Monday, October 21, 2013

Nagarjuna, the 14th Ancestor

It is said that Nagarjuna wrote in his "Mulamadhyamakakarika" that:
Buddhas speak of 'self'
And also teach 'no-self'
And also say 'there's nothing
Which is either self or not'...
In seeing things
To be or not to be,
Fools fail to see
A world at ease.

"Nagarjuna is a protean, chameleon figure, endlessly transforming himself in response to changing circumstances. Born a brahmin, he became the preeminent poet of emptiness. At different moments in history, he has appeared as a monk, a founder of Mahayana Buddhism, the first Madhyamika philosopher, a tantric adept, an alchemist, a Nepalese trader, a minor hill in the Himalayas and a god of the millet crop." (S. Batchelor)

The question Nagarjuna brought to his teacher in this koan is the one he asked, inquired into, struggled with, taught, espoused and presented throughout his life. It was his burning question and it directed, guided and gave refuge to him.  In one form or another, it was what he returned to again and again. His primary teaching was on emptiness, but not an emptiness of the sublime or magical. His emptiness pointed directly to what is always right here before our eyes---when doing the dishes, picking the kids up at school, or baking bread at 3am for the coming day's customers. It wasn't a teaching of transcendence but a teaching of this place, here, now. He did not espouse retiring to caves or mountains to touch the gossamer thread of no-self. He found it and presented it in relationships, in work, in the body and in the heart.

This doesn't mean, however, that we shouldn't practice formally or attend sesshin or longer retreats. These are beautiful opportunities to touch, be touched and strengthen our abilities and capabilities to present the great matter. Also, and this is an aside for a few folks who have been asking about this lately, it doesn't mean that we don't occasionally skip kinhin and just 'sit-through' for a period or two or three or four. It is OK to sink deeply in and lose ourselves and just sit for hour after hour. This can create a power and stability that is hard to touch in any other way. Ultimately however, our practice is putting on our sitting clothes at the sound of the temple bell...because in our practice clinging...clinging to sitting still, to no-self, to hour after hour of zazen, to certain forms of practice "is to insist on being someone." (Nagarjuna)
When the 13th Ancestor was received by the Dragon King, he was given the cintamani (talisman pearl). Nagarjuna asked him, "This pearl is the most valuable pearl in the world. Is it form or non-form?"

Last night I was wondering how to write about this koan and felt rather stuck so I got up from the desk to put the horses away for the night. I turned off the lights in the house and walked through the thickening darkness towards the south pasture. I bent over some to walk under the low hanging larch branches. I then bowed to straddle and climb through the fence boards. I turned and twisted to get between the boards and before fully arising the full harvest moon rose over the shoulder of Blue Mtn. Before I could imagine/think/feel/sense...a bright full shaft of bone white light filled me. Before I could think a thought or feel a feeling, a sound something like 'ahhh' pushed from my mouth. After a moment or three or four or ten, my eyes cleared to see the full moon, a jewel, a pearl, rising over Blue Mtn. "This is delighting in that which is present." (Lankatavara Sutra: my sole reading material on the way over the Pacific.)

It would be too reductionistic, if in that moment of bowing to get through the fence, one called the moon simply the moon. But to say it wasn't the moon would be nihilistic and rather silly. Each thing is always more and less but to say it either way lessens the moon, the experience of my life and even the experience of your life. The full harvest moon isn't just the moon. It is the mani-jewel, it is a pearl...and if we look closely we can see it reflecting now as the stars, now on the frozen tips of larch branches. It shines in the eyes of the horses and lady bugs and it shows itself again and again in the wind tossed waves of Jorgensen Lake...but after all, too, it is simply the moon going round and round and round.

The moon, the jewel, the pearl is this life we live even though that life often seems to reside at the edges of our awareness or our ability to inhabit it. Although it is our very life, we sometimes feel unlived in it... but if we can truly wonder our way into the young Nagarjuna's question, or if we can wander into our own un-understanding or not-knowing, it is the life we can fully and happily inhabit.

Nagarjuna wrote, "What do you make of a life that won't go away?" That very life wants us, it needs is a jewel, it is a pearl & it is yours.
ps. In the verse, there is no way 'orphan' is a good translation. Try 'solitary', the word both Aitken and Cleary use.


  1. Gate gate paragate parasangate bodhi sva.
    Just trying to make sure I can get this damn thing to work.

  2. Thank you for the 2 pieces you have already posted. And for the ones you will post. I needed the one about the moon at the fence. Each morning since reading that, when I open the shades in my front window, I’m slammed with the colors of my little maple tree (maybe Japanese?) And then the other little things during the day that I wouldn’t have noticed.

  3. So, on retreat there, I was at the table reading. After reading the chapter, I looked up from my books, feeling completely baffled. I was wondering about the jewel that is neither formless nor has form as my gaze swept out to the mountain. Just as I looked, a huge upwelling of mist began to form, swirling and curling like a dragon's breath, revealing and obscuring the trees, and I just laughed aloud because I knew that, while I may not know, I do know that some part of me knows, and that's enough for now.

  4. Further, about practice. Practice alone is like a child "practicing" the piano, or taking a "practice" swing at a t-ball game. It's trying things out in a space free from consequences. Practice among others, though, is like a doctor's "practice," a devoted way of life, with deep consequences (for us, as well as those around us).

    Aitken Roshi wrote about practice alone, without solid teaching, as being self-centered and capricious. I, for one (though I am sure I am not alone), can speak to that in my own experience, and that is why I am so profoundly grateful not just for our devoted teachers, but for the sangha. It's truly become a refuge (if only from my own capricious practice).


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