You might remember this line from Fight Club, in which the master and disciple are in fact the same person. But we have a real application for it, apart from such hallucinations and hyper-ascetic practices. When you can raise the eyebrows of Old Shakyamuni, you must also be able to open his mouth and share the reality you have found yourself in. We take this very seriously in Soto Zen monastic practice.
I originally came from the West To save all sentient beings.
One flower opens five petals And the Truth is complete.
Attributed to Bodhidharma
There are a number of flowers that have five petals, such as hibiscus (right) or azaleas or plum blossoms, but the particulars don’t matter here.
This saying of Bodhidharma gave rise to the koan,
Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?
used as the opening of the Chief Junior ceremony in Soto Zen. The juniormost monk is assigned to ask this, and the Chief Junior must reply with his best understanding, or perhaps a book answer if he doesn’t really know what it’s about.
Then all of the other juniors get to ask their individual questions, and the Chief Junior must answer each in the spirit of the koan. Afterwards the Chief Junior’s master does a similar ceremony answering questions from all monks, while standing on the altar as the Buddha.
This can be a tricky business, because the Chief Junior has to do this before receiving the Transmission, before being named a Roshi. Well, we practice, and we manage. One of the koans I learned just before the time came for my ceremony was from Rinzai.
Rinzai Plants a Pine Tree
Rinzai was planting a young pine tree one day when his Master, Obaku, came along.
“The monastery is surrounded by wonderful trees. Why do you plant this tree?” Obaku asked.
“For two reasons,” Rinzai replied. “First, to beautify the monastery with this evergreen and, second, to establish a landmark for the next generation.”
Rinzai then tamped the ground three times with his hoe to make the sapling more secure.
“I don't like your self-assertion,” Obaku said sternly. Rinzai ignored this remark, tamped the ground three times as before, and murmured, “All done.”
“You will cause my teaching to remain in the world,” Obaku concluded.
This version of the story is from Zen Koans, by Gyomay Kubose, published in 1973. PDF
Tamping the ground three times is not primarily about the soil, but about signifying that the tree is, and always was, under the protection of the Three Treasures, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
My master, Rev. Abbess Jiyu Kennett, had pointed out to me that the hedge around her little village temple, Unpukuji, was infested with climbing bindweed, so one day we got out the ladder and I climbed up to pull it all out, top to bottom. As I was doing this, she asked me
Why are you doing this, since it will all grow back?
I could tell that this was a test, but test or no, I replied with the simple truth of all Buddhist training.
It will look better in the meantime, and it might encourage someone else to keep it up.
When my Chief Junior ceremony came up, we had some visiting monks serving as examiners, and some visiting laymen who agreed to join in. A young Japanese man asked me the stock opening question, and I gave one of the stock book answers. I couldn’t very well come up with an answer for him in Japanese, since I hardly knew any. Then a visiting American asked,
What time does the next train leave?
To which I immediately replied, without having to think,
You just missed it.
He was taken flat aback, as sailors say. The air was electric. The Japanese examiners, knowing no English, felt it fully. So I passed my test, and the examiners apologized to Rev. Abbess Kennett for doubting her, and me.