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Master, Master!

March 31, 2013

by Stephen Damon

Last week our sangha had an interesting discussion about Suzuki Roshi’s chapter on mindfulness in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind , during which we wound up talking about exactly what we do when sit zazen. Several people offered valuable descriptions of their experiences on the pillow but one thing that someone said has stuck in my mind. He said that when he sits, he asks himself “Who am I?” When he said this I remembered a Koan from the Mumonkan, “Ruiyan Calls His Master,” Case 12.
The Case:

Every day Ruiyan would call to himself, “Master, Master!”
And every day he would respond, “Yes, yes.”
Then he would say, “Be awake! Be alert!”
“Yes!”
“From now on, don’t be fooled by anything.”
“No, I won’t be!”

Whether we use words or not, when we take our cushions in the morning we really are asking ourselves: “Where am I?” or “What am I?” This question is perhaps the essential one of our lives. Even if we do not have a meditation practice we will occasionally put this question to ourselves, often in the midst of the extreme difficulties of life. Interesting that the first thing God asks humanity is: Adam, where art thou? The history of humanity, as well as our individual life stories, is a response to that question. More important, how we ask this question and how we respond to it express the depth of our Zen practice.

From time to time I have incorporated Ruiyan’s question in my daily meditation practice. When I do this, I find myself returning to the feeling that “I am.” I may have been lost in daydreams but for a moment or two I return to the feeling of myself sitting, in this body at this time. When I do this I don’t really have to tell myself to be “awake” and “alert” as having the feeling that “I am” is to be awake and alert. This was Master Ruiyan’s practice and it is ours too.

If you study this koan you come to the question of what is meant by “himself” and what is meant by “The Master.” When we ask ourselves who we are, we are not referring to our life stories. We are searching for something less obvious and less known than where we were born and where we went to school. The question of who I actually am is something not so simple and not so easily discerned. It is the question from which we hide just as Adam hid behind a rock in the Garden of Eden. If I let go of all the superficialities of my life, what is left? This needs to be the fundamental question of our practice, of our lives.

What is left after we let go of our life stories is not the ordinary me or you. This is the fundamental point of our story. It’s like Buddha standing up when he is born and pointing to the heavens and to the earth and saying, “In the heavens above and the earth below I alone am the world honored one!” We are vast and inconceivable. And yet this vastness can only be expressed in how we live out our lives. So we need to take care of ourselves as well as others, because each of us is, no matter how imperfect, an expression of the vast and inconceivable. Each life, each moment of each life, is everything.

So our daily life is our practice. Each moment is an opportunity to remember who we really are and why we are here. Each moment calls out to us, “Master, Master,” and we respond, “yes, yes,” according to our understanding. Yes, each moment is “ordinary,” and nothing special and yet it is the only moment we have to practice. Each moment is a Dharma gate to the vast and inconceivable. During Zen retreats, when we eat our meals we say verses of appreciation and dedication, making it clear that what we are doing can only be appreciated in the context of the blood line of Buddhas and ancestors.
But we don’t have to be on a retreat to treat each moment as an opportunity to enter more deeply into our lives. You can, of course, recite meal chants before each meal, but our daily practice can be less formal than that. In fact, the informality and spontaneity of the forms of our daily practice can be its strength. If we are actively engaged with the question of “what am I” any moment of our lives can be a moment of awakening. In the deepest sense, our Zen practice is not so much about how we respond to “Master, Master,” but how deeply interested we are in that question. We have to have that question in our minds, hearts and bodies continually. In a sense we have to become the question, and our ongoing practice is not so much about answering this question as it is about deepening it.

From → Zen Buddhism

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