TRUE HEART RISING: Jesus & Ikkyu, Scrooge & Tiny Tim

TRUE HEART RISING: Jesus & Ikkyu, Scrooge & Tiny Tim October 25, 2021





Jesus & Ikkyu, Scrooge & Tiny Tim

Edward Sanshin Oberholtzer

Joseph Priestley Zen Sangha and Empty Moon Zen

I was preparing a dharma talk the other day that touched upon the Zen priest and poet Ikkyu Sojun, that antinomian character who, were he Chinese, might well have been referred to as a kind of Daoist Zannie, but who seems, frankly, too serious for that. No, his hanging out in brothels and taverns feels more like Jesus keeping company with tax collectors and prostitutes. There, I said it. Ikkyu and Jesus in the same sentence.

Sarah Messer’s translation of his poetry, rather than relying on footnotes to orient us to the world of a fifteenth century Japanese priest, pairs each poem with exerpts of texts that are picked up in the individual poem with citations to those in later notes. I love the following short paragraphs, but the lack of a citation throws the question of authorship back on Messer. Still it goes:

Buddha’s great disciple Ananda accomplished the wisdom of an arhat, someone who has left the red dust of samsara behind, who is free of desire and hatred.

But a bodhisattva attains Manjushri’s Great Wisdom and finally Buddhahood only by never abandoning the sorrows of samsara. Never abandoning the sorrows of samsara, what a lovely phrase! What a perfect description of Ikkyu, priest, hermit, barfly, poet, lover, and bodhisattva.

And Ikkyu’s poem? it goes:

An arhat emerges from dust and thus pushes Buddhahood away.
When I enter a brothel, I display Great Wisdom.
I laugh deeply at Manjushri reciting the Lankavatara Sutra.
He has lost the whole business of his youthful furyu.

But today, let’s consider another of our great Bodhisattvas, a bodhisattva no doubt familiar to Ikkyu, no stranger to compassion, let’s consider Avalokitesvara, Guanyin, about Kanzeon, the bodhisattva of compassion.

Each evening during sesshin many years ago, the tanto (our retreat leader) would stand in the doorway, look around the sangha, give us all final instructions for the night and bid us all Goodnight Bodhisattvas”.  Who would have guessed that I was a bodhisattva, that we were all bodhisattvas. But what else could we be? We were all there charged with bringing each other to awakening. Nightly, we vowed to wake all the beings.  This was a revelation. Bodhisattvas, wise beings who remain behind in this world of samsara, this world of dew, even though they could leave it behind, beings who have vowed to bring all other beings to enlightenment. That person sitting across from me on the cushion for the past week, he was a bodhisattva. that person sitting beside me day in and day out, who had been there each morning at five, she was a bodhisattva. You, Me. All of us, bodhisattvas; all of us, Buddhas.

We look to bodhisattvas as the great exemplars of the mahayana tradition. A bodhisattva refers to anyone who has generated bodhicitta, the spontaneous wish and the compassionate mind to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings who, yet, chooses to remain behind until all beings can attain Buddhahood. Not just for my benefit, but for all of us. Pledging not simply to save Fred Rogers, Dorothy Day and Jimmy Carter, but also that jerk who cheats on his school taxes, who swears at the homeless, who would put the widow and orphan out on the street. All of them, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim,  all of them to be saved. Me, you, the worst of me, the best of you. all of them. This is the Bodhisattva vow.

I knew a teacher once who asked as a thought experiment, that we go through an entire day seeing everyone we met as being someone who was put there solely to bring us to enlightenment. Our spouse, bringing us a cup of coffee in the morning; our child, refusing to move quickly enough as we try to get him ready for school; the neighbor pretending not to see as his dog shits on our lawn; the nurse who goes out of her way to make my wife’s treatmet a little more tolerable. The nurse, the traffic cop, our spouse, our children, the cat yowling for food, the crow on the fence out back, each there to open our eyes to our own true nature, each remaining behind for us. Kindnesses we see only in retrospect. All bodhisattvas.

Tori Zenji spoke of this in his Bodhisattva’s Vow when he wrote:

How can we be ungrateful to anyone or anything?
Even though someone may be a fool, we can be compassionate.
If someone turns against us, speaking ill of us and treating us bitterly,

Its best to bow down:

This is the Buddha appearing to us,
Finding ways to free us from our own attachments—

the very ones that have made us suffer, again and again and again.

And just as we all are bodhisattvas, there are specfic, named and beloved examples: Manjushri, the bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom, the bodhisattva you find in Zendos brandishing his sword cutting through delusion; Kṣitigarbha, the bodhisattva of hell beings (I love the notion that the being in charge of hell has vowed to not attain Buddhahood until all the hells are empty), as Jizo, you may know him as the protector of children and the unborn; Samatabhadra (the bodhisattva of great activity, of meditation and practice who sits with us there on the cushion as we struggle with cramped legs and trying, if not to awaken then at least not to nod off); and, of course,  Avalokiteshvara (the bodhisattva of great compassion, dearing the cries of the world, or at least, my muttered complaints)……. all these bodhisattvas , named and unnamed,all dedicated to bringing all beings to awakening.

As Buddhism traveled it absorbed religions, gods and goddesses and turned them to its own ends. Avalokiteshvara, male in India, was absorbed by the female goddess Quanyin in China, becoming Kannon or Kanzeon in Japan  an interesting example of  gender fluidity, a bodhisattva both awake and woke. The name Avalokishvara can be translated as the one who hears the cries of the world. Guanyin is often depicted as having a thousand hands and eyes, hands and eyes she needs to respond to all of the cries of the world and so we find in case 89 of the Blue Cliff Record, Yunyan asking Daowu,

How does the Bodhisattva Guanyin use all those hands and eyes?” Daowu answered, It is like someone in the middle of the night reaching behind her head for the pillow.” Yunyan replied I understand.” How do you understand it?” said Daowu. All over the body are hands and eyes.” returned Yunyan. Daowu said, That is very well-expressed, but it is only eight-tenths of the answer.” How would you say it, Elder Brother?” Yunyan asked. “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.” Daowu said.

 We see Avalokitesvara in two of our sutras – as the speaker in the Heart Sutra – the only sutra I know of not spoken by the Buddha –

and in the ten verse Kannon sutra, the Enmei Juku Kannongyo, a particular favorite of Hakuin Zenji and chanted in both Rinzai and Soto temples. Kaz Tanahashi has written that this sutra came to the defeated Chinese general Wang Xuanmo in a dream some time around the year 450 CE. The legend is that chanting it saved him from execution.

Ten simple lines:

Namu Butsu
yo Butsu u in
yo Butsu u en
buppo so en
jo raku ga jo
cho nen Kanzeon
bo nen Kanzeon
nen nen ju shin ki
nen nen fu ri shin.

An invocation to Kannon, to Avalokiteshvara who through her, through his compassion, brings us to awaking “Absorbing world sounds awakens a Buddha right here! This Buddha,

the source of compassion.” Kannon hears our cries and reaches out with hands that, moving so fast they are perceived as a thousand hands. “This Buddha”, this Kanzeon, “receives only compassion. Buddha, Dharma, Sangha— just compassion.”

“In the light recall this……in the dark, recall this……” and, as we reach behind our heads  groping for a pillow, there in the night, there in the dark,  “moment after moment we all rejoice, there in that moment, all of us manifesting as “Buddha, Dharma, Sangha”! In this moment,  and in this moment,  and in this moment “the true heart arises.”

This is all there is. Just this!

Take care, bodhisattvas!

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