Master Ma Was Not Well

by Barbara Kohn
President of the San Francisco Zen Center


[A teisho on Case Three of the Blue Cliff Record]


Thank you, to all who have come before. Specifically to the teachers in Suzuki Roshi’s lineage, a wonderful group of teachers who extend back in time all the way to Shakyamuni Buddha. But this doesn’t include all to whom I offer homage. Still not included are those who branch off of this line, and then there are the many unknown sisters back through time. And what about all the ones from the western religious traditions, those who have affected how it is that we westerners have responded to those eastern teachers who brought us the Buddha way? Ancestors all, thank you.

One of the wonderful old stories from ancient Chinese koans is about a great master who is in one of those branching streams, Master Ma, "the horse,"[one of the meanings of the Chinese word ‘ma’ is "horse"], who had innumerable enlightened disciples, all of whom taught the true Dharma and spread it throughout China and the ancient world. Well the story, as I tell it, (and please forgive the liberties I have taken) is this: Master Ma was not well. The "old horse" was banging around in his stable (room), crashing, letting out loud neighs and whickers, his skin rippling on his ribs, his distress heard by all who came near the monastery. A disciple knocks on the door and enters. ( I sometimes think of the disciple as Master Ma’s anja (personal attendant), the one who makes his bed, gives him tea, screens those who would see him, keeps the home fires burning. At other times, it pleases me to think of the director, or governor, of the monastery knocking: the one who protects the public face, and insures that things run smoothly so that the Master is free to be himself. One way or another, the disciple enters the room and says, "How is the venerable master today?" Master Ma answers, "Sun face Buddha, moon face Buddha." Now this is a strange answer. Has the master completely lost it, or is an explanation in order? 

A great teacher wouldn’t be didactic, but I will work on explaining, and I apologize for imposing my vision on your mind. First, let us consider that the "dark" (moon) is the absolute, the one. In the dark we cannot differentiate. All is as one. Sunlight, then, is the relative, the ordinary, the realm where detail, specificity, differentiation takes place. Both "is" one. Both "is" many [This is a play on Suzuki Roshi’s phrase, "things as it is"]. Can we hold the absolute and the relative in our hands at the same time? Not opposed, but there all the time, together? This is our work; it can be done. Later the following poem was written:

Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.
What kind of people were the Ancient Emperors?
For twenty years I have suffered bitterly.
How many times have I gone down into the Blue Dragon’s cave for you?
This distress is worth recounting.
Clear eyed patch robed monks should not take it lightly.

[Poem by Ch’an Yueh from the commentary on this case:]

Clothed in brocades and fine embroidery, with falcons on their wrists,
They go about at leisure, their manner scornful.
They know nothing of the difficulties of sowing and harvesting.
What kind of people were the ancient emperors?

So I think of this as a story about you and me. A story about my parts and, perhaps, yours too. Consider the master as your creative self, the one who takes chances, plays dangerously. This same one struggles, whickers, snorts, and kicks. No public face, this one. The public face, the protected self, the masked self asks, "How are you?" The creative self answers enigmatically. This creative, exposed self goes down deep into the cave, over and over, for the sake of truth and salvation for all beings. Only this one goes down, frightened, hurting, exulting, continually, until the great matter reveals itself. In the midst of the struggle, without any veils, this one goes. Meanwhile, what of the others? The clear eyed, the innocent, must understand, eventually, that purity of purpose isn't enough. The external calm and efficiency of the governor, likewise, isn't enough. Finally, down this being goes, into the flames, to the fearful place, the glorious place. And there, with a willingness toward whatever is found, in the midst of chaos and struggle, there the end of suffering occurs.

The poem then asks, "What kind of people were the ancient rulers?" Caught up in splendor they missed the daily activities, missed planting the seed, harvesting the fruit. "Don't get caught," another ancient master reminds himself as he walks about his daily doings. Caught up in externals, afraid of letting go, not being available to whatever happens, they miss the true wealth.

When the thirteenth ancestor, Kabimara, already an accomplished master of many practices, comes to his teacher, Asvagosha, he challenges the master in a number of guises. First he appears as an old man, and Asvagosha says to the monks around him, "Watch it, this person is not what he seems. He is special." At which point Kabimara changes himself into a man of golden color, and thence into a female who points to Asvagosha saying, "I bow deeply to the venerable elder. In accordance with the Tathagata’s prediction, you must expound the highest truth right here! Now! In this place." She then disappears. The venerable explains, "Now he/she tests his/her powers against mine." 

Kabimara’s demons appear as each test unfolds. First comes a huge golden dragon displaying great, frightening powers, and Asvagosha sits solemnly in meditation. Then a small insect appears (as small as a mite) and Asvaghosa carefully picks it up and says to the monks, "This is the transformed demon." Then the venerable one tells the mite, "Take refuge in the Three Treasures and then you will regain your powers. The demon does so, and returns to his former shape, bows deeply and repents. But this isn't the end of the struggle. Still proud and competitive, he is compelled to show Asvaghosa his strength, and so his demons reappear, again and again. He brags, "I can change the great ocean." The teacher asks, "Can you change the ocean of Buddha nature?" Kabimara doesn’t understand. The venerable one replies, "Mountains, rivers, and the great earth all appear in dependence on it. The three kinds of spiritual knowledge and the six supernatural powers appear as a result of it."

In other words, Buddha nature is all around, and whatever you achieve is as a result of the (absolute/relative) way things are. When Kabimara understands, his demons are no longer so powerful. Those demons had been his emperors in fancy dress, but they were also his entry into the cave of deepest mystery, which he found out when the demonic powers diminished. Such powerful creative activities were available to him, masked in compulsive, competitive misery as long as the demons were predominant. But, with Asvaghosa's simple words, he understood. "The great rivers and all things are Buddha Nature." "The mountains and rivers of the immediate present are the full expression of the Buddha Way."

This is the great matter. This is the simple knowing. Our creative powers, turned toward the Bodhisattva vow, become creative beyond all measure, and we can benefit all beings, ourselves included. (But only "included." To benefit ourselves "exclusively"—this notion is another demon notion.) The benefit, freedom, enlightenment comes from "independancy" (Suzuki Roshi’s coined word). The mountains and rivers may be obstacles. Right there is Buddha nature. They may be beauteous beyond our wildest dreams. Right there is Buddha nature. In the midst of the climb, as we are swept along in the river, or, when we stand, unsure, on the shore. There is where the sunface and moonface join together. No special place, this place. Even though the huge waves flood the heavens, how can the pure ocean water ever change?

So my master struggles. My governor tries to conceal it. My anja self feeds me warm tea and I keep thinking, with my innocent self, that the true way is elsewhere. Then, as I become accomplished and adept, I meet my demons who bedevil me into thinking that this mastery, this technique, is the true way. But, actually, wherever I find myself, there the Buddha is. When, in the dark or in the bright light of day, I notice, right then compassion arises and there is Prajna Paramita, the wisdom beyond wisdom. Homage to the ones who came before, and homage to the ones here and now, and homage to those who follow. "All for the best in this best of all possible worlds." Thank you.

© Copyright Barbara Kohn, 2000

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