The following is an excerpt from my book Don’t Be a Jerk. I feel like it’s appropriate right about now. I’m planning to make a video today explaining why.
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Dogen writes (more or less):
Before he was a Zen Master, Gensa Shibi was a fisherman. But when he was thirty years old he decided to leave fishing behind and go off to the mountains to find the truth.
He climbed up Mt. Seppo and became a disciple of Master Seppo Gisan. There, Gensa became known for his hard practice and almost stubborn dedication.
But after a while studying with Seppo, Gensa figured it was time to go meet some other teachers so that he could get a more well-rounded education. He packed his bags and started walking toward the temple gate.
Just then he stubbed his toe on a big rock. There was blood all over the place and it hurt like nobody’s business. Gensa thought, “Some say the physical body doesn’t exist, so where then is this pain coming from?” He returned to the temple.
Seppo, his teacher, saw him and asked, “What’s up, Mr. Hard Practice?”
Gensa said, “My trouble is I can’t be fooled.”
Seppo said, “Who doesn’t know this deep down? But who else besides you can say it out loud?” After waiting a beat, Seppo then said, “So how come you decided not to leave this temple and further your education?”
Gensa replied, “Bodhidharma didn’t come to China. The Second Patriarch (Huike, Bodhidharma’s successor) didn’t go to India.” (NOTE: Historically speaking, Bodhidharma did go to China. He is regarded as the first Indian Zen teacher to do so. His successor Huike, however, did not go to India.)
Seppo liked Gensa’s answer and told him so.
Gensa, being an uneducated fisherman, never read a Buddhist sutra in his life. He just dedicated himself to practice. Gensa had only one robe, which he patched up whenever part of it wore out and he wore underwear made out of paper and grass. He really took the impoverished monk thing seriously. He never left Seppo and eventually became Seppo’s successor.
Years later Gensa was preaching and told the audience that the whole universe was one bright pearl. One of his monks asked him how we should understand that phrase. Gensa said, “The whole universe is one bright pearl. What are you gonna do with your understanding?”
A couple days later Gensa said to the monk, “The whole universe is one bright pearl. How do you understand this?”
The monk said, “The whole universe is one bright pearl. What am I gonna do with my understanding?”
Gensa said, “I see you are struggling to get inside a demon’s cave in a black mountain.”
Gensa was the first to call the whole universe one bright pearl. That means it’s not big or small, not square or round, not active, not obvious. It’s not life and death in terms of coming and going, so it is real life and real death in terms of coming and going. The past has left and the present has arrived. Who can see it as moment following moment and who can see it as solid and stable?
The whole universe causes things to accord with ourselves and ourselves accord with things. Emotions and intellect separate us from the real universe. But even those things are kind of like turning your head or making a face. They make us feel separation, but even they are part of reality.
Someday everybody will understand this phrase “one bright pearl.” The body and mind of the present moment are one bright pearl. It isn’t that there are or are not miscellaneous things in the universe. It’s just that they’re all one bright pearl.
Even though it seems like that monk who said “How should we understand it?” was just being intellectual, the question was a manifestation of the workings of the universe. To express the truth that things are just what they are, Gensa asked “What are you gonna do with your understanding?”
If we try to run away from the reality that things are exactly as they are, even our running away is part of that reality.
A couple days later when Gensa asked the monk the same question that the monk had asked him, Gensa is saying that yesterday he preached a general rule but today he’s talking about the exception that makes the rule. He’s laughing about turning yesterday’s teaching upside down.
The monk says, “The universe is one bright pearl, what am I gonna do with my understanding?” We should do zazen for ourselves, turning our own light inward, and think about how often understanding things is actually useful. It’s like milk cakes and veggie crackers. Theory and practice are the same thing expressed in two different ways.
Gensa said, “I see you’re struggling to get into a demon’s cave in a black mountain.”
The sun is always the sun and the moon is always the moon. The whole universe is one eyeball of the true dharma eye (NOTE: This is a pun on the word Shobogenzo, “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye”). The whole world is just brightness and the whole world is just the whole world.
All Buddhas manifest their bodies and preach the dharma because of this one bright pearl.
Sometimes the one bright pearl is concealed, like in the old story of the guy who sewed a pearl into the clothes of his drunken friend so that he’d find it later and be able to use it to get a cab ride home. We’re like that because we possess the truth, only we’re in such a stupor we don’t realize it.
Even when the universe shows us different faces — sometimes things are going great and sometimes things really suck — it’s still one bright pearl. The moment when we recognize the bright pearl exists is also the bright pearl itself.
Even if we think we can’t possibly be the bright pearl, that’s just the bright pearl doing the thinking. Basing our action on fleeting thoughts is just due to our limited understanding.
How could we not love the infinite colors of the one bright pearl? Don’t worry about being caught up in the world of cause and effect. When the universe becomes thoroughly right, the bright pearl is its eyes.
Neither you nor I know what the bright pearl is or is not. But we can just rely on Gensa and trust that the universe is one bright pearl.
Our minds are not our own, so why worry about whether the universe is a bright pearl or not? Who is it that has those concerns? Ask yourself that!
No action or image has ever been realized except by relying upon the one bright pearl.
So stepping forward or stepping backward into the demon’s dark mountain cave is the bright pearl itself.
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IT CAME FROM BEYOND ZEN and SEX SIN AND ZEN are now available as audiobooks from Audible.com! You can also get Don’t Be a Jerk, Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up and There is No God and He is Always With You in audio form — all read by me, Brad Warner!