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Returning to the Origin, Back to the Source

February 23, 2013

by Stephen Damon


To return to the Origin, to be back at the Source—already a false step this!
Far better it is to stay at home, blind and deaf, and without much ado;
Sitting in the hut, he takes no cognizance of things outside,
Behold the streams flowing—whither nobody knows; and the flowers vividly red—for whom are they?

From the very beginning, pure and immaculate, the man has never been affected by defilement. He watches the growth and decay of things, while himself abiding in the immovable serenity of non-assertion. He does not identify himself with the maya-like transformations that are going on about him. The waters are blue, the mountains are green sitting alone, he observes things undergoing changes.

In the last ox herding picture, we saw that the self and Buddha nature are both empty. But we did not linger in the bliss of emptiness, we have to return to our lives, just as they were before we started. We have come a long way since first seeing the traces of the ox, but if we look carefully, we see that everything around us is just as it was before we started. Yes, there have been “maya-like transformations going on about us,” but the sky is still blue, mountains are green, and rivers flow effortlessly toward the sea. In the deepest sense, the world has not changed, it is we who have been transformed.

This transformation has come in stages. Master Qingyuan said in the Compendium of Five Lamps, Thirty years ago, before I practiced [Zen], I saw that mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. However, after having achieved intimate knowledge and having gotten a way in, I saw that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have found rest, as before I see mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. We have returned, not to some distant primordial source but to our life itself just as it was before we started our search. We reenter our life with different eyes, and see for the first time that there is nowhere else to be, no other life to live. The search for enlightenment has come full circle. We no longer see the full moon as a symbol of enlightenment, we see it just as the full moon.

Looking back on our practice, we see our error in trying to find the source in some imaginary, distant place when it was right there in front of us. To quote a line from the nineteenth case of the Mumonkan, “If you try to direct yourself toward the Tao, you go away from it.” If we don’t know that there is nothing to be gained, and nowhere to go, if we don’t know that the ox is us, every step we take will be in the wrong direction.

We have returned to where we started, but with a new appreciation that the Source of all things is constantly being manifested wherever we are and whatever we are doing. Having said this, we also need to be aware that a beginner does need a goal towards which he makes efforts. Until we progress enough to let go of our usual way of doing things in the world, we need to have some sort of goal, albeit a temporary one, for us to try to do anything. In that sense, the idea of “enlightenment” can be understood as a provisional means to help us practice. When we progress to the ninth stage of the path, we are able to see things as they really are: rivers are rivers, and mountains are mountains. There is no delusion and no realization, there is just things as they are.

We are told that at this stage we are like a blind and deaf person who never leaves her hut. On one level this means that we have enough stability that we are no longer distracted by the sights and sounds of the world. On a deeper level this means that we no longer have a dualistic relationship to things. There is no subject that sees or hears and there are no objects to be seen or heard. There is just the activity of seeing and hearing.

Sitting in the hut, he takes no cognizance of things outside.Yamada Roshi comments that this line comes from a dialogue between Unmonand Master Kempô: Unmon visited Master Kempô and asked, “Why doesn’t a person inside the hermitage know anything outside the hermitage?” To this, Kempô burst out into laughter. Kempô laughed because it was an absurd question. The monk in the hermitage doesn’t know what is outside because there is nothing outside to know. He is indistinguishable from everything. To quote Soanka’s Song of the Grass Hut:

The person in the hut lives here calmly,
not stuck to inside, outside, or in-between.

…Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world…

From → Zen Buddhism

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