Gifts from the Ancestors

One of the joys of studying the Dharma, particularly in the context of Zen Buddhism, is to become acquainted with the words of the old teachers, individuals ever creative in their ability to express the inexpressible.

One such was Hsüan-sha (835-908). He was a fisherman until at age thirty he took up the Buddha Way. As an ascetic he wore straw sandals, a patched robe and paper underclothes. He studied intensively with Hsüeh-feng, then set out to travel and visit other teachers. He was walking down the mountain when he stubbed his toe on a rock. This occasioned bleeding, extreme pain and a sudden awakening. If this body does not exist, he said, where does this pain come from? His pilgrimage thus completed even as it began, he returned to study exclusively with Hsüeh-feng.

Subsequently he would instruct people with this statement: The whole universe is one bright pearl.

How marvelous and simple and illuminating and infinitely helpful, these words. There’s nothing outside the one bright pearl. To acknowledge this may be a matter of faith, to be then realised in experience. You can always return here.

Some three and a half centuries later Dogen returned to Hsüan-sha’s expression. In his essay Ikka Myōju, he playfully elucidates the spacious universal reality that is One Bright Pearl. Dogen’s words are joyful, a never-fail corrective, a pick-me-up. There is no reason, he writes, to doubtingly think that you are not the pearl because you perplexedly think “I am not the pearl.”

Perplexing thoughts, doubts and our accepting or rejecting are but passing, trivial notions. It is moreover only the Pearl appearing as a trivial notion.

Or, in other words (ha!), don’t worry! The pearl includes everything. Hello there.

Recently a friend and I were both troubled by significant self-doubt. Cue a few more lines from Ikka Myōju. The bright pearl…is your enlightened nature. However, you and I, unaware of what the bright pearl is and is not, entertain countless doubts and nondoubts about it, and turn them into indubitable fodder for the mind. But Hsüan-sha’s expression has made it clear that our own minds and bodies are the one bright pearl, and so we realise that our minds are not “ours.”….Even if there is doubt and anxiety, they are the bright pearl.

“Indubitable fodder for the mind” speaks volumes to useless, circular, self-focussed thinking. It’s a memorable and humorous bit of translation too.

Speaking of which, I bow to the translators who make it possible for us to read the words of the old teachers, using their own unique shadings of meaning. I have quoted from two excellent renderings of Dogen’s essay, one by Norman Waddell and Masao Abe, one by Francis H. Cook. I recommend Ikka Myōju in its colorful and—this being Dogen—sometimes opaque entirety. It’s not a long piece, opening with biographical details about Hsüan-sha, a few of which I have included here.

Many minds guide us along the path. And remind us that our minds are not “ours”. The whole universe is one bright pearl.