The Perfect Tree

Dharma Talk by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei, MRO
Blue Cliff Record, Case 3

Featured in Mountain Record 22.3, Spring 2004

 The Pointer

One device, one object, one word, one phrase. The intent is that you’ll have a place to enter. Still this is gouging a wound in healthy flesh. It can become a nest or a den. The great function appears without abiding by fixed principles. The intent is that you’ll realize there is something transcendental. It covers the sky and it covers the earth yet it cannot be grasped. This way will do, not this way will do, too. This is too diffuse. This way won’t do, not this way won’t do either. This is too cut off. Without trading these two paths, what would be right? Please test. I cite this for you to see.

The Main Case

The great master Ma was unwell. The temple superintendent asked him, “Teacher, how has your venerable health been in recent days?” The great master said, “Sun-face buddha, moon-face buddha.”

The Verse

Sun-face buddha, moon-face buddha.
What kind of people
were the ancient Emperors?
For twenty years I suffered bitterly.
How many times I’ve gone down
into the Blue Dragon’ s cave for you.
This distress is worth recounting.
Clear-eyed patched robe monks
should not take it lightly.

Illness is used in Buddhism as a way of speaking of delusion. The Buddha spoke of our confusion and attachments as the most pervasive and destructive of all illnesses. We may be physically ill and still be at peace; yet there are many physically healthy people who are sick with their own anger, regret, sadness and loneliness. The Buddha himself is often times described as a physician who is able to recognize our fundamental illness — dukkha; he understands the source of the problem and can diagnose the ailment — attachment to a permanent self; and he offers a prognosis — it is possible to realize one’s true nature; and then he offers a treatment — the Eightfold Path. These are the Four Noble Truths.

And so here the great master Mazu was unwell, in fact he was dying. The temple superintendent checks in on him and asks, “How has your venerable health been in recent days?” We can see illness as being out of balance, with health as the balanced state, when one’s physical self is in harmony. Delusion too then, can be seen as being out of harmony with the balance or natural state of the universe. A natural conclusion to this is that illness is wrong or bad, as is delusion, while health and enlightenment are correct and good. Of course, being sick from any perspective is not desirable — it hurts; but this does not mean that it’s necessarily wrong. In fact we often say to someone who is ill, “What’s wrong with you?” And so we can look at illness as a failure or mistake, or perhaps even a form of punishment. Health or enlightenment then, correspondingly, are a measure of our success, or an indication of our worth. This is not a correct or helpful way of seeing health and illness, delusion and enlightenment. It is a dichotomy that sets up illness as something that is wrong which then needs to be corrected. However, illness, like delusion, is a part of human nature; that’s one of the things the Buddha noticed. He realized that both health and illness are part of being alive; it’s part of the deal. It’s inescapable. So if we see illness as an enemy, then we have a conflict and the only thing to do is go to war, which is even the language that we use to talk about dealing with many of our illnesses. We go to war on cancer and heart disease, poverty and injustice, illiteracy and child abuse. And as long as we’re at war with an enemy, any enemy, we’ll never find peace because we’re convinced the enemy is outside of ourselves. What are we then to do? If we don’t fight the problem, are we to simply give up and accept that illness or delusion are our inevitable fate? Yuanwu says, “This way will do, not this way will do, too. This is too diffuse. This way won’t do, not this way won’t do either. This is too cut off. Without trading these two paths, what would be right?” There is another way, the Middle Way. This is what Mazu was pointing to, going beyond right and wrong, sickness and health.

In the pointer Yuanwu says, “One device, one object, one word, one phrase.” Parenthetically he says, “The intent is that you’ll have a place to enter.” He’s talking about Mazu’s response to the superintendent, but really he’s talking about any upaya, any skillful means. He’s talking about every dharma. Is there anything which is not presenting us with the truth? The question is always this: can we see it? “How are you feeling?” the superintendent asks. Mazu says, “Sun-face buddha, moon-face buddha.”

Mazu’s intention is that we will have a place to enter. He wants us to leap free of our self-clinging and our persistent belief that I am independent of you, that my body and personality is my self, that my suffering is someone else’s fault. In order to leap free we have to leave whatever nest we’ve created for ourselves.

I remember years ago when I was becoming more accepting of my own illness — the ways in which I could be a jerk or be cruel, impatient or petty. That acceptance was liberating; it was very freeing to not respond with hatred or anger to the things that arose within myself, but rather to accept their arising and then try to let them go. But then I got stuck in that acceptance. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to keep moving forward, to let go of those tendencies, but I was so caught up in accepting them that I wasn’t that aware or concerned about the effect that I was having on others. They had ceased to become, at that point, a place to enter.

“The great function appears without abiding by fixed principles. The intent is that you’ll realize there is something transcendental.” Why is it important to enter? So that we can realize the great function, which appears without abiding by fixed principles. When we attach to things, we are in conflict, thus we feel sick or out of sorts. We know something’s wrong, but can’t grab hold of it. Indeed, we can’t grasp it because it’s not a thing. There is no thing to grasp; this is the great function. The more tenaciously we cling, the more ill we become until it’s as though we’ve died. We’re breathing and eating, going to work and paying our bills, but something essential has been lost. We should remember though, we should never forget the Third Noble Truth: it is possible to live in a profoundly different way. It is our birthright to be in accord with our nature and the nature of all things. What is this? Sun-face buddha, moon-face buddha.

Sun-face buddha, according to an old Chinese scripture, lives for 1800 years. The Moon-face buddha lives one day and one night. So what is Mazu saying? In the commentary Yuanwu says, “these days many people say that master Ma was teaching the superintendent. Unfortunately this has no connection. Right now in this assembly there are many who misunderstand; they put a glare in their eyes and say, ‘it’s here. The left eye is sun face, this is moon face.’ What relevance does this have? Even by the [non-existent] Year of the Ass, you won’ t have seen it even in a dream. You just stumble past missing what the Ancient was about.”

So what was the Ancient about? What was Mazu saying? Why does Yuanwu say that he’s not teaching the superintendent? What would that imply? Mazu was simply answering the question with live words. Rather than being concerned with passing clouds or dreams, he revealed both heaven and hell, enlightenment and delusion, the whole thing. But how can we see this directly for ourselves? He’s not speaking about time, eternity versus impermanence. Nor is he saying, “Sometimes I’m okay, sometimes I’m in pain.” Go beyond thoughts of sickness and health.

When we see a great old oak tree, like the one near the monastery cemetery, we recognize that it’s fully, completely, perfectly a tree. It fulfills and expresses its nature. When we see a stunted, nubby little oak, dwarfed by larger trees in the midst of the forest, would we say that this tree is somehow incomplete? How does it not fulfill its nature? An old Buddha is old, a young Buddha is young, straight ones and bent ones, fast ones and slow ones — all undeniably Buddhas. Tenkei Denson said, “But is everyone’s own sun-face buddha moon-face buddha something long or short?”

In the verse, Xuetou says, “Sun-face buddha, moon-face buddha, what kind of people were the ancient emperors?” In the commentary Yuanwu says, “This completes the verse right here.” What kind of people were the ancient emperors? What is sun-face, moon-face? Yuanwu explains how in the 11th century one of the emperors during the Sung dynasty thought that this line in the verse ridiculed the state by questioning the emperors. So he wouldn’t allow it to be part of the Buddhist cannon. Xuetou is not talking about the emperors. This is not a political statement. He is talking about you and I. What kind of person are you? Who are you really?

“For twenty years I suffered bitterly/ how many times I’ve gone down/ into the Blue Dragon’s cave for you.” The footnote to that says: “This is your own fall into the weeds, it’s not my business. Here’s a mute eating a bitter melon.” Yuanwu chides his old teacher for singing this lament. The Blue Dragon’s cave is the place of despair, that place of confusion where many of us spend our lives. Yet we can be afraid of the dragon’s cave, as though it’s outside of our own mind. Or we can know it’s our mind and still be afraid. Sometimes students think that their practice is creating this cave of confusion. Yet practice is not creating anything; it’s just showing ourselves to us. It’s showing us what’s always been there, simmering below the surface. “How many times I’ve gone down into the Blue Dragon’s cave for you” — is this the teacher talking to the student? The teacher and the student do have to go down together. Or is it the student talking to him or herself? How many times have I gone down into that cave for you? It’s an important fact of spiritual practice; it’s an important part of coming to life — the courage and willingness to go down into that cave. Truly, this is the hardest part of the path. Yet, the fear most arises when you’re standing at the edge of the cave looking in, imagining all the dark, uncertain places. Once you enter, you see, it’s just you. Once you enter, you see that you have the power to meet yourself.

Yuanwu says this distress is worth recounting. The footnote to “this distress” is, “He saddens people to death. Sad man, don’t speak to sad people.” To “is worth recounting” the footnote says, “To whom would you speak of it? If you speak of it to sad people you will sadden them to death.” There’s a danger in speaking of it. We can get fixed in our sadness and spread it to others. How can we be honest in our practice, acknowledging the illness, but also be attentive in our offering to others what will alleviate rather than perpetuate their illness? In the end, we need to see that we can only speak to ourselves. This body of the Buddha is the body of the great universe itself.

This is where we let go of reason. Sun-face buddha, moon-face buddha. Where do you find yourself? “Clear-eyed patched robe monks should not take it lightly.” This is the great matter; this is the fundamental illness. What each of us can discover is that the illness and the medicine, the path to our own completeness or wholeness, and that reality itself, can never be discovered outside. When we realize this for ourselves then we see there never has been an illness or one who needs to be healed. Find out for yourself.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei received Dharma transmission from Daido Roshi in 1997. He currently works at ZMM as the Director of Operations and Training, and head of the National Buddhist Prison Sangha.

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