Thursday, 9 June 2016


35. The Zen tradition is replete with stories. The most celebrated of these deal with what Mumon Ekai refers to as 'the spiritual activities of the Buddha and the patriarchs'. Already in Mumon's day, 13th century China, the Buddha and the patriarchs were considered 'ancient masters'. Many of these 'ancient masters' were active in the period between the 6th and the 10th centuries. This period in Chinese history is known as the T'ang Dynasty and has long been referred to as 'the Golden Age of Zen'. Stories from and of this so-called 'Golden Age', stories moreover that purport to tell of  'the spiritual activities' of the patriarchs, might be expected to paint a very rosy picture of the world of Zen. What is surprising is that they do no such thing. For while they celebrate the enlightened words and deeds of great masters of Zen, they do so against a background of the unenlightened behaviour of the members of the sanghas these same masters presided over. Perhaps the most striking of these stories concerns the sangha gathered around Master Gunin, the fifth of the Chinese patriarchs. The monks of this sangha were not above harbouring and expressing strong feelings of jealousy and distrust, feelings that were directed towards the young layman Eno, a stranger from the south of China who at the time was employed in the monastery's harvesting shed. Master Gunin was well aware of the community's hostility towards the stranger from the south. Recognising the young man's deep understanding, and deciding to give him Dharma Transmission, he did so secretly in the dead of night and then had Eno depart quickly from the monastery. Clearly he feared for the safety of his young successor.
     A similar though less threatening situation can be seen in the picture one story paints of Nansen's community. Master Nansen, who lived from 748 to 834, is widely held to have been an outstanding Zen master, a master who numbered among his disciples the great Joshu. The story tells how Nansen came upon his monks as they were in the middle of a heated quarrel. What were they quarrelling about? Of all things, a cat!
     The moral to be drawn from such stories is that even though 'Sangha' is one of the Three Treasures of Zen, it should not be over idealised. The shadow of delusive thoughts and passions has been, and will continue to be, part and parcel of every sangha, as it is of every human community and institution. But in a sangha it should be recognised that all members are making some effort, whether sufficient or not, to get free of these passions and thoughts. Individual members will accept and acknowledge the presence of the delusive shadow, both in themselves and in others. And so they learn compassionate understanding and come to walk on in the Great Way in trustful serenity.

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