Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing

“Fa-yung lived in seclusion on Niu-t’ou Mountain. When Tao-hsin went there, Fa-yung offered to put him up in a spot behind his cave. On the way there, they spotted wild animals, whereupon Tao-hsin feigned fear. Fa-yung said; “I see that this is still with you” – meaning the klesha (defilements), in this case fear. Later, Tao-hsin approached the rock where Fa-yung spent all his time sitting in meditation. He motioned as if writing the character ‘fo’ (Buddha) on the rock, saying; “I see that this is still with you’ – meaning deep attachment to the very idea of the saintly Buddha-state. Fa-yung got the message, changed his practice, opened a temple and freely interacted with the world.”

From the Buddhist Handbook by John Snelling

This morning, as I headed out into the winter darkness and down to the path beside the creek, I encountered a pair of coyotes running along the ice.  They were moving fast, stopping every hundred yards or so to turn their heads and sniff the air.  As soon as I spotted them, I retreated back up to the top of the bridge to watch and let them pass.  To tell the truth, I was unnerved.   At the same time I could not help but be moved by their beauty and grace and purposefulness.  It was nearing sunrise and they were heading south into the city, away from the parkland, so there must have been some game – a herd of deer perhaps – to draw them on.  I didn’t want to present myself as next choice on the menu (however unlikely that might seem).  I thought for a moment that I might return home and pick up the car and drive to work, or I might seek out another, less rustic route, but, after a little argument, I dropped down again onto the path and on toward my destination (looking over my shoulder, now and again, to be sure I wasn’t being followed).

It would be easy to re-write this story without the trepidation and the fear, as an idyllic woodland reflection, or a third-person narrative.  I can almost see it as a Robert Bateman painting – hyper-real but detached, as if the animals were to paint themselves into the landscape (the thin sheet of ice, the trail of footprints in the snow, the shadow of the bridge, the eerie first light, all frozen in the moment), without the human observer — but such was not the case.

It is easy to become attached to the idea of how we should behave, of how we should think and feel – of how we should be.  But how things are – and our frank acknowledgement and acceptance of who and how we are – brings us closer to encountering enlightenment than imagining what it must be like to be enlightened.

In this mistaken view, we can idealize the saintly Buddha (as depicted in those countless little Buddha statues), effortlessly seated in his perfect lotus posture, radiating peace and equanimity, kalpa after kalpa, stretching out to infinity…  How much easier, that, than to imagine ourselves, legs stiff and aching from a few minutes cross-legged, unable, even for a brief minute, to quiet our troubled minds as being Buddha.  Yet, who is the authentic Buddha?  Who has the Buddha nature… the statue, the idea, or our ever-present self?  This was the very question Tao Hsin gently posed to Fa-Yung.   Fa Yung, to his credit, got it immediately, became enlightened, began to teach and was liberated from worldly concerns.

W.H. Auden wrote, in his poem, The Age of Anxiety:

“We would rather be ruined than changed.
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the present
And let our illusions die”

Accepting ourselves as ourselves takes a great amount of courage and self-sacrifice.  It means facing our fears — to sacrifice the “idea” of who we think we are (or imagine ourselves to be) for who we really are.  This is not a part-time fancy; authenticity is a full-time job!

M. Scott Peck wrote:

“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

This journey, this exploration into inner space is fueled by a special kind of friction.  In the Ch’an or Zen tradition, it involves the invocation of doubt.  Fear, unhappiness or discontent is what we strike the sharp flint of our mind.  Over and over again we challenge ourselves on the notion that we know who or what we are.  The question “Who am I?” or “What am I?” creates sparks that begin to destroy our unexamined self, the sparks takes root in the tinder and grow until the fire itself becomes all-consuming. (Like repeating a familiar word over and over again, until it begins to sound strange and unfamiliar, becomes fluid and organic and loses its denotation.  At once, we can see behind the phonetic construction and any meaning is possible).  Suddenly, our egos burned to ash, we can look straight into ourselves and see reflected the entirety of creation (if only for a moment)!  Is it possible for us to believe that who we are right now is as interesting, as beautiful and as perfect as anything we could wish or imagine ourselves to be?  Can we see the diamond in the diamond in the rough?

There is a famous Sutra called “The Diamond-Cutter Sutra”.  It was upon hearing a monk recite only a few lines of this Sutra that the illiterate Hui Neng became instantly enlightened.  He went on to become the Sixth Patriarch of the Zen lineage of Buddhism.  The word “Diamond-Cutter” in the title of the sutra, refers not to the occupation, but as Geshe Michael Roach explains in his commentary on the Sutra:”The worldly god named Hundred Gifts, or Indra, wields a diamond bolt, which no physical object in the entire world can destroy. A mere touch of this bolt though can reduce mountains of stone and other such entities to piles of dust. The subject of this work is the actual perfection of wisdom; that is, the wisdom with which one perceives emptiness. The point of the title is that the antithesis of this wisdom can never affect it in the least; and that the wisdom, on the other hand, cuts from the root everything involved with the mental afflictions, and each and every suffering.”

The Buddha taught that emptiness is the truth that conquers fear, for when we awaken, we realize the insubstantiality of our delusionary thinking.  Fear exists only in the mind.  By acknowledging our fear, we are able to triumph over it. By engaging with ourselves, honestly and truthfully, we are able to cut through our fictional creation and discover who we truly are and who we were always meant to be.

Lao Tzu said,

“He who knows how to live can walk abroad
Without fear of rhinocerous or tiger.
He will not be wounded in battle.
For in him rhinoceroses can find no place to thrust their horn,
Tigers can find no place to use their claws,
And weapons no place to pierce.
Why is this so? Because he has no place for death to enter.”

Translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English