Friday, November 9, 2012

Sifting the Clouds

Hello All,
     Today takes us the the end of our current schedule ie. week 4: Sections 9-11. Next week, let's move onto the Meditation & Wisdom sub-theme which goes from Sections 12-19, taking two sections each week. I will not be able to post on the weekends of December 1 & 8 because I will be attending the Winter Bones 8-day rohatsu sesshin. During those weeks, you will be picking up Sections 16-17 & 18-19 and I will join you the following week on Sections 20-21. I am relatively free the rest of December and January so will not need to miss any sessions (fingers crossed) discounting winter storms, no electricity etc.

     The Platform Sutra and the commentaries in the Gateless Barrier in Aitken's and Shibayama's books both tell a similar tale. The Book of the Transmission of Light (Denko-roku) adds one other encounter between the 5th ancestor and Hui-neng. It says that after Hung-jen saw and erased the poem left by Hui-neng, he said to the other monks, "Oh, this gatha doesn't get it at all." He then went to find Hui-neng who was in the rice-hulling shed. On entering the shed, Hung-jen immediately walked up to the young layman and said,  "Is the rice white yet?" Hui-neng said, "It is, but it is not yet sifted." The 5th ancestor struck the mortar three times with his stick. Hui-neng sifted rice with the winnow basket three times and  they both left the shed and entered the 5th ancestor's room.

     Dogen's grandson in the dharma, Keizan Jochim, wrote a lovely verse to cap this dialog. He wrote, "Striking the mortar--/the sound is loud echoing beyond the vast blue sky. / The moon is sifted white by the clouds--/the evening is deep and serene."

     "Is the rice white yet?" Hui-neng, a young lay practitioner, could have become defensive and said, 'I'm working as fast as I can' or 'if I had more help' or 'these implements are worn and used and why don't you give me a hand' etc. How about you? How do you respond when your partner ask a question or makes a comment? Or your boss? Or a fellow worker? Do you hear what is actually being said and not being said? Each question is a wonderful opportunity to turn the dharma wheel. These intimate conversations do not have to occur only in the dokusan room or during dharma inquiry. The zendo, actually, has no walls so each place is your place of practice. How do you respond?

Is the rice white yet? You do not have to know the following to understand the dialog that took place between the two worthies but it is interesting information. Commenting on another case in the Gateless Barrier, and I am paraphrasing here, Aitken Roshi said that the ideograph for white can also mean no-color. Color and form are the same ideograph in some Asian languages. So maybe the 5th ancestor is asking about something a little below our literal and rational minds. Is the rice no-color yet? Is the rice no-color no-form yet? Now, we have entered the rice-hulling shed of the heart sutra where everything is stripped away, where even the clouds sift the moon making it all the more white.  As an aside, this sense of sifting is partially where the Branching Moon sesshin takes its name.

Clearly, the young layman heard what he was being asked when he responded, "It is, but it is not yet sifted." How do we learn to listen with that ear? How do we listen in such a way that we can hear the great stream that runs right below our very feet? I don't think it takes a long or a short time to learn to hear with our entire body. Hui-neng had a special ability. On hearing the Diamond Sutra one time, he had a subtle shift in his perception. Yet, I can imagine, that on his 1000 mile journey to see the 5th ancestor, he was mindful, his mind filled with only one thing. I also imagine during his 8 month sojourn in the rice hulling shed, he wasn't texting, tweeting and e-mailing. He wasn't on facebook, blogging or checking his phone messages. He was doing his work moment after moment after moment. Of course, this was another time, but we can choose to use technology and not be used by it.

I imagine that, similarly to you when at sesshin or on retreat, his mind was focused on the task at hand. He was mindful, his mind and body filled with each activity he was engaged in. Further on in the Platform Sutra, Hui-neng will emphasize the importance of a straight-forward mind where 'straight-forward' can also be translated as honest, sincere or direct. Please be straight-forward in each facet of your day. Fully involved, engaged. And it doesn't matter if your brain doesn't seem to be cooperating with your intention. The stomach secrets pepsin and your brain, thoughts. Some times too many thoughts, and at other times, too few. But thoughts are no different than the clouds over head scraping, sifting the vast blue sky. Some clouds are somber, some bright. Some clouds are wispy, some black and thunderous. Yet, they are all clouds which form in the southwest sky, move across the sky's arc, and then naturally, with no effort on your part, dissipate in the east. Thoughts rise, but there is no need to stick or dwell in them. And when you do, take a breath, and return to the rice hulling shed.

The 5th ancestor said, "Is the rice white yet?" and Hui-neng responded, "It is, but it is not yet sifted." I would like to move from the classical commentary and response here and take a moment to talk about purifying the mind. Hui-neng will again encourage us to do that as we move into the Meditation & Wisdom section of the sutra. By purify, he is encouraging us to touch our original mind which is before good and bad, before being and non-being, before thought and no-thought. He wants us to sift the extraneous out, if only for a moment, and touch what is always right below our feet. He is not suggesting to do this in the way the precept master's gatha indicated.  He is suggesting we drop our constructs and notions for a moment and look up and hear---what? The sound is loud echoing beyond the vast blue sky.

take care



  1. PZC Scribe’s Report, Saturday Nov. 10, Platform Sutra, Secs. 9-11

    Most of the discussion centered around the rice-sifting episode (with Jack’s commentary providing an alternate version thereof). We discussed some possible meanings of his extended sifting (purifying the mind?) and imagined Hui-Neng’s experience in the milling shed for 8 months, as physical labor and as a meditative experience. We noted, as in past meetings, that this account of his life seems to leave a lot out, presenting Hui-Neng only in a positive light. Where are his struggles with co-workers, his aching back from the weight of the milling stone, his fatigue, boredom, etc.? How useful is a story that is scrubbed clean of real life? We were also prompted (by Jack’s comments) to discuss technology and its role in our lives. Technology that interrupts and gets in the way of practice or plays with our egos. Ironically, Hui-Neng was “innocent” of the technology of his day (not the milling, but writing and reading). We talked about the world we live in. Would Hui-Neng be the webmaster in today’s monastery? What would his story be like updated? It has been updated by Ted Biringer, who wrote the “Flatbed Sutra” with a character named Louis Wing. Somehow we got to talking about local politics. The discussion was actually much more rich and useful than these notes can convey.

  2. Jack's words about purifying the mind reminded me that he once called the fall rainy season in the Northwest `a good time to practice.' Hard to understand, given that relentlessly gray days are great inducements to crabbiness and low spirits. Yet when bird songs do not cheer us and sunshine does not warm us we have a special chance to practice. We can begin to realize that Buddha nature is richer than our soft-headed imaginings and vaster than our very limited constructions of reality.


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