A Feast for Zen’s Layman Pang

A Feast for Zen’s Layman Pang August 3, 2022

old man reading



The Layman was once lying on his couch reading a sutra. A monk saw him and said: “Layman! You must maintain dignity when reading a sutra.” The Layman raised up one leg. The monk had nothing to say.

This is an episode from the Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Yoshitaka Iriya, and Dana Fraser’s translation of the ninth century Zen classic the Record of Layman P’ang

Pangyun (as is the more conventional transliteration of his name goes for us today) was a householder Zen master who studied with several of the great teachers of his day, including Great master Mazu Daoyi as well as Shitou Xiqian from whom he received Dharma transmission. Tradition records that both his wife and daughter were accomplished Zen adepts, as well.

According to Dr Matthew Ciolek’s Zen Calendar the remarkable householder Zen master died on the 3rd of August, in 808, so one thousand, two hundred, and fourteen years ago today. I cannot speak to how he found that calculation, but I wouldn’t bet against the good doctor, either.

I think of the Layman as a particularly appropriate teacher for our time and place. His immediacy is little different than what is found in the stories of the monks (and those few nuns whose records are remembered) but his stories tend to take place in more recognizable situations. Not unlike the one I cited at the beginning of this small meditation.

Here he is lying on a couch and reading sacred scriptures. I like to think perhaps this particular sacred scripture is one of John Brady‘s Irish Noir murder mysteries. Although I concede it could be a review of the summer movie schedule.

Anyway, there he is, not one, not two. Just lounging on a couch, reading. Just this.

The monk walks by (must be a houseguest. Clerics are often wandering around such places.) and decides the old householder needs some correcting. I mean someone actually gave that old guy Dharma transmission! And not even a priest, much less a monk. What’s the world coming to?

And what is the correction? It’s about decorousness. Now minute attention to one’s behaviors is in fact an authentic spiritual path. But like all spiritual disciplines it has its shadows. One is thinking what one is doing is somehow special.

From that sense of special the monk corrects the old Layman.

Looking up from what I’m pretty sure was an early edition of the Stone of the Heart, Pang lifts his leg. Now this is a Zen story, so he’s not telling the monk to get stuffed or anything rude. Or, at least, the rude would, if anything, be frosting on the cake.

In the West the death of a notable is often memorialized as a feast. A festival. So, a slice of a cake from and for the old teacher.

He’s meeting the monk on equal ground, inviting him to step beyond the rules, if only for a second, and to experience for himself what is. The thing from which the rules all explode like a thousand thousand suns.

The book in hand, a leg shifts upward.

Universes are born and collapse.

Legs raise. Arms spread out. Guanyin reveals herself…

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