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Tony Shinro Doubleday’s Shuso Hossen, Liverpool

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On 27 August, following his month-long residency in the Lake District, Tony Shinro Doubleday presented Case 67 from the Blue Cliff Record at a Shuso Hossen ceremony at the Liverpool Centre.  This is the text of his talk and pictures from the well attended ceremony: 

MAHASATTVA FU EXPOUNDS THE SUTRA

The Emperor Wu of Liang requested Mahasattva Fu to expound the Diamond Sutra.  The Mahasattva struck the lectern and then descended from the dais.  The Emperor was flabbergasted.

Master Shi asked, “Your Majesty, do you understand?”
The Emperor said, “I do not understand.”
Master Shi said, “The Mahasattva Fu has expounded the Sutra.”

The great Japanese Rinzai Zen master, Hakuin Ekaku, said in the 18th century that Mahasattva Fu made a brilliant act in striking the lectern and that nothing more was required.  Even so, without more, we’re liable to see this koan as just one of those examples of an absurd-seeming Zen trope. It does need a bit of explanation and it may be helpful to consider what the characters in the koan say about us. For example, we could begin by admitting that the whipping boy, Emperor Wu of Liang, is like us. We do not understand either. Like him, we need to have Master Shi on hand, to explain. We expect more than a sudden rap on the lectern from our teachers.

So let’s look at the Emperor Wu. Quite a lot is known about him.  His original name Xiao Yan, and when he was born, in 464, China was fragmented into a number of kingdoms. This was the epoch known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties period. Xiao Yan grew into adulthood in the kingdom of the Southern Qi, as a member of the imperial family.

When the reigning emperor killed his prime minister, in 501, there was a revolt in which he himself was killed and Xiao Yan was able to overthrow the Southern Qi to establish the Liang dynasty with himself as Emperor. His capital was Jiankang (which is today a part of Nanjing). It’s recorded that Emperor’s Wu’s reign was for the most part stable and prosperous.  He was guided by Confucian values, although he himself fell increasingly under the influence of Buddhism, partly perhaps because he felt a need to atone for the way in which he had taken power.  He was known for his good works and was called the “Bodhisattva Emperor”.

There is a strand of Buddhist teaching that says, if one does good works and makes offering to the Buddhist sangha, then wrongs committed in the past will be expurgated. Good works were understood to ameliorate the karmic consequences of harm done in the past.  In this way, Buddhist believers were taught that they could cleanse past karma and plant the seeds for a better and more peaceful and happy future.  The Emperor Wu appears to have adhered to this understanding. In his own life he gave lavishly in support of Buddhist monuments, monasteries and ordinations. He also became a vegetarian, banned animal sacrifice in 517, and in 528 received ordination as a monk.  There is a story that on more than one occasion he left the court and retired to a monastery only to be recalled by the ministers who used state funds to “buy” him back from the Buddhist clergy and reinstate him on the throne.  In the end, his undoing was his own leniency.  He was against capital punishment in later life, and he was perhaps too forgiving of the corruption within his own family, so that, finally, some of his generals and ministers decided they’d had enough. In about 549, Wu was overthrown. He found himself imprisoned and there is some evidence that his incarcerators starved him to death.

The Diamond Sutra was well known in China during the lifetime of Emperor Wu. The monk Kumarajiva had translated it into Chinese in about 400. Wu’s own son, the Crown Prince Chao Ming, is said to have chanted it 10,000 times during his relatively short life. The prince wrote a significant commentary upon the sutra, dividing it into 32 chapters reflecting the 32 physical attributes of a Buddha, a structure which endures to this day.

The Sanskrit title of the sutra is the Maha Prajna Paramita Vajracheddika Sutra, which means, “the Great Perfection of Wisdom Diamond Cutter Scripture”. Its 300 lines make it relatively short. It’s readable within 30 minutes.

The sutra belongs to a corpus of sutras on the perfection wisdom that originated in northwest India in about 200 BCE, which is to say they deal not only with the notion that everything is contingent, without essence and incapable of offering any lasting satisfaction but that this very tainted condition of life is its own release.   This is the understanding that “emptiness” is itself empty, that there is an intimacy of identity between the conditioned world of phenomena and the absolutely pure and unbounded realm of release from suffering that is supreme and perfect enlightenment. The vajracheddika, or diamond cutter, aspect of this teaching uses a diamond as a simile for three qualities of the manifestation of an enlightened being, or a Buddha; and also three qualities of perfect wisdom.

A diamond is pure and very clear. It’s translucent and transparent. We can understand that pure and hard quality to represent reality, or the Buddha’s Dharmakaya: the body that is formless and can never be grasped; and that epitomizes the empty, ineffable nature of life as we find it.

Then there is the aspect of the diamond that is hard and cuts through things, even solid rocks like granite. This powerful cutting aspect represents discriminating wisdom that sees clearly and acts on things just as they are.  We can understand this as describing the present moment, in which everything comes together and manifests as “just this”, or “as thus”. It is that aspect of the body of the Buddha that is called the Sambhogakaya, or the body of merit.  It’s the life-moment in which we encounter the quintessence of the Buddha’s earliest teaching as concrete reality: from this that arises; from the cessation of this that ceases.  The diamond-cutter aspect is the engagement, right now, in this moment.

A third aspect of a diamond is that it is multifaceted. When we hold a diamond up to the light it refracts the seven colours from its many edges. This is representative of the multitude of bodies and phenomena that make up our world with its unceasingly mutability, variability and interconnectedness.  It’s dealing with that aspect of wisdom that is confronted by the “other”, the variable the diverse and the changing. This is the Nirmanakaya aspect of the body of the Buddha: the body of form and change.  All these three  – purity or unity, cutting through or engaging and diversity or form  – are aspects of the Sutra, which have been explored in great detail in commentaries over the centuries.

The Sutra has been important in the history of Zen; especially it’s early history. One hundred years after Emperor Wu’s time, the fifth Chinese Zen ancestor Daimon Konin (Daman Hongren) laid great stress on its study. On overhearing it being chanted the sixth ancestor, Daikan Eno (Daijian Hiuneng), was initially enlightened. He said that the meaning of this Sutra points to the true nature of all beings.

The Emperor Wu would have reflected on the sutra’s meaning with his son and with his Buddhist teachers, such as Master Shi, and he would have wanted great Buddhist practitioners to come to court and expound its meaning.

Shi was a renown meditation master of the Qi and Laing dynasties, whom Emperor Wu rescued from prison and retained as a teacher in his court. Shi was born in 421 and, because he died in 514, there is certainly something inconsistent about the chronology of the koan; but that does not undermine its potency, and we’re probably meant to understand that one way or another Mahasattva Fu was invited to the court at the suggestion of Master Shi.

So who was Fu and what is a “mahasattva”?

The word “mahasattva” means literally a great being. It’s sometimes used interchangeably with the word bodhisattva, which means someone who is seeking enlightenment for the sake of all beings. According to Red Pine, the word mahasattva was originally used to refer to a lion, so the use of the term here is intended to suggest someone with the fearlessness of a lion. Fu was born in 497 and, as he grew up to be a fisherman, began to cultivate a deep commitment to Buddhism. After deciding that fishing and Buddhism were incompatible he became a farmer.  We can imagine him living on a small rice terrace on a mountainside with his wife and children, far away from the capital, where he worked by day and meditated by night. His home was auspiciously located between two śāl trees (shorea robusta), such as those between which the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, had entered paranirvana at Kusinagara, in 483 BCE. The short time for which a śāl tree is in flower is also suggestive of impermanence.

Early in our koan study we encounter a four-line gatha by Mahasattva Fu, which I find expressive of his everyday life:

Empty-handed, yet hold a hoe;
Walking, yet riding a buffalo;
A man passes by on a bridge;
The bridge flows, the river does not.

However, Mahasattva Fu didn’t live a life of solitude and quiet reflection on his farm. If the śāl trees were a reminder that wealth and power are ephemeral then they must have inspired Fu to petition the Emperor Wu about the way the country should be governed and the need to relieve the suffering of the poor.  Like Mahatma Gandhi, he seems to have been a social activist. Fu went to the capital to teach and to sell his produce but he repeatedly he gave away all he owned to the poor. He gained a reputation as a great bodhisattva and as an emanation of Maitreya, the Buddha to come. He also wrote a commentary of the Diamond Sutra too, and it was probably for that reason that he was invited to expound it to the Emperor Wu.

In the 12th century, the great Sung dynasty Zen Master Engo Kokugon (Yuanwu Keqin) wrote a commentary on this koan, in which he likened Fu’s appearance at the imperial court with that of first Chinese Zen ancestor,  Bodhidharma.

According to tradition, Bodhidharma arrived in China from India in the 520s and was summoned, probably by Master Shi, to present his understanding of Buddhism to Emperor Wu. The meeting did not go well, and afterwards Bodhidharma fled to the northern kingdom of Wei.

Engo saw Fu as Bodhidharma’s equal, but asked whether it was appropriate that either of them should have appeared to sell their wares as if they were merchants in the fish markets and wine shops.  Why, Engo asked, if Fu was so venerable and great, did he act as he did? This is an interesting question. Buddhists are generally not known for proselytizing: but why wouldn’t Fu talk with anyone, including the Emperor of Liang, if asked to? In his own verse about this koan, the 11th century Zen Master Setcho Chikan (Xuedou Zhijan) said that Fu was kicking up dust in Southern China, instead of remaining between his twin śāl trees. We might consider though, where does any one of us not kick up dust? And is there a Buddhism that could be more or less authentic if practised in one place rather than in another?  Neither Fu nor Bodhidharma were passive; and surely neither Engo nor Setcho were arguing that they ought to have been.

There are many koan around the question of motivation, such as “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?”

If it’s bodhisattva-practice to work not just for one’s own sake but also for the sake of all beings then there would be something unnatural about refusing to share the practice with others. Seng Chao, another great Chinese Buddhist teacher who was roughly contemporary with Mahasattva Fu, once said that although a great bell is impressive, if it is not struck it makes no sound; and in the same way a sage does not respond in isolation. So who strikes the bell and how does a sage a respond? It seems to me that our life is to engage and that we cannot help but do so. The Emperor invited Mahasattva Fu to engage, and so he did. But what happened?

Fu struck the lectern and immediately descended from the dais. Like Hakuin centuries later, Engo praised this. He said that Fu was like a comet, bursting out and then disappearing. However he qualified his enthusiasm by saying that Fu only seemed to be right, in that he didn’t bother to create any entangling complications.

Why Fu only seemed to be right may refer to how his action was received in the court. Prince Chao Ming and Fu himself had written detailed commentaries on the Sutra.  Commentaries and discourse were what was expected. So what did it mean to simply strike the lectern?

One of the points the Diamond Sutra makes is that anyone who memorizes, recites and explains to others a four-line gatha (or stanza) containing its content attains immeasurable merit; and if that person discourses on the entirety of the sutra, he or she will be a guru or great wisdom and the place where this happens will be a holy site.  The Emperor and his courtiers would have been aware of this, and their expectations would have been very high. So Mahasattva Fu was placed in a difficult position. If we ourselves had been there instead of hi, how would we have felt? What would we have said? Is it possible that Fu didn’t know what to say and struck hit the lectern in panic? It’s clear from the Emperor’s reaction that Fu’s behaviour shocked him. There must have been consternation around the hall.

Hakuin said Fu acted brilliantly and Engo called him a comet. Even if Fu had panicked we would have to consider whether his behaviour was any less valid for that. The question for us is what it means to expound the whole of the Diamond Sutra, or to present one four-line gatha containing it.

In his own commentary on the Diamond Sutra, Fu said that whatever the four-line gatha may be, it cannot be separated from the body. This underscores a point made by the translator, Red Pine, that the Diamond Sutra is about the body of the Buddha.

As we’ve noted, the body of the Budhha has three aspects. It’s the enlightened body of emptiness, manifesting here and now, as the physical body of form and formlessness mind, expressing itself as action, the body of merit. Just to strike the lectern as Fu did captured all three aspects in one moment, irreducibly and exhaustively. From such a perspective, would it make any difference whether he intended to hit the lectern or just panicked?

Nevertheless, according to Engo, Fu only seemed to be right. The Emperor was flabbergasted and Engo reminds us that on three occasions now he had been fooled by those he’d taken for great sages: first Bodhidharma and now Fu.

As we’ve noted, the Emperor believed that Buddhist teachings, including the Diamond Sutra, told him that by doing good works, supporting Buddhism and ruling with kindness he could atone for his past wickedness and cultivate good roots for a happy and peaceful future for his dynasty. Yet, the story goes that when he met Bodhidharma he was astonished to hear there was no merit in his good works. This was the first occasion on which Engo says he was fooled. Wu questioned Bodhidharma further. If there is no merit, he asked, what then, was the highest meaning of Buddhism?  Bodhidharma replied, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy!” With this, the Emperor was confused and fooled a second time. He demanded to know who Bodhidharma thought he was and it was only later that Master Shi was able to explain to him that this irreverent monk was a great teacher.  Now, for a third time, a Buddhist teacher had left the Emperor dumbfounded.

Engo seems to ask, could Fu have been right if his action was inappropriate to the understanding of his audience? If Wu could not understand what striking lectern meant, how did it help?

Master Shi saw the authenticity of Fu’s presentation and sought to rescue the situation. He asked, “Does your majesty understand?”  However, Engo said that, in doing this, Shi sided with principle rather than emotion. In other words, unlike Mahasattva Fu or Bodhidharma before him, both of whom went for the sudden shock approach to teaching, Shi’s was a more didactic teaching method.  Unfortunately, though, he only managed to confirm what was already obvious, that the Emperor did not understand. The elbow, as Engo said, does not bend outwards. If we see things from only one perspective, we are limited in what we can understand. Although he tried to help, Engo says Shi only succeeded in adding to the confusion and therefore, had he been there, Engo says, he  (Engo) would given thirty blows to both Fu and Shi.

The Emperor did not understand, and Engo said of this, “What a pity!” Personally, if I were Emperor Wu, I wouldn’t care much for Engo’s poisonous sympathy. The Emperor is the butt of the joke, here, and “not understanding” is taken as a sign of his lack of clarity. However, we could ask, what was there to understand? If the Emperor’s answer was honest, where is the pity in that? If, by “not understanding” Wu had meant that there is nothing to be understood, apart from the striking of the lectern where would Engo’s pity be then? Perhaps the Emperor missed nothing here.

However, Master Shi said, “The Mahasattva Fu has expounded the Sutra.”  If the Emperor really didn’t understand then, at this point, Master Setcho thought that Shi saved Mahasattva Fu from joining Bodhidharma in exile. If the Emperor did understand then Engo thought that he  could have redeemed himself had he driven both Fu and Shi from Liang at this point. Engo said both Fu and Shi were in the same pit, where the dirt was no different.  We can consider where, from the point of view of the Emperor Wu, the boundaries of that pit were to be found? What the Emperor apparently failed to see was that he too was in there with Shi and Fu.  The sixth ancestor Daikan Eno once said that there was no place for dust or dirt to alight. If there is nowhere it can settle then isn’t dirt both everywhere and nowhere? Don’t we all share in it? Engo seemed to think so. He commented elsewhere that:

An ancient said, ‘Everyone has a volume of the scripture.’ It has also been said, ‘My hand does not hold a scripture scroll, but I am always turning such a scripture.’  

In thirty-two chapters the Diamond Sutra explains what kind of a pit we are all trapped in and what sort of dirt we are trying to clear, even though we are unsullied by it. In its final chapter the Diamond Sutra tells us that, if we recite and explain it to others, in just one four-line gatha, we’ll attain more merit than Emperor Wu ever dreamed of. That merit will be immeasurable because it is “no merit”. Such merit is formless, just like the four-line gatha itself. We search in vain for a clue as to how that gatha goes, but if we want to explain it the Diamond Sutra tells us we should do so by not explaining it. In the 11th century, a monk asked Master Kaido Soshin (Huitang Zuxin), “What is the four line-gatha?” Soshin replied, “Your talk is degenerate, yet you do not even realize it.” It seems we cannot help but kick up dust.

Here is Setcho’s verse in full:

Not resting his body by the twin trees
Instead he stirs up dust in Southern China
Where it not for old master Shi at that time
He too would have left the country in haste.

I have referred to:

  • The Blue Cliff Record translated by Thomas and J C Cleary
  • Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record translated by Thomas Cleary
  • Zen’s Chinese Heritage by Any Ferguson
  • The Diamond Sutra translated by Red Pine
  • Emperor Wu of Liang on Wikipedia