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The Way of Zen
By David Scott
There are a number of metaphors for the path of Zen training, the most common being the ten 'Ox-herding' pictures however in the Gakudo-Yojinshu (Guidelines for studying the way) Dogen Zenji used another:
People practising the way these these days have not yet understood what the way is, so strongly do they desire to gain visible results. Who does not make this mistake? It is like a young man who runs from his father and his inheritance, and wanders here and there in poverty. Though he is the only child of a wealthy family, he is not aware of this, and endlessly wanders in foreign lands scratching around for work. Indeed all people are like this.
Originally the story of the young man who runs away from home comes from the 'White Lotus' Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism, a text which, as a novice monk, Dogen almost certainly knew by heart.
In the complete story the young man's father, greatly saddened at the loss of his only son, searched for him without success, and eventually settled in a particular town. Being exceedingly wealthy he built himself a fine mansion on a large estate.
Now there came a time when the son felt drawn back towards his own country, and one day he wandered unknowingly into his father's town and approached the mansion looking for work. The young man was really very shabby, and seeing the splendour of the mansion, and the nobility and finery of its owner upon the veranda, decided this was no place for him. So he started to walk on. Meanwhile, his father had never forgotten the young man's face, and immediately recognized him in the crowd outside the mansion. Overjoyed, he sent two of his most important retainers to welcome his son home. Unfortunately, the son having no idea of these men's intention, and fearing he might be killed or enslaved, fought them off and escaped into the slums. Learning of this, his father decided to send two servants dressed in ragged clothes to seek out his son and offer menial work on the estate.
In this way the young man was lured back into the mansion where he began to work clearing away a huge heap of filth. At night he returned to the slums. As time went by the young man became more comfortable with his surroundings, and accepted an offer of a humble dwelling nearer to the estate. Later, the father dressed himself in work clothes and was able to approach his son and talk with him. The father encouraged the young man in his work, which over time became better quality and more responsible. The son was also told he could visit the mansion house whenever he liked.
Although the son was happy to be treated so well, he retained the conviction that he was subservient to the powerful noble who so kindly employed him; and he felt himself very lowly and unworthy of such generosity. However, he worked faithfully and diligently, and his father continued to give him more and more responsibilty until, eventually, he became the manager of the entire estate. After many years the son's sense of inferiority lessened somewhat, and he became to be very friendly with his father. When his death drew near, the father called together all the local dignitaries and his servants and retainers. Before them he announced that the poor man he had taken in and entrusted with management of his estate was, in fact, his own son to whom all his property now belonged. Only then did the the young man realize to his joy that this was his father and such was his inheritance.
As in myth, the story symbolizes the urge of the human psyche towards wholeness. The father, of course, represents Buddha-nature or true self; he also stands for the Zen teacher. The son is the ego-self (discriminating mind). The story begins with the predicament in which most people are placed; one of alienation from Buddha-nature which they do not recognize within themselves. In the Gakudo Yojinshu, dogen Zenji is saying that the degree of people's alienation is represented by the extent to which, like the young man, they have wandered into 'foreign lands' forgotten their 'family' and 'inheritance' and live as 'destitutes', preoccupied with 'scratching a living'. In other words, alienation lies on the extent to which a person's approach to life is basedon external gains and successes (what Dogen calls 'visible gain'), as opposed to reflection upon the nature of life-as-it-is. The greater part of humanity is to too preoccupied with its habitual needs ('scratching a living') ever to stop and consciously reflect on the way life really is. Indeed the whole direction and 'culture' of society conspires, as it were, against such reflection: thus does humankind live in 'foreign lands'. Nevertheless, there often comes a time when, almost instinctively, even the busiest and outwardly most materialistic person is impelled back towards harmony with his or or her life and true self. In this way the young man was drawn by his own need for work back to his father's gate.
Some people find themselves obliged to reflect upon who they really are when something happens to them which call into question the meaning of life; when faced for example with the inevitability of death. However most people are fairly adept at ignoring such issues, or at least marginalizing them as purely 'religious' interest. Part of the reason for this may be, as the story hints, consequence of acknowledging that life is really a mystery to us is very frightening for the ego-self. The young man ran away in fear from his father's house and his father's high-ranking retainers.
Another aspect is the extent to which, like the son, people regard themselves as unworthy or as failures. Sometimes people want answer to what the regard as 'spiritual' problems, but are afraid to look for them, and doubt their own ability to understand. However, the urge of the self towards wholeness, and so in the story the father adopts what in Zen is called compassionate or 'skilful' means. Instead of trying to force his son home, he sends two poorly dressed servants to offer the young man that which he thinks he wants: humble work.
For those in whose lives doubt about the meaning of life does arise it can take on fundamental importance, and is often the reason they turn to Zen, or learn meditation. For others, it often happens that the initial reason they take up Zen is not consciously to do with any need they would call 'spiritual. More usually people just want some peace of mind, to improve their concentration or to release stress. Perhaps one of their friends happened to mention meditation might help, so they decide to try.
Zen is not about the extraordinary. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi repeatedly told his american students that it is'nothing special'. So in the story the young man was set to work in familiar surroundings, clearing up a huge pile of filth. Traditionally clearing the filth is said to symbolize the work of clearing away delusions. The significance of this is important. The pile of filth is enormous. In Mahayana buddhism an Zen there are four Bodhisattva Vows, the second of which is: 'Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them'. Although the son worked faithfully and diligently, the Sutra does not say he got to the end of the pile of filth. His work was itself the way. Earlier the point was made that Zen practice is not about getting rid of the ego, and it is the same with delusion. There is a famous Mahayana saying: 'The passions are the bodhi (Enlightenment).' Many people quickly become disillusions with Zen practice because that take it up imagining that by meditating, for example, they will henceforth experience only peace, love and harmony; whereas what they actually encounter is that pile of filth: all the greed, hatred, jealousy, feelings of inadequacy and so on that they thought to avoid through Zen. In fact their practice has reached a crucial stage, and the role of the teacher now becomes very important. By training with a teacher the significance of the disillusionment may be understood, and the student is goaded and encouraged to keep going. From the teacher the student will learn that passions are passions to the extent they are indulged or repressed, and bodhi to the extent they are accepted and allowed to pass through the mind unconditionally and without judgment. (the Zen student does not vow to put an end to desires because in the end he will do so but in order to foster an attitude to training that is indomitable. Zen is simple, but its lessons are tough and have to be learn't time and time again. One Zen master even said his whole life had been a series of mistakes.)
As the young man matured he was given more responsibility, and eventually felt sufficiently self-confident to come and go from the mansion house. He still did not live there or appreciate who he really was. There is often a feeling in Zen training that one understand more than one is capable of expressing as a living reality. Thus a frequent question asked by people with both a little and a lot of experience of Zen training is:'How can I make my Zen practice a part of my daily life?' Their is the relative calm and serenity of the meditation hall on one hand, and the mess with live in on the other. This is wandering in and out of the mansion house. Gradually, with maturity and practice, the 'gap' narrows between what has been understood on the one hand, and how e live our lives on the other.
The death of the father, and the sons realization of his real identity represents many things. It is, of course the end of his journey and the death of alienation between essential nature and ego-self. It may be asked whether the sons realization was sudden or gradual. Did he only realize who he was for the first time at the very end? Or is it more likely that he had slowly coming to suspect it for some time, and at the end his suspicion was merely confirmed as certainty? Are we witnessing here what Christmas Humphries called'...A direct assault upon the citadel of Truth', or is it as Suzuki Roshi would have it, that progress is made little by little? He described it thus:
In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but you keep walking you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say:'Oh this pace is terrible'. But actually it is not. When you get wet in a fog it is very difficult to dry yourself. So there is no need to worry about progress. It is like studying a foreign language; you cannot do it all of a sudden, but by repeating it over and over again you will master it. This is the Soto way of practice.
Zen is called 'Shiho', Dharma transmission, the handing on of the Buddha's teaching. All these things happened when when the son was good and ready. Nothing could be forced on him. He had to develop the faith in himself to take on the management of his father's estate. In Zen training the speed of the students progress will depend on his or capacity and commitment. Some are quick, others are slow. Some want complete realization, others will settle for something less.
Since father and son are elements of the same mind,what,it may be asked, has
the son inherited that he did not have originally? In one sense nothing has
been gained, but in another the son has come very far indeed. It is a matter
of perspective. When asked a similar question by the emperor of China, Wu-ti,
the First Patriarch of Chinese Zen, Bodhdharma, said: 'Vast emp-tiness, nothing
holy.' Pressed further he replied with 'Socratic certainty that he didn't know.
We have already seen that Vomalakirti kept silent.
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