A Rich Man Wandering Among the Poor, A Talk by Leland Shields (April 3, 2024)

Posted by on Apr 9, 2024 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on A Rich Man Wandering Among the Poor, A Talk by Leland Shields (April 3, 2024)

All beings by nature are Buddha,

as ice by nature is water.


Apart from water there is no ice;

apart from beings, no Buddha.


How sad that people ignore the near

and search for truth afar:

like someone in the midst of water

crying out in thirst;

like a child of a wealthy home

wandering among the poor.

(Hakuin, “Song of Zazen”)

Hakuin begins “The Song of Zazen” with a clear statement: all beings are Buddha. As clear as it is, when in doubt we can still equivocate – who or what is Buddha after all? Aren’t we supposed to slay any Buddha we meet? So Hakuin goes on to remove that ambiguity. We thirst for something, we refer to that something with the word, “Buddha.” And yet, means to quench our thirst is all around us now. We are rich by nature, and right now sit amidst plenty.

Using a local image, it’s like wishing for tulips in the middle of the spectacular fields of the Skagit Valley tulip festival.

There is a story about Japanese Zen master Ryokan (1758-1831) that goes like this:

A Zen master, Ryokan, lived a life of simplicity in his hut near the mountains. When he was away one night, a thief broke in only to find nothing worth stealing.

Just then, Ryokan returned. “You have travelled far to visit me,” he told the burglar. “I cannot let you return empty handed. Here are my clothes, please accept them as my gift.”

The baffled thief took the clothes and vanished.

Naked now, the master gazed at the moon. “Poor man,” he sighed, “How I wish I could give him this glorious moon.”

(There is a version in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones)

The words themselves, “Buddha,” “rich,” “plenty,” are insufficient to communicate Hakuin’s message, so we use metaphor and story, like this one from Ryokan basking in the wealth offered by the moon.

In “Song of Zazen,” Hakuin continues, describing how when not recognizing what is offered by moon above and the dirt it illuminates, we wander lost and searching.

Lost on dark paths of ignorance,

we wander through the Six Worlds;

from dark path to dark path we wander —

when shall we be freed from birth and death?


We lose sight of the nurturance abounding here, and set our minds to find something to sustain us. We’re not talking about a mysterious wandering – we know what this means in our own bodies and minds. When we catch ourselves in reverie during a period we are wandering in one way, and at the same time, we are also standing in a field of flowers.

Willfully turning to zazen is also wandering, and is too-roughly grabbing a multicolored bouquet of tulips. This is reminiscent of Hung-jen in yesterday’s talk telling Shenxiu his poem about polishing the mirror was necessary but insufficient. Yes, we practice and return to the matter at hand. Stopping there is misleading, as if there is a way to turn away from the matter at hand.

We wander over and over through our day, even through our sesshin day. When shall we be at peace? When shall we release our arguments with who and how we are, and with what and how the world is? I may wish to be more articulate and deep, but here I am with only these words to offer. If I can accept having only these words, and if I can accept wishing for better, then I can be at peace as I speak (more or less).

The imagery of the son of the rich household that Hakuin employs is a reference to a story in the Lotus Sutra. In chapter four, after hearing the Buddha speak, senior disciples, Subhūti, Mahakatyayana, Mahakashyapa, and Maha Maudgalyayana were filled with a sense of good fortune, in learning of a perfect enlightenment that was beyond personal salvation. They then told Buddha they wanted to use a metaphor to express what it meant to them.

I’m retaining the gender roles of the original story in order to maintain the cultural metaphoric meanings in India at that time regarding the certainty of inheritance from father to son.

The four disciples told of a young child who left the home, and over decades became destitute, desperately seeking food, clothing, and shelter. After years of seeking his son, the father settled in a city, and over time grew an incalculable abundance of cattle, sheep, jewels and a splendid home. The son’s wandering brought him to the front gate of the father’s estate, where he saw the seeming high rank of his father without recognizing him, and the son became afraid. He left to seek rough work in a poor village. But the father instantly knew the son.

The father sent an attendant to bring his son back, which frightened the son so much that he fainted. At the father’s request, the attendant threw water on the son and said he was free to go. To more comfortably reach the son, the father asked the help of two different attendants who looked like poor laborers themselves, to invite his son to work with them cleaning out muck after livestock. The son agreed.

The father soon put on dirt and muck-smeared clothing and worked beside the son expressing recognition of his tireless hard work and honesty, and offering encouragement to work there permanently. After 20 years of encouragement, the son still felt like a lowly stable hand. But the father and child had developed a deep mutual trust and understanding.

There are too many of us whose parents were on a scale from neglectful, to unsupportive, to wounding, for whom the metaphor of the story will not evoke nurturance and encouragement, and who may never have known mutual trust and understanding. For those from such backgrounds, these stories may just not speak to you.

Instead, will it work to recognize the compassion or even the conflict arising in you when seeing children suffering anywhere? That arising is a call to bring kindness to yourself, if possible at any given time. When it is possible, you are the father in The Lotus Sutra story, and you are the son.

No matter your parentage, where do you find your reflection just as you are, as Buddha.

Back to the Lotus Sutra: The son saw himself as low rank, and the still unrecognized owner of the estate as high rank. As readers of the Lotus Sutra, we already know these distinctions are imaginary – they are father and son, already bound and entangled beyond rank. This brings to mind times watching plays at the Seattle Children’s Theater with young kids, when the actors on the stage are seemingly blind to what’s going on and to the true identity of someone standing behind the character who is speaking. Kids swept up in the show yell to the actor – “Turn around! He’s right behind you! Look!” But the actor doesn’t turn around and the audience has to wait for all to be revealed. Just as we wait for the son to turn around.

Recently I watched a documentary about the making of the song, “We Are the World,” in 1985. Lionel Ritchie, Quincy Jones, and Michael Jackson got the idea of inviting the country’s most well-known musicians to release a song raising awareness of the crisis of famine in Africa, and to raise money for help. With one month to organize, they brought together 46 stars to meet one night to refine, rehearse, and record the song. As the musicians walked in, they were met by Jones handwritten sign, “leave your ego at the door.” The meeting began at night after that year’s American Music Awards show and lasted until dawn.

Seeing the assembled crowd, Paul Simon commented that if a bomb went off there, John Denver would be on top. All there were of the highest rank. It seemed all were awed by the company. Many said how nervous they were to sing their short solo parts in that crowd. Bob Dylan, accustomed to recording in quieter settings with few in the room looked miserable the whole night. Diana Ross at one point asked for another younger artist to autograph her sheet music, to the amazement of the younger singer. Then everyone did the same, asking each other for signatures on their music.

We imagine there are circumstances such that we are beyond concern for our own rank. Watching the documentary, what came through was the humanity of all, independent of rank.

We are each the father with abundance, and we are each the son, smeared with muck. We are each ice, and we are water, just as we are here.

Returning to the Lotus Sutra: When the father was sick, he called in his son and revealed that his son already had the wealth of the moon, and revealed not their lineage, but that father and son were not different. The parent watched the child’s demeanor slowly become more open and magnanimous. When near death, the father finally revealed the true name of father and son, and the son and community learned for the first time of their relationship. The father also shared the history of their having become separated and reunited. The father gave all his wealth to his son.

In Cleary’s translation, the four senior disciples complete the story in this way:

O World Honored One, at that moment when the destitute son heard his father saying this, he was filled with great joy, beyond what he had ever experienced. He thought, “This is something I had never hoped for or sought for – now this treasure has come to me of itself.”


Cleary, J.C, The Lotus Sutra, chapter 4.


For decades the son sought food, shelter, and clothing, and for decades more, mucked out stalls while not yet recognizing his true face until his father’s speaking up. The son could not help but say, “This is something I had never hoped for or sought for – now this treasure has come to me of itself.”

A block of zazen can feel like a decade of mucking out stalls. No matter. We do so in the house of the Buddha as Buddha, each shovel of shit is also Buddha. The treasure is already here, come to us of itself as distraction, back pain, mutual support, as every leaf in the garden and every nail in the floor.

The son’s birthright was always his, never otherwise. The declaration of it as his, occurred while he was still smeared with muck, perceiving himself of low rank. He worked hard, but the treasure of the story was not dependent on his improvement, growth, success, or title.

After completing the parable, the disciples went on to tell the Buddha this:

“The rich father [in the story] represents you,” [Mahakashyapa.

said to the Buddha], “and we are all like your children. You have

been saying all along that we are your children.


Cleary, J.C, The Lotus Sutra, chapter 4.


If Mahakashyapa, me and you are children of Buddha, who is this Buddha? It is the same Buddha that is always and everywhere calling us to recognize the treasure already here. The Buddha twirls a flower to share it with us. Ryokan wishes he could share the moon with us. Wooden clappers call to wake us to the sound that echoes in every corner and recess. After all this searching, look wherever you like, and you will hear Buddha calling you home. Hear any sound and you will see Buddha’s presence. Just don’t be confused by the name, “Buddha.”


Yamada Roshi wrote that Zen…:

…is not a religion that stands unsteadily looking up at the sky, praising the earth and yearning for Heaven. It sits, deeply rooted in the great earth, gazing at it, its eyes cast downward, and proceeds to merge with it.

Mumon Roshi, Yamada. Hakuin’s Song of Zazen: Yamada Mumon Roshi on Zen Practice (p. 27). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

Hakuin himself was driven to Buddhism as a child by fear of the hell he heard in a priest’s talk. He later took heart in hearing of the miraculous protective spiritual power possible in sincere practice, and later yet despaired when believing these powers were just stories, and that Zen would not protect him from fire or sword. His own path did not stop there; it included a later period of great arrogance in his own understanding. Had he not met Shōju Rōjin to get past it, he may have remained stuck in a one-dimensional view of himself and the world.

Years past; for ten of them Hakuin was the head priest of a practice center. Hakuin despised the Lotus Sutra as a secular work until one day in his forty-second year, when he heard the chirp of a cricket. On that night he wrote a poem:

A thin cotton robe, poor food,
Unable to ignore a cricket’s cry,
Tears falling like rain.

Mumon Roshi, Yamada. Hakuin’s Song of Zazen: Yamada Mumon Roshi on Zen Practice (p. 22). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

In around 1728 Hakuin wrote the words, “Unable to ignore a cricket’s cry.” Written more than fifteen hundred years earlier, Mahakashyapa said the son recognized that “now this treasure has come to me of itself.” For measureless time we muck stalls then unbidden, tears falling like rain.

Yamada Roshi described Hakuin’s new understanding this way:

… each of the parables in the Lotus stems from the same deep compassion of a mother chewing food before giving it to her child. Having joined the priesthood with the dubious aspiration of acquiring the strength that would allow him to enter fire or water without being harmed, he now found the gap between that dream and what he was now actually experiencing incomparably vast—greater than the difference between a tortoise and the moon.

Mumon Roshi, Yamada. Hakuin’s Song of Zazen: Yamada Mumon Roshi on Zen Practice (pp. 21-22). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

I share the story of Hakuin the person, in the talk today, not as a historical study, but to give the full-bodied context of what the Lotus Sutra story of the rich parent and separated child meant to him. We can take the words of “Song of Zazen” as teaching, but I fear that description separates us from them.

Everything in our formal day, each bell and bow, each Zoom glitch and stoplight driving here, is a compassionate offering of sustenance.

I will take up more of “Song of Zazen” in the next talk. For now, I’ll leave you with the next stanza.

Oh, the zazen of the Mahayana!

To this the highest praise!

Devotion, repentance, training,

The many Paramitas —

all have their source in zazen.