Drop of Water

by Dot

A Zen master asked a student to bring a pail of water to cool his path. The student brought the water and, after cooling the path, he emptied the remaining drops on to the ground. “Why didn’t you give it to the plants? You shouldn’t waste even a drop of water.” The master said. The student attained Zen in that instant. He changed his name to Tekisui, which means a drop of water.

Sometimes a Zen koan makes you feel slightly foolish, doesn’t it? Upon reading it, you think to yourself – Really? That’s all it got to say? But I have to admit, that’s what I like most about a Zen koan. It says the least, in the most ordinary way.

It gives you a sense that you’re doing all right, as far as you follow common sense. That as long as you’re being you, in the most uncontrived, unfabricated, unelaborated way, the rough and ready way, you’re not far from Buddhahood. It’s comforting to be reassured, after all.

Before I even encountered any Zen parable, I’d been saving every drop of leftover water or recycled water, to water my houseplants. None of my cold tea, rice-washing water, or ice cubes in the fridge from last season ever got wasted. It’s not a practice based on principle, but more of a no-brainer act, fashioned out of inherent instinct. Naturally, the plants are flourishing in every corner of my home.

The flamingos in the hallway, they bloom all year round, with glossy pastel-red bracts and delicate rosy-pink spadices extending from swaying stems, looking exactly like a cluster of flamingos perching among abundance of heart-shaped foliage.

The peace lily in the den, its silky white blossoms repose on some dark-green stalks, a herd of cranes meditating in serenity.

And the jade plants in my study, their juicy green reminds me of the emerald bracelet my grandmother wore on her wrist. She’s a simple, uncomplicated, pristine woman, my grandma. She’s a Buddha-like presence in my childhood. Although she never seemed have studied Zen in her life.

As much as I am diligent in saving water for my plants, I’ve never felt ‘enlightened’ in any particular way, unlike the disciple in the story. My plants and I simply keep on breathing, doing whatever we have to do in the moment, following our inner rhythm of seasons.

This morning, as I watered the violets on my windowsill, I got a glimpse of the neighbor’s dog, living out his everyday routines and rituals. In the morning he usually takes a stroll in his backyard – at leisure pace, he sniffs at some unknown scent in the air; he jogs around a bit, following his imaginary butterflies; sporadically he may come to a pause, holding his breath for something astir in the grass … In the afternoon, he sprawls out on the patio. Basking in the sun or clouds, he squints his eyes, surveying the semicircle of his finite domain … It’s just another day of a dog’s life.

Does a dog have Buddha-nature? The classic question comes to mind. As soon as it appears, it occurs to me how irrelevant the question is. I can just tell, for the neighbor’s dog, being a dog is what it is – perfectly adequate, with or without Buddha-nature. Any question imposed by human minds, would be redundant.

The Sound of One Hand

by Dot

I used to be quite meticulous about appearances, back when I was too young. From my clothing to the furnishing of my room – everything had to be color-coordinated, from the bedsheet to the curtain to the doily under a flower pot. Even the bandana I put on the Pooh Bear had to be compatible with the ribbon on a Swarovski Swan.

And when a family member habitually left all the drawers and cabinet doors open after searching for something, I followed on the heels to shut it one by one, chafing inwardly, “I really can’t stand noisy people.”

So when I saw a Tibetan style meditation room, encumbered with all those mixed-colored Buddhist wall hangs, carpets, statues, ritual implements, incense, altar chests and accessories, like an antique flea market lingering with stale smell of old goods, I thought to myself, “How could people find such stuffy surrounding meditation-friendly?”

My ideal meditation room would be an airy space, preferably south-east-facing, with bamboo flooring and no furniture whatsoever, except for a zafu and a pot of orchids.

I thought my preference for simplicity, symmetry and system is an indication that I have a quieter mind.

Then I read this Zen parable, in which a young disciple named Toyo was given a koan to meditate on, by his teacher Mokurai. “You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together,” said Mokurai, “now what is the sound of one hand?”

Toyo attempted to answer the question many times, but every time he failed nonetheless – the sound of one hand is not music playing, nor is it wind sighing or water dripping; neither it is the cry of an owl, nor the buzz of cicadas …

At last, the story said, Toyo transcended all sounds after contemplating almost a year. He realized that the sound of one hand is soundless. Finally, he attained the soundless realm.

As I ponder the story, I wonder if there is really so-called soundless realm? Even if you could ignore all the external sounds, and take the world as soundless, your perception itself is still a mental sound.

Even if you stop self-identifying with your perception, and act like a third-party watcher, this mindful choice you make is still a sound in its own right.

The sound of one hand may be soundless, but the thought about it and the concept of it are loud and echoing.

As it is, the world is always drifting with all sorts of sounds, buzzing, chiming, clanking, droning, roaring, honking, peeping, screeching, wheezing … It’s simply impossible to have a soundless mind.

So maybe the point is not to transcend all sounds as Toyo did, but to take every sound as it is. Maybe the goal is not about attaining a soundless state, but listening to all sounds without preferences, without liking or disliking, without opinions for or against

Usually I fall asleep rather easily, but occasionally in a full moon where I lie awake, I find myself more restful if I just accept the fact that I am sleepless, rather than trying too hard to fall into sleep.

And now I no longer have a precise definition for an ‘ideal’ meditation place. And the cushions I sit on don’t have to be color-matched either.

Once you allow all sounds in this world to chorus, the environment seems become much more accommodating, and the mind quieter than ever.

Fleeting Clouds

by Dot

There is a small deck attached to the south facing side of my house. I use it for one purpose – cloud watching.

On different days, clouds pass the sky in various shapes. There are horses galloping in tall grass, witches riding on their broomsticks, pandas in the Zoo munching bamboo shoots. Or sometimes it is King Kong atop the antenna pounding his chest, Cupid aiming his arrow to open air, and the Buddha reclining to contemplation in Lion’s pose.

When a storm is brewing, there are black drapes with silver linings. Or if a twilight is glowing, purple velvets are embroidered with crimson ribbons or golden lace. And orange surf may overflow a pink beach, while a new sun is uprising …

Sometimes, besides the clouds, a sequence of wild geese cackle past the sky, in a lineup that resembles Chinese character 人, meaning ‘people’.

From my deck I see people riding winds and clouds, roaming in emptiness, grasping impermanence, chasing meaningless … People I know or don’t know. People from all walks of life. I am adrift among them, perching on my own cloud-castles, overstocked with obsessive compulsive disorderly thoughts of all sorts, willful, wishful, cynical, dismal, insane, deranged, primitive, contrived, hypocritic, pathetic, pointless, futile …

We the people are like migratory birds, goaded by seasonal rhythm and compelled by hormonal riots, performing our life cycles like circus animals on the wheels – how many more rounds of repeats are still ahead? The concept of samsara means the endless cycles of death and rebirth in material world, but it must also refer to the constant flux of old thoughts and new ideas.

When we replace a foolish old way of thinking with a sensible new insight, isn’t it a life cycle completed as well?

It’s said an average person has 50,000 thoughts going through his mind every day, which means 35 thoughts per minute. By the time he reaches 85 years old, 1.5 billion thoughts would have been passing through his mental sky.

If we count the relinquish of an old thought as a death, and the adoption of a new insight as a rebirth, what an abundance of life cycles we are destined to complete in this lifetime.

A samurai came to Zen master Hakuin to question him if there are really paradise and hell. “Who are you?” Hakuin asked. “I am a warrior,” the samurai replied. “But you look like a beggar, your sword is probably too dull to cut off my head,” Hakuin commented. The samurai got angry and drew out his sword.

“Here open the gates of hell,” Hakuin remarked.

Upon hearing this, the samurai was awakened, he sheathed his sword back and gave Hakuin a bow.

“And here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.

Just like a mere notion could make a hell or a paradise, a simple replacement of thought could be the achievement of a lifetime.

Life is a journey to tame the mind and transform the self. A journey of never-ending process to disarm, surrender, purify and sublime. With the 50,000 thoughts dissolved during the day, a bright full moon will appear on the nightly sky.

Sitting on my deck, with a cup of spring tea in hand, I watch the clouds drifting by, just like watching countless lifetimes flashing before my eyes.