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I am very grateful for the guidance of the Buddha which enables us to have such an outstanding cause and condition to listen to the Dharma in this time and space. Today, the topic that I will discuss is "the Buddhist perspective on time and space."
Time travels from the past to the present; it spans the past, present, and future. Likewise, space covers hundreds and thousands of realms; it spreads across all ten directions. For most living beings, time and space are just like the act of breathing: we breathe every moment yet are not conscious of this action. Depending on our individual make-up, we all have different understandings about time and space. For example, certain insects live for a day and are contented; humans live to seventy and are still not satisfied. We all confine ourselves to our own limited slice of time and space.
The term "all living beings" includes not only human beings but also encompasses beings in the other five realms of existence: celestial beings, asuras, animals, hungry ghosts, and beings in the hell realm. What is the time and space for all living beings within the six realms of existence?
We will first talk about time.
In Buddhism, a "ksana" is the smallest unit of time. Within the context of how we measure time today, it is approximately one seventy-fifth of a second. It is very brief. In Buddhism, how do we gauge such a short duration of time?
A reflection is a moment of thought; one human reflection takes up ninety ksanas.
Within one ksana, there are nine hundred instances of arising and ceasing.
There are 32,820,000 ksanas in one day.
From the descriptions above, we can glean that the arising and ceasing within a ksana occurs very rapidly. During any particular moment, we see flowers as red and leaves as green. In reality, they are constantly changing from ksana to ksana, and after a while, they will wilt. Within each ksana, they are perpetually growing and wilting. Take the example of a table: we see it standing firmly. However, if we were to look at it under an electron microscope, we would see that the internal fiber structure of the wood is changing, expanding and contracting as it decays from ksana to ksana. In a few years, this table will no longer be any good. In this world, how can there be any flowers and grass that will never wilt? How can there be any tables that will not be subjected to destruction? Because all phenomena and existences are arising from ksana to ksana, all phenomena and existence are therefore ceasing from ksana to ksana. There is a saying, "When a young man snaps his fingers, sixty-three ksanas have gone by." Time goes by very fast. Youth can disappear in a flash. A ksana is indeed an extremely brief and short span of time.
In Buddhism, a very long period of time is called an "asamkhya kalpa." It is a very, very long period of time; the duration of an "asamkhya kalpa" is so long that any attempts to describe it in words would be difficult. At this time, let me talk about two lesser units of time within an "asamkhya kalpa" so that you can have some general references.
"Mustard seed kalpa": Imagine if we were to take a huge container measuring ten kilometers on each side and fill it with mustard seeds. Then, every one hundred years, we were to remove one seed. The time it would take to empty the container of all the mustard seeds is one "mustard seed kalpa." Exactly how long a "mustard seed kalpa" is would probably have to be determined with the help of several computers.
"Boulder kalpa": Imagine if we were to take a huge boulder measuring ten kilometers on each side and sand the boulder with a piece of sandpaper every one hundred years. The time it would take to sand down the boulder to dust is "one boulder kalpa." This period of time is much longer than that of a "mustard seed kalpa."
Within the Buddhist time scale, both the "mustard seed kalpa" and the "boulder kalpa" are only considered to be minor kalpas. In contrast, the duration of a major kalpa like the "asamkhya kalpa" is so immeasurable and infinite that it is beyond words.
Lives of living beings never remain still. Like bubbles on the surface of water, they arise as suddenly as they disappear, each with a different life span. Human beings typically can live to about a hundred; some insects are born at dawn and are dead by dusk. To such an insect, one day is the equivalent of one hundred years in human terms. Tortoises, the longest living creatures on earth, can live up to two hundred and fifty years. Viruses probably perish in less than three hours. Although there is a huge difference between three hours and two hundred fifty years, nevertheless, each existence spans a lifetime. Elephants and dolphins can live to be ninety. Cows, horses, monkeys, and dogs generally last fifteen to twenty years. Rats may live for three to four years. Although flies and mosquitoes can only live for a period of about seven days, this is still a lifetime. The life span of a living being-whether it is a day, a few hours, a century, or two hundred and fifty years-may seem lengthy by worldly standards.
Let us now talk about space. In Buddhism, the largest unit of space is called a "Buddhaksetra" or Buddha Land, and the smallest unit of space is called a "suksma" or dust grain. Despite their differences in names, both terms ultimately describe the three thousand chiliocosms (major universe), which is endless, immeasurable, unlimited and unbounded.
On the other end of the scale, modern physics analyzes matter into ever smaller particles called atoms, protons, electrons or neutrons. A suksma is even smaller than a neutron. For example, a piece of ox hair is very small. If we examine the tip of the ox hair under a high-powered microscope, we would discover that it is made up of many smaller elements. Similarly, a suksma is tens of thousands times smaller than anything we commonly know. Our little finger may look clean and spotless, yet it actually harbors millions of dust particles and microorganisms. Each eye of a housefly consists of four thousand lenses. Such spatial dimension is so minute that it is undetectable by the naked human eyes.
With the help of modern laboratory equipment, technology has provided us with a broad and detailed understanding of the time and space in which we live. When we learn of these modern interpretations based on scientific research, we realize that the universe is indeed extremely vast and deep. However, the dimensions offered by these interpretations are nonetheless small and shallow when we consider time and space from the Buddhist perspective. Why? In Buddhism, time and space are immense without an outer limit and yet miniscule without an inner limit. Time and space are immeasurable and boundless. Today we are here talking; by tomorrow this speech can be televised to all of Taiwan. The following day, it can be translated and distributed to the world in printed form. In the future, it can be published as a book to build Dharma connections with tens of millions of people everywhere in the world. The Buddhist Dharma is forever beyond the limits of time and space.
Our daily lives in the vast universe are integrally related to and can never be separated from time and space. How successful a person is and how effective one handles one’s affairs depend on one’s management of interpersonal relationships are managed, one’s utilization of time, one’s allocation of space. Without effective timing, we either move too quickly or too slowly and will bring about the resentment of others. Without proper spatial awareness, we end up either taking others’ space or robbing others of their advantageous locations, and we will annoy others. Thus, time and space have significant impacts on our daily existences.
In today’s society, some people never seem to have enough time; to them, every second counts. Then, there are others whose time passes painfully slowly; to them, days feel like years. Some people are impoverished and homeless. Others possess so much land and buildings that they even want to own a piece of the moon. There are many different types of people and circumstances. The famous poet, Po-hu T’ang, once wrote about how fleeting and illusive time is:
Life rarely reaches seventy;
That I am seventy is a surprise.
I was too young the first ten years
And too old the last ten.
There are only fifty years in between;
Half of that time is spent at night.
By calculation I have only lived twenty-five years,
During which I have endured much toil and trouble.
Time is the most able judge, as described in the saying, "A long journey can truly test a horse; the passage of time can reveal one’s true character." Right or wrong, love or hatred, success or failure-all these will be revealed in time.
Time is the arbiter of one’s character. Hence this saying advises us, "Do not do [distressing] deeds that cause others to frown; the world should be free of those who grit their teeth in anger." A person’s character, be it noble or base, will become evident over time.
Time exists in a three-fold dimension in our everyday lives regardless of whether we believe that life rarely reaches seventy or that life begins at seventy. Lives of living beings gradually flow by in the three-fold dimension of time: "the past, present, and future." Time of the "past" is quietly gone; it will never return. Time of the "present" flies like an arrow; it disappears in a flash. Time of the "future," amidst our hesitation, slowly draws closer and closer; it suddenly slips by. Poets often tried to describe the ephemeral and illusive nature of time in their poems.
The only true fairness in this world is gray hair;
It does not overlook the heads of the rich.
Do not complain that we age too easily.
Even mountains turn white sometimes.
-Ch’i-lan Luo of the Ching Dynasty
What these lines mean is that time is most fair. Time ages everyone, regardless of whether you are rich or poor, whether you are strong or weak. Once years have passed, hairs do turn gray. Just as there are times when green mountains are blanketed with snow and frost, there will also be a day when we turn gray:
We all gain a year on our birthdays;
The world does not single me out to make me old.
-Yu Lu of the Sung Dynasty
What this verse says is that we all will get old. Every year, we age. The years of human lives disappear in the midst of the sound of the New Year firecrackers. Buddhism talks of the cycle of rebirth and the impermanence of all things, like the poem by the poet Chu-Yi Pai:
Regrettably my hair is like snow.
You are young and strong with the vitality of clouds.
To whichever youngster who looks down on me,
White hair will also come to you someday.
Not only must we learn to break through the confines of time, we have to do likewise regarding space. Some people climb a mountain to seize land from the mountain. Others fill the ocean to claim land from the ocean. In countless disputes and lawsuits over real estate properties, the living fight for space with the living. Sometimes the living even fight with the dead for space as when graveyards are reclaimed for the construction of housing. Not only do people have disputes over lands, nations also battle over boundary lines to seize more living space for their people. Almost all the wars in the world are fought over the amount of available living space. "Ten thousand acres of fertile farm land, but how much can one eat in a day? One thousand mansions, but one can only sleep in an eight-foot space." This saying points out that all space, both tangible and intangible, is ultimately illusive and fleeting. The rapidly existing and disintegrating space of the three realms ultimately arises from the mind. Poet Chu-yi Pai expressed this concept well in the following poem:
Why fight over the space
on the tip of a snail’s antenna?
Our existence is only as fleeting
as a flint spark.
In our daily lives, there are many examples when time and space are simply unbearable. We are often rendered desperate, painful and hopeless. Some of the worst moments are described in the following verse:
Closing time at the bank;
Sad and sick in bed;
Wronged with no outlet for grievance;
Disappointed and love sick;
On the day of a fatal diagnosis;
Escaped convicts with nowhere to hide;
Impoverished with nowhere to turn;
One’s spouse and children crying in sorrow.
There is another "comic" verse which describes more of these moments. It goes like this:
One waits for one’s date at sunset, yet the lovely one fails to show;
One takes an entrance exam, but one’s name does not make the list;
One faces with farewells and death, and one cries from heartbreak;
One is about to become a new mother, yet the pains of labor are unrelenting; One tosses and turns in bed, yet one cannot fall asleep;
One has teenagers who love to fight, so one is worried sick;
One has terrible stomach cramps and needs fast relief, yet a bathroom is not to be found;
One tries one’s best in a campaign, yet loses the election when the votes are counted;
One finds a motorcycle heading straight for one’s car, so one tries to brake urgently;
One has been caught for violating the law, and this is the moment for announcing one’s sentence;
One is a hundred meters into the battlefield, and one can neither advance nor retreat;
One’s family cannot get along, and one is in the midst of fighting and splitting up.
During the time it takes for flowers to bloom and wilt, all of us are gradually growing old. Just as this year’s blossoms are different from those of the previous year, I too am different from last year. The following verses aptly describe this change:
The flowers of this year are as pretty as those of last year;
The person of this year is older than last year.
Fortune does not last for a thousand days;
Flowers cannot blossom for a hundred days;
If one does not treasure the opportunities now,
One is left with nothing when they are gone.
On this day last year, at this threshold,
Your face and peach blossoms glow together.
Now your lovely face is gone,
The peach blossoms still smile at the spring breeze.
In this world, only the shimmering waves of continuously flowing water from the distant past are ever-present. In contrast, a person’s physical body cannot survive forever. Let me illustrate this point with the following two verses:
On the Yangtze River the waves from behind push the waves in front;
A new generation replaces an older generation.
Water from the rear flows to the fore;
It has flowed like this from ancient time to the present.
The new persons are not the old ones,
They all walk across the bridge year after year.
From antiquity to present, the same moon still shines. In the reality of human existence, who can be as everlasting as the moon? In fact, even the face of the moon changes between new and full. Time and time again, poets of the past to the present have written verses reflecting on the impermanence of human existence:
Modern people see not the ancient moon,
But the modern moon once shone upon ancient people.
By the riverbanks, who is the first to see the moon?
When does the moon above the river first shine upon a person?
Generation after generation, people’s lives continue endlessly;
Year after year, the moon appears the same.
Not knowing for whom the moon is shining,
I only see the river flowing downstream.
Countless masters in Buddhism have achieved the holy fruits of cultivation. They have neither hatred nor attachment. They are relieved of suffering and ignorance. Liberated from the realm of time and space, they exist in total freedom. For them, time and space are vastly different from that of ordinary people.
My body is like a swallow, always being the guest year after year.
My mind admires the wandering monks; for them everywhere is home.
The breeze of spring enables me to clearly understand life
And accompanies me as I travel throughout the world.
Many people of the modern age are stressed by work and depressed by life. When the days become unbearable, they go for a vacation abroad to look for a new way of release. Some may visit SouthEast Asia, Japan or Korea. Others want to really get away by traveling to European countries, the United States, or South Africa. Their efforts are much like digging for a well when one feels thirsty, very poor planning indeed. The relief from this kind of efforts can never bring anyone the completely liberated state of time and space. For the ultimate liberation, it is much better to observe and cultivate the teachings of Buddhism. The Buddhist holy practitioners can attain eternity in an instant. They can realize the endless universe in a grain of sand. The limitless Dharma and the infinite universe are in our hearts. Why bother to search for them outside?
During the Late Liang Dynasty, Ch’an master Chih Sheng (also known as Ch’an master Ling Shu) preached in Ling Shu Temple, which was located near the present day county of Ch’u Chiang in Kwangtung Province. The temple had hundreds of resident monks; yet, there was not a monastic headmaster in charge. Some people then urged Master Chih Sheng, "Since we have so many monks in this temple now, you should appoint a monastic headmaster."
Master Chih Sheng reflected for a moment and replied, "The monastic headmaster of this temple has already been born into this world. He is now herding sheep. Let’s just be patient."
A few years went by and nothing happened. Others once again urged Master Chih Sheng to appoint a monastic headmaster. Master Chih Sheng nodded, "It will be very soon. Our monastic headmaster has already renounced household life to become a monk. Please be patient for a bit longer."
After this exchange, Master Chih Sheng remained calm and unperturbed. Twenty-two years passed and Master Chih Sheng was getting old. Everyone was now worried. Once more they raised the issue of the monastic headmaster with him. Master Chih Sheng looked up to the sky and smiled. He assured everyone, "Good! Good! Our monastic headmaster has finally crossed the Five Mountains Range and is heading this way. We will only have to wait a very short while longer."
With this said, he then retreated back to his room to meditate. Looking at each other, the monks started to discuss among themselves. More time passed. One day, the old master asked the disciples to clean up the quarter of the monastic headmaster. The old master even inspected the room himself. A few days later, the big bell was rung. Everyone knew it was the signal that the monastic headmaster had finally arrived and that they should put on their formal robes. They were to gather before the entrance to welcome the monastic headmaster. Everyone followed the elderly master and stood outside the entrance. Soon, a monk showed up with his alms bowl. He was Master Yun Men Wen Yen, who would later become the founder of the Yun Men school of Ch’an.
Master Chih Sheng asked smilingly, "Our monastic headmaster position has been vacant for several decades now. Why are you so late and why did you wait until today to show up?"
Wen Yen respectfully joined his palms and replied, "Everything was determined by previous causes and conditions. The length in time and the distance in space are not important. Am I not finally here?"
Master Chih Sheng smiled understandingly. Accompanied by all the disciples, he escorted Wen Yen into the main shrine and appointed him as the monastic headmaster. This is the wonderful story of "Abbot Ling Shu welcoming the monastic headmaster." In recent history, Master Hsu Yun, the famous Ch’an Master, stayed in the Yun Men Temple when he revived the Yun Men School of Ch’an in 1943.
Let us all pause here to reflect. How free are the lives of these Ch’an masters! How unconstrained is their time and space! In contrast, people of present days feast on gourmet food but are not satisfied. They have fame and fortune but no peace. They sleep on comfortable mattresses but toss and turn all night. They reside in mansions but feel insecure. They fight and struggle everyday. They can never experience the wonder of limitless time and space. Is this not really regrettable?
In Buddhism, there is a saying, "The mind encompasses the space of the universe, traversing realms as numerous as all the grains of sand." What this means is for those who use time and space wisely, their time is the time of the mind. They can freely journey from past to present. They have endless Ch’an wisdom and application. The universe is indeed their time. His space is the space where the Buddha Dharma flows. It freely fills all dimensions. The representation and manifestation of principles are limitless. The Dharmadhatu is their space. On the other hand, for those who cannot use time and space wisely, their time is constrained by the movements of the clock and is controlled by the hands of the clock. To them, an hour is an hour, no more and no less; a minute is a minute, no more and no less. Its use is limited. Their space is area and distance bounded by feet and inches. A kilometer cannot be lengthened; a meter cannot be shortened. It is confined and limited. Let me illustrate with an example. A devotee once asked Ch’an master Chao Chou, "How can I use the twelve hours of a day wisely?"
Master Chao Chou stared at him, "You are bounded by the twelve hours of the day. I use my twelve hours appropriately. What kind of time are you talking about?"
The wise know how to use time and space perfectly; they lead free and harmonious lives. Fools are enslaved by time and space; they are busy running around all day. Wise or foolish, the difference is obvious. There is an ancient fable called "Marking the boat to look for a sword" which illustrates what happens when one is ignorant of time and space. In the country of Ch’u, a man was crossing a river on a ferry. In the middle of the river, he accidentally dropped his sword. Everybody urged him to dive into the water to recover the sword. He was not worried but leisurely made a mark on the boat. He was quite proud of himself and replied confidently, "My sword fell down from here. When the boat stops, I will dive for my sword from here. Why worry?" Others told him that as both the boat and water were moving, it would be impossible for his sword to follow the boat in step. When time passed and space changed, his sword could not be retrieved. He did not listen. When the boat finally docked, he started looking for the sword beneath the spot he had marked on the boat. Do you suppose that he succeeded in retrieving his sword?
Of course not, it was the wrong time and space.
When I arrived in Taiwan thirty-four years ago, not only was I unable to replace my old torn clothes and shoes, I had great difficulty in obtaining a pen and some paper for writing. Sometimes I had to endure hunger and coldness for months and still could not afford to have these few items. When I saw others receiving generous offerings by conducting Dharma functions or performing services, I did not feel inadequate. They bought comfortable clothing and good food; I did not feel poor or deprived. In cold weather, I warmed myself under the sun. The sun was there for everyone to enjoy. The sun was my robe; it was so very warm. During the hot season, I cooled myself with the breezes. The wind was there to keep everyone cool. The wind was my gown; it was so very free. I looked at trees and flowers; they were my Dharma companions. No one could prohibit me. I had oh so many Dharma companions. I walked across rivers and plains; they gave me so much Dharma delight. No one could take that away from me. My Dharma delight was so fulfilling. If our minds are broad and open, the heaven and earth, sun and moon, they are all ours. We can have all time and space. If all you know is how to complain and get depressed about poverty and obstacles, you will be poor and ill at ease in all places and at all times. All your time and space will become an endless hell and a boundless sea of suffering.
One day, a young person saw a very old man. He was curious and asked, "Sir, can you tell me how old you are?"
With a smile, the gentlemen replied, "Oh! I am four. I am four years old."
The young fellow was shocked. He looked at the old gentleman left and right, "Oh! Sir, please do not joke with me. Your hair is so white and your beard is so long. How could you be four?"
"Yes! I am really four!" The old man then kindly explained, "In the past, I lived a befuddled life. I was selfish and preoccupied. I wasted away a great portion of my life. It wasn’t until four years ago that I discovered Buddhism. Then I learned to do good and be helpful. I learned to get rid of my greed, hatred, and ignorance. I realized that I should cultivate myself to find my true nature. My entire life had not been meaningful, valuable, or fulfilling until these past four years. You asked me my age. I really feel I have been a worthwhile person for only these four years. This is why I am only four."
Greed and ignorance prevent us from using time and space wisely and even missing out on valuable opportunities. Only if we want to benefit others and ourselves, can we seize boundless time and space.
The Ch’an master smiled and gave him these words, "This day will never return; the passing of time is precious like treasure." Time once passed will never return. We should treasure our time and remember that time is precious like exquisite jade.
Nowadays, it is fashionable to talk about "conservation." Unfortunately, we only emphasize on conserving materials, conserving money. We do not know that we should also conserve time and our emotions. We should conserve our desires and our lives. We should be careful with every thought and deed. We should not let ourselves be indulgent and lose control. Only then can we know how to use time and space wisely.
One day, a few students were scolded by the Ch’an master for taking long afternoon naps. The students replied, "Well. We are learning from your examples. In our dreams we have gone to seek and to study with ancient masters and scholars."
"What then have you learned from them?"
"Oh yes! In our dreams, we visited many ancient masters and scholars. We asked them, ‘Is our master studying with you all the time?’ They all replied, ‘No, we have never seen or heard of your master.’"
One must be true to and honest about time and space. "Day by day, time goes by; each day will never return." The arrow of time never flies backward. If we do not seize the opportunities, we will not be able to make anything out of them. There is a very well-know poem:
Youth never returns; a day just has one dawn.
Work diligently now; time waits for no one.
In Buddhism, the "Take Heed Verse" of Samantabadhra Bodhisattva aptly describes the urgency of using our time wisely:
This day is over; life has decreased accordingly.
As a fish in dwindling water, where is the joy?
One should work diligently, as if extinguishing flames on the head.
Be mindful of impermanence; do not relax one’s efforts.
My best wishes to all of you. May each of you extend the limited existence of life into unlimited time and space. May each of you walk the broad path of peace and happiness in life. Thanks to all of you.
My teacher lived below Taipai Peak. dragons and elephants tromped around. The hammer and chisel [of teaching[ chipped away. The meaning of his words spread widely but still conveyed the essence. Sometimes scholars and laypeople who trusted the Way (Tao) asked for his directions; sometimes mendicant monks requested his instructions. They spread out paper and wrote down his responses. He spoke up and answered their questions, producing appropriate Dhama talks. I have selected a few of these and arranged them in order.
Ah, the emptiness of the great blue sky, the flowing of the vast ocean.
I have not yet attained these utmost depths, so please excuse my attempt to record his talks. I must await the ones who mysteriously accord with spiritual awakening to pound out the rhythm of his words and appreciate their tones.
appear. The deep source, transparent down to the bottom, can radiantly shine and can respond unencumbered to each speck of dust without becoming its partner. The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds. The whole affair functions without leaving traces, and mirrors without obscurations. Very naturally mind and dharmas emerge and harmonize. An Ancient said that non-mind enacts and fulfills the way of non-mind. Enacting and fulfilling the way of non-mind, finally you can rest. Proceeding you are able to guide the assembly. With thoughts clear, sitting silently, wander into the center of the circle of wonder.
This is how you must penetrate and study.
if you set foot on the path, spiritual energy will marvelously transport you. Contact phenomena with total sincerity, not a single atom of dust outside yourself.
Originally published in: Mind Moon Circle, Autumn 1994, pp.1-3.
attain enlightenment and lead other beings to safety. But if you are a
Zen person, you don’t get off so easily. We find Buddha in the heart
of delusion, we find stars in the deepest night. When Hakuin said,
"This very body is the Buddha," he didn’t mean after we’ve gained
enlightenment or taken vows, he meant right now, in the chaos.
I think of the old story of the warrior who did zazen with such energy
that all the mice in the house grew still until he had finished. His
wife remarked on this and he said, "Well, this won’t do, I’ll have to
try harder." His zazen deepened and soon, as he sat, the mice came out
and played all over him, completely unafraid.
This story tells about inclusion. It implies that even mice have their
contribution and worth and that we don’t want to shut too much of
their world out. This means not only the outer world as the field of
enlightenment but also the inner world – the disturbed zazen, the
immense proliferation of fantasies, the distractions. If lay life has
a virtue, it is in this inclusiveness.
In the Indian world that Buddhism grew from there seems to have been a
fairly clear distinction between lay and monastic lives. One was a
householder for the first part of life and then, when family
obligations were finished, one was free to seek enlightenment. But
nothing is really this orderly and Shakyamuni fractured this way of
seeing things by abandoning his obligations before they were completed
and so making lay life somehow second class. Primeval Buddhism
certainly saw things this way. There was a split between the pure
monastic world and the contaminated householder world.
It was the advent of the Mahayana that clouded this view once more.
Vimalakirti, a layman, became a hero, and the Bodhisattva ideal was of
one who had compassion, who saved others and who did so by walking
unharmed through the fires of the world. Now this is quite a different
path. The image of enlightenment has changed. The original idea of
nirvana was a cessation, extinction, a snuffing out, as of a lamp.
Perhaps we should call it endarkment. It implies a stoic view of
things. Life was seen as so contaminated that the end of it was the
best thing of all. The Mahayana, and the Zen image is more optimistic:
to light a lamp and pass it on. Beings are worth saving, even stones
are beings, and consciousness is a great project.
The monastic life then becomes less a way station on the path out of
life and more of a matter of practical choice within life, a skilful
means. We put a fence around the training hall to get containment, so
that the energy we pour in does not leak out. The training hall is a
kind of alchemical vessel. Only if it is in some degree sealed off can
we get enough heat to change the lead into gold. This is the great
virtue of monastic life. All transformation needs its guardians and
monastic life provides them. But its project enlightenment and
compassion – is no longer different from the lay project.
Both lay and monastic worlds have their pathologies. The pathologies
of the monastic life seem to be about clinging to purity. Purity is
not a natural thing and needs to be guarded. Another way to say this
is that monasteries tend towards monotheism – a single and orthodox
view of reality. The monastic consciousness doesn’t believe in
fantasies or in the arts because it doesn’t like the confusion of
multiple views. Monasteries like rules because when we make a rule we
gain the illusion that we have dealt with the problem. This monotheism
relates to the inner life as well. Samadhi and concentration states
are often highly valued. This is what the Chinese masters called the
sword that kills – the koan that drives all thoughts away,
annihilating every other content in the mind. Then enlightenment will
come and there will be no more real problems.
The status of women and children always seems to suffer in
monasteries. This is because they always bring in more real problems.
Women have a special role as distractions, human affections being the
one thing most difficult to put boundaries around. Women have been
excluded, or they are included but asked to act like men, or they’re
asked to act like women, but to not have children, or they’re asked to
not bring their children around the sesshin. Even women’s monasteries
seem to have a patriarchal air – rigid and hostile to the obligations
of the heart. Women in temples are often given the archetypal task of
representing the world and its weight, its messiness. Naturally a
woman will object because her real developmental task is something
independent of the way a man reacts to her.
The pathologies of a lay life relate to a kind of getting lost, a
forgetting of the quest, an unconscious immersion in the world. So
much time is spent changing diapers or watching the stock market
ticker that zazen never gets up enough steam to bring about a real
change. We are so close to the greed, the sadness, the anger and the
ignorance that it’s impossible not to get stained by them. We come
home from the hospital and can’t stop thinking about the baby who
died. The world penetrates us.
But this wounding of consciousness can be the essence of the
Bodhisattva life. The Bodhisattva legend is of one who puts off her
own enlightenment in order to save others. On the face of it, this is
an absurdity, but like many absurdities it contains a very deep story.
An old koan goes like this: "Why is it that perfectly accomplished
Bodhisattvas are attached to the vermilion line?" The red line is the
line of passion- of sorrow and the love of the world. Our perfection
cannot connect with others. Only through our weaknesses do we grow. It
is the field of our failures and problems that is the place of
Bodhisattva action and the development of character after
enlightenment. The Bodhistttva’s enlightenment is not something that
makes her invulnerable to the world but open to it. It is closely
linked to love. This weakness, this permeability, is the strength of
the lay life.
The lay view asks itself unanswerable questions such as, "What does
enlightenment mean?", trying to link the experience of eternity to the
smell of the morning coffee. It assumes there will always be problems
and failures. It wonders what its dreams mean and always misinterprets
them. It gets lost in symbol and metaphor. The monastic view is
uninterested in meaning and tends to think enlightened people don’t
Obviously there are people in monasteries who are immersed in the
world and people outside of monasteries who try to stay unsullied by
the world. Most of the Western monasteries today have some degree of
what I am calling lay consciousness,. And yet it is the monastic
consciousness that has preserved Buddhism down through the ages and
this is a powerful argument in its favour.
The virtue of the lay point of view is that it brings a fertilizing
muddle into the serenity of the temple. Blackberry pie, sex, a new
car, lessons for the little girl, these distractions and frivolities
are themselves the Buddha Way. A coherent temple existence seems, at
least from the outside, to be difficult. Fortunately, a coherent lay
existence is impossible.