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Entering the City with Bliss-bestowing Hands

March 2, 2013

by Stephen Damon


Shoeless and bare-chested he enters the marketplace;
He is daubed with earth and ashes, and a smile fills his face.
Making no use of the secrets of gods and wizards,
He causes withered trees to bloom.

He closes the thatched gate to his hermitage
so that even the thousand sages do not know of him.
He buries the light of his own knowing
and goes against the tracks left by former sages.
Carrying a gourd, he enters the marketplace; holding his staff, he returns home,
Bestowing Buddhahood on barkeeps and fishmongers.

We have come a long way since we first felt that something was missing from our lives. At first we didn’t even know what it was that was missing. We just had a feeling of incompleteness and emptiness. We imagined that whatever it was it must’ve been very far away and we were prepared to search for it. We didn’t really know how to look—that would take some time to learn—but we began to see traces of another kind of life everywhere.

We followed these traces and soon had our first encounter with what we had been seeking—not because we had travelled very far, but because it was never really very far away. And then with the help of practice instructions left to us by Buddhas and ancestors we began to move closer and closer to what we were seeking until it got so close that it disappeared. And then we disappeared. As Dogen says in the Genjo Koan, “When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far away from its environs. At the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted, you are immediately your original self.”

Before we began our practice we might have thought that we had gone as far as we could, transcending our ideas of self and other, sentient beings and Buddhas, but now we see that there is more work to be done. We are Mahayana Buddhists, devoted to freeing all beings and so we close our huts and walk down the mountain to the towns below to help barkeeps and fishmongers awaken.

But we do not show any outward signs of our state of being. As many Zen masters have said, we must not become attached to any results of our practice and there should be no “stink of enlightenment.” Dogen says, “No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.” We do not make any conscious effort to keep the rules of conduct and teachings of our ancestors. We simply go where we want to, and do what we want to. And yet we never stray from the right path. We lead a life of total freedom, a life of natural simplicity. Everything that we do, no matter how “casual,” is an expression of our original nature.

The tenth painting likens us to the 10th century Zen monk, Hotei, a laughing, bare-chested fat man who carries a staff and a cloth sack as he saunters through the marketplace, often with children at his side. He shows great compassion and benevolence toward everyone he meets, bestowing Buddhahood on barkeeps and fishmongers, but he rarely shows his stature as an accomplished master. He is understood to be an unrecognized incarnation of Maitreya, the next cosmic Buddha.

Maitreya, the true Maitreya
has billions of incarnations.
Often he is shown to people at the time;
other times they do not recognize him.

Here, we see that there are “cosmic” dimensions to our practice. Our practice is not only for the poor and disadvantaged people that we pass on the sidewalks of our cities, it is also about freeing the mountains and the rivers, and causing “withered trees to bloom.” When we become our original selves, we are like Shakyamuni Buddha as well as the Buddha of a future age. That is, we see that our original nature is the nature of all things.

So, in the tenth stage of our practice we have let go of all of our previous ideas of who and what we are. We do not distinguish anything, not even ourselves, from the vast, uninterrupted emptiness of the universe. There are no Buddhas and there are no sentient beings. Experiencing this, everything we do exudes humility, benevolence, compassion, and good humor. Yes, the world is full of suffering and we do our best to alleviate it as best we can. But we do all this with a great smile.

I would like to close with how Chogyam Trungpa described this last stage of our practice. “Nirmanakaya is the fully awakened state of being in the world. Its action is like the moon reflecting in a hundred bowls of water. The moon has no desire to reflect, but that is its nature. This state is dealing with the earth with ultimate simplicity…You destroy whatever needs to be destroyed, you subdue whatever needs to to subdued, and you care for whatever needs your care.”


From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. Beautiful piece of writing. It made me remember when I first read it might be good to be gentle with inanimate objects, too. It sounded silly. A stone has no consciousness, cannot feel. Later on I realised a piece of rock had something to teach me, especially when I kicked it inadvertently and found that it would not budge.

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