Monday, June 18, 2007

Myriad ways, one destination - A Zen Koan

Akihiro-san sat on the tatami mats and watched the illuminated stripes fall on the wooden floor. He saw each band quiver with the eagerness of a treasure hunter on the last leg of his mission. They flickered when some bird flew past or a cloud swept a fluffy playful hand over the eye of god.Om
Akihiro-san smiled and his eyes widened gradually.
"Indeed! Each of them is the sutra tripitaka of Buddha!"
He ran his eyes over them and watched as each golden strip of sutra sang out to him in a language he didn't understand but with the Truth he realised.
Hardly had the sutras reached the strip near the dysfunctional bolt of the door, Hajime's shadow grew from the unread sutras towards the the ones read and realised. Soon he stood blotting out most of the sutras with a dark umbra. Fragments of the sutras tried to pierce him through the sides but the central darkness remained.
"Come in, Hajime."
Hajime opened the door gently and bowed several times before entering. His footsteps were not along a line which Akihiro-san drew. The Master smiled as he was familiar with such a tread.
"Sit down, Hajime."
Hajime hesitated, before slowly sinking to the floor. He hadn't raised his head and Akihiro-san knew the weight of his problem.
"Master, I am sorry to disturb you. I didn't mean to. I wouldn't have done so, had it not been for something that has been bothering me for long. Pardon my lack of intelligence, Master."
"Hajime, we need to go buy fruits for dinner. Daisuke-san is unwell today. Would you be interested in joining me?"
Hajime raised his head sharply in confusion. Had his Master not heard him? Or was this how he was to be punished for disturbing his Master? He nodded and rose slowly to prepare his Master's geta. Akihiro-san smiled at the yawning golden patch at his doorway; the shimmering stripes were gone: Doesn't immense brilliance wipe out the simple beauty of wisdom?
Akihiro-san slipped into the sandals and wore his broad cap to protect him from the sun. His wicker basket was light but large enough to carry sufficient fruits for his students and himself.
Their walk out of the gate was carried in silence. When they started walking up the road towards the market, Akihiro-san waited for the mule-cart to pass before he spoke to Hajime.
"And why does your heart pull your mind so low?"
Hajime's happiness was visible. He smiled and bowed low.
"Thank you Master. I shall not delay in confessing my troubles. Over the past few weeks I have been reading the sutras carefully and have memorised them."
"Like sweet scented oil on the river?"
Hajime looked at his Master in confusion. He hadn't understood what his Master had said or why his Master smiled after saying so.
"I am sorry, I don't understand Master."
"Go on, Hajime."
Hajime cleared his throat softly and proceeded.
"The sutras are very good and deep. Hisoka-san gave me some more books from the library regarding the history of Buddha. That was when I lost clarity. I am sorry for not being a good student."
"A student's worth is not measured in how much he learns, but in how much he empties after realising."
Hajime waited for an explanation but found none coming. He moved to the side to let another mule-cart pass.
"Master, may I?"
"Go on, Hajime. The market is not far away."
Hajime prayed to the gods to let him speak the most appropriate words.
"The Buddha is great, Master. There is no doubting that. But in his land, there were great seers before him, and now in our land there are seers whom we revere. Many are the unknown lands which may also nurture the deepest of minds. Those who came before, never knew of the Buddha..."
"No?"
"I... I am not sure. They did come before him and..."
"Go on, Hajime."
"Those who came before, never... might not have known the Buddha. Those who live far away in unknown lands, might not know of the Buddha. With the Buddha came the scriptures and our Zen school. Were it not for the Buddha, all this wouldn't be there..."
"No?"
Hajime was silent out of fear of having been stupid one too many times.
"The Buddha did gives us all of this, Master. Would I be far from the truth in saying so?"
"Go on, Hajime. I can see our fruit vendor already."
Hajime hastened to raise his doubts.
"The Buddha is great, Master and I do not doubt that, but there were and are people on this Earth who do not know of these sutras. How then have they attained enlightenment? How then are they clear? How then can", he paused to gulp his fears, "can the sutras be the true path?"
Akihiro-san smiled and said, "We shouldn't buy only the sweet fruits. It is vital to mix the sweet fruits with some not-so-sweet ones too."
They proceeded to pick fruits and drop it into the basket. Once the basket was loaded, Hajime rushed to carry it for the Master.
"Isn't it surprising, Hajime, that although you carry a basket of sweetness, nothing rests on your tongue to acknowledge it?"
Hajime bowed low, because he thought he understood.
"Come, Hajime, let us sit there and have a peach each."
They proceeded to sit on a bale of hay and Hajime rushed to wash two peaches at a nearby well. Akihiro-san watched the young boy sprint the length and thought to himself: Isn't Time the creator of all thought and also the destroyer of that which is not of thought? Isn't turning that around, the purpose of true wisdom and Divine search?
Hajime was standing in front of him with both peaches offered to the Master. Akihiro-san picked one and nodded his head. Hajime waited for his Master to have his first bite before he sank his teeth into the soft rind of the fruit. Akihiro-san motioned to a spot near him and Hajime took his seat.
There were several vendors hawking their wares. They beckoned the passerby and promised fine deals and discounts. The Master thought to himself: How does the peach maintain its sweetness even in the midst of all the activity of the world? He waited for Nobuo-san to arrive, selling his needles and thread spools. He heard his voice call out from around the bend. He was proclaiming the strength of his threads and how they would make every woman look a hundred times more pretty. Akihiro-san smiled.
"Hajime, what you raise are valid questions. Why, the Buddha himself did not follow his scriptures before gaining Nirvana. Isn't that strange?"
Hajime nodded his head slowly.
"What matters is beyond the scriptures and well ensconced in them. Without the scriptures a man is like our Nobuo-san out there."
Hajime turned around to watch the vendor walk carefully into the market square. He carried a basket full of spools and a broad tough board with needles stuck in them. Children kept poking fun at him and were teasing him.
"Nobuo-san", cried the little brats, "Can you thread a needle? Do you know the eye of a needle?"
Nobou-san's milky eyes looked heavenward and he smiled.
"Young ones, you need two good hands and a tongue to wet the tip of the thread. If only you stopped prancing around, I will teach you to do that with your eyes closed as I do it with my eyes open though essentially closed."
As the children ran away, Nobuo-san tried to imagine how children might look. Would they be essentially pure cottony softness with the warmth of sunrise in Winter? Or were they simply a digression on the way to adulthood? He shook his head. Forming images in his head was something he could never do and all that guided him was smell, touch and his heart.
Hajime returned his gaze to his Master.
"Do you mean that a man without the scriptures is blind, Master?"
"No, Hajime. Watch."
The Master raised his hand to the monastery nearby. The prayer gong struck within the confines of the walls. Nobuo-san and all others in the market square bowed their head low. Akihiro-san and Hajime also bowed their head. Everyone resumed their work and the Master continued to eat his peach. Hajime waited for some explanation. Seeing none come his way he spoke to the Master.
"Master, I don't ..."
"Wait."
Akihiro-san's eyes were focused on Nobuo-san. Hajime watched him too. The new sugar-candy vendor stationed under the tree struck his bell thrice. Nobuo-san stopped in his tracks and looked confused. He slowly bowed his head in the direction of the bell and turned his head around wondering whether others were bowing too. After a moment's pause he continued to walk on, proclaiming that his threads were worth their weight in gold and that even royalty bought their threads and needles from him.
"Shall we go?"
Hajime was transfixed in the immense import of this incident as well as in the truth that his Master revealed without resorting to a sutra.

5 comments:

  1. Parvati11:11 AM

    Well well well! You have lived upto my expectations here, Eroteme. At least to most of them.

    # The thought behind the whole koan is not something new - that sutras or scriptures while not being the absolute and ultimate authority of all time for all people/s, nevertheless can be a stepping stone to the ignorant or even the enlightened at sometime or the other. But one can and should go beyond their truth/s and live in the evergreen Truth of the Spirit that is beyond all forms and structure of the scriptures.
    This seems a very familiar thought to me, and hence the feeling is "Hmmm. OKaaay."

    Another thing here seems to be that the master seems to think that the sutras are ESSENTIAL to live the spirit. Which need not be so - the original rishis who lived the experience and then voiced them out had nothing before them and did not need any nudge or props from such writings. Somehow I suppose all is valid, for all time or as a phase, and the key in the sadhak is the sincerity of purpose, intent and execution of the truth he learns/knows at every instant - giving up the truth of the past second, if a new revelation accosts him. No attachment, no making absolutes of the relative, but moving on clinging only to The Truth Supreme.

    But again, the way at the end of it you have illustrated this with the blind pedlar's response to gongs from any bell, be it a vendors or from a monastery, because he assumes albeit with uncertainty that all are from the sacred temples, is unique. All gongs (scriptures) needn't be of the Supreme Truth; but some may be, and may lead you to the Truth, and had the pedlar been of a clear and sincere heart, maybe every thing will speak of the Divine to him, whether it is cow's bell or a temple's. Beautiful way of depicting this multitruth. Sutras could be of help, and when the riks of the Vedas or the Sutras of the buddhists manage to carry eternity in them, the possibility is also there that a person who goes to them, sees that from the first step he takes on the spirit's path, until forever, the written, earthy scriptures have that amazing power in them to carry him all the time, at all stages of his spiritual development. So that the sutras are not just stepping stones, but could well be the Word of God, always in his company until eternity itself. This neednt be termed as a crutch ,but the fact that Divine Truth can be embodied in a scripture eternally or even in a Guru eternally (- may go against your dislike for Gurus/Gurudom, the dregs from JK's influence on you, maybe? Or going by your selfconfidence, most probably you gave him all the learning regarding Gurus and the like :-D).

    # Hajime's essential ignorance has been beautifully, but simply beautifully indicated in the stripes of light being darkened by his shadow, with a little bit of the light managing to pierce through the darkness in Hajime, in the line "like sweet-scented oil on the river" (the river Hajime's gallivanting with the sutras is like sweet scent of oil on the surface of the river; though people outside might be impressed with the scent and think that the whole river is fully scented so, the truth is that the scent/true knowledge of the sutras dont reach the depth of the river- Hajime - at all. Amazing way of seeing things, E! I am impressed.), and in "Isn't it surprising, Hajime, that although you carry a basket of sweetness, nothing rests on your tongue to acknowledge it?".

    # My favourite place in this Zen Koan is something which seems to be just an aside, which I dont agree with at all, but which captivates - "Isn't Time the creator of all thought and also the destroyer of that which is not of thought? Isn't turning that around, the purpose of true wisdom and Divine search?" Time cannot destroy that which is not of thought, by which I think you mean the Truth, but the second sentence here of turning that around is delightful, Time should also be a creator of that which is not of thought, or that it should hold within itself too, the Truth of that is beyond time. Very well put.

    # All in all, a feast for the mind and the spirit too.

    # Thank you. :-)

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  2. I liked this story :)

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  3. Dear P,
    You are quite a martinet!! :-) And that ceases to be a blemish when one reads your insights into a koan. With all my heart, I would dedicate the koans to you. One thing I am disappointed with, is that you provide a lot of pointers to the readers and defeat the purpose of a koan. Nevertheless, I still welcome your elaborate comments and am sure many a reader out there would second me on that. :-)
    There is very little novelty in Truth, and hence, I am afraid I might not be able to provide much to the same effect. Most of my koans speak a popularly acknowledged truth but in a different manner (achieved most of the times). I would be surprised if you have seen some first-seen-here truth in any of the koans on this blog.
    There is a point that Akihiro-san makes, which is not often heard and I do admire his insight into the same. It lies embedded in his opinion of scriptures and Truth.
    Rishis codified their realisation in the form of scriptures. Not sure whether we have realised them all. For instance, the Jaimini Sutras have so many tenets hidden in each line. Absolutely remarkable! Hence, the essentiality of the sutras (but to a certain extent).
    I am glad you were able to have a glimpse into the Master's example. The interesting part was, how did he know that this would happen and thereafter help Hajime in gaining understanding about his problem?
    JK's influence on me? :-) Gosh!
    Glad you liked the start of the story. I enjoyed the scene too. Thank you for your patient comments... :-)

    Dear R,
    Glad you did! :-)

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  4. I have been trying to post a comment here for quite sometime now.. every day I would open this post at least twice and go thru' it again and again. What a beautiful story! Each time something new strikes you (Parvati's comments also helped me a lot in understanding things which were too subtle :-). Thanks Parvati. I think you rock.)
    Even now I don't know what to actually write..I really loved the story. Its simple and insightful; just the way I like it.. good work Eroteme!

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  5. Dear M,
    Glad you like it. Yes, Parvatiji's comments are quite helpful! :-)

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