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.

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