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Buddhadharma : Summer 2016
summer 2 0 1 6 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 67 Deshan once said, “What is known as ‘realizing the mystery’ is nothing but breaking through to grab an ordinary person’s life.” He had come a long way from the delusive certainty that started him on his journey. In the story from Case 13, Deshan’s humble bow to the cook Xuedou’s reprimand demonstrates the gentle refinement of this profound ordinari- ness. Xuedou is naturally concerned about his old teacher forgetting the signal to come to a meal. The young cook is himself still stuck in a kind of delu- sive certainty and can’t recognize how free Deshan is at this point in his life. Meeting circumstances as they arise, making mistakes, forgetting names and forms—these are only a problem if we hold to some idea about being on top of everything. As I age, I am less able to live up to some fantasy of what I used to think was my best in every moment. I have to bow to my errors more, and with less regret. This is just the way it is. And Yantou, though younger than Xuedou, has had his own opening to a freedom beyond the rela- tive and absolute. He adds some fuel to the fire of Xuedou’s concern: “Our teacher, great as he is, does not know the last word.” To someone who is still trying very hard to know and learn and improve, not knowing the last word of Zen sounds like a terrible criticism. Aren’t Zen masters supposed to know everything? When we first encounter spiritual teachings, we often idealize our teachers. They appear to know so much more about life than we do. I certainly put my first Zen teacher on a high pedestal, and I remember my first disappointment with him when I learned that he didn’t know how to charge a car battery. He was, alas, someone who claimed to know the last word of Zen. And I believed this about him for a long time. He was also someone who clung to a narrow view of the absolute, and I eventually had to leave him when I realized that transgressive behaviors were a persistent part of his character. My second Zen teacher kept refusing to let me idealize him. I discovered, over many years of study- ing with him, that his humility, generosity, and ordi- nariness were actually a great gift to me. If he could be ordinary, so could I. And when he transmitted the dharma to me, I knew in my bones that I would never know the last word of Zen. After all, who would want to know the last word of anything? We begin our search for awakening and the meaning of life with a determination to get to the very bottom of the possibility of understanding why the world is the way it is, why suffering exists. But after long years of study and encountering the self in meditation, our hearts do not necessarily become completely clear. Instead, we develop a deeper appreciation for the mystery that lies at the heart of everything. Our capacity for balance, compassion, and wisdom grow. But the mystery, the bottomless chasm that Deshan spoke of, widens with every breath, every moment. In the face of war, cruelty, oppression, the death of the planet, racism, and sexism, who would want to know the last word on all of these problems? Who would want to be satisfied with any kind of understanding? “Oh yes, I get it. Now I know why people suffer. No need to explore any further.” Instead, what is required is an unending explora- tion, a willingness to not know. From this apprecia- tion of the mystery, we grow in wisdom and com- passion. Our hearts break open, and we can touch the tenderness that is at the center of everything. When Deshan bows to Xuedou, he is not giving up. He is acknowledging that circumstances are not allowing him to proceed the way he thought he wanted to. He was hungry, but there’s no food to eat. So he bows and returns to his room, to wait for when the food will be ready. He asks his beloved disciple Yantou if he has lost faith in him: Don’t you believe in this old monk? And Yantou whispers something—another mystery. In some schools of Zen, this is conventionally ➤