Clumsy Means

Since most likely you are reading this via the internet, you possibly have seen other Buddhist-related and maybe Zen-related posts, comments, articles, and “books”. And you will have probably come across everything from comments such as, “That's not Zen!” “Zen Masters never teach the Four Noble Truths!” to those who divide the Dharma into Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, maybe more, and some statements by those who have no grounding in the Dharma whatsoever who still try to discuss and expound upon it. 

"A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to Mind.
It lets one see into nature and attain Buddhahood."

There may be those who take the meaning of this to be an excuse not to practice, not to find a teacher, and not read any Sutras or any other literature that points to the Great Way. It can, and often is, easily misinterpreted. Expecting the Big Result from studying, reading, chanting, and the like is misguided. Doing them without expectation is the Great Way.

In the “Outline of Practice,” Bodhidharma tells us:

“...If you don’t see your nature, invoking Buddhas, reciting Sutras, making offerings, and keeping precepts are all useless. Invoking Buddhas results in good karma, reciting Sutras results in a good memory; keeping precepts results in a good rebirth, and making offerings results in future blessings-but no buddha. If you don’t understand by yourself, you’ll have to find a     teacher to get to the bottom of life and death.

“...If you don’t see your nature and run around all day looking somewhere else, you’ll never find a buddha. The truth is there’s nothing to find. But to reach such an understanding you need a teacher and you need to struggle to make yourself understand. Life and death are important. Don’t suffer them in vain”.

In Chapter 2 of the Lotus Sutra (“Skillful Means”), the Buddha says:

“And what is that sole object, that sole aim, that lofty object, that lofty aim of the Buddha, the Tathâgata, appearing in the world? To show all creatures the sight of Tathâgata-knowledge does the Buddha, the Tathagata appear in the world; to open the eyes of creatures for the sight of Tathâgata-knowledge does the Buddha, the Tathâgata, appear in the world. This, O Sâriputra, is the sole object, the sole aim, the sole purpose of his appearance in the world....

If, O [Sâriputra], I spoke to the creatures, 'Vivify in your minds the wish for     enlightenment,' they would in their ignorance all go astray and never catch the meaning of my good words....

And considering them to be such, and that they have not accomplished their course of duty in previous existences, (I see how) they are attached and devoted to sensual pleasures, infatuated by desire and blind with delusion....

From lust they run into distress; they are tormented in the six states of existence and people the cemetery again and again; they are overwhelmed with misfortune, as they possess little virtue....

They are continually entangled in the thickets of (sectarian) theories, such as, 'It is and it is not; it is thus and it is not thus.' In trying to get a decided opinion on what is found in the sixty-two (heretical) theories they come to embrace falsehood and continue in it.”     

In the Lotus Sutra, also discussed is the Buddha-Nature of all beings, the ability for any being to become a buddha. Mass murderers, Devadatta, the guy next door whose dog digs up your flowers and does nothing about it, the internet troll, your teacher, the teacher who proved he was way too human for your liking, the founder of your lineage, everybody, they are innately Buddha. This can be a real drag, because the Buddha I see in the mirror every morning may not be particularly fond of the one you see in the mirror. But this nature is immanent in all beings. 

There's a joke that goes like this:

“Two mobile phone salesmen leave work to go home. That night, one attains Awakening, the other does not. What do they do the next day?”
“The unenlightened one goes to work to sell mobile phones. The Awakened one goes to work to sell mobile phones”.

The tenth of the Oxherding pictures is of “going into the marketplace with outstretched arms.” I can't speak for anyone other than myself, but that's where I live. This marketplace, this world, is where Bodhisattva action takes place. We don't get to pick and choose who is getting the benefit of “Sentient being numberless, we vow to save them all.” As I've mentioned elsewhere, “all” is a pretty big number, numberless even. If nothing else, that means we have an opportunity on any given day, in every moment, to save all beings: the ones we like, the ones we don’t like, the ones who sell mobile phones, the ones who steal mobile phones.

Upon Awakening, what did the Buddha do? After a shaky start, he shared his findings. He expounded the Dharma for the benefit of all beings. He did all the hard work for the benefit of all of us, that we could awaken as well. “Could” doesn’t mean that we’re already awakened no matter what, it just means that if everything falls into place, we could awaken. He, and all the great sages have spent 2,500 years trying to use skillful means to get the point across to us. Some of us have different capacities for learning than others. Even in the Sudden Enlightenment school of Zen, “sudden” can take kalpas. We all could awaken in this lifetime, but maybe a few more lifetimes may also be in order.

Great Korean Master Chinul described it as “sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation.” When one finishes brushing his/her teeth, that last bit is spat out, and voila, the teeth are suddenly clean. In order to keep them that way, we rinse and repeat, cultivating that captivating smile of enlightenment. Stop brushing, things might start to slip. The teeth underneath all the crud are still undefiled, but there’s layers of crud that keep their bright nature from coming through. (The “Zen-dentist” might pick out the discrepancies in the metaphor, correcting everything from defiled/not-defiled, to tooth decay. Sorry). The Buddha was more adept at coming up with metaphors than I. I sincerely doubt that in another 2,500 years, people will talk about the “Toothbrush Sutra.” I could mention something about needing to brush up on my metaphors; but that will most likely result in 500 rebirths as something with no teeth, so I’ll defer.

Kanhua Chan sage Dahui Zonggao states in “Swampland Flowers” (Cleary translation):

“In the conduct of their daily activities, sentient beings have no illumination. If you go along with their ignorance, they're happy; if you oppose their ignorance, they become vexed. Buddhas & Bodhisattvas are not this way; they make use of ignorance, considering this is the business of buddhas. Since sentient beings make ignorance their home, to go against it amounts to breaking up their home; going with it is adapting to where they're at, to influence and guide them”.

So here we are in the world, in the world of the interwebs, the realm of i-Dharma. Metaphors being understood is only a part of the problem of aiding all beings. As one prone toward puns, somewhat cryptic references, and even some things that make perfect sense to me and possibly no one else, sometimes it’s obvious that my intended message falls short of the mark. To some, I may be way too paradoxical, for others, my lack of zen-speak profundity may be annoying. Thich Nhat Hanh can ooze lovingkindness in his writings; my writings may ooze irreverence and snarkiness more often than not. I’d like to think that in either case, we’re operating from a place of the Bodhisattva.

As ZM Seung Sahn said, “Try, try, try for 10,000 years, become enlightened, and save all beings.” The intention to save all beings may result in wholesome karma, but if the outcome results in more struggle on the part of the reader/listener, maybe I could have taken a more skillful tack. The struggle and suffering may have lots more to do with the reader/listener’s karma than mine, but I can’t use that as an excuse to get lazy. What I’ve found is that in an impersonal setting where one person types at another, or passively listens to a recorded Dharma talk, it is impossible to reach everyone. Sometimes that comes out as spreading the mess, sometimes spreading the message. But that impossibility is no cause for not bothering to try to reach everybody, any more than the “impossibility” of saving all beings is a reason not to save all beings.

We could go into the “all beings are no-beings, thus are they called ‘beings’,” Diamond Sutra territory, but that isn’t appropriate to the situation I’m addressing. Likewise, we could go off on some detour into sunyata or emptiness or boundlessness, but that also only diverts attention away to the actual saving of all beings in this context. This issue, right here&now, is what’s being addressed. And just as it would be easy to go off onto an intellectual left turn into the off-ramp of conceptualizing, that won't do.

It takes as much attention and concentration to spread the Dharma on paper or in 1’s and 0’s as it does in any other way since the Wheel of Dharma was set into motion. I can't exactly get 5,000 readers to divert their eyes as the Buddha was able to divert the 5,000 monks and nuns in the Lotus Sutra to give a teaching tailored to his listeners. That chapter is usually titled “Skillful Means.” That means I don’t go to kong-ans when the person who is reading or listening doesn’t work on kong-ans with me. I can’t go into Huayan territory at an advanced level when making it simple enough for almost anyone to understand would be more appropriate.

What an opportunity to practice this all is! Get whatever feedback there may be, and respond appropriately. Don’t answer questions that aren’t asked, don’t play pride-driven smartest guy in the room games. As Dahui said, don’t trash someone’s house then tell them they live in a dump--they might get just a little defensive about it.

Above all, I have to try, try, try to use skillful means. Even when the other party might be mean rather than skillful. Even when something I read really ticks me off, try, try for 10,000 years to see only the changing nature of emotions. There can be skillful correction without malice; and malicious enabling that is unskillful. And if it turns out that something I say or write was unskillful, try, try, try to be more skillful the next time by paying better attention! After all, there isn’t a chapter in the Toothbrush Sutra called “Clumsy Means.” 

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