Pang Family Practice – A Talk Given by Madelon Bolling

Posted by on Jan 28, 2016 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Pang Family Practice – A Talk Given by Madelon Bolling

January 10, 2016

Pang Yun Jushi asked Master Shitou: “Who is the one who is not a companion to the ten-thousand things?”

Pang Family Practice: Pang Yun Jushi and Pang Lingzhao

Today we continue becoming acquainted with Dharma ancestors honored in our sesshin dedication. Layman Pang (Pang Yun Jushi) and his daughter Lingzhao of the late 8th and early 9th century embodied one way of practicing Zen in the context of family. They showed that non-monastic practice could be done authentically and successfully. But this doesn’t mean that their story ought to be imitated. I think, rather, that their stories offer valuable examples of authenticity playing itself out given the conditions of the time.

Pang was a successful merchant with a wife, son, and daughter. The family’s wealth allowed them to devote their time to study of the Buddhist sutras, in which they all became well-versed. This in itself separates the Pang family from those of us whose family members don’t share our interest in ultimate issues. Still, in a way our sangha is like a family. Most of us have known each other for a long time, we’ve grown up together in the practice here, and we’ve supported one another through illness and troubles. We welcome new brothers and sisters and savor the fresh views and experiences they bring. Between our meetings and practices, we each go about our own business. Rather like the Pang family, we each have our own work, our own patterns of travel, and always return here to sit, study, discuss…

Originally from Hengyang in the southern Chinese province of Hunan, Pang Jushi built a meditation hut on his property and spent long hours of study and sitting there. When he was probably 45 years old, he must have caught himself being concerned with the maintenance of stuff and seeing clearly the folly of that, changed his condition radically. He certainly didn’t want to burden anyone else with this falseness, so he gave the main house away to be used as a temple, and then loaded his possessions and money onto a boat and sank it all in the middle of a nearby river. But imitating this, as famous as it is, would not give us Pang Jushi’s eye. Some are of the opinion that he missed the mark, as there were many who were hungry and cold in those turbulent times.

We don’t know what his wife, daughter and son thought of Mr. Pang’s actions, but we do know that they were fully involved in the Zen view of things. What does ‘the Zen view of things’ mean? In Pang’s dying declaration, his very last words to his friend Mr. Yu put it in a nutshell:

I beg you just to regard as empty all that is existent and to beware of taking as real all that is non-existent. Fare you well in the world. All is like shadows and echoes.

After ridding himself of possessions, Pang and his daughter earned a meager living making and selling bamboo utensils, or some say baskets. Though this sounds low-tech, like weaving roadside grasses with your bare hands, in fact to cut and shape bamboo with the precision and delicacy it requires, Pang Yun and Lingzhao must have had at least one razor-sharp cutting tool, and a fine sharpening stone or two to maintain its edge, plus an awl, clamps and cloths and twine and buckets. Possessions! And, there is one painting of the Pang son hoeing in a field suggesting that during this time Mrs. Pang and their son probably worked and lived on a small farm.

Pang Yun traveled to nearby Nanyueh to visit Master Shitou. He asked Shitou, “Who is the one who is not a companion to the ten-thousand things?” Shitou reached out and covered the layman’s mouth with his hand. Pang suddenly saw clearly—had an enlightenment experience—and stayed about a year at Shitou’s monastery. Then he traveled east to visit Master Mazu. Here, with the help of this same question, he experienced great enlightenment and stayed for two years, becoming a Dharma heir of Master Mazu, and refusing even then to become a monk. Thereafter he split his time between family and pilgrimages around central China, testing his understanding and writing poetry.

Mrs. Pang must have been equally strong-minded and independent. One day she went into the Deer Gate Temple to make an offering of food. The temple priest asked her the purpose of the offering in order to transfer the merit. That is, the donor’s name, the gift and its purpose and the date would be written on a slip of paper and displayed so that the donor’s merit would become known to others, that is, “transferred.” Mrs. Pang took a comb from the side of her head and stuck it in the back of her hair. “Transference of merit is completed,” she said, and walked out. (Sasaki et al. p. 73)

Toward the end of his life, Mr. Pang wandered northward to Xiang-yang with his daughter Lingzhao, and retired to a cave south-southeast of there, where he died after a couple of years, probably at the age of 63 or so.

Well, sitting diligently, studying sutras, and wandering from monastery to monastery to study with well-known masters sounds a lot like the lives of Chinese monks and nuns we’ve learned about here. Apart from lacking ordination, fathering two children and sharing an interest in Zen study, it’s hard to see how Layman Pang’s life could possibly map onto our own.

Yet here we are, laypersons all, our hearts aching to find what we sense was never lost, something that seems just beyond our fingertips. Are we condemned to unrelenting ignorance by accidents of birth — this time, this place, this form? The Pang family story suggests, “No.” Accidents of birth are opportunities to inquire deeply into life and death. If inquiry into the Great Matter opens your eyes in the morning and everything you do boils down to this fundamental question, then you are living the Way, or as Machado said, “making the way as you go.”

Zen can be seen as a lived exploration of identity: not by working with the particulars of one’s history as we do in psychology, but rather by questioning the very notion of identity at all. What do we mean when we say, “I am alive”? What are we referring to when we say “I’m a person” “I’m hungry” “I’m hearing wren song” What does it mean to “be”? This is a lived question in our tradition, with lived responses (note I didn’t say answers!) That’s why I offered Pang’s question to Shitou for us to consider this morning: “Who is the one who is not a companion to the ten-thousand things?”

One day, the Layman dropped in at a temple where a priest was giving a public lecture on the Diamond Sutra. When the priest came to the part that says “There is no I and there is no other,” the Layman asked the priest, “About the part that says, ‘There is no I and there is no other,’ who then is lecturing now and who is listening to it?”
The priest did not reply, so the Layman said, “I am only a layperson, but I have a rough idea about the teaching involved.”
The priest said, “So what are the Layman’s thoughts about it?”
The Layman then composed a verse:

There is no I and there is no other.
How can there be intimacy or estrangement?
I recommend giving up trying to get there by meditation.
But rather, directly seizing the reality at hand.
The message of the Diamond Sutra is:
Nothing is excluded from our experienced world.
From beginning to end,
It inevitably exposes our false identities. (cf. Sasaki pp. 72-73)


The following is from Ruth Fuller Sasaki’s book A Man of Zen: The Recorded Sayings of Layman Pang quoting a Tang Dynasty scholar-monk. Mazu and his disciples including Pang Yun, his Dharma heir, took the teachings of the Diamond Sutra, Lankavatara Sutra, Vimalakirti Sutra and Lotus Sutra, and expressed them in everyday language that even country people could understand.

The Hung-chou [Hongzhou] school asserts that our arousing the mind and moving thoughts, snapping the fingers, moving the eyes, etc., is wholly the activity of Buddha-nature itself, and not the movement of anything else. In a word, the entirety of our wanting something, getting angry at something, or arousing the passions—whether good or evil, pleasurable or painful—is all Buddha-nature. . . .

In short, there is no need to arouse the mind to stop evil thoughts, nor arouse the mind to cultivate the Way. Since the Way as it is is mind, we cannot cultivate mind with mind; since evil is also mind, we cannot cut off mind with mind. Not trying to cut off evil or trying to cultivate good, just letting things follow their own courses and being ourselves is what they call liberation of mind. Nowhere is there either any Dharma-principle that we ought to embrace, nor any Buddha that we ought to strive to obtain. Just like the empty sky that does not increase or decrease— . . . what need could there be to augment or amend it! And why? Because outside of our mind itself, there is absolutely not the least little thing of value to be obtained. (p.17)

In this context, consider again: Who is the one who is not a companion to the ten-thousand things?

One day Shitou asked the layman, “Since seeing me, what have your daily activities been?” At first, Pang said, “When you ask me about my daily activities, I can’t open my mouth.”

Shitou replied, “Just because I know you are that way, that’s why I asked.” So Pang responded in verse:

My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing,
In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict.
Who assigns the ranks of vermilion and purple?
The hills’ and mountains’ last speck of dust is extinguished.

My supernatural power and marvelous activity—
Drawing water and carrying firewood (Sasaki et al., p. 46)

So the Hongzhou school of Zen emphasized ordinary mind, nothing to attain.

Recall again Pang’s last words:

I beg you just to regard as empty all that is existent and to beware of taking as real all that is non-existent. Fare you well in the world. All is like shadows and echoes.

How do you come to the realization that all is like shadows, like echoes? How do we take guidance from those final words?

In another verse, he left us these plain pointers:

The past is already past—
Don’t try to regain it.
The present does not stay—
Don’t try to touch it from moment to moment.
The future is not come—
Don’t think about it beforehand.
With the three times non-existent,
Mind is the same as Buddha-mind.
To silently function relying on Emptiness—
This is profundity of action.
Not the least dharma exists—
Whatsoever comes to eye leave it be.
There are no commandments to be kept,
There is no filth to be cleansed.
With empty mind really penetrated,
The dharmas have no life.
When you can be like this
You’ve completed the ultimate attainment. (Sasaki et al., pp. 85-86)

And if you feel lost as I often do, among the myriad teachings in this world of constant change and unanticipated quirks, despairing of ever settling into Mind as it is, consider this:

Pang once pointed to the snow in the sky and said, “Lovely snow! Flake after flake does not fall another place.” (Sasaki et al., p. 48)

Finally, this well-known poem by David Wagoner on a native Northwest teaching speaks exactly to laypersons finding our way in the forest of phenomena:


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

(Traveling Light, New and Collected Poems, 10)

Remember, Zen Master Raven’s last word was, “Trust.”

* * *


A Man of Zen: The Recorded Sayings of Layman Pang. A Ninth-Century Zen Classic. Translated from the Chinese by Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Yoshitake Iriya and Dana R. Fraser. New York: Weatherhill, 1971.