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Lions Roar : May 2014
it, no less than they are by our exhalations and we by theirs. But what if our connection to trees runs closer still? taKe the story of zen Master kyogen. After years of intense scriptural study, he was asked a question by his mas- ter, Isan: What was his original face before his parents were born? kyogen could not give an immediate answer but confidently strode off to his store of scrolls and began searching for an appropriate response. Finally, crestfallen, he returned to Isan to confess that he had not been able to come up with anything. Would Isan please tell him the right answer? Isan said, “I could tell you, but you would not thank me later.” Having felt proud of his scholas- tic accomplishments, kyogen now felt dashed. He left the monastery, convinced that he did not have what it took to become a good Zen monk. For years kyogen worked as a simple laborer. One morning he was sweeping out the yard at an old shrine when his broom happened to flick a pebble against a tree growing nearby. The stone hit the trunk with a pronounced tock. At that sound, kyogen’s world suddenly fell away. He was left bereft of everything and sud- denly realized a great truth about his exis- tence, which he finally recognized as the answer to Isan’s question. “One knock,” he declared, “and I have forgotten everything I ever knew.” The whole world as he had construed it fell away and revealed something marvelous about both himself and the tree against which the pebble had knocked. In deep gratitude kyogen washed, changed, lit incense, and bowed in the direction of Isan’s temple. “How grateful I am,” he said, “that you did not answer the question for me all those years ago. If you had, I could never have realized what I have now found.” Ever after, he taught by means of a famous koan, known as kyo- gen’s “Man up a Tree.” doGen said, “plants and trees are mind. Tile and pebble are Buddha. People don’t want to believe this.” When all our ideas have fallen to the ground like leaves, when our sense of self and our attachment to life and death has fallen to the ground also, then the true life of the dharma can bloom in us. We find it pouring forth all around, a creative force beyond all reckoning in which we fully participate. When I was twenty-three years old and fresh out of college, my first writing assignment took me into the Sahara Des- ert. One morning I found myself setting off before dawn into the great Western Erg, the largest sea of sand dunes in the world, in the company of an old man and his donkey. All day we slogged up and down mountains of sand. In the evening, when we finally reached the oasis, I was so dazed with heat and exhaustion from the long hours under the fierce sun that I didn’t even realize what was going on. The donkey moved toward something that shone like a mirror in the last of the light, beneath hundreds of tall pillars that rose into a thatched roof. Only when the donkey’s lip touched that mercury-like surface did I realize it was a pool of fresh water, and that we were standing beneath hundreds of palm trees. A wave of joy rose up: we had reached not just a place of water but a place of trees. In the distance I heard a voice sing- ing hoarsely, then another answer it, in an unearthly antiphony. We were led to a walled village of red mud amid the trees and fed dates, couscous, and camel’s milk. I discovered that every evening at dusk, the men of the village would hitch up their robes and climb into their palm trees. Pulling themselves into the crowns, they would perch amid the fronds and call to one another like birds. It was a local adaptation of the daily call to prayer, normally delivered from the top of a minaret but here transplanted to the high fronds of desert palms. Over the suede expanse of land growing soft at dusk, it was one of the most beautiful cer- emonial moments I ever witnessed, with the trees turning dark and the voices drift- ing out over the wide plain, as if the trees themselves were singing; as if man and tree were one. ♦ H P D: Teachings on the Eight Worldly Dharmas By Lama Zopa Rinpoche Edited by Gordon McDougall $10 “Buddhism is a house full of treasures— practices for gaining the happiness of future lives, the bliss of liberation and the supreme happiness of enlightenment— but knowing the difference between Dharma and non-Dharma is the key that opens the door to all those treasures.” —Lama Zopa Rinpoche Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive po box 636, lincoln, ma 01773