Dharma Talk, February 2013

Tonight I would like to tell a little story; it’s an old Zen story that goes back to China, long, long time ago and it is about a famous Zen master. I don’t know this Chinese name but the Japanese pronunciation of the characters of the master’s name is Tanka (丹霞天然, b. 739 , d. 824). Tanka is quite well known for what he did in this story; sometimes Zen uses stories to illustrate, to make some of the principles come to life. With the story of course come many interpretations of the story, some of them more appropriate, some of them less appropriate, however if you get the story, if you get what is behind it, then that will probably answer this question: “How important it is to know about appropriate and inappropriate, right or wrong interpretations of stories, of things that happen?”

It used to be customary for someone who has finished his studies and Zen with one teacher, after being authorized by that teacher, to move on and go on a pilgrimage to find other teaches, to further deepen one’s understanding, to further study, to get even deeper into the matter – the great matter of life and death. It was not the sign of not being done or not having received enough that one went on to study with other teachers, it’s just the accomplishment of “not stopping,” of continuing to study, of continuing one’s practice, because in the end – as we learn to see – there is no time to actually stop the practice, there is no place to arrive. Tanka, after having received inka shomei (the seal of approval) from his master Sekito Kisen (石頭希遷, b. 700, d. 790), he went out to look for other teachers. It was customary to stay over in Zen temples. When one would arrive at a Zen Buddhist temple one could ask at night for admission, so that one would not have to spend the night outside, under the stars. During winter time that’s not such a nice thing to do, and it was winter when Tanka came to a Zen Temple, where there were a couple of monks living, but no real teacher. The monks were very happy to take him in and to offer him food, to offer him a place to stay. Somehow they must have known by his way of manifestation, or by the way he looked or whatever, they picked up on the fact that he was an experienced Zen master. There he was in his room and in the evening the head monk went to check on him, to make sure that everything is okay. The head monk asked for permission to come into the room and Tanka said “Come in?”  The head monk opened the sliding door and – it is warm in the room, how come it is warm? There was no wood anywhere to make a fire, so the head monk entered, he closed the door and was really surprised, positively, that it was so nice and warm. Tanka sat there, next to a fire, warming his hands and the head monk was quite astonished and he said to Tanka “Where did you get the wood?” Tanka turned and he pointed to the altar, and where the Buddha used to sit – there was nothing! The head monk, to put it mildly, he was shocked! He didn’t know what to say; he looked at Tanka. “What did you do? You, you took the holy Lord Buddha, and you hacked him to pieces for your own personal need for heat? I don’t understand how a master like you could commit such a sacrilegious act?”  Of course, Tanka just chuckled. “What are you talking about? All I did was that I took a piece of wood, I hacked it into pieces, I made a fire and now both of us enjoy the warmth. You say it’s the holy Lord Buddha? I’m telling you, it’s nothing but a piece of wood, and I’ve used it to a worthwhile purpose. Come on, come closer, you still look like you are cold…” And so the head monk listened, and he understood: it was just a piece of wood, it was just an image. Of course it is not anything that is holy!

Everybody went to bed, and the next morning, when it was time for Tanka to leave, to move on with his travels, he met with the head monk and asked to be brought to the main hall. The head monk brought him to the main hall, Tanka went in, went in front of the large Buddha statue and started to bow, do prostrations.  Now the head monk really didn’t understand. When Tanka was done the head monk said “Master you just taught me last night that the Buddha statue is just a piece of wood, that it is not anything but a piece of wood – and now, just a few hours later, you, you, you throw yourself on the ground in front of this piece of wood! I really don’t know what to think about this!” Tanka looked at him and said “How can you say that! Don’t you see, it’s not a piece of wood, it’s an image of the Lord Buddha and you ought to throw yourself on the ground and prostrate yourself in front of Buddha! How dare you call it just a piece of wood!”

Tanka said his goodbyes and left. The head monk of course was completely confused. It took him a long time to figure out what the teaching behind this is. Sometimes an object is just an object, sometimes – in this case a Buddha statue made from wood is just a piece of wood. Action and relationship can transform it into something completely different; Non-attachments to the idea what the object stands for, a becoming free from convention, making connection with what is there, what is “suchness.” This is one way to relate to the world; yet at other times an object is not just an object, at other times we can give ourselves fully to the object and become one with it, and give it our reverence, completely disappear into the act of becoming one: eliminating the distinction between subject and object. We fully engage in the process of relationship, where the self disappears. What Zen tries to teach us, and what the story tries to teach us, is that nothing is fixated. Relationship and making relationship with “suchness”, making relationship with things as they are comes in many different ways. None of them is fixated. In the same way that Tanka gave all his attention to hacking that Buddha statue into pieces, so he could turn it into firewood, with the same intensity he put himself into the act of prostrating, into the prostrations, into making relationship- not with an idea, not with an object, but with life, by fully being there. An outside observer may be utterly confused if that observer is attached to ideas, to a fixated self. What really happened with the head monk that evening, when he thought he understood that it was just a piece of wood, is that he merely exchanged his idea of what it ought to be with a different idea. Tanka taught him the next morning that replacing one idea with another idea is not the same as becoming free from having any such preconceived notions and ideas. Developing the capacity and the ability to freshly meet every moment, every object, every person and make appropriate relationship is one of the things that Zen practice and the Zen way teach us: beyond holy, beyond profane, beyond “this” and “that”, just making full relationship. Tanka is not iconoclastic, no, it goes beyond that – and that is the difficult thing to understand, because one cannot understand it in a two-dimensional way, one has to experience and manifest it. Then there remains no question what Tanka was teaching.