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When You Greet Me, I Bow

March 14, 2013

by Stephen Damon

Longtan made rice cakes for a living. But when he met the priest Tianhuang, he left home to follow him. Tianhuang said, “Be my attendant. From now on I will teach you the essential dharma gate.” After a year, Longtan said, “When I arrived, you said you would teach me. But so far nothing has happened.” Tianhuang said, “I’ve been teaching you all along.” Longtan said, “What have you been teaching me?” Tianhuang said, ”When you greet me, I bow. When I sit, you stand beside me. When you bring tea, I receive it from you.”

Usually a Zen teacher instructs his or her students by giving a Dharma talk about a Sutra or an element of the Buddhist teaching in much the same way as a professor gives a lecture in college. But sometimes he or she will teach not by words but by expressing their understanding of the teaching by the way they walk into the Zendo or eat oriyoki. I recall reading a an account by a student who said that he learned what enlightenment was just by walking behind his teacher and watching how he moved.

This shouldn’t surprise us as we are told over and over again that Zen is “before language,” and is “outside the scriptures.” Of course, our first contact with Zen is usually in words—either in a book or a talk—but if we continue with our practice these words must enter our bodies as our breath does. Eventually the Dharma must saturate every cell of our being. As one ancient Zen Master told his student, “My words are in your blood now.” When the Dharma does saturate your being, your body is transformed.

And so, I’ve become interested in the non verbal ways we communicate with each other, especially during a sesshin when we are instructed to be quiet and not to “look into each other’s eyes” but to keep a dispersed meditative gaze. I have noticed that if I pay attention, I know who has walked by me by the sound of his or her footsteps. In a sense, each of us has a unique sound. This is especially true in the Zendo. In Zen practice we spend a lot of time doing things in unison—sitting down and getting up, standing, walking, and eating. In this way we get an impression of one another from parts of our bodies that are not as directly influenced by our personalities as our faces are. The way we move our hands and feet expresses very deep dimensions of ourselves that we are often unable to express in words.

In our ordinary lives, we can know someone quite well—they can even be a good friend—but what do we really know about them? We may know where they were born and where they went to school. We may be familiar with their beliefs, their tastes in music and movies, their wants and needs and complaints, and so on. Though we know what they look like, we may not really have taken in the expression of their eyes, or the timber of their voice, or the way they move when they are connected to their deepest wish.

When we sit together—sometimes for a weekly 40 minute sit and sometimes for a longer retreat— we usually don’t have the time to talk and so we don’t get to hear each other’s life stories, and yet I do feel that on a deeper level I have come to know the people I sit with very well. When I look around the Zendo, I have the impression that we are all trying to do the same thing, but we each do it a little differently. I see how the posture of each person expresses the Buddha and his teaching in a distinctive way. Last week when I looked at the straight posture of our newest member I felt that I was seeing a new turning of the wheel of Dharma.

The teachings of the Buddhas and ancestors are constantly being restated, sometimes in our words and sometimes in our bodies. Sometimes a teacher will instruct her or his students by offering a lengthy commentary on a difficult part of a Sutra and sometimes she will just bow when she greets them.


From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. Gassho! I do agree with you. I’ve had the same experience noticing the people I was on retreat with. Teaching (and studying!) without words might be underestimated sometimes in the west, but I think it’s actually a very useful method.

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