LEAVING HOME, COMING HOME
A Meditation on the Bodhisattva Way
James Ishmael Ford
Shishuang Chuyuan was once asked by Senior Monastic Quanming, “When does a single hair pierce innumerable holes?” Shishuang said, “Ten thousand years later.” Quanming said, “What will happen ten thousand years later?”Shishuang said, “It is you who will pass the examination and excel among people.” Later Quanming asked the same question of Zen master Hongyin of Jingshan [Faji]. Jingshan said, “You personally will have to shine your sandals and harvest the fruit.”
Dogen’s 300 Koan Shobogenzo (translated by Kaz Tanahashi & Daido Loori)
I have the enormous pleasure of participating in a Zen study group facilitated by my friend the Japanese priest Gyokei Yokoyama. It’s a small group, the mainstays are two American Zen priests, a Cambodian Theravada monk, and a High School senior in India. A couple of other people pass through just to add a little spice to the mix.
We’ve been reading Keizan’s Transmission of the Lamp, in the official Sotoshu translation the Record of the Transmission of Illumination. Today we read the 52nd case, turning on the awakening of Eihei Dogen’s principal dharma successor, Eihei Jo, best known as Koun Ejo.
Ejo had been a practitioner of the dharma long before meeting Dogen. After a period of academic training, he became a student of Kakuan Roshi, a dharma successor to master Nonin, founder of the Daruma School. At some point several of the leading monastics of that community including both Kakuan and Ejo bowed to Dogen and joined his community.
Before joining Dogen Ejo had his first awakening into the mystery through an encounter with the story of the kalavinka pitcher, a pitcher with two spouts pointing in opposite directions, where “adding emptiness does not increase emptiness, and removing emptiness does not eliminate emptiness.”
While his insight was acknowledged, Ejo knew there were more depths to plumb, and after an encounter with Dogen and an investigation of the ancient koan “a single hair pierces multiple holes,” he joined Dogen’s community. Over time he became Dogen’s principal support and then, even though he was older than Dogen, his successor.
Lovely story with several interesting turns.
But the part that captured me was an anecdote Ejo’s story gives considerable attention to. Throughout the narrative Ejo’s mother is an important figure, especially in his turning from scholasticism to the deeper waters of contemplation.
Dogen’s community followed a strict rule. Among the regulations were very limited times to leave the monastery for personal business. When Ejo’s mother was dying she asked that he come and visit her one last time. There’s some coming and going in the story, he consults with the community at large who uniformly encourage him to go. But, in the end, he decides not to.
After all he is cutting off attachments and his filial obligations have shifted from his mother to the Buddha and the rules of the community. His argument for this decision is that if he were to go and visit his mother it would only strengthen her attachments to the things of the world and doom her to multiple births.
So. A kindness in the great way.
For which he is lauded in the telling.
It’s also worth noting there was a controversy in the third generation from Dogen about who should lead the community and how strict the rule should be. In part this story shores up Ejo’s place representing adherence to the rule in the face of several innovations. But, noted, that isn’t the major point.
This story and the deeper points of bowing and insight took me in a different direction.
I recall being in a Macy’s department store with Jan on some errand or other. While waiting for Jan, I fell into a conversation with a sales associate. He probably was pushing sixty, and at the time I thought he seemed a bit old for the job.
He then told me that he had been a Roman Catholic monk for all of his adult life, belonging to a contemplative order. But his mother became ill and there was no one else to care for her, so he left the monastery.
And here he was. Working to support the two of them.
Trying to recall the details, I can’t say whether there was wistfulness in his voice, or not.
This was the hand he’d been dealt. And he was playing it.
Jan came back, we made our purchase, and left.
I think about that encounter. I’ve had a handful of such meetings over the years, where what happened and what was said comes more or less out of the blue and nothing specific follows. Just a moment presented out of time. More like an apparition. Or, a dream.
Recently I was reading about a medieval Japanese practitioner of the nembutsu, the sacred phrase of the Pure Land schools. A kami appeared to him and told him to share the secrets of that practice, even though he had taken off the robes of a monk. Kami are the local gods of Japanese nature religion, prominent in the Shinto tradition. But, they meet lots of different people, including Buddhists.
Kami are gods, but of a different sort than we usually think. They’re more holy powers, as I’ve read somewhere. They can have something to do with the dead, they can also be a feature of the landscape, or some force in nature. They are manifestations of the interpenetration of form and emptiness, eruptions of the mystery into a moment.
For me these encounters, such as my meeting with the former monk, really feel eruptions of nature, presentations of the gods, invitations into the mystery.
And, I find that moment, that invitation for my heart, that monk’s bowing into the obligations of family, and Ejo’s shifting obligations, and the wake of conditions that followed, all inform one another, and point for me.
We all have to give up things. But what do we give up to find the deeper places of life?
We don’t know what happens to Ejo’s mother. Did his absence turn her mind the play of cause and conditions, did she open her mind into the great boundless? Or, did she grieve the absence of her beloved son? Did nirvana, or heavens and hells open for her?
We get to write the end of that story as our situation calls.
For me, it circles around to the koan.
Shishuang Chuyuan was once asked by Senior Monastic Quanming, “When does a single hair pierce innumerable holes?” Shishuang said, “Ten thousand years later.”
One way to approach this is through Dogen’s great insight of practice/enlightenment. Our awakening and our practice are one thing. True. The single hair and the innumerable holes.
But, there’s another angle on this, which I find equally important. The great empty, the boundless, the open, the, if you will, single hair. And, the innumerable holes. Practices, yes. But, also, mother and father. Sun. Moon. Starving children. And every injustice. A taste of fruit. The embrace of a lover.
Ejo presents the question and says, he’s less interested in the single hair. He gets that. But, what about the innumerable holes?
Dogen shows his compassion and draws the whole world in the turning word, in the flavorless word: pierced.
Here we’re invited into the mystery of interpetration of reality, where form and emptiness, the world of tears and hope and the great boundless are not two. However, this encounter is not bloodless. It isn’t some abstract formula.
Rather it is the silent tear that Ejo may or may not have shed as he declined the call home. It is the sigh that maybe I heard, and maybe I didn’t from the monk selling clothing in a Macy’s department store. It is every and, yes, and but, of our lives.
It is our surrender into the great play of an unfolding mystery.
It is the bodhisattva vow, the great inside joke of the Zen way, where we promise only to enter the great empty together.
Ten thousand years. This moment. The kami appears. Nature awakens and gives us our turning word.
Tears. Laughter. Thunder. Silence.