By Daniel Scharpenburg
“All the profound doctrines are but a speck of dust
In a vast void.
All the great affairs of the world are but a drop
Of water cast into a bottomless chasm.”
Deshan was a Buddhist monk in southwest China.
He followed what was the standard order of training in the day; study, memorization and practice and became famous as an expert in the Diamond Sutra.
He was really devoted to studying this sutra and he had heard about zen masters who taught that sutras weren’t all that important; this upset him. So, he undertook a journey to go find an iconoclastic master and engage in debate.
Traveling across the country carrying copies of the Diamond Sutra along with well known commentaries, he stopped at a roadside food truck.*
There was an old woman selling snacks and Deshan was trying to buy snacks. But this woman was the kind of person who engages you in conversation instead of just selling you the snacks. You know what I mean. She asked what these documents were that he was carrying. He told her that it was the Diamond Sutra.
She said she had a question for him and if he could answer it he could have free food. He agreed.
She asked, “In the Diamond Sutra it says, ‘the past mind cannot be attained; the present mind cannot be attained; and the future mind cannot be attained.’ What I want to know is, which mind wants snacks right now?”
Deshan couldn’t think of anything to say. His studies didn’t prepare him for riddles. So he just stood there awkwardly, and the woman told him to go see her teacher Longtan, and he did. He would end up destroying his commentaries of the Diamond Sutra because he realized that studying texts isn’t everything—that this path is about experience.
Deshan, and teachers like him, didn’t say texts are inherently bad or not worthy of our time.
This story is telling us that we shouldn’t get attached to even our own knowledge, even if it’s really vast. One of the reasons the Zen tradition arose is because people were becoming obsessed with texts. People would memorize texts like the Diamond Sutra, but they also wouldn’t really practice. There were lots of Buddhists who would spend all their time just trying to figure out different categories for the various Buddhist texts, like someone who switches between arranging their CDs alphabetically and then switching to arranging them by genre and then by year and then…well, you get it. Arranging and re-arranging over and over.
I don’t see much value in figuring out the right categories for things. That’s the kind of person Deshan was until he met that old woman and she broke through his delusion with food.
This path is more about practice than study.
Just studying texts and not practicing is like reading cookbooks and not actually cooking. It can be fun, but you’re still going to be hungry. Or like someone who has a really nice liquor cabinet and doesn’t drink. What are you doing?
Deshan also said, “Realizing the mystery is nothing but breaking through to grab an ordinary life.”
Study without practice is, essentially, being a person who thinks Buddhism is cool but doesn’t actually do it. I’m a bit like Deshan. I’m always reading some Buddhist text or another. Sometimes I have to remind myself that this is about practice, and that practice is more important than study.
I’m glad the story of Deshan is something I can reflect on to remind me.
*No, it wasn’t really a food truck. It was just a lady selling food by he side of the road. I just like food trucks.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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