Dirty Watches and Filthy Buddha-Nature

From Zen Flesh Zen Bones:
  • 29. No Water, No Moon

When the nun Chiyono studied Zen she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time.

At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free.

In this way I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!

This reminds me of my own eventual conversion to Buddhism – years of study (in a laid-back bedside table sort of manner) which led up to one explosive moment when the bottom of my pail broke and all the water ran out. That explosive part of anyone’s conversion is a stressful and sometimes painful one but one that needs to occur. The reasons will differ from person to person but in the same way an addict needs to hit rock-bottom to see the top – I needed to see my world of attachment for what it was.
In Rinzai Zen this moment can be described as…

A revolutionary experience and insight capable of shattering all categories of thought and sweeping away all academic exercises and turning the world upside down…like a time bomb ticking in the depths of consciousness… [Once Born, Twice Born Zen]

This experience can not be realized until the tension, frustration, doubt and confusion in one’s life hits a boiling point – a point where the vessel can no longer contain it – it is kensho or bust! In Soto Zen a less dramatic approach is taken with an…

Enjoyment of one’s intrinsic Buddha-Nature…allowing this Buddha-Mind to well up and flow through all areas of one’s consciousness and life. One does not begin by building up a strong sense of false and illusory ways of thinking and being, but a positive sense of fundamental well-being…[Once Born, Twice Born Zen]

Most converts fall along the spectrum of these two extremes – maybe not necessarily in Zen practice, itself – but as a gradual move from something else to Buddhism through a nurturing of the Buddha-mind or a drastic switch due to the bottom falling out.
I look at this moment as a convert’s initial piece of enlightenment – a fleeting, brief glimpse of kensho as the bottom of our bucket falls out and everything rushes out leaving a husk of the former vessel. Momentarily, unable to hold anything or be filled up again. It doesn’t last a long time but whether gradual or sudden we do feel a sense of the absolute at that moment of conversion…at least I did.

Mine was both sudden and gradual. A gradual and slight nurturing of the Buddha-nature (as well as the increases in tension, confusion, frustration and pain) enveloped in all of that samsaric nonsense. Hidden from view but growing slowly. However, at that moment of sudden emptying, the Buddha-nature stands very clear and apparent. But only for a moment. A convert’s brief picture of enlightenment. The crack-cocaine of Buddhism.

So now that we’ve seen that jewel and acknowledge and take refuge in it. What do we do with it? The image of a jewel to be polished through practice somewhat goes against my sensibilities. With practice we keep that jewel bright and shiny – radiating out for the world to see. Blah! My jewel, my Buddha-mind, is dingy and tarnished with experience. Unlike a piece of jewelry, my Buddha-nature isn’t for public consumption – for others to see and gawk at. It doesn’t need to shine forth and glow since I already know that it is there. My wife bought me a turquoise and silver watch for my 30th birthday. It was far too expensive but my wife knew that I would need something to mark that turning point in my life.
Tradition is that a watch such as that is never cleaned or polished. It gathers the dirt and the dust of its owner and it tells a story. My watch has got bits of shale from my summer field work and specks of epoxy and glue from working in the lab. It has blood and has been broken a few times. Fixed but never cleaned. That grime tells a story of where I have been, just like the hands of a mechanic or farmer or accountant – grease and oil, dirt and much, smudges and ink.
A face well-worn from the sun and wind or smooth. It doesn’t matter. My Buddha-nature sat and grew slowly, unrealized, through many mistakes and errors of my life and emerged briefly to mark its presence when my bottom fell out. I will nurture it but I refuse to clean it – Refuse to ignore and forget what brought on its appearence. My Buddha-nature will hold those scars of my youth and marks of my old age, my triumphs and my failures. Like my watch that will pass to my daughter after my time with it is done so will my Buddha-nature to the next – both with traces of Pierre Shale and blood, ink and tears, failures and successes.

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