The great Korean Buddhist teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, would go to into any situation to help others. This great "try mind" brought him to some of the most difficult places in the world.
Of course, the most difficult places in the world cannot be located on a map. These places, known as hell-realms in Buddhism, exist in our minds. Mostly, we keep these places hidden, both from others and from ourselves.
But the work of Zen practice is to go to hell. And when we do go there, as Zen Master Seung Sahn says in this video, make a Zen center!
Please enjoy today's video:
Thank you to Mu Sang Sunim, who produced this video many years ago!
The 8th century C.E. Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva said:
One can never remove all the thorns from the world, nor cover the entire world with leather to make it seem less thorny. However, by covering one's foot with a leather sandal, it is as though all the world has been covered with soft leather, and all thorns removed.
In this famous passage, Shantideva teaches that while we can never eradicate the challenges of our life, we can work within ourselves. We can cultivate a mind that approaches the world with love and generosity.
But Shantideva's metaphor troubles me. Is the point of Buddhist practice to "cover" the thorns of our life? To hide away the difficulties? To risk desensitization with soft leather?
The Korean Zen master, Jun Kang, once ended a dharma speech by observing, "Thorny jungle everywhere."
Could we somehow embrace the thorns and make use of them? Could we not turn away?
What could lead us to walk naked into Jun Kang's thorny jungle?
If you have a little piece of shit on your nose, everything stinks!
What can we make of this old saying? Maybe we think that if we can just get the shit off, for once and for all, then we'll enter a state of purity where everything smells wonderful. Maybe we think this is the work of Zen . . . to become pure!
Or maybe we can recognize that shit continuously appears on our nose, non-stop, because we put it there.
Human life is a messy affair. There's no getting around it.
So -- maybe -- instead of striving for some imagined purity, we could all become really excellent sanitation workers.
Because, before we can turn our lives fully toward others, we need to clean up our stinky selves. After all, who would want to be around someone with shit on their nose?
Here are some questions that come up for me, when I consider my own stink:
When I look into the really difficult situations in my life, why is it so hard to see my own role?
How can I sustain the process of wiping up the mess, over and over and over?
Why is it so hard to admit that, for a long time, purity has been the goal of my practice?
Several people have rightly wondered why a blog entitled, "Ox Herding," doesn't provide access to the famous Ox Herding Pictures (sometimes called the Ten Bulls). Mea culpa!
The Ox Herding Pictures serve as a metaphor for the quest for enlightenment. Although Zen teachers had described the mind as an ox as early as 800 C.E., the pictures themselves may have originated during the 12th century in Sung Dynasty China, a period during which Zen teaching was consolidated and codified. A set of verses that expand upon the images was written by the Chinese Zen master, K'uo-an, a teacher in the Lin-chi lineage.
In Asia, the ten Ox Herding Pictures are usually painted around the exterior of a temple building. This set of photographs shows a recently-painted set of the pictures at Mu Sang Sah, a Zen temple in Korea that accommodates lay and monastic students from around the world.
Here are links to several familiar renderings of the Ox Herding Pictures. As you view these images, you will note that they are not consistent. In some sets, the enso, or Zen circle, is the final image. In other sets, the student (now an old man) enters into daily affairs with generosity and compassion.
This set was painted in the 15th century by the Japanese Zen monk Shubun. The images are said to be based on 12th century originals by the Chinese Zen master Kakuan. (Scroll down the page to see the full set.)
This set was painted by Yakoo Tatshiko in the early 1990s.
This set is the earliest-known Japanese version, dating to 1278 C.E.
This set looks as though it was created by a Chinese artist, but there is no attribution.
This set looks quite modern to my eye, but has no attribution.
This set, painted with great energy by Master Gyokusei Jikihara in 1982. He is a master calligrapher and Zen teacher in Japan. This version speaks most richly of the vigor and excitement of this quest.
The image-sharing site, Flickr, has three wonderful interpretations of the Ox Herding Pictures by contemporary artists.
This set, created by James Breslin, offers a deeply personal version of ox herding.
This set, created by an unknown artist, is strikingly beautiful.
Finally, this set, by Damien Crowe, breaks with the traditional iconography while remaining true to its intention. It's my favorite of all the versions. Enjoy it!
For a discussion of the Ox Herding Pictures by a modern Zen master, see this talk by Zen Master Ji Bong.
Not long after I started Zen practice, I asked a Zen monk, Mu Sang Sunim, what his life was like. He replied that monastic life was much like any other kind of life. Then he said that human beings have outside jobs and inside jobs.
Our outside jobs are all different. Some of us work as carpenters, others as therapists, cooks, programmers, students, letter carriers, and so on. Some of us work in the day, others at night.
But, as Mu Sang Sunim told me many years ago, every human being has the same inside job: to attain enlightenment and help all beings do the same.
This teaching has stayed with me because it points to the possibility of merging outside and inside jobs into a lifelong calling.
Not two, not one -- just: How can I help? In Zen, we refer to this view as our direction. It's how we orient our intentions and actions.
Of course, this raises questions for me, and perhaps for you, as well:
In what situations do I separate my spiritual practice from my outside work?
What does Buddha look like to you? How does Guan Yin take form in your mind's eye?
Different cultures depict enlightenment in different ways (see the Theravada and Mahayana representations of Avalokitesvara discussed earlier in this blog).
Because Buddhism has only recently come to the West, we've not yet found a uniquely Western way of representing these beings.
Most Buddhist centers simply purchase an Asian statue. Perhaps some of us have taken liberties with traditional forms in home altars. But few of us have the artistic talent and skill needed to re-envision the Buddha.
This is changing. Artists such as Mayumi Oda have stretched the traditional iconography in wonderful new ways.
My long-time dharma friend, Anita Feng, has practiced Zen for 30 years. Despite this, she has remained a highly creative artist, using pottery and poetry to find new expressions for the old ways.
About a year ago, she began making buddhas and bodhisattvas out of clay, firing them using the Japanese raku technique. These remarkable figures, with their iridescent and crackle glazes, convey the supple vitality of the enlightened mind. I've shown a few of them in this post.
I encourage you to visit Anita's online store, Raku Buddhas, to see more of these wonderful statues. Prices begin at $15 -- which baffles me, given the quality of the work. Enjoy!