By Duane Toops
After almost every article I write and after almost every video I make about meditation, Buddhism and Zen, I get this nagging feeling that I’m a fraud, that I’m the wrong guy for the job, and that I’m the last person who should be publicly speaking and writing about the practice of meditation and the path of Zen Buddhism. I might be the veritable poster child for Impostor Syndrome.
My practice is still green and underdeveloped. My fluency within the Buddhist and Zen traditions (while it is growing) is still currently limited. My credentials and knowledge base within this field leave something to be desired and I’ve not been practicing for a particularly long time.
I’m not an expert. I’m not a Dharma teacher, and I’m definitely not a “Zen Master.” Clearly, I’m not exactly the most qualified candidate, and I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing but, here I am—the rookie, the novice, the greenhorn—writing and speaking out my depth. Maybe I am a fraud…or, maybe its just the beginning of my story.
One of the many things I love about Zen is that its “sacred-history” is chock full of good stories and interesting tales. Now, don’t get me wrong, like all sacred-history, most of the stories in the Zen tradition are highly mythologized, and are not necessarily intended to be related to as a record of literal events. They are intended to be vehicles of truth, yes, but, not the “truth” of objective historicity. Instead, these stories are mythopoetic expressions of deeper meaning.
One of the stories I continue to return to is the story of Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan/Zen Buddhism.
From the outside looking in, everything about Huineng is all wrong. Huineng’s father, a former government official of minor status, had been banished and died when Huineng was three years old. Huineng’s mother moved him to Southern China, which in this particular social and cultural context was the wrong side of the tracks. There, Huineng was raised in extreme poverty, and throughout his childhood he worked selling firewood as his only means of providing support to himself and his mother. As a result he was illiterate and uneducated.
There was nothing prestigious about him. He was as unremarkable as someone could possibly be. The chips were blatantly and unavoidably stacked against him, and yet, he would become one of the most central figures of Chan and Zen.
The story goes that one day he experiences a moment of awakening when he overhears someone reciting the Diamond Sutra. He then sets out on a spiritual quest, and after years of wandering and meditating he arrives at the Dongshan monastery and meets with the Fifth Patriarch, Hongren.
Hongren apparently recognized that Huineng didn’t have a lot going for him and it seems pretty safe to say that Hongren didn’t think much of Huineng.
Hongren asks Huineng where he was from and why he was there? Huineng said that he was simply a commoner from the south, “seeking only to be a Buddha, and nothing else.” Hongren was not impressed, and scathingly responded by asking how a southern “barbarian” could possibly become a buddha?
Huineng responds saying that, “Although there are people from the north and people from the south, there is ultimately no north or south in the Buddha nature. The body of the barbarian and that of the High Master are not the same, but what distinction is there in the Buddha nature?”
Hongren was struck by Huineng’s response and he accepted him into the monastic community.
Huineng is suggesting that Buddha nature knows no distinctions—it is unbounded. He says that there may be differences of intellect, education, socio-cultural position and socio-economic status, but when it comes Buddha nature there are no differences. Buddha nature cuts across all such strata of classification and is exactly the same regardless of these constructed separations. The reality of our inherent potentiality is identical.
There’s an interesting story in the New Testament that, in a way, seems to parallel this scene in Huineng’s story.
Jesus is approached by a gentile woman—that is, a non-Jewish woman. She is seeking aid for her daughter and is begging loudly for Jesus’ attention. Given the cultural context of Jesus’ ministry, everything about this woman is wrong; she’s a gentile and she’s a woman, she’s from the wrong side of the social, cultural, religious and political tracks. Even Jesus’ disciples advise him to turn the woman away yet, still she continues to call out for Jesus’ help.
Jesus finally responds to her request by saying that, “it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
Fuck, that’s a really savage declaration. In a single statement he makes it clear that she doesn’t fit the bill of his core demographic or his target audience. He refers to her as a dog, effectively calling her a “bitch.”
This is almost precisely what happens in Huineng’s confrontation with Hongren. In fact, Chan master Hsuan Hua writes that the Chinese word Hongren uses to call Huineng a barbarian is ke liao. “Ke” is a “dog-like” creature and “‘Liao” refers to the coarse people of the borderlands.
What’s even more interesting is that the woman’s response to Jesus is just as incisively insightful as Huineng’s response to Hongren. Jesus says it’s not right to toss the children’s bread to the dogs, and the gentile woman says, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She gets to the heart of something much deeper and, like Huineng, takes the teacher by surprise.
Both Huineng and the nameless gentile woman both know that they may be dogs from the shitty part of town but, they also know that one’s access to the truth of ultimate reality and that the inherent enlightenment of one’s true awakened nature defies, rejects and subverts any and all distinctions of society, class, status, culture and gender.
This is, perhaps, the core message and central teaching of Chan and Zen; Awakening is the act of seeing-through all differences, distinctions and defilements, and seeing-into the latent potential of our already enlightened nature.
The body of the barbarian and that of the High Master are not the same, but what distinction is there in the Buddha nature?
Even we dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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