ZEN COMMENTS ON AN ANCIENT KOAN
Baofu and Changqing Go on a Picnic
Blue Cliff Record, Case 23
(Reprinted with permission from Koan Conversations by my old friend Ken Ireland.
Ken is someone to know.
Ken began meditation practice in the early 70’s while a Jesuit. Claudio Naranjo introduced him to zazen as well as the Enneagram. He also introduced Ken to Master C.M. Chen, who went to Tibet in 1929.
Ken has studied and practiced with both Asian teachers and the first generation of western teachers. He lived and practiced at the Hartford Street Zen Center during the last years of Issan “Tommy” Dorsey’s life, and served as the second director of Maitri Hospice.
After Issan died, Ken continued to work in the Soto tradition with Zenshin Philip Whalen and Maylie Scott. For more than 30 years he has been working with koans, first as a student of Robert Aitken Roshi, then under John Tarrant Roshi, Jon Joseph Roshi, and currently with Ed Oberholtzer Roshi of the Empty Moon lineage.
Now living in McLeod Ganj, India, he also studies with Geshe-ma Kelsang Wangmo.
Some of Ken’s writings can be found online at Buddha, S.J., Koan Conversations, All and Everything Enneagram, plus just a collection of Poems that I love.
Ken is editor of the book Intimate Meanderings.)
ZEN COMMENTS ON AN ANCIENT KOAN
When Baofu and Changqing went on a picnic in the hills, Baofu pointed to the top of a hill, saying, “That’s the top of Miao Peak.”1 “That’s true, you are right,” said Changqing. “But a pity,” he added. (Xuedou: What are you doing, going on a picnic with him? I can’t say there will be no one like these two a hundred years from now, but there will be very few.) Later Baofu told Jingqing about this. Jingqing said, “If it were not for Master Changqing, skulls would appear in every field.”
Blue Cliff Record, Case 23
1 Miao Peak is the Peak of Wonder, the center of Paradise, according to the Huayan or Avatamsaka Sutra.
It was one of those crazy things you do when you travel with a fairly open agenda. We’d been visiting Angkor Wat for almost a week, and didn’t have to be in Ho Chi Minh City for another two. While in Siem Reap we’d heard about an adventurous boat trip, billed as once in a lifetime: You crossed the southern end of the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia, Tonle Sap, and then followed a long shallow river upstream to a former French provincial capital, Krong Battambang.
We booked, but so did about 200 other people, mostly European kids. After arguing with the tour organizers–we were not going to sit on the hot metal roof of a flat river boat in the blazing sun for the 8 hour trip, they relented and hired another smaller boat to take the overflow. Once on board we discovered that even in a smaller boat the trip would be arduous, the river was low but flowing swiftly against us. Three added hours under a metal roof were just as hot as sitting on one, but we were spared sunburn. In the smaller boat, we were less than 30. We met and chatted with a lovely young German couple who were on their way to work for several years in New Zealand. The journey was tough going, but company helped.
The next day was Mardi Gras, and we arranged to have dinner with them. Ashish found a highly rated restaurant called La Pomme d’Amour. I know the exact date, February 12th 2013. Sometimes larger events help mark the calendar accurately. The day before when we were cut off from the world on our river boat excursion, Benedict, the oldest person elected to the papacy since the 18th century, announced he would be the first pope in centuries to resign.
Our new friends told us. They were actually shocked. They still considered themselves Catholic even though they were an unmarried couple, but they were definitely Bavarian. One of their own was doing something unimaginable. I was startled by the news of Benedict’s resignation, but I think that I was more amazed at how our young friends had packed for their trip. The man wore incredibly crafted lederhosen with a pressed white shirt and his very beautiful girlfriend had on an exquisitely embroidered traditional dress. Ashish and I only carried the basics. Our European friends dressed for the occasion.
One thing about the French colonies, they have retained a tradition of cuisine. Even in this small Cambodian town, even after the unspeakable barbarity of the Khmer Rouge, there was still wonderful food. We enjoyed our dinner and the conversation. We agreed to explore together the next day.
We arranged for a larger tuk-tuk, seats for four, and driver for the day. Cambodians are in general smaller than a big American and a big muscled Bavarian boy, but we all managed to squeeze in. We’d heard about a bamboo train in the nearby hills. There was also a small ruin similar to Angkor Wat about 11 km out of town. We met early, before the sun got too hot. Before noon, we’d taken the train and climbed up to the ruin. We asked the driver what else he would recommend. With limited communication he indicated that he knew a place.
The small Buddhist temple at Phnom Sampeau was about another 7-10 km across the flat plain. It’s nice enough but really just a fairly ordinary concrete temple variations of which dot southeast Asia. We thought that was the end of our trip. But once there, some young boys drove up on their two wheelers and offered to take us up the very steep hill to the caves. They were very friendly, and happy for the work. We were told that there was a pagoda and a very simple Buddhist shrine near the summit. We could just make out the pagoda from the valley floor. At a kind of intermediate temple on the side on the narrow path about halfway up a few monks were chanting and performing rituals, but more just seemed to be hanging out with some Cambodian families. The walls inside were decorated with rather naive scenes from the Lord Buddha’s teaching career. They seemed to be done in acrylics right out of the tube. I noticed that you could commission a wall painting for a hundred US dollars and have it dedicated to whomever you wanted to have remembered and continually prayed for. I made a mental note that I might have one done for my dad. Somehow I began to sense that the whole mountain was about remembering ancestors.
We continued uphill with our young breakneck drivers, eventually arriving at the top of some wooden steps leading down into a large opening of what seemed to be very beautiful limestone caves. We noticed that a very simple Buddhist shrine and altar had been set up on a level just below us. We had arrived at the killing caves, a Khmer Rouge execution site where they shot, strangled or slit the necks of their victims at the rim of this daylight shaft or ceiling hole, and then threw the dead bodies into the cave. Sometimes we were told, towards the end of their atrocities, in order to save bullets they simply threw people, teachers, doctors, almost anyone with an education, into the caves. They’d even killed children. If their victims were lucky, they died when they hit the floor. Otherwise they died of starvation or were killed when other bodies landed on them. There was a glass box containing skulls and some bone fragments. I can’t remember if anyone mentioned an estimate of how many people were killed there, but between 17 April 1975 – 7 January 1979 nearly two million were executed in a small country, so the number of people killed here was perhaps tens of thousands if not more.
We were shaken.
We climbed back up the steps and continued towards the summit on foot. We separated. Ashish and our friends headed towards the viewpoint. It seemed like just a few steps from the opening of the cave I saw an elevated path towards the pagoda and small shrine. Inside a monk was sitting on the floor. When he saw me approach the door, he gestured for me to come and sit with him.
He was perhaps in his late 30’s, early 40’s, Cambodian. I calculated that he would have either been born during the period of the Khmer’s slaughter or just after it ended, after millions were killed. He didn’t say. He was alone. He was too young to be the abbot of the community, but he wasn’t the duty monk. A rather forlorn layman by the shrine in the killing cave collected donations. The monk spoke meticulous, fluent English. There’d been many Americans in Cambodia after the war, helping rebuild the country. Perhaps he’d been part of that effort.
He asked where I was from, and how I got there? He didn’t see many foreign tourists. I asked him where he’d learned such good English. He told me that he’d been to Catholic school. He’d been Catholic. I think I remember him saying that he’d even been a Catholic religious. Yes, of course he knew some Jesuits. They were mostly in Phnom Penh.
I asked him what he did. He said that he mostly just sat and practiced in the small shrine room. Sometimes people came by. Sometimes they asked him to chant memorial prayers for their relatives who’d died in the caves, but not often. Senior monks did that. There would have been a donation involved. Some people just had to talk; he was there to listen; sometimes people just sat with him. I felt a real connection with my fellow former-Catholic Buddhist.
After about a half hour, Ashish called out that it was time to get back down hill. It was getting dark. The motorcycle boys were anxious about the narrow path. There was a long tuk-tuk drive back to Battambang. I bowed and left.
Grâce à Google I was able to find some pictures of Phnom Sampeau. It’s almost exactly as I remember it with perhaps a few additions over a decade. Grâce à the koan, I am able to picnic with Baofu and Changqing on a peak of wonder. Grâce à my friend, we were able to help some of the skulls in the Killing Caves lose their power over people’s lives, my own included.
La Pomme d’Amour still gets good reviews for lovely food. I stayed in touch with the young German couple for a while on Facebook. When I lost track of them, they were no longer a couple, but apparently both happy. I hope they are still thriving. I have no idea what became of my wonderful solitary monk. I trust that he’s still making skulls, in one form or another, disappear from every field. The koan says there’s some chance.