Blinded by Gold Dust – A Talk by Leland Shields (April 5, 2024)

Posted by on Apr 9, 2024 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Blinded by Gold Dust – A Talk by Leland Shields (April 5, 2024)

One day the Counselor Wang visited…Master [Lin-chi]. When he met the Master in front of the Monk’s Hall, he asked: “do the monks of this monastery read the sutras?”

“No, they don’t read sutras,” said the Master.

“Then do they learn meditation?” asked the Counselor.

“No, they don’t learn meditation,” answered the Master.

“If they neither read sutras nor learn meditation, what in the world are they doing?” asked the Counselor.

“All I do is make them become buddhas and patriarchs,” said the Master.

The Counselor said: “Though gold dust is valuable, in the eyes it causes cataract [can blind one].”

“I always used to think you were just a common fellow, said the Master.

The Record of Lin-Chi [Linji], trans. Ruth F. Sasaki, p. 45

My daughter once told me that I have 5 stories I bring out and apply for any purpose that arises. She had a point, though maybe it’s15. This is one of the stories for me that has made an indelible impression – tattooed me. There is a good side that can arise from familiarity with certain words of our ancestors – certain words of anyone for that matter. Sometimes the words are artesian fountains, spontaneously and forever refreshing.

In this story translated by Ruth Sasaki, Lin-chi is showing the governor of the prefecture, Wang, around the monastery. They visit a hall with rows of meditation mats and cushions, and a hall with bells for use in chanting sutras. Yet Lin-chi denies that such activities are part of the teaching and practice in his monastery. The denial leads to the final two lines, which were translated by Burton Watson in this way:

The Constant Attendant [Wang] said: “Gold dust may be precious, but if it gets in the eye it can blind…”

The Master said, “And I always thought you were just an ordinary fellow.

The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-Chi [Linji], trans. Burton Watson, Page 93.

Sure, there is meditation and there is sutra chanting, and these activities are universally valuable as gold! But is that what monks and nuns are doing? Lin-chi does not deny that meditation and sutras occur, only that he does not teach them, and monks and nuns don’t learn them. But Lin-chi did say he’s “making them become Buddhas and Patriarchs.” Watson’s translation is similar. Lin-chi reminds us that these are not activities one does, yet there is an intentionality possible such that chanting, and meditation ensue.

We can also understand Wang as recognizing that this gold that is not taught in the monastery of Lin-chi, has the potential to blind me, and to blind you. Obscuring high and low, learned and ignorant – what is left in the dark of blindness? No need to look beyond the spit you swallow.

I sought Burton’s translation because I wanted to further explore those last two lines of the passage in the story. In the process, I found I could open Burton’s translations of Lin-chi almost at random to find something similar. Here are a couple examples:

The Master ascended the hall and said, “One person is sitting on top of a lonely mountain peak, yet he has not removed himself from the world. One person is in the middle of the city streets, yet he has no likes or dislikes. Now which one is ahead? Which one is behind?…

Ibid, page 17


…The man of value is the one who has nothing to do. Don’t try to do something special, just act ordinary…You keep trying to look for the Buddha, but Buddha is just a name, a word.

Ibid, page 29

Someone asked, “What was Bodhidharma’s purpose in coming from the west?”

The Master said, “If he had had a purpose, he wouldn’t have been able to save even himself.”

The questioner said, “If he had no purpose, then how did the Second Patriarch manage to get the Dharma?”

The Master said, “Getting means not getting.”

Ibid, page 68


So how do we engage in Zen without learning meditation, and instead bring effortless effort such that practice ensues? Letting go of learning is not something we do; it is something that ensues when we let go, when we stop doing. Marbles placed on this wood floor don’t have to “do” anything, yet they will find themselves in the low spots. Marbles can be a good role model for our zazen. Once we bow and take our seats, the rest is letting one’s self roll to the low spots. With each breath, in Zazen we can do less, dropping away that call that I have to make, and abandoning to breath. “Doing” arises, a flicker of thought arises, and abandoning to breath, to this, casts it away.

Here is another story of the 15 that are artesian fountains for me, this from Cleary’s translation of Blue Cliff Records Case 89.

The Hands and Eyes of the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion

Yun Yen asked Tao Wu, “What does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion use so many hands and arms for?”

Wu said, “It’s like someone reaching back groping for a pillow in the middle of the night.”

Yen said, “I understand.”

Wu said, “How do you understand it?”

Yen said, “All over the body are hands and eyes.”

Wu said, “You have said quite a bit there, but you’ve only said eighty percent of it.”

Yen said, “What do you say, Elder Brother?”

Wu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”

In art, we see the Bodhisattva of Compassion portrayed with a thousand arms, in each hand a different tool with which to respond to the cries of the world. Why would Kannon raise a hand if there is nothing to do, and no one to do it for? Let me paraphrase, this time the first two lines:

Yun Yen asked Dao Wu, “How does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion use so many hands and arms to help beings?”

Wu said, “It’s like someone adjusting a pillow while asleep in the night.”

This adjusting of one’s pillow while asleep for me captures the way of the marble on the floor, effortless effort and the ensuing of action without anything extra, without a theory of needing or not needing the adjustment. Adjusting one’s pillow is neither right nor wrong, though it might help or not help. If not helping and one’s neck is still calling out, arms move again, pillow is adjusted. What do you or I let go of in order to allow the ensuing of a response?

What do you or I let go of, such that leaves fall and trees are bare sitting in this room? Even the question may be too much, too evocative as if there is something to figure out. Just sitting, adjusting one’s posture is arms freely adjusting one’s pillow. Just breathing, hearing, is arms freely responding to the cries of the world.

There is another aspect of this koan that stands out for me. The Bodhisattva of Compassion, in response to the cries of the world, is like someone adjusting one’s own pillow in the night. Distinctions of he and she who cries, or he and she whose pillow is adjusted, fall away.

I was told one time, “Sometimes there is no thought that is better than no thought.” I always need to say that twice to myself, so let me repeat it for you as well: “Sometimes there is no thought, that is better than no thought.” There is the idea of “meditation” that is not meditation. Some try to solve the distraction of the words by saying we do not do “meditation,” we do “Zazen.” Whether we are single or married, there is an idea of marriage in which we’ve been marinated while watching a thousand movies, from Little Mermaid to Lion in Winter, to Love Actually, and to Maestro. Separate from the idea of marriage is my experience here, with this person or no person, in this one life we all share. Take Lin-chi’s message– are you married? Single? A nurse? How do you answer? There may be one answer when operating in the world of practicality. There may be one answer when addressing the fundamental fact. Both are one answer, with different words.

Dogen has his own oft-repeated way of addressing this topic in Actualizing the Fundamental Point, included in our sutra book:

To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by the myriad dharmas. To be enlightened by the myriad dharmas is to bring about the dropping away of body and mind of both oneself and others. The traces of enlightenment come to an end, and this traceless enlightenment is continued endlessly…

There is one phrase in this passage that stands out prominently for me: “…the dropping away of body and mind of both oneself and others.” Somehow for me these words convey letting go without the need to parse meaning. Dogen tells us the dropping away stems from both studying the self and forgetting the self.

In the language of another tradition, Meister Eckhart puts effortless effort this way.

It is out of this inner ground that you should perform all your works without asking, “Why?” I say truly: So long as you perform your works for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, or for God’s sake, or for the sake of your eternal blessedness, and you work them from without, you are going completely astray. You may well be tolerated, but it is not the best…Whoever is seeking God by ways is finding ways and losing God, who in ways is hidden. But Whoever seeks for God without ways will find him as he is in himself, …If anyone went on a thousand years asking of life: “Why are you living?” life, if it could answer would only say, “I live so that I may live.”  That is because life lives out of its own ground and springs from its own source, and so it lives without asking why it is itself living.

Meister Eckhart, The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense. Page 183-4

If not distracted by some of the vocabulary, like “God,” Eckhart’s words seamlessly connect to Lin-Chi, Tao Wu, and Dogen.

Falling away arises naturally from our intention. When I was younger, time was freer, and I brought a young man’s spirit to sitting; there were times I vowed to remember it was worth remaining on my cushion until at least a taste of falling away. It wasn’t that I was so skilled. I was willing to blunder around, trusting that eventually, the marble would find a low spot. Saying I blundered around is an understatement by the way – I could waste time, give myself a headache, all manners of messy mental activity.

Falling away can arise from ease, safety. In a moment without fear, why not let plans, thoughts, concerns, ideas, fall away to nothing? It is easy to forget that in this moment between the starting three bells of a period and ending two, each of us is safe until clear otherwise. There is nothing to do, nothing to protect.

Falling away can also arise from hopelessness and despair. At those moments we are shocked by our limits or the limits of the world. Letting go seems intolerable. We might think, “When our own cries, and the cries of the world are so anguished, isn’t letting go irresponsible?” The falling away is not refuge, not an answer. Nor is it avoidance. I have family members in anguish at times. Standing in love with one in anguish, is skin to skin with anguish. Body and soul can scream for something to do, say, something to improve: all fine when there is something to do, say, improve. If I believe I’m supposed to have something to say, or to be able to fix, how can I not struggle? The anguish is itself a koan, a dharma talk, calling to us. Without struggle, the dharma talk left is stark and cold, but no less important.

However anguished the world, as I drive from here to home this evening anything but letting go is like wrestling with rain to regain sun. Falling away when despairing is hitting bottom with nothing left to lose. What is left but to get wet in the rain?

In Gary Saul Morson’s essay on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called “Solzhenitsyn’s Cathedrals,” Morson introduces a quote of Solzhenitsyn saying:

Once you give up survival at any price [and now quoting Solzhenitsyn], “then imprisonment begins to transform your former character in astonishing ways. To transform it in a direction most unexpected to you.” …In the Gulag I nourished my soul,[”] Solzhenitsyn concludes, and so I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”

You might notice that what I’m saying today is not different than what I said about nothing extra, nothing left out, last month. Each is like a snake eating its own tail. To have a goal of the falling away of body and mind is itself extra; once again we’re in the weeds.

However arising, falling away can lead us to what’s left after the dying of concepts. If we hold the concept of Buddhist practice, the dharma talk begins with the chanting of “On Opening This Dharma,” continues with some bloke behind a low desk, and ends with three full bows. With falling away, every cough, car, cry is our teacher, calling to us – Just This! Falling away allows the creativity of not knowing to blossom. Reprising Lin-chi and Wang, falling away with openness leads us to not just this.

Once Spring comes, each morning I exit the front door of the house, touching pockets to check for keys, phone, wallet – while thinking, “My first meeting is with whom? I have that phone call to make before getting into the day…” Then I hear the songs of a robin and a golden-crowned kinglet, each offering a dharma talk. Awake! Awake!

In the words of Baal Shem Tov:

The world is new to us every morning – and every[one]…should believe…[they are]…reborn each day.