The Buddha Takes His Seat: A Brief Reflection on a Zen Koan

Seated Buddha
The Case

One day the Buddha ascended to the platform. Manjushri struck the board and announced “Contemplate clearly the dharma of the Dharma King. The dharma of the Dharma King is just this.”

Blue Cliff Record Case 92 & Book of Serenity Case 1

 

Something in the neighborhood of fifty years ago I attend a talk by a Buddhist monk. He was an American, a convert disciple of a Chinese meditation master. So, in those days something of a rare bird.

He began his remarks by telling a story. He described a famous master being invited to give a dharma talk. The venerable showed up ascended the rostrum. Looked out at everyone. Stood silently for a few very long minutes. And, then turned, stepped back down, and walked away.

The monk and most of the audience found this all very humorous. Sort of a Zen joke. Me, I noticed that after telling this story about silence or at least not speaking, the monk launched into a talk that lasted for nearly an hour.

And, well, here I am. After all those years I have come to be charged with sharing the dharma. Now, on occasion its my task to climb up on that platform and attempt to point to the heart of our way. In these years and now, today, I’ve never forgotten that anecdote. Nor have I forgotten that little discrepancy between the person telling the story of silence and the cascade of words that followed.

And with that here’s another version of the story and a few more words following.

First, there’s the case collected twice in the great Twelfth century anthologies. It’s pretty simple. The World Honored One himself steps up to the platform. Buddha means awake and has come to be a title. Sometimes when we say Buddha we mean Gautama Siddhartha, the person who birthed, lived, and died within the bounds of history. And sometimes we mean awakening itself. Buddha can be the collapse of all distinctions. Time and space. The great boundless. And Buddha is something specific. That Buddha finite and infinite ascends the platform.

Manjushri, the incarnation of wisdom itself, strikes the board, strikes the bell, and announces. We are called to pay attention. Notice. Notice. Listen. Listen.

The holy one wastes no time. He quickly points to the nub of it all. The dharma, the teaching, the pointing of the king of all teaching, of all pointing, is fully present. Right here. Right now.

And, in case we still don’t get it, a coda. Manjushri, wisdom points. Just this.

Just this.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Lotus Sutra of late. The Lotus is one of the principal texts of the Mahayana, the Great Way, that school or family of schools of Buddhism that spreads from Tibet to Korea and Japan. The Mahayana flourished in China and birthed, among other things, Zen.

The Lotus announced that beyond all the schools there is a single way. It is eternal. And it is present in the moment. It informs us we all are inherently Buddha. But, the structure of the text is one of the more astonishing of all Buddhist sutras. The structure is largely an announcement of the Lotus Sutra. We are told to attend, to notice, to open our hearts and our minds. We are give great promises of vast reward in attending to this. In fact we are encourage to recite, to copy, to propagate the sutra. And, we are warned of dire consequences in ignoring it. And all along the way of announcement this text gives us anecdotes explaining such things as skillful means, and our universal connection. But, it never quite gets to something that might be called the sutra itself.

Kind of like this koan.

Since that time I heard that talk all those years ago I’ve heard the story of a teacher going to the platform, standing or sitting silently, and then leaving, repeated any number of times. Sometimes the silent moment is just a glance. Other times we have the teacher sitting silently for an hour. In all cases no word is spoken.

Instead the Buddha’s body is itself the message. Presence is itself the teaching.

And like with the sutra all around that presence, that just this, those of us called to propagate, to present, to announce, say: attend.

But even that sermon of presence has to be carefully engaged. There are those who believe this moment, the one in which we are currently living is “it” to the exclusion of the past and the future. In fact we do have to be careful about that. People who have brain injuries that cause them to live in that kind of present moment where there is literally no past and no future, are profoundly impaired. They cannot survive on their own. And if you’ve met someone with that condition or have seen psychological training films that display someone in that condition, its hard not to feel sad. Sad for them. Sad for their care givers.

This is not the presence we’re speaking of. That wound is not the invitation.

So, here we have a presentation like in Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, which is another rich source for koans, captured in case 23 of the Gateless Gate when our teacher Huineng asks the former general and now elder monk Ming, “Without thinking of good or evil, what is your original face?,” repeated in other versions and contexts as “Before your parents were born, what is your original face?” Now the invitation becomes a question.

In our times, the Soto Zen priest Charlie Pokorny sings to us of the presentation, of the question, of the response.

Cracking open the treasure storehouse
Each jewel shines from within, in between
And all the way through
A thousand faces at Green Dragon Temple.
Clearly observe thus:
Dharma rains down, great earth shivers –
A pair of eyes looks up:
Transgressed just for all of us.

For you and me the World Honored One broke the silence. With his body at once decaying and never born and never to die he brings everything together.

And shows us our healing.

 

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