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?

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