If you come before Master Nansen,
will you come holding the posture
of a monk or a lay person,
and when Nansen turns you away,
how will you exit the room?
and gassho hands –
both are so easily manacled –
why leave the room at all?
A reflection on case 44 of the Iron Flute (Tetteki tōsui 鐵笛倒吹)
The old monk stooped carefully,
gingerly picking each browning leaf
from the dry garden and gently
placing it in the sack he carried.
With each leaf he would increase
his count, always certain that it
fully fell into the sack.
When the last leaf was picked
and even the autumn tree
dared not drop another this day,
the monk dumped the leaves
onto the stone of the garden
and stooped carefully,
gingerly picking each browning leaf.
A watching visitor asked the abbot
if the monk had dementia,
but the abbot smiled and said,
“He is the sanest one among us,
watch how he wholly engages his practice.”
The old monk asked the young man
why he seemed so worried.
“Because, sensei, you are old and will die soon!”
“Why does that worry you?”
“Because, like everyone, I fear death.”
“Not everyone, certainly, I do not fear death.”
“How can you not fear death?”
“There is nothing to fear, I fear life.”
“Why do you fear life? This is hard.”
“No, this is easy, dying is hard
because dying is just the end of living.”
“So master, should I fear life?”
“Life is this moment and the next
and next until there is no next.”
And remember, you didn’t fear being born.”
The old monk, leaning on his cane
smiled at the man prostrating himself
before the great Buddha repeatedly.
The monk gently interrupted the man,
“what is it you hope to achieve
by all of these prostrations, you clearly
are seeking something, you clearly
have not found what you are seeking.”
“I am seeking the wisdom that only
the great Buddha can provide,”
the man said, looking into the eyes
of the old monk, who only smiled.
The monk reached within his robe,
pulled out a mirror and held it
in front of the man, who stared
deeply into it, smiled and walked away.
The monk prostrated himself three times
to the great Golden Buddha, who smiled.
A reflection on Case 11 of the Shobogenzo
pond’s surface ripples
each following another
stone hidden from sight
the old monk listens
to the song of the passing breeze
stars sing the refrain
Buddha walks the road
ignoring all around him
each finds a teacher
a circular path
will take you nowhere quickly
again and again
At the left click of the mouse
my granddaughter appears
barely a week old
and with a right-click
she is frozen into the hard drive.
I remember sitting outside
the Buddha Hall of Todai-Ji Temple
in the mid-morning August sun the
smiling at a baby waiting in her stroller
for her mother to bow
to the giant golden Buddha.
I recall the soft touch
of the young monk on my shoulder,
his gentle smile, and
in halting English, his saying,
“All babies have the face
of the old man Buddha.”
In the photos, the smile
of my granddaughter is the smile
on the face of Thay,
the suppressed giggle that always
lies below the face of Tenzin Gyatso.
There is much I want to ask her,
my little Buddha, there is much
she could offer, but I know
that like all with Buddha mind
she will respond with her own Mu
and set me back on my path.
Another day attempts
to slide by in the shadows,
avoiding capture by pen and
journal, fleeing into night
where November clouds
provide infinite hiding places.
Or, perhaps, it will find shelter
in the blinding golden glare
of Pan Wat Lao Buddhadam,
that appears mystically
out of the Henrietta field.
It’s monk smiles, knowing
so very little English,
and I not a word of Lao.
But our gassho brings
the smile of the Buddha
and that, we both understand,
knows no language barriers.