The Inexhaustible Lamp: Breathing Life Back Into Western Zen

If we’re filled with hatred, greed, and ignorance, then that’s like a candlestick that’s been crushed. You could use a blowtorch on it and it still wouldn’t light up. Practicing the Six Perfections and Four Immeasurables gets that candle back into good shape. Then, all it takes is to have a chat with someone whose candle is burning bright. In that moment, the flame is passed on, and the stifling darkness that’s been strangling you for years, is chased off into the corners.

 

By Anshi

“I see the light in you,” she said. “Everything you do, you do to help people.”

She’s a new morning caregiver sent in by an agency to help care for my grandma. I see the light in her too, I see the earnest compassion and the resilient optimism that seems to proudly thrust a middle finger at the Void.

I don’t have any romantic intentions toward her, unlike the afternoon caregiver, Sapphire, whom I’m about one to two beautiful smiles away from falling for. But, I don’t not have romantic intentions either. Romance is a misunderstood word in modern culture. When we hear, “Romantic,” we think of steamy exchanges between two lovers.

Originally, romanticism was a way of life, a starry-eyed way of relating with the world. It was all about looking for the light, which often means traveling through your fair share of shadows. I am a romantic, and I treat my life like it’s a story. That’s how I’ve made it this long without jumping off a bridge.

When she said, “I see the light in you,” I wonder if she saw the darkness that cradles that light. The pain, the loneliness, the seas of sorrow that seem far older than me. I don’t think she did, and I don’t think I’ll share that with her. If she sees the light in herself, then that’s enough, there’s nothing that I need to do.

The people who can’t see their own light are the ones I gravitate toward, like a really confused moth who only bangs its head against burned out light bulbs.

The broken, the downtrodden, the restless and rejected—those are my people. Chatting with them and listening to their stories is my calling. So, I tend to find myself in some pretty weird places and situations. This practice, of trying to help people see their own light, is called “The Inexhaustible Lamp” and it’s my only Zen practice. It always has been.

Now, let’s take a short detour for some story time. I promise that this will all come together in the end.

One day, a Bodhisattva was walking around, doing Bodhisattva stuff. Then that ol’ trickster Mara showed up disguised as Indra, who was a pretty cool deity. Mara praised the Bodhisattva for his practice, and gave him 1,000 beautiful maidens as a reward. The Bodhisattva said, “Dude, I took a vow of celibacy for some reason, so I can’t accept those maidens.” “But,” Mara replied, “doesn’t a monk accept whatever he’s given?”

So, the Bodhisattva didn’t know what to do. It seemed like he was bound to break his vows no matter which choice he made. Luckily, the layman Vimalakirti walked up and said, “You’re not even Indra, you crafty fuck, you’re Mara the Tempter. Don’t you have anything better to do than mess with Bodhisattvas all the time? Don’t you have Netflix?”

To solve the Bodhisattva’s problem, Vimalakirti said, “I’ll take the maidens.” In a bind of his own now, Mara said, “Alright, they’re yours.” Instead of having the best orgy in the history of Earth, Vimalakirti gave them a Dharma talk on the Six Perfections, Four Immeasurables, and the four jhanas (meditation states). All of the maidens had a breakthrough, they saw their own light.

Then Vimalakirti did something strange—he gave the maidens back to Mara. They didn’t want to go (I mean, who would?) They asked, “What the hell are we supposed to do now while living in Mara’s realm?”

Vimalakirti consoled them and said, “Sisters, there is a door of the Dharma called ‘The Inexhaustible Lamp.’ Practice it! What is it? Sisters, a single lamp may light hundreds of thousands of lamps without itself being diminished. Likewise, sisters, a single Bodhisattva may establish many hundreds of thousands of living beings in enlightenment without one’s mindfulness being diminished. In fact, not only does it not diminish, it grows stronger. Likewise, the more you teach and demonstrate virtuous qualities to others, the more you grow with respect to these virtuous qualities. This is the door of the Dharma called ‘The Inexhaustible Lamp.’

When you are living in the realm of Mara, inspire innumerable people with the spirit of enlightenment.”

Buddha-nature means that all living beings have a candle and a lamp in them.

The things we do, think and say shape the wax. If we’re filled with hatred, greed, and ignorance, then that’s like a candlestick that’s been crushed. You could use a blowtorch on it and it still wouldn’t light up. Practicing the Six Perfections and Four Immeasurables gets that candle back into good shape. Then, all it takes is to have a chat with someone whose candle is burning bright. In that moment, the flame is passed on, and the stifling darkness that’s been strangling you for years, is chased off into the corners.

Then you see everyone’s lamps, and the condition they’re in, and you dedicate yourself to paying the light forward until the whole world is aglow.

I’m not into guru worship, or gurus in general. Never let someone in robes tell you that, “You can’t do this without a teacher.” They only say that because someone else told them the same thing. They listened to them, got a teacher, and everything worked out alright. The funny thing is that everything would’ve worked out alright either way.

If you don’t want to deal with Zen bureaucracy, pick up a copy of Huineng’s Platform Sutra, Niutou Farong’s Song of Mind, Sengcan’s Trust in Mind, the Dharma of Mind Transmission by Huang-po or Cultivating the Empty Field by Hongzhi. All of those texts were written by people who were clearly manifesting their own light.

They used that light to pick their words, so if you read those works with a meditative mindset, they’ll spark you the same way a face-to-face exchange with an enlightened teacher will. You will literally feel like you’ve come into contact with the mind of the person who wrote it just as if it was your own mind.

Modern Zen downplays this a bit, but if we crack open any book, we can see that Dharma transmission (chuan) was an essential aspect of Zen practice.

The problem is that Zennists lost their way over time and turned transmission into something political. They made it all about certificates and lineages, stupid meaningless horseshit.

What it’s really about is, for one moment, two people sharing the same experience without a hairsbreadth of distinction between them. I think we’ve all felt that before. Like at a concert when everyone’s singing the same song, swimming in the same feeling. In those moments, you can feel that everyone feels it too.

It’s just like that, except instead of singing a song together, we’re seeing the true nature of mind together, the light.

I’m not gonna bash the pragmatic Zen that’s become popular in the West, because it’s valuable and has its place. But, beneath that, Zen has always been a mystical, romantic strand of Mahayana Buddhism. By golly, that’s the Zen I’m gonna practice in the world and the school of Zen I’m gonna work in.

And by the way, Buddha and Vimalakiriti weren’t speaking metaphorically when they referred to Waking Up as “a light” or lamp. In that moment, you literally experience a flash of light that seems to vaporize all illusions. You feel in contact with, “The mind of the great sage of India,” as Shitou put it. You realize that it’s the same light that sages have seen for thousands of years.

Then, you feel like it’s your duty to keep passing it along.

 

AnshiAnshi (安狮) is the pen name for a certain Chan Buddhist. He calls his introspective, autobiographical writing, “Living Dharma.” All names are changed to protect the privacy of those involved. If you know who Anshi is, please refrain from telling anyone. Feel free to check out his Facebook page.

 

 

Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall

 

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