Living Hand-to-Mouth

Living Hand-to-Mouth

‘Neither defiled nor pure.’ These are clearcut words. In the world of Emptiness there is neither the so-called impure ordinary man nor what is called the pure Buddha. It transcends values, goes beyond price-setting. When we say ordinary man and sage, we are in the world of values where there are ordinary men and there are sages. Our life is all comparative values. What is his standing? What is he worth?—always on the basis of status. People are accorded standing on the basis of their value. That one has the standing of cabinet minister, that one of prefectural governor. This is the world of values.

Zen master Dogen warns us: ‘He who is truly called a teacher must not lack the power to stand apart from rank, and must have the spirit of transcending distinctions.’ He must abandon considerations of rank and distinction, and unless he has the power and spirit to do that, he cannot be a true teacher. Caught in the toils of values, no one can be a true teacher.

The ranks from which he must be able to stand apart include the ranks of ordinary man and Buddha. So it is that Emptiness is called holding nothing in the heart, carrying nothing whatever in the heart, not even the thought: ‘I am a Buddha.’ The Buddha is one who has thrown aside even this.

When the Buddha says he is a Buddha, he does not place himself on a higher rank. The real Buddha forgets the Buddha-form and merges himself in the bloodstained world of living beings. He does not glance down at living beings from an elevation with consciousness of superiority and address them: ‘O ye dull deluded ones!’ Merged in this our world of defilement, melted into the heart of the people and forgetting his own form, such is the Buddha who has passed beyond the world of values.

There was a family in which the grandfather and grandmother used to go regularly to the temple. But the rest of the family were heard saying aside: ‘They’ve gone to the temple and now they are Buddhas, but from moving to night they are so fussy about every little thing. Buddhas in the house are a real nuisance!’ That sort of Buddha is truly a Buddha-burden. To feel one has attained quite some faith, quite some enlightenment, and from this higher level to look down on the others and speak— those people are real Buddha-burdens. They are Buddha-illusions. The Buddha of Buddhism has forgotten he is a Buddha and throws himself into the heart of all living beings. He is one who lives hand-to-mouth without care.

A Sutra describes the life of Buddha: ‘Verily the wooden man sings, and the stone woman rises to dance … as if a god, as if a fool.’ Becoming a man carved of wood he can sing songs, becoming a woman of stone he dances a dance. Wooden man and stone woman have transcended value. As we are not wooden men and stone women, we feel that even in our singing we must do it at all costs well, and our dances must be properly executed. And yet we become more and more incapable at them

The words ‘fool’ and ‘god’ have not here their usual meaning. Fool here means one who follows everything, who goes with everything. For the sake of fools, becoming the heart of the fool—this is going with things. With clever people becoming the heart of the clever, with each person becoming what that person is, and speaking from the bottom of the heart, such is the Buddha. Seeing we are formed of illusory attachments, for the sake of this wretched sinner he becomes the heart of a wretched sinner and there speaks—that is the Buddha.

‘Ye are the good, therefore come ye here, and ye are the wicked, therefore go ye there’; so to divide the people is not the Buddha. Becoming the heart of each whatever he may be, from the bottom of the heart, throwing away Buddhahood, he speaks.

There is a phrase from a Sutra: ‘For the child’s sake, forgetting.’ In bringing up a child, incongruities are forgotten. Seeing the baby about to walk but unable yet to do so, the mother takes its hand. ‘Here we go, aren’t we clever not to fall!’ she cries as she staggers along with tiny steps. She feels with the child and forgets how comical she looks.

A boy of five was sent to board at my temple. Bringing him up from that age, I used to think of myself as a parent to him, and he used to get round me. I would tell myself that as an adult I must not spoil him, but the fact was that having brought him up from a baby I was very fond of him When I came back from a trip he used to say: ‘Father, haven’t you brought anything for me?’ I used to be expecting him to say it, and if he didn’t, somehow I felt disappointed. It was a strange thing. When he was six or seven he would say: ‘Father, let’s wrestle at Sumo,’ and I would say: ‘All right, let’s,’ and we would close. I am getting on in years, but against a tiny child like that, if I had thrown him he would have gone ten or twenty feet. But I used to play the part of putting out all my strength and then I would fall right over and he’d shout with joy: ‘Father’s lost, Father’s lost!’ There is a verse by the Zen master Gaun: ‘I am a giant in power, but at a puff of wind I fall’—profound is the meaning.

When he was ten he was all the time asking for a bicycle; even at mealtimes he always came back to it. In the end this old abbot lost again and bought him an old second-hand one. Strange it is that even the ordinary human heart, which is no Buddha-heart, to help the children will go along with them like this. No one feels, when bringing up then tiny grandchildren: ‘O ye dull deluded ones!’ At that time, is it not a world different from the world of values?

Here there are no worlds of relative values such as the ordinary world and the sage’s world, the defiled world and the pure world. For the liberation of all living beings, leaving all the worlds of relative value, having nothing in the heart, seeing the true form of all, this is the ‘not defiled, not pure’. There is no dividing into pure and impure.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect

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