Tuesday, May 27, 2008


A young fellow was seriously interested in Zen. He read everything he could lay his hands on regarding Zen and on Buddhism. He was familiar with the Four Noble Truths, and he did his best to follow the Eightfold Path.

Most important, he was sincere about his meditation, and sat diligently.

One day he said he was thinking about being a Zen monk and felt he needed a strong, masterful leader. He asked if I could provide him with the locations of some monasteries, or serious study centers, in the United States.

Places that were known for their forceful leaders.

As I said, he was a young fellow and couldn’t afford to travel to Burma, or Thailand, or Viet Nam, or China, or Japan.

I gave him information on several centers around the country. San Francisco, Mt. Shasta, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Santa Fe, New York, and others.

He thanked me, quit his job, and set off to look into each of the sites.

Several months later my friend returned from his odyssey.

“How did it go,” I asked. “Did you find a place you could settle in and call home? A leader you could follow?”

He said. “All of them were too rigorous.”

“What do you mean rigorous?”

“The masters were deadly serious. They were stern, painstaking, austere.”

“How?” I asked.

“Each day started at four in the morning and ended close to midnight,” he said.

“There were at least five interminable zazen sittings every day. My legs were killing me. Everyone had to work hard, in the kitchen, or in the garden, or in the latrine. You got enough to eat, but it was all vegetables, and soups, and rice, and tea.

“You had to keep your mouth shut most of the time. Only the master spoke.

“And in some of the places there was only cold water for bathing.”

I didn’t tell him that sort of training was a piece of cake compared to the intense discipline that’s common in an Asian Zen monastery.

“So have you given up on the idea of becoming a monk?” I asked.

“Yes,” He answered. “I’m going to move to Los Angeles. I’ll be the best ordinary Zen guy I can.”

What a brilliant statement.

“I’ll be the best ordinary Zen guy I can.”

That’s the most one can expect, or ever really want. As an example take the renowned Zen layman, Pang.

Pang Jushi lived in China around the time of the Buddha. He was a merchant, and he had a wife, a son, and a daughter, all of whom lived a non-monastic Buddhist life.

Many stories of this notable Pang have been recorded in straightforward language, and they serve as inspiration to all Zen practitioners.

Layman Pang studied under two Chan masters, but never took monastic vows. One of his experiences is recorded in the koan collection called The Blue Cliff Record. It has to do with snow.

When Pang left Yao Mountain, on a winter’s day, the monastery master had several other students escort him to the gate. Pang pointed to the flying snow and said, “These are good snowflakes. They don’t fall anywhere else.”

One of the travelers said, “Well, where do they fall?”

Pang answered, “You call yourself a Chan traveler, but your eyes are like those of a blind man. And your mouth speaks like a mute.”

Think about it.

When Pang was middle-age, he went to study under a master named Shitou Xiqian. As soon as Pang arrived he asked Shitou, “Who is the one who is not a companion to the ten thousand dharmas?”

Shitou put his hand over Pang’s mouth. It was a wordless action that added to Pang’s awakening.

While Pang was at Shitou’s monastery, the master once asked him what he’d been doing in the last few days. Pang answered with the two lines that have become classic in Zen literature.

“How amazing and marvelous. Hauling water and carrying wood.”

One more story.

Pang once attended a reading of the Diamond Sutra, at which the speaker quoted, “No self. No other.”

Pang interrupted to say, “Speaker, if there is no self and no other, who is lecturing and who is listening?”

The speaker couldn’t answer.

Think about it.

When Pang was almost eighty, and was well known in southern China, he became seriously ill. The governor of Ziangzhou visited him and asked, “How are you, my old friend?”

Pang said, “I ask that you regard everything that is as empty, And do not give substance to that which has none. The world is like reflections and echoes.”

Layman Pang was the best Zen guy he could be.

I’m pretty sure my young friend is being the best Zen guy he can be.

Even if he lives in Los Angeles, where there isn’t any snow.

* * * * *

Leaders needs followers.

Followers need leaders.

A person who needs neither is comfortable being a Zen person.


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