Laughing, Dancing, Serving, part 2

Do you have a bucket list – a list of things you’d like to do before you kick the bucket? I understand the appeal of a bucket list. I don’t have a written-down list, but sometimes I’ll have a thought of something that I’d like to do one time before I die. Some of those things I have since done, others I may yet do, others I probably won’t get to, and others I’ve forgotten or lost interest in. The key point is that it really doesn’t much matter if I get to them or not. The measure of a life is not the list of things you did once. It’s all the things you did over and over, making each time fresh.

So: back to Jinniu and his rice pail and his laughing and dancing. As you hold that image in mind, there are a couple things you can do with that image. First, you can notice how that image represents what you already do. Can you see everything you do as a dance step, as an offering to the world your joy – and some rice for those who are hungry, metaphorically or literally? “Dear Bodhisattvas, come and eat rice.” We don’t need to become Jinniu. The koan invites us to simply see everything we do as our own form of already doing what Jinniu does. Every move a dance, every vocalization a laugh, and all the while: service. That image – dancing, laughing, and serving -- is already you. The practice is just to notice that it is – and live in the reality of being who you are. The koan gives us this image to live with – this image of laughing, dancing, and feeding-serving. The image beckons you to notice yourself as that image.

Second, the image also beckons you to notice other people as that image. It invites you to see others as Jinniu. Someone’s a little gruff with you. Someone cuts you off in traffic. That’s the form of dancing, laughing, and serving they happen to be offering. They can’t help it. Everything and everyone is pouring forth this dance, pouring forth humor and joy, pouring forth its self in service to you and all beings. Over and over and over – for 20 years, for 40 years, for 80 years, for lifetimes, for centuries.

"At each meal, Master Jinniu himself would bring the rice bucket to the front of the Zen hall, dance there and laugh loudly, saying, ‘Dear Bodhisattvas, come and eat rice!’"
Then we have Xuedou, over 200 years after Jinniu, inserting this comment.
Xuedou said, "Although he behaved that way, he was not being kind."
That’s Migaku Sato’s translation. Koun Yamada renders Xuedou’s comment as: “Although he did it like that, he was not being cordial.” Thomas Cleary translates it as: “Jinniu was not good-hearted.” Katsuki Sekida’s translation is: "Although Jinniu did this, he was not simple-minded." In R.D.M Shaw’s translation, it comes out as a question: “Although Jinniu did this sort of thing, was his purpose good or not?”

We can read this in light of the Zen saying about the sword that kills and the sword that gives life. What it kills is the ego, the self-centeredness, the delusion of being a separate self, and the delusion of being a permanent self. The sword that kills this self of delusion clears the way for a more full and joyous life of compassion. So the sword that kills is also the sword that gives life. Along these lines, we might say that Xuedou is saying that Jinniu presents us with the rice pail that kills and the rice pail that gives life.

And, sure. That’s there.

Another reading is that Jinniu wasn’t just being polite. In fact, in Migaku Sato’s more recent edition of his translation, the word “simply” is inserted in brackets:
“Jinniu was not [simply] being kind.”
And this is where the repetition is more significant – that Jinniu did this every day for 20 years. We might imagine that was doing it just because this was his thing, and people seemed to like it, so he better go out and do the show again. Why would he keep doing it all that time? We might imagine it had become a crowd favorite, and that guests came to his monastery just to see him dance and laugh with the rice that’s served. In that case, it would only be polite to do the routine for them.

But Xuedou is telling us Jinniu wasn’t just being polite, wasn't doing it because people liked it or expected it. Jinniu really means it. It’s a genuine laugh and dance of joy. It flowed from the heart, a soulful belly laugh, and a dance of sheer and spontaneous gladness. At every midday meal. For 20 years. That, at any rate, is the image that’s presented to us.

Now: Taken literally, I have to say, I don’t think that’s humanly possible. We all get tired. We get sick. Even Buddha, I daresay, had some moments when his blood sugar had dropped a bit, or when he wasn’t perfectly well rested, perhaps having walked many miles that day. In the end, it’s not about literally dancing and laughing all the time. What it’s about is being genuine – as represented in this image of Jinniu’s laughing, dancing service.

And genuine is possible. Whether you are laughing and dancing or sighing, grieving, seething with anger, worn-out with fatigue, can you be as genuine as that image of Jinniu? When you’re tired, can you be as genuine in your tiredness as Jinniu was in his joy?When you’re sick, can you be as genuine in our sickness as Jinniu was in his laughter?

And here’s the thing: you already are. We always already inevitably are genuinely what we are. The practice is to notice that we are. And in the noticing, see what spontaneity may present itself.

So we come to the next part of the case: several generations after Jinniu’s death, Master Changqing is being asked about Master Jinnui.
A monk asked Changqing , “An ancient worthy said, 'Dear Bodhisattvas, come and eat rice!' What does it mean?”
Changqing said, “That is exactly like praising and giving thanks at the midday meal.”
Cleary translates it as: “Sure seems like celebration on the occasion of a meal.” Sekida’s translation says: “He seems to observe reflection and thanksgiving before the midday meal.” RDM Shaw: “Oh! That was a sort of purificatory rite with thanksgiving (a sort of grace before meals).” So: we get the idea. Gratitude. Celebratory gratitude. But not just for the meal. It’s on the occasion of a meal, but it’s gratitude for everything.

There is, wonderfully, a futher koan that follows-up on this. Case #93 in the Blue Cliff Record:
A monk asked Daguang, "What did Changqing mean when he said, 'It is like a grace before meals'"?
Daguang did a dance.
The monk bowed deeply.
Daguang said, "What did you see that you made you bow deeply?"
Then the monk did a dance.
Daguang said, "You fox-devil."
Daguang’s dance, of course, alludes to Jinniu’s dance – even as Daguang makes it his own, and makes it fresh.

Then we have the monk making a deep bow – a prostration. Daguang asks him, “What did you see that you bow like that?” Daguang has to check: did the monk bow because he really had insight, or was he just being polite? Then the monk does a dance. Was that just imitation? Has the monk made it his own? Daguang exclaims: “You fox-devil.” The fox-devil, or the wild fox spirit suggests fakery or show, or empty pretense. So: Daguang isn’t buying it.

We always begin by copying, by imitating. We are, after all, primates. And out of imitating our heroes, our teachers, those we admire, gradually we become something new, and the possibility of genuineness, of authenticity to the unique person we have become emerges. How does that happen?

It happens, as Jinniu and Daguang show us, when we orient toward service, toward compassion. What was genuine about Jinniu through all those meals, all that dancing, and all that laughing was that he was serving the needs of a community, feeding their hunger, both physical and spiritual. He was always attentive to the shifts in their needs, so his care was always genuine, authentic – and always new.

What made Daguang’s dance not merely imitative was that he did it in compassionate service to the monk who had an earnest question. And if the monk’s dance wasn’t genuine, it was because it had no one to serve except himself. We express our genuine, authentic self – become who we are and always have been – when we act in compassion, when we serve. To be genuine, Bodhisattvas, dance, laugh, and serve. Be it so. Amen.


Laughing, Dancing, Serving, part 1

The case:
At each meal, Master Jinniu himself would bring the rice bucket to the front of the Zen hall, dance there and laugh loudly, saying, “Dear Bodhisattvas, come and eat rice!”
(Xuedou said, “Although he behaved that way, he was not [simply] kind.”)
A monk asked Changqing, “An ancient worthy said, 'Dear Bodhisattvas, come and eat rice!' What does it mean?”
Changqing said, “That is exactly like praising and giving thanks at the midday meal.” (Blue Cliff Record, #74)
I want to talk to you today about this koan and look at some of the lessons it offers. It’s about how we become genuine, authentic – become who we are – and that the way to do that is compassion. There are other meanings -- other layers to explore in this little story -- but that's the point I'm calling attention to today.

But first, what are koans?

In the 12th and 13th centuries, some Chinese Zen masters put together collections of anecdotes of the doings and sayings of earlier Zen masters, mostly from the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries. Three such collections are particularly studied in Zen centers today: the Blue Cliff Record, which consists of 100 anecdotes; the Book of Serenity, which also consists of 100 anecdotes, and the Gateless Gate – sometimes rendered as the Gateless Barrier -- which consists of 48 anecdotes. The collections were created as teaching texts. The anecdotes were illustrations for the sermons Zen teachers would give.

Koans present us with these little stories, these little vignettes – of people long ago and far away. The invitation is to take them in, hold them in mind. Each one offers one or more images, or phrases. If you hold those images or phrases in mind, carry them with you, live with them, they begin to offer you some guidance in times when you may need it.

I have been living with koans since 2003 – over 19 years now – and the anecdotes of those three collections, plus several miscellaneous others, have become a part of me. A few of them offer a slogan to serve as a touchstone reminder.

Consider case #6 in the Blue Cliff Record:
Yunmen, giving instruction, said, “I don't ask you about before the fifteenth day; bring me a phrase about after the fifteenth day.”
Yunmen himself answered in the monks' stead, “Every day is a good day.”
So, to unpack that a bit. On a lunar calendar, every month starts with a new moon, and the full moon comes on the 15th day. The full moon is a symbol for enlightenment, awakening, realization. So Yunmen was asking: I don't ask you about before enlightenment. Tell me something about after enlightenment. Then Yunmen himself tells us something about after enlightenment – to wit: “Every day is a good day.”

In its simplest terms, awakening involves a dropping away of our constant judging of what we like and don’t like. The inner voice that’s constantly saying, “oh, I like this,” “no, I don’t like that” just gets a bit quieter – a bit less domineering. And when you aren’t judging your days as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, when every day is just what it is, then every day is a good day.

Fun twist: every day being a good day INCLUDES all the days before the 15th – includes all those days before you realized that every day was a good day. Those days were good days, too – though you may not have known it at the time.

Last month, I came down with Covid, and was wiped out for about five days, and semi-wiped-out for several days thereafter. Yet I could remember Yunmen’s words with a smile: Every day is a good day. A couple weeks ago, I passed out one evening for about a minute, and for about 3 hours thereafter was too lightheaded to stand. Yet I remembered Yunmen’s words: Everyday is a good day.

Another koan that offers itself in a time of illness – this one is included in both the Blue Cliff Record and in the Book of Serenity:
Great Master Mazu was unwell.
The chief monk of the temple came to ask him, “Master, how are you feeling these days?”
The Great Master said, “Sun-faced Buddha, moon-faced Buddha.”
Sometimes things are sunny. Other times we are more moon-faced. “Sun-faced Buddha, moon-faced Buddha” is another saying we can use to point us toward equanimity in the face of what would otherwise be distressing. Our inherent Buddha nature is unperturbed whether it might be wearing a sun face or a moon face.

Most of the koans don’t offer a slogan so much as paint a little picture -- an image to carry around and live with. And that brings us to our main case for today: #74 from the Blue Cliff Record. This particular koan – Jinniu dancing and laughing with the rice bucket – has been popping up for me frequently this summer, and I’ve been reflecting on what it might be trying to say to me.

The base story is about Jinniu, a master who was born around the middle of the 700s. Then in the second part, we flash-forward to Changqing being asked about old Jinniu. Changqing was born in 854 – about a century after Jinniu.
"At each meal, Master Jinniu himself would bring the rice bucket to the front of the Zen hall, dance there and laugh loudly, saying, 'Dear Bodhisattvas, come and eat rice!’"
That’s the primary image to hold in your mind.

Commentary from the 13th century tells us:
“Jinniu did this for twenty years. Where was his intent? Was he just summoning the others to eat? He always beat the mealtime drum, and personally announced the meal. So what further need was there for him to take the rice pail and do so many tricks?”
And yet, that’s what he did. So here we have Jinniu with his dancing and laughing. This is his thing: 20 years, and every midday meal, he’s out there laughing, dancing, and serving rice for the other monastics. We have a number of these cases of zen masters having a thing – and they do it over and over. One of them, whenever he was asked a question, he held up one finger. Another would answer questions by turning and facing a wall. That was his thing. And yet each time it’s fresh. Each time it’s as if it’s the first.

Think about that. I’m not asking you to come up with a trademark “thing” of your own. Instead, think about the number of things that you do repeatedly -- not just one thing, but all the things that you do over and over. Getting up, the morning toilet, the tooth brushing, the showering, the eating, the washing dishes. Can you chop the cucumber, or board the commuter train, or do the grocery shopping, or go to the bathroom and, every time you do it, it’s entirely about THIS time?

Consider another case, this one is case #16 in the Gateless Gate. This one is a one-liner – again from our old friend Yunmen.
Yunmen said, "The world is vast and wide like this. Why do we put on our seven-panel robe at the sound of the bell?"
For monastics, this is a part of the daily routine. The temple bell rings and they put on their robes and show up in the meditation hall. Over and over. For you, maybe it’s the alarm goes off, and you put on the uniform of your particular work – whether it’s work clothes or casual wear or dressier – and show up for your job. The world is vast and wide like this, and there you are doing the same old same old. What’s up with that? Yunmen is asking.

But it’s never the same. If you’re paying attention, every time you do the thing that you’ve done a thousand times before, it’s the first time.

Sometimes in conversation with LoraKim, my spouse, we will touch upon subject matters that we have touched upon before, and she will say, “Oh, are we going to have this conversation again?”

No. we aren’t. We can’t. You can’t step twice in the same river of conversation. It’s always new. You could say that after 22 years of marriage we employ certain tropes with each other that have become shopworn, hackneyed. But on the one hand if we’re really paying attention, the slight differences in the context will make them always new – and also, on the other hand, if we’re really paying attention, some different tropes might come to mind.

The world is vast and wide like this. How better to express our perfect freedom in the vast, wide world than to put on the same robe at the same bell sound just as you have for years and years?


UU Minute #89

Will the Wind Change?

1770. John Murray, in grief and despair from the loss of his only child and, soon after, his spouse, sets out for a new life in America. The ship, making its way up the coast toward New York, gets stuck on a sandbar. Murray goes ashore to get provisions, and meets Thomas Potter, who has built a chapel on his farm in order that there be a place for someone to preach universalism. Potter learns that Murray was a preacher and a universalist. Voila!

But there’s a snag. Murray didn’t want to preach, ever again. He wanted a new life, away from all of that. And. He needs to be back on the ship where he expects to be off the sandbar and sailing away by Sunday. But Potter persists and somehow manages to extract a promise that if the wind doesn’t change, and the ship is still stuck on Sunday morning, Murray will come preach in Potter’s chapel.

Would the wind change? Though neither Potter nor Murray could have known it, the history of Universalism in America hung in the balance. If the wind changes, dislodges the ship, then Murray is on his way and maybe he never does preach again, as was his intention.

The wind didn’t change. And because it didn’t, the development of American Universalism did.

Thomas Potter gathered a small congregation of his family and neighbors, and John Murray preached in Potter’s chapel. Potter loved it. Most of his neighbors loved it. Murray got back on the ship and went on to New York, but the encouragement and affirmation he’d received changed his mind about preaching. He was soon back again in New Jersey, and from there launched a popular itinerant preaching career.


UU Minute #88

Thomas Potter's Field of Dreams

In the mid-1700s, the land that is now Murray Grove, in Good Luck, New Jersey, was being farmed by Thomas Potter. A member of a locally prominent family, he was illiterate yet successful and deeply religious. Probably a Quaker Baptist, Potter had caught wind of universalism: the idea that all human beings will ultimately attain salvation.

Universalism contradicted the Calvinism that prevailed in the colonies, but there were a few universalists around. George de Benneville had come to America in 1741 and had been preaching Universalism around Eastern Pennsylvania. A number of German immigrants who believed in universal salvation had settled in the mid-Atlantic colonies. A German Universalist, Georg Klein-Nicolai, had written a book arguing for Universalism, and in 1753, de Benneville had made arrangements for an English translation to be published under the title The Everlasting Gospel. Klein-Nicolai said that
“As the whole divine being is pure love, so are likewise all the attributes of God. His wisdom, omnipotence, holiness, mercy, truth, etc. are, at bottom, nothing else but love…. The true and only God is entirely an ocean of love.”
Perhaps these universalist ideas had made their way to Thomas Potter. In any case, in 1760 he set aside a piece of his farmland and built there a chapel for the express purpose of housing a preacher of the universalist gospel.

Now, we have no record of a voice telling Thomas Potter “if you build it he will come.” But Potter did build it, and, it took ten years, but he came. Universalist preacher John Murray’s ship got stuck on a sand bar just off the coast from Potter’s farm. Murray came ashore to get provisions, the two men met, and Thomas Potter’s chapel had its preacher.

NEXT: Will the Wind Change?


UU Minute #87

John Murray, part 1

John Murray – the founder of Universalism in America – was born in Alton, Hampshire, England, the oldest of 9 children. When he was 9, the family moved to Cork, Ireland. In Ireland, the Murrays became Methodists. At age 18, John returned to England and gravitated to London, where he joined the Tabernacle of George Whitefield, whom he had heard preach when Whitefield toured through Ireland.

Around age 19 or 20, John married Eliza Neale. Becoming a leader in Whitefield’s congregation, often leading prayers, John was sent to try to bring back into the fold a young woman who had adopted James Relly’s Universalism. The young woman confounded him with arguments in favor of universal salvation, so John and Eliza went to hear James Relly for themselves. They studied both Rellyan and anti-Rellyan literature before, first Eliza, then John, converted to Universalism – for which they were expelled from the Tabernacle.

Calamities then struck. His only son died in infancy. Then Eliza, too, fell ill and died. John was thrown into debtor’s prison. His brother-in-law rescued him from prison, and John managed to pay off his debts, yet he remained in despair. James Relly was encouraging John to preach the good news of Universalism, but John was just too depressed. He wished, he said, “to pass through life, unheard, unseen, unknown to all, as though I ne’er had been.”

In 1770, at age 29, he resolved to sail for America and see if he could build a new life in the new world. Arriving in America, Murray’s ship was grounded on a sandbar and remained for a time becalmed off the coast of New Jersey. The captain sent Murray ashore on a foraging expedition – and that’s where John Murray fatefully met Thomas Potter.

NEXT: Thomas Potter's Field of Dreams


UU Minute #86

Universalism: James Relly to John Murray

In 18th-century Britain, Methodism originated as a revival movement within the Church of England. Among the itinerant preachers conducting revival meetings along with John Wesley and George Whitefield was one James Relly from Pembrokeshire, Wales.

Relly had decided to become a revival preacher when he was age 20, after hearing George Whitefield preach. But Relly’s theology began to drift away from Wesley and Whitefield. James Relly was finding his way to Universalism. He was increasingly captivated by the words of Romans 5:18:
“Therefore just as one man’s [i.e., Adam’s] trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s [i.e., Jesus’] act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”
If all had sinned in Adam, then all were saved in Jesus. All.

That was the basic reasoning of Relly's book, Union: or A Treatise of Consanguinity and Affinity between Christ and His Church, published 1759. The book, reissued many times, made James Relly well known in both Britain and America. A sect of Rellyites emerged. One day a zealously anti-Rellyite young preacher named John Murray called upon a Rellyite disciple to convince her of her error. Much to Murray’s confusion, the woman confounded him with her logic. He found himself forced to yield more and more ground. Her name is lost to us, but through her effect on John Murray, she is a key figure in Universalist history.

John Murray and his wife went to hear James Relly preach. Murray would later write, “I was astonished to witness in so bad a man so much apparent devotion.”

Soon John Murray was a Rellyite and a Universalist.

NEXT: John Murray, part 1


UU Minute #85

George de Benneville, part 2

After his last-minute reprieve from execution, George de Benneville, still just 20 years old, moved to Germany for the next 18 years, studying medicine along with doing preaching tours through Germany and Holland. Toward the end of this period of German residence, when he had been treating patients as a doctor for about a year, he himself fell very ill. In a high fever, he felt himself die, and his spirit depart from his body. He was escorted through heaven, and then purgatory. As he later wrote: "I took it so to heart that I believed my happiness would be incomplete while one creature remained miserable." One of his escorts assured him that all creatures would be restored to happiness without exception.

When he awoke, he was in a coffin, having been declared dead 42 hours before. He sat up to speak and flabbergasted mourners helped him out of the coffin. He returned to life with a renewed mission to preach "the universal and everlasting gospel of boundless, universal love for the entire human race."

The next year, 1741, when de Benneville was 38, he sailed for America to bring the universalist gospel to this country. De Benneville settled in Oley, Pennsylvania where he worked as a physician and apothecary, while also continuing his Universalist preaching. Thus he lived and worked -- married and raised a family -- for 52 more years, until his death in 1793 at age almost 90.

“Honor the ocean of love” became his signature slogan. Though he was not a settled minister or the founder of churches, George de Benneville is often called the first preacher of Universalism in America, and he was an important early influence on its development.

NEXT: Universalism: James Relly to John Murray