I gave a short talk last night on a few sentences from 12th century Chinese Zen Master Honghzi’s writing:
“From the onset patch-robed monks have this field that is a clean, spacious, broad plain. Gazing beyond any precipitous barriers, within the field they plough the clouds and sow the moon.”
Hongzhi lived in a time of great political uncertainty. The stability of the Tang Dynasty had disintegrated due to pressures from within and without. The fundamental forms and manifestations of Buddhism itself were reformulating. Scholastic Buddhism had been discredited by its close association of the failed ways of the past and the new Zen school was beginning to coalesce. Hongzhi is one of the early exemplars of the Soto branch of Zen school of Buddhism that flourished first in China, then in Japan and Korea. We here at the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, Massachusetts, continue to claim his lineage and be inspired by his lucid and poetic teachings.
Honghzi expounds his central teaching in the first sentence. We (patch-robed monks) already have the peace that passes understanding—‘the field that is a clean, spacious, broad plain.’
For many of us, our life often feels like a sloping and rocky field with barely enough soil to nourish our life. We seem to move from one trial to the next. Plans fall apart, health is uncertain, and the weather is often stormy.
So what could Hongzhi be talking about? It may be tempting to dismiss him off as someone who is speaking to people who are not like us. Perhaps his insights only apply to people who are naturally serene and mostly live in beautifully austere Temples filled with the smell of incense. Perhaps, but I always find it more interesting to consider that he may be speaking to people like you and me.
What if this ‘clean, spacious, broad plain’ is not different from the geography of our lives right here and now? We often imagine that there is some other place we will arrive at and where we will find peace. Some other place. Some other time. Then we will become different people – we will be less disturbed and troubled. Then we will live in a state of ease and grace.
What if what we seek is already here? In the Zen tradition, we are not encouraged to ‘believe’ this, but simply to consider it for ourselves. What if in this moment, in the middle of all the worries and challenges of your life—what if this moment itself is filled with grace and spaciousness? What if you don’t have to fix things or become someone different? Is it possible to appreciate life just as it is? Sweet and bitter? Clear and confused. Emerging and falling apart?
As a Zen teacher and son of a Christian minister, I find this teaching central to both traditions. We live in a world of grace beyond our comprehension. We do not sustain ourselves by our own efforts, but are supported by some mysterious and sacred source that is always present.
I’m not interested in trying to prove or explain this teaching, but am quite interested in spreading the word and encouraging us all to see what happens when we consider the possibility of that the ground of ease and grace is the very land under our feet right now.
Coming tomorrow: How to ‘plough the clouds and sow the moon.’