Ling’s Question

Ling Xingpo visited master Fubei Heshang to pay her respects.  They sat together and drank tea and she asked him, “If a true word can’t be spoken no matter how hard you try, how will you teach?”

Fubei said, “Fubei has nothing to say.”

Ling was not satisfied.  She placed her hands inside the opposite sleeves of her robe and cried out: “There is grievous suffering even with a blue sky!”

Again, Fubei had nothing to say.

Ling said, “To be a human being is to live in calamity.”

— From The Hidden Lampedited by Florence Caplow and Susan Moon

This story comes to us from ninth century China, but we don’t know much about either of the characters here.  Fubei Heshang was a member of the Honzhou school of Chan, one of the main schools of Zen.  The Hongzhou school developed “shock techniques such as shouting, beating, and using irrational retorts to startle their students into realization” and while the teacher here is perhaps a bit milder, there’s a bit of that flavor.

Ling is asking a sincere, but educated, question:  the teachings of emptiness seem to suggest that words can’t express the true nature of things.  Hence the problem: if it’s impossible to speak a true word, if it’s impossible to express the Dharma verbally, how can anyone teach?  Most of the time, we think of teaching as a pretty straightforward matter of explanation, listing concepts and terms and definitions, discussing processes, asking questions, clarifying answers, things like that.  So if words can’t be used to teach the Dharma, what can a dharma teacher actually do?

Fubei’s answer is honest.  Well, if you want to come down on the side of emptiness and you come to me with the assumption that a true word can’t be spoken, then I suppose I really have nothing to say.  Fubei may be suggesting, however, that her premise is a bit limited.  It’s true that words somehow can’t express the ineffable nature of reality, but they are not separate from it, either.  Words and ideas come from emptiness and are completely shot through with emptiness, so while in one sense any verbal expression is of course limited, in another sense any expression is in fact a complete expression of the dharma.  There’s no such thing as a partial expression – there is just the totality of what is happening right now and our verbal discourse is completely part of that.

So maybe Ling set up the interaction from the start to be a bit more limited than necessary.  She wasn’t satisfied with his answer because she was probably looking for some verbal teaching.  I love her response “There is grievous suffering even with a blue sky!”  As it says on the han that summons us to zazen in the monastery, “Great is the matter of birth and death.  Life is fleeting.  Gone! Gone!  Don’t waste your life!”  It’s true, even with a blue sky, there is terrible suffering.  The world is burning.  This sense of urgency is what brings many of us to the cushion again and again.  There is terrible drought, wars, famines.  These were true in the ninth century and they are true today.  Given this terrible state of affairs, what are we to do?

Fubei says nothing.  That’s a pretty good answer, actually, just sit still.  Sure, he could have said some words and they would have been true and helpful, but he’s kind of going along with the premise that Ling started.  The response to the suffering of the world has to be, at first, that we come to rest, return to silence.  We do this both because we must find some grounding before we can enter the world and actually begin to address these problems, but also because simply sitting still, sitting upright with suffering is our practice, it’s the practice of compassion, to simply be with suffering.  So in this context, sitting still isn’t a preparatory practice before we go out and really deal with the suffering of the world, it’s actually pretty good response to that suffering.  Just sit.

Ling seems to get the teaching her and has a good response:  “To be a human being is to live in calamity.”  In other words, this is the fundamental nature of the human experience.  It’s the first noble truth, the starting point of our practice.  That’s what a human being is, a being who lives in calamity.  That’s pretty much the definition of what our human life is.  We live in calamity, and we must develop the capacity to sit in the middle of that calamity, not turning away from it, not grasping it.  This is our zazen practice.

The great author and Zen priest Peter Matthiessen passed recently.  I wanted to share some of his wise words about that pain that brings us to practice.  His words remind me of Ling’s realization at the end of the story:   “Soon the child’s clear eye is clouded over by ideas and opinions, preconceptions, and abstractions. Simple free being becomes encrusted with the burdensome armor of the ego. Not until years later does an instinct come that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty and strange pain, like a memory of paradise. After that day, we become seekers.”

–Joe’s talk at Valley Dragon, April 28th, 2014