Giving and Receiving the Dhamma

Uposatha First Quarter Moon, September 23, 2012

How far must the teacher and the student each reach? At what place do they meet?

Reverse Proselytizing.

(Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, January 2002.) Tassajara has an initiation tradition for incoming monks, a kind of five-day Zen hazing, called tangaryo. Tangaryo has an ancient history. As the reader may be aware Buddhists are not renowned proselytizers, quite the opposite: Buddhist monks and nuns generally teach only if asked, and only if the would-be student shows due respect for the Three Jewels. In the forests and mountains of China this assumed a new dimension:

Imagine a pair of Bodhidharma’s Witnesses, going from house to house through a quaint and picturesque farming village in their short-sleaved white shirts and khaki pants carrying copies of Watchpagoda magazine. One of them knocks on a door [knock knock], a young man named Wu Wei opens the door [fwoop]:

“Yes, can I help you?” Wu Wei asks.

“We are just passing through your quaint and picturesque farming village introducing ourselves. Have you thought much about … the Buddha?”

“Can’t say that I have. What’s he got for me?”

“Vast emptiness. Nothing holy!”

“Uh, …, O…. K. Who are you guys anyway?”

“We don’t know!”

“Get outta here!” [Slam]

Traditionally if a young man wanted to become a monk he would knock on the monastery door. A couple of years later Wu Wei, in spite of his unpromising first encounter with the Dharma, has decided to leave home, shave his head and lead the holy life.

[Knock knock. Fwoop.] “Whadya want?”

“I would like to leave home, shave my head and lead the holy life.”

“No holiness here!” [Slam]

[Knock knock. Fwoop.] “Can I become a monk, just like you?”

“No room! Only vast emptiness!” [Slam]

Determined, not taking “Mu” for an answer, Wu Wei sits in front of the monastery gate in meditation posture … for hours. In the evening monks appear in the window to taunt him, pelt him with tomatoes and otherwise make him feel unwelcome. He ignores them and continues to sit.

The next day is no different, although a kindly old man appears with a bowl of rice gruel at dawn, and again just before noon with a bowl of rice and pickled radish. The following day is just the same, but a determined Wu Wei continues to sit, relentlessly. After five days and nights of this the door opens unexpectedly and Wu Wei feels an unanticipated hand on his shoulder. He is invited inside, the monks congratulate him, shave his head and give him robes.

“We had to make sure you were worthy!”

This is roughly the origin of tangaryo as I understand it. With time, perhaps with the ordination of large numbers of of monks, this process began to be regulated. At Tassajara tangaryo consistently lasts five days and nights, the monk actually sits in the zendo, receives meals in the zendo, and is given a real bed to sleep in, from nine at night to three fifty the next morning. Otherwise the would-be monk has to be on his allocated cushion, facing the wall, except to use the restroom, never bathing or shaving, while other, established, monks come and go into and out of the zendo, to sit zazen, practice chanting and ringing bells and to clean the zendo, a little too cheerfully for my taste. Also, because monks arrive just prior to the practice period there is generally a small group of them on the same schedule. There were about fifteen of us, the women sitting on one side of the zendo, the men on the other.

Tangaryo is perhaps the most difficult thing I have ever done on purpose. It was impossible to actually sit zazen the whole time; apparently nobody ever does. I would start off OK for a few of hours, then would have to relax and think about something, remember favorite songs, daydream.

If you find that your mind has drifted away from the daydream just bring it gently back, letting go naturally of whatever distraction has arisen and returning to the daydream.

Later I would return to actual zazen for a couple of more hours, then try to recall my most interesting distraction thus far. With my meal I would drink as much liquid as I could so that I would have to go to the restroom more often, and then drink as much water as I could on the way back to the zendo. I would furtively glance at the women tangaryians facing the wall in their baggy robes on my way back to my seat, the greatest external thrill I could squeeze out of the day, except maybe for lunch; the women seemed much stiller to me than the men I was sitting next to, certainly than myself.

Finally just short of one hundred and twenty hours of this a voice congratulated us, asked us to walk up the hill to the hot springs, bathe, to put on clean robes and to join the practice period as full-fledged participants. All fifteen of us had sat it out, though I would learn of would-be monks of the past who had given up and gone home in a huff and with a sigh.

The Buddha did not make it so hard in the early days to begin Buddhist practice, even for nuns and monks, but he did expect anyone who came to a nun or monk for teachings to show proper respect and deference. Monastics were and are in fact prohibited from teaching someone who was unwilling to show these.

Why Not Aggressively Convert People?

(Austin, September 2012) I can say have found great happiness and meaning in my life and attribute much of the to the ardency with which I have followed the Buddhist Path, even starting relatively late in life. As I have walked along this path I have felt increasingly compelled to share it with others because I see in the shadows of the world much suffering, harm and ignorance that I know the light of Buddhism would illuminate. In fact trying to shine this light in the dark corners of my own land is the most ardent task I have set for myself for the remainder of this life. But this task is accomplished only gradually.

So why not proselytize if the results might be as beneficial for others as they have been for me? Why not proselytize like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Evangelists, tent revivalists do? If I had taken every opportunity to turn my brother Arthur (see last week’s post) toward Buddhism would he be alive today? I might have used some of the following pick-up lines:

“That reminds me of a story about the Buddha…”

“We Buddhists don’t have that problem! Do you want to know why?”

“It’s all karma, man! You know about karma, right?”

“Oh, quit not being empty of independent existence!”

“Have you thought much about … the Buddha?”

I think the reason Buddhists generally don’t reach out in this way is because the teaching runs so deep. To encounter the teachings requires that the student meet the teacher half way. To succeed in her endeavors the student must already possess bold faith, that is a willingness to leap headlong into something without knowing ahead of time exactly what it is or where it will lead. Without this bold faith there will be no reserve of energy or willingness to try to understand what is difficult to understand nor practice what is difficult to practice. Beginning a meditation practice, renouncing what need to be renounced, trying to make out what the heck emptiness or dependent co-arising is, or how there can not be a self, these things are entered into only with the bold faith that they will be fruitful.

If instead the student does not go half-way then the teacher willing to go all the way ends up with students of timid faith, students swayed by personality or drawn to a welcoming community, but unwilling to leap into something incomprehensible or hard. These are students who expect easy answers or fix blindly onto whatever answers are offered with no reflection. Such a student is not willing to be challenged; her faith is not strong enough. The form the teachings must take in order to retain the student’s attention will have to be very thin and might as a consequence gradually lose their integrity altogether. There is a third category in addition to those moved by bold faith or by timid faith, which is that of those who are unmoved. The unmoved are of even more timid faith that clings to what has become most familiar at an early age, those who will not be converted at any level. There are, by the way, no people of no faith; there is no such thing because we live in a world of such uncertainty that our every movement requires a degree of faith. There is no such thing as the rational or objective as opposed to the faithful; this is a silly myth. The Buddhist principle of ehipassiko (“come and see”) is the closest we get: “come” is bold faith, “see” is the opportunity to verify that our faith is well placed. Science works on the same principle.

In Buddhism we talk of fields of merit. Our generosity is better expended one place rather than another just as seeds are best planted in fertile ground rather than in barren. The student who approaches the teacher with bold faith (along with a proper sense of discernment) is a very fertile field of merit indeed. A student of the second or third kind, of timid faith, is a barren field. My brother Arthur was of the third kind, a very hard nut to crack. Not that he could not have developed beyond that with proper inspiration.

So, how does bold faith arise? I think it arises from awe. And awe arises in three ways. First, awe might be a natural (karmic) disposition. Second, awe might be taught, particularly at a very young age. Third, awe might be inspired through the experience of something or somebody awe-inspiring. It might also arise from two or all three sources. Good scientists or artists arise in a similar way. In Buddhism awe arises in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha and is natural, taught or inspired, or ideally all three. I feel personally fortunate to have a strong natural disposition for awe. I also feel personally fortunate to have found great inspiration in Buddhist teachings and in the many people, particularly teachers, I have encountered who have provided shining examples of the Buddhist lives, sometimes merely in their bearing, sometimes in their virtue and good works, sometimes in their great wisdom, always in their strong practice.

Oh, but if only I were taught awe for the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha at a young age! This is the primary difference between the Western and the Asian Buddhist. For instance, Burmese generally learn to embody respect and deference for the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, as well as for parents and teachers at the earliest age. They also have a ubiquitous Sangha and enjoy the presence of many people of great attainment, even arahants among them. Their pumps are primed for Buddhist practice and study. Although I have learned to embrace much of this training in awe, I recognize in my daily encounter with devout Burmese Buddhists that they have internalized a solid support at a young age that I will never completely realize.

This essay began as a response to my dear supporter’s U Aung Koe’s comment to last week’s post:

I think you better share your insight knowledge of Buddha teaching to your siblings and relatives before they pass away …”

I share U Aung Koe’s heartfelt wish. However, we live here in the Wild West of Buddhism, where much is barren wasteland but punctuated by very fertile valleys and fields of merit. I have no doubt about the American capacity for awe (it is why we have produced so many scientists and artists). But relatively few are primed from a young age for Buddhist practice, primed to meet the teacher half-way, and will not be until something deeply inspires them. I have deep gratitude for those exceptional people who are able reach out to me as a teacher as I reach out to them. I only wish my brother had been one of them.




3 Responses to “Giving and Receiving the Dhamma”

  1. Kim Mosley Says:

    So sorry to hear about your brother.

    Remember that the Buddha was not raised to follow a spiritual path. His path was closer to yours.


  2. rockjdog Says:

    This awe you speak of may also be a gift or some sort of merit earned. It may be a gift to actually see that there is more to life than the way most of us live. I have seen a few people, good hearted people (but they were suffering) being offered a way out of misery. Some could not understand, some tried and stayed of the same mind. I have found that not everyone can see a way out even if they work for it. Perceptions wont change, the world is too ugly for them. That is why I think we have to consider ourselves to be blessed if we have found this. It is available to all but not all can see it.


  3. sgoodwi864 Says:

    i this article is eye opening. you dont realize where we are from until you see another society work before your eyes. i especially liked the sentence, “However, we live here in the Wild West of Buddhism, where much is barren wasteland but punctuated by very fertile valleys and fields of merit”. that is true.


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