… instead of devoting ourselves to seeking that one thing necessary that can fill our hearts with true peace and joy, we spend our time and energy in the pursuit of many things we… think are “necessary” for us.
Written by Ruben L.F. Habito
One of my favorite Zen kōans is about a monk named Qingshui (pronounced Seizei in Japanese), who asks his teacher, Caoshan, “Master, I am alone and poor. Help me to become prosperous.” Caoshan responds, addressing him: “Venerable Qing!” To this Qingshui replies, saying “Yes, Master.” Thereby Caoshan proclaims, “There! You have just drunk three of the finest cups of wine in all of China, and you say you have not yet moistened your lips?”
A casual reader is tempted to ask, now what in the world is the Zen Master talking about here? What cups of wine? Where can they be found? And that is precisely the kind of question that this kōan is meant to provoke. The Master is telling Qingshui, and also each and everyone of us, “You say you are alone and poor. Don’t you realize that you possess treasures in abundance, right there before your very eyes? Stop for a moment, open your eyes and see!”
There is another story of a seasoned Zen monk who was commissioned by the abbot of a temple to transport a small golden statue of the Buddha, gilded with jewels, to another temple where it was to be placed on a newly constructed altar. On the way to that other temple this monk happened to be ambushed by robbers. They beat him up badly, and took not only the golden Buddha with the jewels, but also the bullock cart on which he was riding, and his clothes and everything else he had with him, leaving him lying unconscious on a ditch by the side of the road. When this monk regained consciousness, body aching all over, it was night, and the moon was shining in resplendent light against the background of a starlit night. Looking up at the sky, the monk exclaimed, “Oh, those poor robbers. I wish I could have given them this beautiful moon as well!”
What an unusual way to respond in the midst of such tragic circumstances, one might say. This monk’s remark reveals the mind and heart of one who has found one’s true treasure, one that cannot ever be taken away by robbers or by anyone else. This is a lifelong treasure that never diminishes, but on the contrary, only increases in quality and depth through the years. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus calls our attention to this kind of treasure “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Mt. 6:19-20) One who comes upon this kind of treasure earnestly wants only to share it with each and everyone around.
The verse appended to the kōan on Qingshui by Wumen describes the heart and mind of those who have made this treasure their very own:
Poor as the poorest,
They are as brave as the bravest.
They can hardly sustain themselves,
Yet they dare to compete with one another for wealth.
This is intriguing indeed, and we are led to ask, “What kind of treasure is this all about?” And more importantly, “How may I gain access to this treasure?” Qingshui is us, feeling all alone and poor, and earnestly wanting to be “prosperous.”
As we go through this earthly life of ours, whether we may actually be materially impoverished, or be somewhere in the middle class, or even be on the affluent side, we feel “alone and poor.” Even those few among us who may have abundant resources and live in palatial mansions, have huge bank accounts, and have scores of people at our beck and call, cannot evade that feeling of being “alone and poor,” knowing that money can only go so far, and we realize that it cannot buy what we truly long for deep in our hearts. What is it then that we truly yearn for in this life, our true heart’s desire, that one thing necessary that Jesus alludes to (Luke 10:42)?
Reflecting on the way we live our lives, we may notice that…
…instead of devoting ourselves to seeking that one thing necessary that can fill our hearts with true peace and joy, we spend our time and energy in the pursuit of many things we are led to think are “necessary” for us.
The consumption-driven economy of our contemporary global society feeds, and conversely feeds on people’s desire to have, and to have more and more at that. An underlying assumption that propels this consumeristic culture is that “you are what you have.” Your value as a person is thought to depend on the kinds of things that you possess. It is only natural therefore to want those things that everybody else seems to want, like a big house, a flashy car, fashionable clothes, the right kind of designer handbag or shoes, and so on. Having these things may seem to give us the feeling that we are “somebody” that can match up with anybody else out there. So we continue trying our best to keep up with the trends, to be able to buy the latest in those “must-have” items blown out of proportion in the media or that we hear friends and co-workers talk about.
Swayed by this attitude, we notice that the more we have, we want still more. And then at some point we may come to realize that we can never be truly satisfied with what we already have, because there is always something else out there that we don’t have yet. This feeling of acquiring some things and perhaps obtaining some momentary satisfaction in getting hold of them, and then after a short while wanting something else, and in all this remaining deeply unsatisfied, is an aspect of what the Buddha identified as the First Ennobling Truth: dukkha.
This term is a Sanskrit/Pāli compound referring to a wheel that is not rightly set on its hub, and is thereby not rolling properly as it should. The term dukkha then describes the human condition that is dys-functional and out of sync, a condition of dis-ease and dissatisfaction. Incidentally, its reverse is the term sukha (a wheel that is centered on its hub and revolving smoothly), which is translated as “ease” or “contentment” or “happiness.” This term appears in the Metta Sutta (Treatise on Lovingkindness), in a phrase that Buddhists throughout the world often recite: “May all beings be at ease.” “May all beings be happy.” The question then is, how can we turn our lives around, from a state of dukkha, to one of sukha?
Taken from Maria Kannon Zen Center’s website. Previously published in Dharma World, Vo. 38 (Jan-Mar. 2011)