De Shan brought all of his notes on the Diamond Sutra before the Dharma hall and held up a torch saying ‘Even though you have learned all the secrets of the world, it is like letting a single drop of water fall into an enormous valley.’ De Shan then burned all his notes and making his bows, he took leave of his teacher.
~ The Gateless Barrier, case 28
How often have we wanted to burn hurtful memories, to rid ourselves of shame for what we have said or done in the past, unable to bare who we think we have been?
De Shan was a great Diamond Sutra scholar and traveled all the way from the north of China to the south pulling a hand cart loaded with the scholarly notes that represented his life work. It represented all he thought he was. He stopped for a break at a tea shop, and the owner, an old lady, asked him what was in the cart.
When he told her, she challenged him, “I have heard the Diamond Sutra says, ‘Past heart-mind cannot be grasped, present heart-mind cannot be grasped, future heart-mind cannot be grasped.’ Which mind does your reverence intend to refresh with this tea?” Unable to answer, completely defeated and shamed by a no-name old lady, the famous De Shan went to the local Chan-Zen temple, found his teacher, and eventually came to awakening when the teacher blew out a candle handed to the scholar-monk in the dark. Seeing the uselessness of holding onto his knowledge of who he was, his assumed standing, and shameful memories, he burned his past.
A couple of days ago, Karen, my childhood neighbor, died of pancreatic cancer. She was diagnosed just two months ago. Left two grown daughters. She was a teacher. She had the most lovely laugh, and I can hear her now. In recent weeks, Karen was not seeing anyone outside of immediate family, so I could not say goodbye. I had wanted to laugh with her about the trees in Montana, the state in which she was born.
It was the summer of 1969, she was a freshman and I a sophomore in high school. We had gone water skiing in the Sacramento Delta with Tommy and Tracey. Karen had been spending part of the year with her father in Lincoln, Montana, and was coming back to California to finish high school. She was absolutely beautiful that day in the boat, with long strawberry-blonde hair and a lovely figure. In contrast with her confident womanliness, I was still very much a boy, shy and a bit pudgy. I had a great crush on her, and In the boat, I waited for just the right moment to start a conversation. My opening line was, ‘What kind of trees do they have in Montana?’ The other kids looked at me stunned for an instant and then they all started to laugh loudly. I had utterly flopped in the big try at getting to know her, and it really hurt as I revisited the scene a hundred times in my head over the following months.
Of course, I can laugh now. In fact, it was a pretty good question. But I can also remember a bit of that boy’s pain. and I guess like De Shan, I carted around this sense of shame about who I thought I was, and was not, for some time. But unlike De Shan, I don’t want to burn those memories anymore. When I think of Karen, I want to remember the dopiness of asking about the trees in Montana, her lovely unforgettable laugh, her beauty as a person, and of our many years of friendship.
In cottonwood leaves
Just a feelin’ in the wind
In yesterday from days gone by
Can I have tomorrow
From yesterday, that I borrow?
~ Henry Real Bird, State of Montana Poet Laureate 2009~2011