CityZen is a meditation and koan practice center in Santa Rosa CA, led by Rachel Mansfield-Howlett Roshi, a lineage holder in the Pacific Zen School. We're meeting via Zoom every Monday evening for meditation, dharma talk, and discussion. Please contact Zenappt@gmail.com to receive the link to these interactive evenings.
This commentary is by Reverend Chris
Bell, Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa; Head of
Once, when the teacher Dongshan and a monk were
washing their bowls in a stream, they saw two crows fighting over a squirming frog.
The monk asked, "Why does it always have to come down to this?"Dongshan
replied, "It’s only for your benefit, Honored One.”
Here is a famous and challenging Zen koan for your meditation. We have what Western
theologians call a theodicy – a theory of evil. Theodicy asks and tries to
answer such eternal questions as Why does evil exist and what is its origin? How
can a good Ultimate/God/Source allow for, or even cause, needless and
undeserved pain? How shall we face the real complexity of life, which includes
destructive emotions and impulses, wrong and harmful choices, and the
inevitable reality of sickness and death? These are the monk’s questions, when
he asks, “Why does it come to this?”
Dongshan’s answer is
shocking. Pain and suffering is “for your
benefit, Honored One.” In fact, the ancient Chinese is vague enough that
his response might actually be: “It is because of you, Honored One!” Wait, that
doesn’t seem fair! How could it be because of ME, when it’s been going on for
eons before I even got here?
Of course, that “Honored
One” doesn’t refer just to the individuated monk, although it includes him. It
refers to the Honored ONENESS, the completeness of being, the Universe, the
Tao, the God/Goddess. You know, the Great Big Thing/Verb that has been going on
Zen considers koans as actual
instances where non-dualistic consciousness of the Oneness is manifested. That story
conveys a moment of embracing the world completely, without rejecting any part
Yes, animals eat other
animals. Yes, most lives involve some pain and all end in death. Yet life also
includes the monk’s compassion for the frog and the crows. Affirming that
EVERYTHING is connected and whole is the essence of Buddhist wisdom, although such
an approach is not exclusive to Buddhism.
Writing in the The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley
argued that a universal core, an “inexhaustible theme,” he argued, is found in
rudimentary form even in the traditions of the most ancient people, and “has
been treated again and again, from the standpoint of every religious tradition
and in all the principal languages of Asia and Europe” until the present. He
called this theme the Perennial Philosophy, and described it as “the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to
the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or
even identical with, divine Reality; and the ethicthat places humanity’s final end in the knowledge
of the immanent and transcendentGround of
all being.” The whole point of
life, the Perennial Philosophy argues, is to awaken to this divine Reality, and
then to live and act from that awareness.
Remarkably, the Real
Ground, with which we are intimately connected, is consistently described by mystics
and poets and preachers and philosophers, in spite of life’s hardships, as
benevolent, intelligent and compassionate. Even in allegedly non-theist Buddhism
the NOT-TWO is called “a formless field of benefaction.”
Universalists affirmed this teaching, affirming our “Likeness to God” and proclaiming
the primacy of God’s all-inclusive Love. We do too, as modern Unitarian
Universalists. Our First Source steers us toward “direct experience of that
transcending mystery and wonder, known in all cultures, which moves us to
renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold
life.” We call the One an “Interconnected Web of All Existence,” and give it at
least our respect, if not our unbridled love and devotion.
I have come to trust Life
completely. I experience a divine Power surging through creation toward beauty,
complexity and harmony, which gives us the capacity to love. Spring comes with
peach blossoms and the moon and I are made of the same stuff.
Like many people over the
centuries, I find that when I stop trying to exclude portions of Reality, and
take it on its own terms, I actually become more fearless, more free, more
creative, and more appreciative of all that is good in life.
In the face of suffering,
the One turns me toward a higher inclusiveness and compassion, a higher
appreciation of life’s fleeting blessings, and a greater selflessness, if I
remember to listen for Her.
I do think we really can
and do find the best of ourselves, and each other, in hard times. The very fact
of evil and suffering is what allows me to know the good and to share in the
healing and building up. What a thing! You can’t have one without the other. In
Isaiah, The Bible quotes the One as
saying “I am that I am, and there is no other. I form light and create
darkness, I make weal and create woe, I do all these things.”
AND, just because we can
and should open ourselves and dare to fall in love with the entire world just
as it is, doesn’t mean that we can’t respond to the suffering and pain that we
find within it. Just after that passage I quoted above, God also cries out,
“Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness,” and
elsewhere declares mercy, justice and humility as the best path through life.
There is so much that can
be done to extend the formless field of benefaction that relies on us as its eyes
and hands. Like simply taking care of our families and neighbors. Like feeding
and clothing people. Like adopting a refugee family, (which is actually in the
works – stay tuned). Like making room at the Glaser Center and in our
imaginations for the many people who are going to want to join us in spiritual
awakening and loving service in the next few years.
How do you respond to
It is all for your benefit, Honored One.
Sits on the Lotus Sutra
This commentary by Rachel Mansfield-Howlett Roshi first appeared in The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women
was a niece and student of Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768). She was a Zen adept from a
very young age and her awakening was recognized by Hakuin. She was known for
defeating others in dharma combat, including, on occasion, Hakuin himself.
Ekaku was one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism. All
Rinzai Zen masters today trace their lineage through him. CityZen uses
practices directly derived from his development of the koan curriculum. Hakuin
was also considered a master of calligraphy and painting.
devout man took his young daughter Satsujo with him whenever he visited Master
Hakuin Ekaku. Though only a child, Satsujo was devoted to practicing the
dharma. When she was sixteen, her parents were concerned that she would not
find a husband, and asked her to pray to Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion.
She did this day and night, during all of her activities. Before long she
experienced an awakening. One day her father peeked into her room and saw her
sitting on a copy of the Lotus Sutra.
are you doing, sitting on this precious scripture!” he shouted.
is this wonderful sutra different from my ass?” she replied.
for sitting on the sutras, Satsujo overthrows thoughts of sacred and profane
and comes forth with the tender question, “How is this wonderful sutra
different from my ass?” With audacious good humor, Satsujo is intimate with the
great matter and invites us to see the treasure within the body, even when it
is the disreputable and bawdy butt.
are the “butt” of the joke, an “asshole,” or my favorite, a “buttinsky,” you
know you’re being dissed. We reveal our misgivings about the body by the use of
pejorative terms such as “dick,” “cunt,” and “butthead.” On the other hand, we
revere the sutras as the expression of those teachers who cracked open and left
a little bit of the light on the page for us to find. But words can be regarded
at a distance and the Dharma is worth nothing if it stands so aloof. We long to
understand how this life, with all its complexity, and how this body of
pleasure and pain, contain the teachings of the sutras.
Satsujo is in league with
those who found awakening in “three pounds of flax” or “a dried shit stick,”
or, in a more close-at-hand discovery, “in the heart of the one who asks.”
Kannon, the many-handed Bodhisattva of awakened compassion, finds us on such an
occasion, just as she did when Satsujo called upon her. A woman I know once
found a bit of the light for herself and said to me: When we recite from
Hakuin’s Song of Zazen, “ALL beings
by nature are Buddhas, I think we should add, this includes you!” She
understood that it’s tough to see how intimate this matter really is – that it
has to do with you and me. To explain this quandary it is sometimes said,
“Because it is so very clear, it takes so long to realize.”
well known for holding words and letters lightly, favoring direct experience
over discursive thought. For example, the scholar and Zen master, Deshan, upon
awakening tossed out and burned the pages of his beloved Diamond Sutra. Even
so, it’s considered bad form to sit on the sutras.
With the question, “How is this
wonderful sutra different from my ass?” Satsujo shows us that as long as we think awakening
is located somewhere outside ourselves, our understanding will be very limited.
Zen is grounded in reality, borne out by the empirical discoveries of the old
teachers, and today, through our own practice. We may come to see the truth of the
koans and sutras reflected in our own lives, and interestingly, visa versa.
In thinking about Satsujo’s
question, I picture her slightly bent over, looking directly at her father and
pointing to her butt. Her awakening trumped even the reflective nods to filial
piety. I’m also reminded of the seamstress Rosa Parks’ 1955 act of civil
disobedience – simply sitting her tired butt down on the seat of an Alabama bus
and refusing to give up her place to a white man. Rosa Parks’ simple gesture
helped set the stage for the repeal of segregation laws and inspired the
Freedom Rides. Like Satsujo’s frank question, Parks’ unassuming act raises us
all up together. And we’re still in the wonderful process of uncovering the
women ancestors who put their butts on the line to point the way for us.
myself, I honor my mother too, now gone for a quarter century, as one of the
many women ancestors. Raised in rural Oklahoma in the 1930s, my mother was the
eldest daughter of a practical-minded country schoolmistress and a handsome
hard-drinking rodeo-riding Chickasaw. She taught school in the Chickasaw Nation
and later taught in a largely Hispanic school in southern California. Although
my mother wasn’t familiar with Buddhist ideas, she instilled in me the truth of
an inherent Buddha Nature that resides within all beings and that each of us
must show up in whatever way we can. Through her daily actions, she taught me
that every person has value, no matter their race, gender, or social status.
meditation practice I discovered an even broader truth: that my body is the
same as the redwood, the mountains and rivers, oceans and kelp forests, and the
great earth itself. We must live as if there is only one precious body, and
this body includes yours and mine.
before thoughts of sacred and profane arise, how is it that your hands and feet
are the same as the Buddha’s? How is it that your very own fanny is the source
of wisdom; that this too is your original face? You must live these questions
for yourself, but please know, without your own ass, there is no Buddha.