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The elbow does not bend backwards Barry Magid December 11th 2010

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The Book of Equanimity, Case 2 The Holy Truth of Buddhism

Emperor Wu asked the great master Bodhidharma, "What is the ultimate meaning of the holy truth of Buddhism?"
Bodhidharma replied, "Vast emptiness. No holiness."
The emperor asked, "Who stands here before me?"
Bodhidharma replied, "I don't know"
The emperor was baffled. Thereafter, Bodhidharma crossed the river, arrived at Shorin, and faced the wall for nine years.

In other versions of this story, the Emperor asks a third question. He begins by saying, As Emperor, I have built many temples, endowed monasteries, spread Buddhism throughout China. What merit have I acquired in doing all of that? Bodhidharma replies, No merit.

So the Emperor gets to ask three questions and doesn’t understand Bodhidharma’s answer to any of them. Usually with these koan collections the case is resolved with the monk being enlightened by the teacher’s words, but here we have a complete therapeutic failure. Rather than see the Emperor as a student and a rather self-important one at that who doesn’t get it, who just gets to deliver these straight lines to Bodhidharma, I think we need to see the dialog in another way. Primarily we need to see the two characters, the Emperor and Bodhidharma, as representing two aspects of our self, and as in many koans, our task is to resolve the apparent opposition, or contradiction between the two halves, and with this dialog as it’s presented to us, we’re left with an unbridgeable gap, where Bodhidharma gives a presentation of absolute truth, or even truth that precedes absolute or relative, and the Emperor is this figure of worldly accomplishment and worldly merit as we usually understand it, but he doesn’t comprehend. And so we’re left with this unbridgeable gap that it’s our job in practice to heal in ourselves.

Although we might like to identify with the depth of Bodhidharma’s wisdom, I think our practice must begin by acknowledging our much greater affinity for the Emperor, and how the questions that he asks are not ridiculous questions. They’re really questions that we are all preoccupied with in our own fashion. Like the Emperor, we might not recognize the answer when we hear it. The Emperor, in some ways, is a model lay student. Even though he has stayed in the world, is not a monk, he has done everything he can that he knows what to do to promote Buddhism in the kingdom. This is certainly a worthy and great accomplishment on his part. He really has tried to be devout and tried to foster the spread of Buddhism. He’s trying to answer a question that we all ask ourselves: How are we going to integrate our understanding and practice of Buddhism with being lay people in the world, holding down day jobs? We mostly don’t have to hold down a day job as Emperor, but we’ve got our day job and we’ve got to figure out what it means to be a Buddhist and have a day job.

He asks, What is the ultimate meaning of Buddhism? We need to ask that if we’re going to practice it in our lives. Bodhidharma is vast emptiness, nothing holy. The way we usually express a version of that is through the idea of no gain, that there is nothing to fix, nothing to accomplish. I particularly try to express that in a psychological sense in which we don’t have to improve ourselves or fix ourselves or remove any underlying defect or fill in any kind of deficit.

Our practice is about experiencing an underlying wholeness, an underlying perfection and joy that is part of our lives regardless of their content. But like Bodhidharma’s answer, this is very deeply counter-intuitive to most of us, yet we have to figure out what it means to practice without turning it into a version of self-improvement. In the Emperor’s day, we can see the split in terms of sacred and profane: What does it mean to try to lead a more holy life? Can he be devout, can he be holy by sponsoring Buddhism in the kingdom? Bodhidharma tries to cut through that whole dichotomy between the ordinary and the holy as the Emperor understands it.

Similarly we don’t have in our culture the same understanding of merit that I think was very important in the Chinese and Japanese cultures of those days, where merit was really karmic merit, an accumulation of merit that would reverberate through past and future lives. And yet we still have to ask ourselves, what is worth doing? And why do we prefer something done well to something done badly? At the level of the absolute, there’s no differentiation or distinction. So why do we prefer a piece of furniture that has been hand-crafted, carefully made, its tendoned joints carefully sanded and polished? Why do we care that all that care and attention has gone into an object? Is it more valuable than a five dollar plastic chair you can pick up in Kmart? Why do we think so? Are we entitled to have a preference? To find more merit in one or the other?

At one level, there’s no difference. At another level that difference of care and attention does matter very much. Joko used to say that the core of our practice was to suffer intelligently. Another way of saying that is that we need to learn to desire intelligently. When we desire intelligently, it means that we find a way to love and cherish the people and things in our world. We don’t treat them all as empty. We don’t treat their life and their suffering as empty. We allow it to bring tears to our eyes, we allow the attachment and the love of others to be at the core of who we are. And all of that, in some sense, can be wiped away by Bodhidharma’s answers. If you’re just sitting in a cave for nine years, desire intelligently doesn’t seem to come into play very much. But if you’re in the world with other people and you’re living a life, how do you desire, how do you connect, how do you attach without greed, without trying to control other people in order to not lose them or lose their love? We have to learn to attach, to desire intelligently, to hold lightly.

We need to be able to value and cherish things, like the well-made chair. Hanging in the zendo today is a scroll portrait of Bodhidharma that was painted by Soyen Shaku, who was the first Zen master to come to America. He came here in 1893 and was invited to speak at the World Parliament of Religions. He brought a young monk with him, D. T. Suzuki, as his translator, and some years later, I believe around 1905, he was invited back to give over the course of a year a series of lectures across the country on Buddhism, which are published in a little book, Zen for Americans. He was a very interesting figure. But to own a scroll like that, perhaps a hundred years old, worth a lot of money, is a very Emperor Wu thing to do.

We can just have a xerox of it, a reproduction of it, it doesn’t matter if we have the original. Is there something about having something that we value and cherish that is legitimate in this world of impermanence? I think if you grow up exposed to nothing but what’s available in a shopping mall, what’s massed produced, what’s reproduced, machine-made, there is some merit in cherishing objects that are unique, that are handed down, that were made uniquely by an artist that cannot be reproduced by anyone else. But it will pass away. We have to know what it means to cherish it but to be able to let it go as well.

So Shaku, as I’ve said, lived in a very interesting juncture in Zen. His teacher, Kosen, who I know only a little bit about, was active just after the Meiji restoration in which the whole fabric of monasticism in Japan was changing. Monks were ordered to marry, there was a whole new emphasis on western ideas and the importation of western universities and studies. Kosen was one of the first to set up a zendo in Tokyo particularly for lay people, men and women sitting together. His students were intellectuals and artists, students from these new western style universities. So Shakyu came out of that period, and when you read his talks when he came to America, they were full of quotations from the Bible, western literature, western philosophy, very much actively trying to engage a new audience in a new time when everything else was in flux. In a way he’s very much a Bodhidharma figure for Americans. He was the first Zen teacher to come here, the way Bodhidharma was the first Zen teacher to come to China. He left behind two students: D. T. Suzuki and Nyogen Senzaki, who each in their way, very indirectly caused the dharma to begin to permeate into the culture and set the stage for the next generation of teachers who were able to stay and establish centers.

But it was very unclear what form any of that would take, and the whole notion of training lay students, or coming to talk to Americans at all was very novel. It was very unclear how that would pan out, and if anything would come of it whatsoever. We’re still working out the answer to that, we’re still trying to figure out how to put these different forms of life together. How do you put together the insight of Bodhidharma with the life of a lay student? I think we have to understand these two figures as aspects of our self, and we have to see the way in which too much of the time the dialog in our self doesn’t end a lot better than the dialog does in Case 2. We just don’t know how to put the two together. But I don’t think it’s a very good answer to say, Well, 95% of the time I’ll live out in the world as the Emperor, and 5% of the time I’ll go off to sesshin and I’ll live like Bodhidharma and I’ll play at being a monk, and hope that one way or another they will trickle into each other.

Even worse, I think what happens is that we feel two sides of ourselves, and the world of our daily life, the world of desire and the spiritual world are somehow in deep conflict. They don’t just not comprehend each other, but they contradict each other, and they’re at war with each other. We don’t know which is going to win out: our daily life or our spiritual practice. We feel they’re in competition for our time and our energy. How do we decide how much time to take away from our lives to go on sesshin or to practice on a daily basis? Are they fighting with each other or not? Our task is really to try to figure how to not just make peace between these two things but to really see them as two halves of a whole.

When D. T. Suzuki came to this country later, he said he had a great realization contemplating the Japanese expression, “The elbow does not bend backwards.” The idea is that the elbow only bends inward, bends one way. Is that a limitation of the elbow? Is it a defect? That a really good elbow would bend both ways? Is it a design flaw that we’re stuck with? Instead, it’s a matter of seeing the particular irony in what we would think of as a limitation rather, as a definition, a part of what we intrinsically are, and freedom is not a question of being able to do something, to do anything whatsoever, but to fully function within our design and our capacity. The full freedom of the functioning of the elbow takes place in bending inward, not outward.

Now I think we have to find an equivalent of that understanding about lay practice. We have to be able to find a way to really see our practice fully and completely expressed in the life that we’re actually leading. The fact that we are not going to go sit in a cave for nine years, or the fact that we’re not going to leave home and be monastics or leave home and live the life of a homeless recluse, that is not a limitation. It’s the equivalent of the elbow not bending backwards. That is not our life. The life that we have is not an imperfect version of some other life. That’s the thing we really have to settle deep into.

It’s the danger of stories like these with Bodhidharma, where instead of making it a story of aspiration and clarity, we make it a kind of ideal that we beat ourselves up with. I’ll never be the real thing like that. A real monk, a real Buddhist, would do x, y, and z. But I, a lay person, am always destined to live out this sort of half-assed, watered-down version of the real thing. That’s the great koan of lay practice: To really experience it as the real thing, not a version of something else. We have to whole-heartedly, completely believe in the completeness of this practice, just as we do it. It’s not defined by somebody else, there’s no clear right way or wrong way to do it, but it has the potential to be complete.

The great koan collection, Mumonkan, means The Gateless Gate. Gateless Gate means you can enter the Way anywhere, even here, even now, even like this. The great dualism in our lives as lay people is to imagine this divide between us and the real thing, to feel that the gate is a monastery gate, the gate right here. We have to find out how to put together Bodhidharma and the Emperor, lay practice and a full realization of the Way, which has to really begin with a deep faith that that’s possible. That teacher has to embody the practice for students, and that embodiment does not necessarily mean looking like some idealized version of enlightenment.

The great gift that I’m giving you all, whether you realize it or not, is that I am not like Bodhidharma. One way or another, I did realize this Way, I was able to pass through that Gateless Gate, make my life a life of practice, make it something I can convey to you here and now. It can look like this. That’s the good news and the bad news. I hope that in a few years we will see the full realization of the dharma looking like you, like you, like you, like you, like you.

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