. There’s a good way and a bad way. Concepts are bad, words are bad, we’ve got to avoid those. Reading words you should grasp the great reality, means that nothing lies outside the great reality, even all the intellectualization, philosophy, idle chatter that Zen is supposed to be warning you about. Even those things are just manifestations of life as it is.

We get caught up in the content of our words, but our talking is no different than the chirping of birds. It’s just the sounds that we emit. It’s part of our human behavior that on some level is particularly natural. We don’t tell the birds to stop chirping and making a racket and they should all learn to be silent. Part of being a bird is chirping. Part of being human is to use words and concepts. We can get entangled in them, we can make mistakes because of them, but we’re not here to try to extirpate that part of our human nature, and make words and thoughts the problem. We’re not trying to make them go away. They too are part of the great reality. It’s the Great Master’s meaning balanced on one hundred leaves of grass. It’s all the particulars, all the words and phrases, all the pages of a book, like Whitman says.

So the challenge in our practice is to experience and put into some kind of balance these different perspectives, and there’s a way in which we need all of them. If we don’t think that Zen is difficult, we won’t put in the effort it takes. We have to be prepared to think that this practice is difficult, that all those teachers didn’t spend years sitting in zazen facing the wall because they were deluded about how easy Zen really could be. There’s something genuinely difficult about our practice, and it means coming to terms with the reality of separation in our lives. We do not, as we go about our daily life, think: This is it! If we’re honest, we’re endlessly judging, moment after moment, awww, this isn’t right, this isn’t the way I want it to be, I’m not who I should be, I’m missing this or lacking that. If only I could be wiser or enlightened or calmer, clearer, all of these are ways that we semi-consciously put a moon up in the sky and look longingly at it and think, Oh that very distant thing, if only I could touch it. If only I could reach it.

The difficulty in practice means honestly facing the deep gulfs of separation that we have created within ourselves. And they’re not going to be dissolved with a snap of the fingers. Or at least not with a snap of the fingers before we sit in zazen for many years. So we have to face the perspective that Zen really is difficult, that we have this deep-seated problem and it’s going to take real effort and hard practice to come to terms with it. Yet, if that’s the only way we think about it, then we turn Zen into something like running a marathon, and we make it an endurance contest, some great difficult task we’re trying to master and turn it into a technique, and our very efforts will get stymied by the way we frame them.

So we need the perspective also, that Zen is easy. It’s like touching your nose when you wash your face. The answer’s already automatically there, like a box fits with its lid. At any moment, this is already it. We see that, remember it, see how we don’t believe it, over and over and over again. We need a perspective of the son. If you think it’s easy, it will be easy. If you think it’s hard, it will be hard. If you practice stepping away from those kinds of concepts, can you remind yourself, Zen is not a technique that you can do well or badly? Can you find your way to just sitting, where sitting is not always divided into the good sittings and the bad sittings? It’s all just sitting. Neither good nor bad.

Finally, in the daughter’s perspective, without trying to make anything go away, the mind is not contaminated by its contents. Our thoughts, our feelings are not problems. We’re not trying to wipe the slate clean. We’re not trying in some way to extirpate some part of our humanity. We’re not going to say our thinking, our anger, our sexuality, our attachments, our tendencies, that these are somehow problems that have to be solved, that there are parts of ourselves that have to be purified. No. We’re going to find our Dharma on the tips of all those blades of grass, all the things we think of as our problems, until we see that having problems is not a problem. It’s just life as it is. Let’s see if we can hold those perspectives in our minds as we practice together.

Next Talk

Barry Magid February 20th 2021 One moon in the sky

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