The temple superintendent asked him, “Teacher, how has your venerable health been in recent days?” Ma replied, “Sun-face Buddha, Moon-face Buddha.”
~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 3
If Master Ma and the world are not-two, not separate, and if Master Ma is unwell, then the whole world is unwell. And we, too, are unwell.
The temple superintendent asked him, “Teacher, how has your venerable health been in recent days?” Sickness and the possibility of death are once again my companions. After taking off a month, or so, a certain bit of COVID dread has crept back into my life. Masks are everywhere, but their use is still politicized. Cases in the U.S. have spiked 82% in the last two weeks. Dreams in my sleep of COVID have returned: last night we were four Musketeers avoiding the virus on a movie lot in Hollywood.
“Sun-face Buddha…(the Buddha who lives 18 centuries)” These COVID times have produced in me extremes of emotion ~ either the dread of sickness or the love of health and life ~ I have seldom, if ever, experienced before. About a month ago, in a video call with my doctor, who in reviewing my family’s history of run-ins with basil-cell and melanoma skin cancers, advised me to do self-checks of my skin. A few weeks later, I discovered a small bump on the lower back of my head, and asked my wife to take a picture of it. The picture showed a large misshapen mass of three colors measuring 14mm x 20mm. That quadrant of my body had been hurting: I had a stiff neck, headaches in the area, and a sore shoulder. I sent the picture to my doctor and compared it with photos from the internet. Without a wisp of hypochondria, I found the closest picture was labeled “late stage melanoma.”
“…Moon-face Buddha (the Buddha who lives but a day and a night).” I became fascinated with watching my mind construct a new life narrative. I was not particularly scared, but sickness now became my constant companion. I was now the guy who would bring the life expectancy averages down by passing in my 60s; I would not see my children have children. For god’s sake, who would take over my koan students?
After four days of this, I got into a conference call with my doctor, and he asked if I had other pictures. When I replied “No (after all, this was a pretty Big Kahuna!)”, he said, “Well, the one you sent is completely benign.” I scheduled a second office exam the next day, and that doctor confirmed the benign diagnosis and even added on leaving: “It is unlikely you will die of skin cancer.” The news completely destroyed the new and detailed karmic narrative I had watched my mind build over the previous four days. I was stunned, and of course, relieved.
“For twenty years I have experienced boundless joy.” This famous line from Hsueh Tou’s verse of the above koan, originally reads: “For twenty years I have suffered bitterly.” But what of the beauty? In the midst of a COVID lockdown and health scares, spring rolling into summer at my house has been glorious with flowers fed by late rains and now hot, clear days. Italian kale, Baby Gem lettuce, and six-foot tall Brandywine tomato plants all demonstrate the lush beauty of the world.
“How many times have I gone into the kitchen for you?”, I ask in paraphrase of Hsueh Tou’s question about going into the cave of the Blue Dragon for us. How many times have I put the pots and pans in their places, wiped off the counters, put the dishes away, for you? Many, and with great pleasure. I may live but a Moon-face period of time to clean the kitchen once more, or a Sun-face time to clean it again and again. Either way, it is Buddha.
We name Ma’s condition sickness. But fundamentally, it is not. It is Sun-face Buddha. We call our lives bitterness, but they are not. They are Moon-face Buddha. When we attach a label to it, when we call it bad, or even good, when we make it wrong, we make our lives smaller. Our life is not wrong, no matter how entangled it may appear. Tony Hoagland wrote: “Sometimes I prefer not to untangle it/I prefer it to remain unorganized/because it is richer that way.”