The thirty-third ancestor (China’s sixth patriarch), was Zen Master Hui-neng. He worked in the rice-hulling shed at Huang-mei monastery. Once, his teacher, Hung-jen, came to the shed and asked, “Is the rice white yet?” Hui-neng replied, “It is white, but it hasn’t been sifted yet.” Hung-jen struck the mortar three times with his staff. The master shook the sifting basket three times.
~ The Record of Transmitting the Light, Case 33
It is not really a problem, but we humans can’t help ourselves: It is the nature of our minds to always seek the light outside of our personal experience. At our recent winter retreat, which was mostly about Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching, we somehow started talking about The Record of Transmitting the Light, a collection of 53 enlightenment stories, from the historical Buddha Shakyamuni to the 13th century Soto Zen master Koun Ejo. They are based on lectures given by Soto co-founder Keisan Jokin. Because of Pacific Zen’s history, we once used the book as curriculum in our koan study, but have since replaced it with other collections a little closer to our teaching style, like The Record of Linji. John Tarrant, in giving a talk mentioning the Transmitting the Light collection, quipped that the classic response to each of the cases was to merely to “stand up, and sit down”. He read a few cases, and laughingly, we all stood up and sat down. Listening and participating, the little red devil on my left shoulder whispered in my ear, “Is this the highest teaching of Buddhism? Is this what I came here for, standing and sitting?” And the white angel on my right shoulder whispered, “Yes!” How utterly simple, and wonderful, this standing and sitting.
It is a joy to work with students on the koan No (A student asked: “Does a dog have Buddha nature, or not? Chao chou replied: “No”), and I often suggest they really soak into the koan, so that, “When you stand, No stands. When you sit, No sits.” It is the epitome of intimacy with a koan, and when a student begins to feel greater kinship with No, I feel that too. We stand and sit together.
As I write these words in in my notebook, I am sitting in a small Japanese restaurant in Oakland, sipping a bowl of red miso soup. A young mother comes in the door with her two children, a boy and girl about five or six, and they sit down across the restaurant from me. It is cold outside, and the kids are animated as they pull off their coats with laughter, and their mother smiles. The mother then takes off her hat, and I see that her head is bald and smooth from chemotherapy. I watch them for a moment, and then look down at my writing. A wave of emotion washes over me and tears well up in my eyes. Looking down, I shield my face with my left hand, so they won’t notice. In the few minutes that I am looking down at my notebook, without my realizing it, the family stands up and departs. Transmitting the light. I think that woman and her children were doing just that, by simply sitting down, and then standing up. They looked at the menu three times, and perhaps the rice was not yet white.