In his ten admonitions, Nantang said: “Work actively in the other realms.”

~ Entangling Vines, Case 63

Earlier this week I was working with a student on this koan, which clearly needs a bit of context to appreciate. Nantang’s Ten Admonitions include such things as “Have faith there is a separate teaching transmitted outside the scriptures”, and “Manifest great functioning.” The last is, “Work actively in other realms of existence,” which may be the most important one to Nantang, because it is the official title of this koan. In Buddhist cosmology, those realms take in the whole spectrum of sentient life: heavenly beings, humans, demi-gods, animals, hungry ghosts and hell-dwellers.

A couple of days ago I was walking through the BART train when I passed an elderly lady who had parked her black wheel chair, with bags hanging off it, up against a bench on which she was sleeping. Her long gray hair was a storm upon the sweater that served as her pillow. The woman was wearing a blue-patterned cotton dress, white socks and sensible canvas flats. I glanced at her for a moment as I stepped over the urine trail running across the aisle from her seat, and was taken by a kind of glow about her. She was beautiful in the most simple way. That afternoon, when I read this koan, I knew I had met a heavenly being.

On the train, I sat at the far end and watched as people came in and left the train at each stop. Some were, no doubt, animals, and some demi-gods, others hungry ghosts and hell-dwellers. All were beautiful and kind of reflected a light in their own way. It was Hakuin who wrote, “Coming and going we are never astray”, and they weren’t. They were just in the right place each moment, richly filling and draining the car every few minutes. It was such a pleasure to share in their realm of existence.