One Bright Pearl for Cedar Rapids

On Sunday February 21, 2021 at 9:45am Central Time I’ll be speaking online at the Cedar Rapids Zen Center. For information on how to join go to https://www.cedarrapidszencenter.org. Here’s what I’ll try to talk about.

One of my favorite stories in Shobogenzo appears at the beginning of the essay called Ikka No Myoju, which is usually translated as “One Bright Pearl.” And my favorite version of that story is the one that Kobun Chino Roshi tells in the book Embracing Mind, in a chapter entitled Pain. Kobun’s version goes like this:

“There is a story about one of (Zen Master) Seppo’s disciples whose father was a fisherman in the Yangtse River, and this young man was his helper. Every day they caught a huge carp or something in the big river. One night the moon was bright so they set up night fishing, but the father slipped and went into the water; maybe a big fish caught the hook and pulled him down. 

“So he was drowning from the slippery river bank. The son tried to save him, and threw out his bamboo poles and fishing tackles, trying to save his father, until he, himself, was slipping, so finally he had to let the poles go. His father sank in the moonlight. 

“The son’s mind was kind of screwed up at that moment and he ran to the monastery of Seppo, ‘Snow Peak, Seppo Gisan,’ a very famous Rinzai teacher. After years of practice with Seppo, the disciple, whose name was Gensha, told Seppo, ‘I’m no good. I must go away from this place,’ so he began to climb the mountain, until, in the dark, he kicked a sharp rock.

“When he held onto his toes, they felt warm and yucky, ‘Oh, no, it hurts!’ And he said to himself, ‘This body and mind do not exist, I know, but where is this pain coming from?’ 

“He sat there thinking, ‘Wait a minute! What did I say?’ So he started to climb back down the path, back to Master Snow Peak. ‘I was wrong, so I came back.’ 

“When the Master asked him why he had returned, he answered, ‘Bodhidharma hasn’t come to China. The Second Patriarch hasn’t gone to India.’ This was a strange statement since Bodhidharma came to China. Everyone knew that. And Huiko (Bodhidharma’s student) had gone to India. What he meant was that Bodhidharma didn’t need to come to China and Huiko didn’t need to go to India. Seppo recognized something underneath this statement, so Gensha stayed there in Kose, west of the Yangtse, and taught many people, maintaining that this entire universe is nothing but a bundle of light.

“Pain is sometimes a good thing, you know!”

In the Western philosophical tradition, there’s a story that’s kind of similar to this one. In James Boswell’s book The Life of Samuel Johnson, he tells the story like this. “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of (the idealist philosopher) Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed that though we are satisfied (that) his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’”

My teacher, Gudo Nishijima Roshi, always insisted that Buddhist philosophy was neither materialism nor idealism. He said that all other philosophies could be put into one or the other of those categories, and that Buddhism stood alone as not being able to be classified that way.

But Buddhist philosophy contains statements like “The Triple World (aka the entire universe) is Mind Alone.” That sounds a lot like Bishop Berkeley’s idea that everything in the universe is merely ideal. It seems like Gensha probably thought that was the Buddhist teaching as well. But, in contrast with Samuel Johnson, when Gensha hit his foot against a rock, it did not refute the Buddhist teachings. Rather it confirmed for him the truth that the universe is Mind Alone.

I think Western Idealist philosophy like that of Bishop Berkeley is based on the attempt to think things through logically. In doing so, a lot of very smart people have come to the conclusion that everything is “mind.” Other smart people have thought it through and come to the logical conclusion that the basis for reality is “matter.” Both sides make very good cases.

Buddhist philosophy, however, is not based on thought, but on action. Buddhism is a practice of meditation in which a non-conventional view/understanding of reality emerges. Buddhist Mind-Only philosophy is an attempt to explain those meditative experiences. It resembles idealism more than it resembles materialism. But it has come to that understanding in a way that is very different from the way western idealists arrived at their philosophy.

My own experiences with meditation have shown me aspects of reality that can be best explained by a Mind-only philosophy. I’m not even all that enamored with the logic of Mind-only. It’s just that it fits what I’ve experienced in the practice. 

When western idealists or materialists present their philosophies, they use logic and reason in order to argue a proposition and convince their audience that it is true. Buddhist philosophers don’t do that. Instead, they are attempting to describe their own real experiences. Yet all experiences are fundamentally indescribable.

I’m going to see if I can say something coherent about this in my talk on Sunday. Wish me luck!

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Angel City Zen Center now meets on ZOOM several times each week often with Brad giving the lectures. We’re even having an online retreat in November. For details check aczc.org

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