No Shortcut to Awakening


Ross Bolleter guides us through the Cycle of Merit, the ancient Chan master Dongshan’s map showing us the way to enlightenment and back to where we are.


Sage rulers have always modeled themselves on Emperor Yao.
Treating others with propriety, you bend your dragon waist.
At times, passing through the thick of the bustling market, you find it civilized throughout and the august dynasty celebrated.

This is the first step on our journey. Everything lies in front of us. We hear about the Way and recognize that it is for us. Then, perhaps even years later, we embark and begin to find our home there. As we orient ourselves, we begin to see our life through the eyes of the teachings and to identify with them. We sense a mystery that resists explanation, and we turn toward it. Like the discovery of the tracks of the ox in the second of the ten pictures from the Ox-Herding Cycle, we haven’t yet entered the gate, but we’ve discerned the path. As we cultivate inquiry and learn to meditate, we begin to travel it in reverence and awe.

The etymological meaning of the English word orientation is “turning eastward,” implying turning toward the rising sun—an auspicious image that evokes the dawn mood of setting out. When we make a commitment to travel the Way, circumstances most often gather to support us. It is a time of intimations and significant meetings. Sometimes it is hard to tell them apart.

I remember when I flew from Perth to Sydney for my first sesshin. I met Robert Aitken in one of the personal interviews he so generously gave to new students before sesshin. We sat on the balcony of the zendo and looked out over the treetops. Neither of us spoke, and I sensed that he was shy.

After a long time, and still looking straight ahead, he cleared his throat, then said, “When Kumarajiva translated the sutras into Chinese, he found that there wasn’t a word for the Sanskrit shunyata (emptiness), so he used ku, the Chinese character for sky.”

Aitken’s words linked my naive and azure intuitions with the Zen tradition. He then suggested that I work on the koan Mu, and he told me the story of Zhaozhou’s dog. That very moment a dog burst onto the veranda and scampered joyously around us, barking excitedly. We both burst out laughing. I felt that I was meeting my life, although I didn’t have the words for it.

Sage rulers have always modeled themselves on Emperor Yao.
Treating others with propriety, you bend your dragon waist.

The legendary Emperor Yao (2357–2257 BCE) was the original emperor of China’s first dynasty, the Xia. This emperor is remembered for having redirected the flow of the Yellow River, thereby preventing floods that threatened his subjects who lived along its banks. This redirection of the Yellow River is what Dongshan is referring to when he writes that “you bend your dragon waist.” It’s said that Yao’s light encompassed the extremities of the empire and extended from heaven to earth—an image that hints at his awakened nature. Rather than killing off opposition, Yao seems to have been able to bear complaints and to incorporate objections into his rule. Being modest, he preferred to parley rather than to overpower. Yao can therefore also be understood as an exemplary figure who represents the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha.

“Treating others with propriety” suggests maintaining proper form and being consistent and just in our dealings. In short, it suggests behaving with integrity. “Bending the dragon waist” can also be understood as courtesy, grace under pressure, even forgiveness and mercy. On one hand we hold the line and cleave to principle; on the other we give others a better-than-even break.

The qualities that we associate with propriety and “bending the dragon waist” may appear to be opposed. However, they accord readily in the conduct of a true person of the Way. “Bending your dragon waist” means that you are available to talk to a friend who rings late at night to discuss what’s troubling him, and “treating others with propriety” means not ringing others late at night to discuss your problems. Instead we hunker down, meditate, and examine our own hearts. For me, this comes down to friendship in another’s trouble; courage in one’s own.

At times, passing through the thick of the bustling market, you find it civilized throughout and the august dynasty celebrated.

I like it that Dongshan begins our journey in the marketplace: the place to where we return at the end of our journey, according to the OxHerding Cycle. To say that we find the marketplace “civilized throughout” is to express the sense that it is our own true nature in its unfolding. The brightly colored, noisy stalls steal our sense of separation. We are allured and joyous, and we can’t fathom why. Simply walking down the street feels large and alive. A sudden wind lifts the shining leaves and we are gusted away. We discover the ancient teachings, and they shake up the kaleidoscope of our presuppositions. It’s like being in love: we see our beloved everywhere—in changing light, in a mountain, in a flight of birds, and in our own smile. We see things through his or her eyes too: “That’s how my beloved would see it.” We know this unerringly, and like Shakespeare’s Juliet, we wish but for the thing we have. When we get to know the stories and sayings of the old teachers in this spirit, their words open a path for us. The story of how widow Fazhen came to awakening back in twelfth-century China is exemplary in this regard:

Chan Master Dahui Zonggao sent a monk to call on the widow Fazhen’s son. The monk stayed for a time and talked to the son about Chan.

Although the teachings were not intended for her, Fazhen was fascinated by what she heard, and she took the opportunity to ask the visitor about Dahui’s methods. He told her his teacher required that students investigate the koan of Zaozhou’s Mu with every atom of their being, and that he didn’t allow them to comment on it or think about it.

Fazhen was inspired by the adept’s words. She did the housework during the day and sat with Mu at night.

One day her mind became clear and she could respond unhesitatingly to the monk’s questions. He approved her realization, and Fazhen gave him a letter to take back to Dahui in which she wrote some verses. The final verse read:

All day long reading the words of the sutras,
It’s like meeting an old acquaintance.
Don’t say doubts arise again and again—
Each time it is brought up, each time it’s new.

When Dahui received the widow’s verses, he was delighted that she had accorded with his own words, “When you’ve seen into your deepest nature, reading the old stories is like going outside and running into an old friend.” Or like coming home and finding an old friend waiting.

This is the freshness of the dharma. Each encounter is the first. Even doubts about our grasp of it are part of its richness. The old stories illuminate us, and we shyly illuminate them. We find glimmering intimations of this everywhere. The widow’s story shows us how, even with meager opportunities, we can awaken.

We are always orienting. We seem, at any stage of the Way, to lose contact and then regain it. The process is a bit like air traffic control bringing a plane in to land. Now we are on beam, now off, but always correcting. Whether we are a beginner or an old-timer, each stage of the way, including Orientation, is expressive of our inherent buddhanature.

Excerpted from the Fall 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *