In polite society everybody notices if a man’s hands are dirty. He’ll be stared at contemptuously. Why, the fellow will be wretched until he can wash his hands.
But isn’t it funny how a man can have character that’s defiled by greed and hate and nobody will pay the slightest attention? He’ll move about in perfect ease. Evidently, a dirty character isn’t worthy of notice as a dirty hand.
Don’t judge a book by it’s cover? Is that really the message here?
Han Shan is talking about people in general, the way we tend to judge people. We may see someone with a strange appearance or an annoying habit and judgments come into our minds without us even knowing. Or, if not judgments, maybe expectations. We are filled with expectations based on what we see. Our minds are great at making up stories about what a person is like when we see them. We usually don’t even know it’s happening.
I’d also like to talk about dharma teachers here.
So, when we find dharma teachers, they may or may not look how we expect them to look. I’d argue that they probably won’t look how we expect them to look. We have this strange way of putting teachers on pedestals these days, it seems. This may have been true in Han Shan’s time too.
The message here is that someone can appear to be perfect when they aren’t. Greed and hate are sometimes below the surface.
The truth is that if a teacher seems a little too perfect, that makes me uncomfortable. No one is perfect and teachers, in my view, should be completely open. I want a teacher who is real and authentic, not one who is constantly faking perfection.
Bodhidharma, the teacher who is credited with bringing the zen tradition to China, famously had a weird appearance. They say he looked like a barbarian. In pictures and statues he’s usually depicted as a scary looking guy with a giant beard and an angry look on his face. He’s not what most people picture when they think of what a zen master looks like.
Bodhidharma was like the wretched fellow with dirty hands that Han Shan was talking about.
So, that old cliché applies. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.