Pointing finger

There is an old Chan and Zen story that goes like this:

The Zen teacher’s dog loved his evening romp with his master. The dog would bound ahead to fetch a stick, then run back, wag his tail, and wait for the next game. On this particular evening, the teacher invited one of his brightest students to join him – a boy so intelligent that he became troubled by the contradictions in Buddhist doctrine.

“You must understand,” said the teacher, “that words are only guideposts. Never let the words or symbols get in the way of truth. Here, I’ll show you.”

With that the teacher called his happy dog.

“Fetch me the moon,” he said to his dog and pointed to the full moon.

“Where is my dog looking?” asked the teacher of the bright pupil.

“He’s looking at your finger.”

“Exactly. Don’t be like my dog. Don’t confuse the pointing finger with the thing that is being pointed at. All our Buddhist words are only guideposts. Every man fights his way through other men’s words to find his own truth.”

The story is based on teachings given by the Buddha to Mahamati, recorded in the Lankavatara Sutta – a Mahayanan text.

In the sutta he tells Mahamati to look beyond the words, beyond the “pointing finger” to the real meaning. I love this teaching because it can be applied to so many aspects of life, including the texts of other religions such as the Bible or Quran which contain so many wonderful teachings on love, generosity, and kindness. 

The Buddha sometimes spoke of the “84,000 dhamma gates” which was a metaphor for the innumerable ways to enlightenment. The teaching represents the Buddha’s tolerance for other religions at the time, and an acceptance that Buddhism doesn’t have some sort of monopoly on enlightenment. It’s a reminder that we should be tolerant in this modern age too. If a person is striving towards a religion’s goal and they are a good, moral, and upright person, then this is superb!

I think that people of all religious paths can learn a lot from each other. We are all teachers and all students!

If you enjoyed this post you might find others you like in the Bite-Size Dhamma archive!

Image of moon courtesy of NASA. 

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Ryonen and the Hot Iron

There is a Zen story which I think people find hard to digest now. I think you will see why. It goes like this:

There was a young woman born in 1797 who would one day become the nun known as Ryonen. She was a grand daughter of the famous Japanese warrior Shingen. This status, her poety skills, and her alluring beauty made it possible for her to become one of the Empress’s Ladies of the Court at the young age of 17. She expected to lead a life of great fame. 

One day, the beloved Empress died suddenly and Ryonen’s hopeful dreams vanished. She became acutely aware of the impermanency of life in this world. It was then that she made new plans to become a nun and study Zen. 

Her relatives disagreed with her new plans and forced her into marriage instead, with a promise that she could become a nun after she had borne three children.

Before she was twenty-five she had accomplished this. Her husband and relatives kept their promise and allowed her become a nun. She shaved her head, took the name of Ryonen, which means ‘to realize clearly’, and started on her pilgrimage to find a teacher. 

After some time she came to the city of Edo and asked Tetsugya to accept her as a disciple. At one glance the master rejected her because she was too beautiful. 

Ryonen went to another master, Hakuo. Hakuo refused her for the same reason, saying that her beauty would only make trouble within the temple. 

Ryonen made a decision. 

Now at that time it was the custom for Japanese women to use hot irons to straighten their long hair.  Ryonen obtained such a hot iron and placed it against her face. In a few moments her beauty had vanished forever.

Hakuo then accepted her as a disciple. 

Ryonen wrote a short poem afterwards:

“In the service of my Empress I burned incense to perfume my exquisite clothes,

Now as a homeless mendicant I burn my face to enter a Zen temple.”

There are two reasons I can see this story sticking in people’s throats.

Firstly, that someone would disfigure themselves, destroy their beauty. We live in an age where people worship beauty, obsess over it in many cases. The thought that someone would renounce it in such a permanent manner will seem extreme to many. But we must remember that Buddhism teaches there are many things more important than physical beauty. Ryonen did what she needed to do, and she knew she was more than just her looks. 

The second reason modern people might find this story unpalatable is Hakuo’s insinuation that her beauty may cause trouble within the temple. I imagine what he meant by this was that some of the monks may be tempted by her. And this is the one that I find difficult to reconcile, especially in this age of renewed gender equality activism.

It brings to mind stories of teenage girls being asked to cover themselves up at school, or being sent home, rather than the teenage boys being taught not to oversexualise shoulders and legs. And this feels the wrong way round. 

Should the monks not have embraced the situation as an extra challenge in their practice? Should Ryonen have had to resort to covering her beauty to be allowed into the temple?

The bottom line is that, in a Temple, practice comes first and anything making it more difficult should be overcome if possible to allow everyone the best chance to achieve their spiritual goals. Ryonen seemed to appreciate this and took it upon herself to renounce her beauty in order to embrace the spiritual life fully. And that she did. 

When Ryonen was close to dying she wrote another short poem which really showed, when compared with her earlier poem, how far she had come in her practice:

“Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing scenes of autumn.

I have said enough about moonlight, and still waters reflections.

Ask no more.

Only listen to the quiet voice of pines and cedars when no wind stirs.”

If you enjoyed this post you might find others you like in the Bite-Size Dharma archive!

Moving village

There was a person coming to a new village, relocating, and he was wondering if he would like it there, so he went to the zen master and asked: 

“Do you think I will like it in this village? Are the people nice?”
The master asked back:

“How were the people on the town where you come from?”

“They were nasty and greedy, they were angry and lived for cheating and stealing,” said the newcomer.

“Those are exactly the type of people we have in this village”, said the master.

Another newcomer to the village visited the master and asked the same question, to which the master asked:

“How were the people in the town where you come from?”

“They were sweet and lived in harmony, they cared for one another and for the land, they respected each other and they were seekers of spirit,” he replied

“Those are exactly the type of people we have in this village”, said the master.

– Old story, Zen Tradition.

Wise man

Word spread across the countryside about the wise Holy Man who lived in a small house atop the mountain. A man from the village decided to make the long and difficult journey to visit him. When he arrived at the house, he saw an old servant inside who greeted him at the door.

“I would like to see the wise Holy Man,” he said to the servant. The servant smiled and led him inside. As they walked through the house, the man from the village looked eagerly around the house, anticipating his encounter with the Holy Man. Before he knew it, he had been led to the back door and escorted outside. 

He stopped and turned to the servant, “But I want to see the Holy Man!”

“You already have,” said the old man. “Everyone you may meet in life, even if they appear plain and insignificant… see each of them as a wise Holy Man. If you do this, then whatever problem you brought here today will be solved.”
– Zen Story, unknown origin. 

Reformation


Ryokan devoted his life to the study of Zen. One day he heard that his nephew, despite the admonitions of relatives, was spending his money on a courtesan. Inasmuch as the nephew had taken Ryokan’s place in managing the family estate and the property was in danger of being dissipated, the relatives asked Ryokan to do something about it.

Ryokan had to travel a long way to visit his nephew, whom he had not seen for many years. The nephew seemed pleased to meet his uncle again and invited him to remain overnight.
All night Ryokan sat in meditation. As he was departing in the morning he said to the young man:

“I must be getting old, my hand shakes so. Will you help me tie the string of my straw sandal?”

The nephew helped him willingly.

“Thank you,” finished Ryokan, “you see, a man becomes older and feebler day by day. Take good care of yourself.”

Then Ryokan left, never mentioning a word about the courtesan or the complaints of the relatives. But, from that morning on, the dissipations of the nephew ended.

– Zen Tradition.

The taste of Banzo’s sword

Matajuro Yagyu was the son of a famous swordsman. His father, believing that his son’s work was too mediocre to anticipate mastership, disowned him.

So Matajuro went to Mount Futara and there found the famous swordsman Banzo. But Banzo confirmed the father’s judgment. “You wish to learn swordsmanship under my guidance?” asked Banzo. “You cannot fulfill the requirements.”

“But if I work hard, how many years will it take to become a master?” persisted the youth.

“The rest of your life,” replied Banzo.

“I cannot wait that long,” explained Matajuro. “I am willing to pass through any hardship if only you will teach me. If I become your devoted servant, how long might it be?”

“Oh, maybe ten years,” Banzo relented.

“My father is getting old, and soon I must take care of him,” continued Matajuro. “If I work far more intensively, how long would it take me?”

“Oh, maybe thirty years,” said Banzo.

“Why is that?” asked Matajuro. “First you say ten and now thirty years. I will undergo any hardship to master this art in the shortest time!”

“Well,” said Banzo, “in that case you will have to remain with me for seventy years. A man in such a hurry as you are to get results seldom learns quickly.”

“Very well,” declared the youth, understanding at last that he was being rebuked for impatience, “I agree.”

Matajuro was told never to speak of fencing and never to touch a sword. He cooked for his master, washed the dishes, made his bed, cleaned the yard, cared for the garden, all without a word of swordmanship.

Three years passed. Still Matajuro labored on. Thinking of his future, he was sad. He had not even begun to learn the art to which he had devoted his life.

But one day Banzo crept up behind him and gave him a terrific blow with a wooden sword.

The following day, when Matajuro was cooking rice, Banzo again sprang upon him unexpectedly.

After that, day and night, Matajuro had to defend himself from unexpected thrusts. Not a moment passed in any day that he did not have to think of the taste of Banzo’s sword.

He learned so rapidly he brought smiles to the face of his master. Matajuro became the greatest swordsman in the land.

– Zen story from the Collection of Stone and Sand. 

Black-Nosed Buddha

A nun who was searching for enlightenment made a statue of Buddha and covered it with gold leaf. Wherever she ent she carried this golden Buddha with her.Years passed and, still carrying her Buddha, the nun came to live in a small temple in a country where there were many Buddhas, each one with its own particular shrine.

The nun wished to burn incense before her golden Buddha. Not liking the idea of the perfume straying to others, she devised a funnel through which the smoke would ascend only to her statue. This blackened the nose of the golden Buddha, making it especially ugly.

– Zen story from the Collection of Stone and Sand.