Comparative religion: a brief exercise

Jesus wept.
Sarah laughed.
Gautama touched the ground.

The Messiah came, and is expected to return.
The Messiah will come when all hearts are ready, when all minds have turned.
The future Buddha is still a bodhisattva, but you can visualize him as a Buddha in the present if it helps.

With God, all things are possible.
With God, all things are possible except the forgiveness that only the person you have wronged can give.
With bodhi-mind, all things are as they are: impossible.


Some responses to a poem of Kurt’s over at Coffee Sutras put me in mind of the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. Unfortunately, the only translation I have is pretty clunky, but it’s part of a thick volume of sutras, published in Taiwan back in 1962, that contains classical Chinese and English on facing pages. I remember just enough Chinese from college to be able to figure out how to improve on the English (which I otherwise use as a crutch).

Please note that I am not a Zen Buddhist, however; I welcome suggestions on how to improve the translation and commentary that follow.

The Platform Sutra is in my opinion a classic of world literature on the level of St. Augustine’s Confessions. Like that work, it does get rather dull in parts. But the opening section contains an autobiography that is remarkable for the author’s insights into the mental condition of his would-be adversary Shenxiu, the head monk at the Chan (Zen) monastery where an illiterate Huineng – the future Sixth Patriarch – is stuck in the kitchen, put on rice-hulling duty.

The central drama concerns the contest over dharma transmission, a perennial, defining feature of hierarchical politics within the Chan sect. Like the aging Isaac in the Bible, who to the utter perplexity of most modern readers has but a single blessing to dispense to one of his two children, Chan masters apparently could only transmit the mystical essence of their teaching (dharma) to one pupil. Such transmission can only occur if the pupil has attained some form of enlightenment. That’s the theory, anyway.

So one day the reigning patriarch announces what amounts to a poetry contest for the monastic succession. After a protracted argument with himself about what to do, Shenxiu sneaks out after dark to graffito his submission anonymously on the side of a wall:

The body is like the bodhi-tree,
The mind, a bright mirror.
Hour by hour one wipes it clean.
Dust never gets a chance to settle!

The sutra describes Shenxiu returning to his room and lying awake until dawn, plagued with doubts. “In the quiet of his room he pondered: ‘When the Patriarch sees my stanza tomorrow, if he likes it, it will show that I am ready for the dharma. But if he disapproves, it will mean I’m unworthy, owing no doubt to misdeeds in previous lives, karmic accumulations thoroughly beclouding my mind. What will he say about it? It’s so hard to predict!'”

Huineng doesn’t say how he gained this omniscient narrator’s perspective; perhaps the pious reader is supposed to take it as a sign of his unique attainment. But I wonder if this might not also hint at some otherwise secret rapprochement between adversaries, whose respective followers would maintain a strong rivalry for centuries.

At any rate, the next day when the Master comes across the verse, he diplomatically orders incense to be burned before it, declaring that anyone who follows its teachings would gain great merit. The monks lose no time in figuring out its author, and many of them quickly commit it to memory. That’s the other great thing about this sutra: its wholly convincing portrayal of monastic politics. Noble intentions and genuine insights mix with insecurity, arrogance and obsequiousness. The master himself, we soon learn, isn’t exactly a free agent, and fears violence and general insurrection if he passes over the head monk in choosing his successor. He sends for Shenxiu the following night, imparts some gentle words of instruction, and urges him to keep trying.

Huineng, engrossed in his kitchen duties, remains blissfully unaware of this swirl of political events. But one day, an acolyte passes by the kitchen loudly reciting Shenxiu’s verse.

“What poem is that?” I asked the lad. “You dumb hick! How could you not know about it? The Master told all his followers that, since the question of rebirth was so difficult, those who wish to inherit his robe and teaching should write him a verse, and whoever managed to express the true nature of the mind would become the Sixth Patriarch. Elder Shenxiu wrote this free verse stanza on the wall of the south corridor and the Master told us to recite it. He also said that those who put its teachings into practice would benefit tremendously and be saved from rebirth in the Hell realms.”

I told him I wanted to learn it too, so I might have the benefit of it in the future. Even though I’d been at the monastery for eight months hulling rice, I’d never had occasion to go to the meditation hall, so I asked the boy to show me where the poem was written so I could pay my respects.

He led me to the spot. Since I was illiterate, I asked him to read it to me. A petty officer of the Canton district named Zhang Zhiyong happened to be passing by, and he stopped and read it out clearly for me. [This presumably means he translated it into the vernacular.] Then I told him that I too had composed a poem, and asked if he could write it there for me.

“How extraordinary!” he exclaimed. “Can someone like you really compose a poem?”

“Even if it’s the highest form of enlightenment you’re after, you shouldn’t look down on a beginner,” I replied.

“Please recite your stanza, then,” he said. “I’ll write it down. But if you should succeed and win the dharma, don’t forget to bring me along!”

My stanza read as follows:

Bodhi has nothing to do with a tree;
Bright and reflective, the mind is nothing like a mirror.
Without so much as a single attribute,
How could there be any place for dust to collect?”

Later on, attracted by the gathering crowd, the Master came over and erased the poem with his shoe to prevent anyone from getting envious and beating me up. When they saw this, the monks assumed it meant that the poem’s author had not yet realized the essence of the mind.

The next day, the Patriarch came secretly to the room where rice was milled. Seeing me at work with the stone pestle, he said, “A seeker of the path risks his life for the dharma. Is this proper?” Then he asked, “Is the rice ready?” “Ready long ago,” I replied. “It’s just waiting for the sieve.” He knocked the mortar three times with his stick and went away.

Guessing what the signal meant, in the third watch of the night I went to his room. Using his robe as a screen so that no one would see us, he expounded the Diamond Sutra to me. When he came to the line, “One should use one’s mind in such a way that it will be free from attachment,” I suddenly became thoroughly enlightened and realized that the mind’s true nature can’t be differentiated from the world at large.

On re-reading this, I’m struck by the reverence for the text displayed throughout the Platform Sutra. Though the story of Huineng gaining enlightenment without the benefit of literacy would play a role in the development of anti-intellectual tendencies in some later versions of Zen, in his own teachings the recitation of texts occupies a central place. Silent reading won’t do; one must hear, take to heart/mind and speak. But as the example of Shenxiu demonstrates, words themselves, however worthy of respect, can be of little use to the mind that still sees itself as apart from its words and images, the “ten thousand things” that accumulate seemingly of their own accord, like dust.

It’s no wonder, then, that the portrait of Shenxiu is so sympathetic and psychologically realistic: we are meant to hear ourselves in his agonized self-doubt.

On a wing and a prayer

I’m tired. I woke up earlier than usual with stranger than usual phrases dancing on the tip of my mind’s tongue: still life with homunculus. The automata of experience. Three feathers for the last emir. There was also one that tasted deliciously ordinary, but melted before I could get downstairs and commit it to writing.


Crescent moon long set, starlight’s enough to make the mist visible in the corner of the field. On the other side of the driveway, a round, white spot the size of a small pumpkin. It isn’t moving. I carry my empty cup into the kitchen, fetch a flashlight, train it on the spot: it’s a balloon. Maybe one of the ones left over from when my niece was here last week, blown down from my parent’s house. I could make something wistful out of all this, I know. But one thing about living on a mountain is that the wind has a way of dropping off balloons let loose many miles away. “Happy anniversary,” they say, or “Congratulations on your retirement.” You know how it works, I’m sure: they rise only so high, the wind takes them a ways, then when enough helium leaks out they sink to the ground. A bit like prayer flags, a bit like roadside trash.


I wonder where the intrepid bicyclists spent the night. I’m talking about a group of twelve who left Pittsburgh on Friday, bound for New York City to protest at the Republican National Convention. The point of going there by bike is to draw attention to our gasoline addiction, apparently. But J., our contact with the group, admitted that she was mainly just curious to see if she could do it.

There weren’t any convenient state parks or state forests to camp in on the second night of their sojourn, so we offered use of the (ahem!) Plummer’s Hollow Private Nature Reserve. But they badly underestimated the distance and the extent to which Central Pennsylvania topography would interfere with cell phone reception. Many became separated from the group and got lost. In the end, only the four hardiest bicyclists made it this far, straggling in well after dark. The other eight ended up scattered all along the Allegheny Front.

By 9:00 a.m. yesterday, only one was still unaccounted for, and they arranged to reunite at the bottom of the hollow before continuing east. “Give ’em hell in New York, if you get there,” I said rather thoughtlessly as I waved goodbye from the porch. “Hey, we’ll make it!” the leader shouted, dismounting and lifting his bike over the first of the 45 grating-topped culverts that keep the Plummer’s Hollow Road from washing into the Little Juniata.

I hope the thick fog that had been blanketing the valleys at 7:00 when I walked up to the top of the ridge had burnt off a bit by the time they got down there. Good luck, y’all. Keep your powder dry.


The balloon turned out to be trailing a long, silver ribbon, so it wasn’t one of ours. I wonder how far it traveled to get here, and what might have been the occasion of its escape – or release? It’s completely blank. Supply your own message.

The ineffable, with a sore bottom

For Beth, because she liked it

You sit, spine arrow-
straight, aiming at
the center of each
ripple: that spot where
a mayfly guttered,
where a thought-
fish rose. Unwatched,
your face begins to show
its phylogeny, relaxing
against the skull’s
inverted cup. You start
to glow, like any primate
being groomed – though
there’s no other.
The preceptor’s long-
ago story has set
root: how the only guard
on duty left her post
because she forgot the
watchword, bought
herself a bottle &
drank & drank until
she forgot her own
name. So the city
was overrun: that’s
how you’re sitting.
Through the open window
the sound of rain like
the body’s finest hairs
whispering with static.
You sit as if you were
no longer waiting
for anything, as if your
bones were tired of talking
among themselves,
as if they could climb
an upside-down tree
of lightning.
If only they weren’t
sewn up in a bag like
field mice in their
cave of grass: all flesh,
all blister. I mean
this grab bag,
this very poem
so far from where
you sit.

The head cook’s instructions for Dogen

(Dogen’s Tenzo Kyokun, “Instructions for the Head Cook,” became a central text for the Soto school of Zen, which he founded in the 13th century. In a beautiful series of images, Dogen urges his monks to exercise the tender care of a parent or grandparent toward each other, toward themselves, toward all things, animate or otherwise. “Handle the grains of rice as if they were your own eyes,” Dogen preached. I started thinking, what a pain in the ass he must have been if they ever actually let him in the kitchen!)

Oh childless father,
let me tell you about
this Grandmother
Mind: she slices.
She minces.
She chops.
She makes short work
of fat monks.
Go to the Dojo.
If you want to eat
on time, let
me nap.

Child’s play

Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, it is order. Into an imperfect world it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it “spoils the game,” robs it of its character and makes it worthless.
– Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Beacon Press, 1950)

The hasidim tell the story of Rabbi Baruch, whose grandson Yechiel was playing hide-and-seek with a friend. Yechiel hid himself cleverly and waited for his friend, who never came to find him. Realizing that he had been abandoned, he ran crying to his grandfather and complained about his faithless friend. Rabbi Baruch’s eyes, too, filled with tears, as he told the young boy: God says the same thing: I hide, but no one wants to seek Me!
– Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman, ELUL WEEK 1 — RESPONSIBILITY (via Velveteen Rabbi)

I hid too well. I lay under the tarp in plain view and willed myself into a clump of weeds, a mound of dirt. Springtails and inchworms began to claim me as an extension of their territories. A daddy longlegs scaled my torso and ran across my face, palpae ghosting over the Braille of my cheek and forehead.

My niece ran around the house, peering into all the obvious places, hollering my name. I lay still, certain the slight crepitating of the tarp in time with my breathing would give me away. But in less than ten minutes, everything was quiet. A vole began rustling against one of the corners farthest from my head, and I began to think my presence there was unwelcome. But I waited, trusting that the seeker would not abandon the chase without signaling surrender.

I’m not normally inclined to claustrophobia, but after twenty minutes it got too hot under the tarp and I had to get out. I eased it off me as quietly as I could and stumbled to my feet, dislodging several ants and caterpillars in the process. The thing to do now, I thought, was creep around the house and take a seat on the verandah, where she’d find me right before she gave up.

But when I rounded the corner of my parent’s house, there she and my dad sat, reading a book together. “Where were you?” she asked with feigned unconcern. I stood there blinking in confusion. “Where did you hide?” she persisted. I brushed at an imaginary spider. “You think I’m telling you? Don’t you even know how to play hide-and-go-seek?” I demanded angrily.

But of course she didn’t know. Without siblings, and with precious few playmates her own age down in Mississippi, where would she ever have learned the rules of engagement?


Thhhnk! Thhhnk! Thhhnk! Eva’s fist slams into my diaphragm with all the strength she can muster. She stands with one foot forward, in prizefighter form. Then for variation she crouches and aims a karate kick at my head. “Hey! Where did you learn to do that?” I barely dodge in time, grabbing her foot. “From watching my mommy!” Then she’s back to punching my flabby gut.

“Does your dad let you do this to him?”

“Uh, well, I don’t know. I guess not.”

“So why pick on me?” I whine. “Can’t you pick on someone your own size?”

She giggles. “No! I only punch my Uncle Dave! Because I know you’re FIERCE!”

If only that were true, I think to myself – but already the game has morphed into something else. “I LOVE you, Uncle Dave!” she says in her most melodramatic voice, throwing her arms around me. Good grief! What next?

There’s no question the kid’s got brains: it didn’t take her long to figure out the one kind of attack I’m not very good at fending off. “Put your arms around me!” she commands. I reluctantly comply, thinking: another eight years and this girl’s gonna be hell on ice.


The crudely drawn map had shown only a few, tentative landmarks – lines that might or might not have been trails, an “x” showing where the treasure chest had been hidden “at ye base of ye white pine tree between two okes.” Additional inscriptions hinted at the forbidding nature of the terrain: “BEWARE: Many Spyders,” and “here there bee squirrels.”

The doughty female pirate, accompanied by her two chief scientists, was unperturbed. She hacked mercilessly at the webs of the spiny micrathena with her vorple, cardboard blade. Any squirrels that hadn’t fled at the sound of her bloodthirsty cries must’ve been struck dumb by the terrible device with which her shield was emblazoned: a skull swimming in a pool of blood, encircled by a ring of fire. It looked a bit like the cover of a Slayer album.

Even with the help of scientists, the map’s instructions were difficult to follow. Where was that scurvy pine tree? Disoriented, they found themselves stumbling in circles, the thick vegetation tearing at their clothes, vultures circling. But just as they were about to abandon the search, the chief scientist spotted a scrubby sapling with dark needles. “Hey, there’s another pine tree! And look, there’s the chest!”

And there it was, a classic, green sea chest with tarnished brass fittings, gleaming in a patch of sunlight. Eva let out a triumphal shriek, and she and her grandpa pushed their way through the laurel to claim their prize. But just then they heard a crashing noise off to their right, the sound of pirate boots scuffling on dry leaves. Sun flashed on metal. The air filled with the smell of brimstone. They stood transfixed with horror as the apparition hove into view: a bearded, black-bandanna’d pirate ghost clenching a scimitar-shaped machete between yellow teeth. “WHO DARES DISTURB THE LOST TREASURE OF PLUMMER’S HOLLOW?”


“Have at ye!”


The fight was long and – needless to say – terrible. Blood was curdled. Timbers were shivered. When it was over, the undead defender of the lost treasure lay in a pool of gore, torn limb from limb. The female pirate and her assistants ignored the threats of revenge that still issued in a hoarse whisper from his bloody lips. They broke the lock on the chest and lifted the lid: another strongbox! They tore savagely at the duct tape. Oh my god! Styrofoam packing peanuts!

A small jewelry case lay hidden at the bottom of the box. Cautious now despite her great excitement, Eva pried it open. At last, the treasure was hers! It sparkled between thumb and forefinger as she gazed for a moment or two in uncharacteristic silence.

“AHA! Feast your eyes on this, me maties! The world’s most precious and only clear ruby!”


“Yes, Eva, there are female pirates – or were.” One of the encyclopedias we consulted even included portraits of two of the most famous women pirates from the late 18th century. We were careful not to mention the reality of modern piracy in places like the Molucca Straits, nor to bring up the only slightly more figurative piracy that is contemporary monopoly capitalism.

The idea of a treasure hunt on the last afternoon of Eva’s latest sojourn in Plummer’s Hollow had come from my dad – her grandpa. Which is ironic, given his strongly pacifist views. They’d hung out together all morning, telling stories. “Geez, you were never this much fun when we were kids!” I said jokingly during lunch.

But the truth is that when my brothers and I were kids, living on an isolated, mountaintop farm, we had each other as playmates and fellow adventurers; Eva is an only child. Now, thinking it over, I’m forced to reevaluate my childhood memories a bit. However much each of us three brothers might choose to dwell on the times when we fought, when we dominated and made each other miserable for no good reason, the fact is that we were extraordinarily fortunate to have grown up the way we did, our imaginations virtually unimpacted by television, pop music, and all the other anodynes of post-industrial civilization whose side-effects seem to include a general stifling of the imagination and a fracturing of the attention span.

The most salient fact of my pre-pubescent history remains my unusual capacity for self-induced misery. I was a displeasure addict, throwing tantrums at the drop of a hat. Even so, I can easily recall dozens of memorable adventures that I had in the company of one or both of my siblings. There was the time we went looking for Middle Earth in the hollows beyond the Far Field, mysterious with fog. I got completely disoriented and frightened, and was forced like Rabbit in the House at Pooh Corner to humble myself before my little brother, who led us unerringly home. Then there was that time when my big brother led the way into a giant blackberry thicket – at a rabbit’s-eye level. The three of us spent a lovely couple of hours on our hands and knees, gingerly excavating a long tunnel, then hollowing out a sanctuary in the thicket’s impregnable heart. Talk about a pirate fort!

On rainy days, we set up makeshift tables in front of the doors to our rooms, set out all the toys, knick-knacks and gee-gaws we could afford to part with, and then took turns “shopping” at each other’s tables. No money was necessary; even questions of trade, fair or otherwise, didn’t intrude. These were, as we called them, “give-away sales.” And just as in the kula system of ceremonial exchange described by Bronislaw Malinowski in Argonauts of the Western Pacific, the same items circulated from owner to owner.

Raised by liberals who believed in treating their children as intellectual equals, the problems of the world were never far from our minds. Our parents didn’t try to shield us from the knowledge of such nightmare-inducing horrors as mass starvation, genocide and nuclear Armageddon. But we remained kids; such knowledge only challenged our imaginations to work harder. Now, from the perspective of a quarter century later, I am struck by the fact that the adult reality we lived under, the Cold War, has utterly vanished, while the worlds we conjured up in its stead have lost none of their power to enchant. The buried treasures and dragon hoards we sought then seem, in a strange way, realer than the stock-optional wealth of the dot-com boom or the ebb tide of investments that devastated the economies of Southeast Asia a few years back. My brothers and I each remain idealists, and on the rare occasions when the three of us get together, the B.S. sessions are a wonder to behold. We may disagree about the nature of the quarry now, but the rules of the game are still intact and the search is still on.

Both sides now

Away from home today. All I can come up with is a brief bit of moralizing poetry.

The view from
inside the glass
house distorts:
every darting
wren looks like
a stone. Only
the hummingbird seems
driven by harmless
desire. She
hovers, hangs
in place for
a long moment, bill
millimeters from
the pane, still –
apart from
the fury of
her wings. But
of all the ranked
blossoms, what
can she see?
At best, a faint wash
of exotic hues.
What’s drawn
her in is green,
hateful green –
guerrilla foe
who blocks her
every advance,
matches her
zig for
zag but will
not, will not