18 July 2013

The Four Vows 2: Uprooting Endless Blind Passions

   Another time Joshu said, "I can make one blade of grass be a sixteen-foot golden Buddha, and I can make a sixteen-foot golden Buddha be one blade of grass.  Buddha is compulsive passions, compulsive passions are Buddha."
   A monk asked, "For the sake of whom does the Buddha become compulsive passions?"
   The master said, "For the sake of all people Buddha becomes compulsive passions."
   The monk said, "How can they be escaped?"
   The master said, "What is the use of escaping?"
It's not hard to enter into the monk's confusion.  After all, he no doubt recited, like us, the second of the great Bodhisattva Vows:
Endless blind passions I vow to uproot.
Surely he took those lines seriously, and perhaps he did his level best to fulfill them, but Joshu won't let him go where he wants to go with them.  Why?

The monk's first question, "for whose sake?," creates a split between two kinds of people.  Some, he's probably thinking, don't need Buddha to become compulsive passions.  In his mind, they might be so far beyond that kind of stuff, so not in need of the red dust of the world, that they can find their way without Buddha needing to sully or lower himself for their sake.  The others, benighted as they are, need Buddha to do precisely that.

Joshu counters that such special folk don't exist anywhere. We are – all of us – very much in need of the stuff of our lives, the tugs and pulls and prods and pokes that move us along.  In Zen, we represent Buddha as Shakyamuni, the flesh-and-blood one, the one who walked and shat and ate and fathered a child and knew all too well and then some the thick and thin of embodied existence.

"OK," we can hear the monk thinking, "but surely this comes to an end, doesn't it? Isn't that the point of the exercise? Didn't even the Buddha escape them in the end?"

Joshu's answer to this question can go in a couple of directions, depending on where one lays the emphasis.  "What is the use of escaping?" is not the same as "What is the use of escaping?"  In the same way, "Endless blind passions I vow to uproot" is not the same as "Endless blind passions I vow to uproot," and the parallel relationship obtains.  If I'm worried about getting rid of the passions to be in some passion-free place, then it's the endless blind passions that I'll focus on, and I won't be content until they're gone.  "What is the use of escaping?" is then Joshu's observation that one is never going to be free of them.

If I'm focused on the uprooting in the vow, however, I'll see that escaping is beside the point.  I don't need to hope the passions will go away, I just need to quit giving them a toehold in either my attachment or my repulsion.  They will come and go as so many clouds on a summer's day but won't have any more solidity or holding power.  "Escape? Wrong verb," Joshu tells us, "Just uproot." 

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