If you can know yourself as the unity of past, present, and future, says Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, then you see you’re right where you ought to be.
Prajnatara: Transmission of the Light, Case 28
The Buddhist master Punyamitra said to Prajnatara, “Do you remember events of the past?” Prajnatara said, “I remember in a distant eon I was living in the same place as you. You were expounding great wisdom, and I was reciting the most profound scripture. This event today is in conformity with past cause.”
The light of the moon reflected in the depths of the pond is bright in the sky.
The water flowing to the horizon is thoroughly clear and pure.
Sifting and straining, over and over, even if you know it exists,
Boundless and clear, it turns out to be utterly ineffable.
—from Keizan Jokin’s Transmission of the Light, translation by Thomas Cleary
Prajnatara was the teacher of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen school. In addition to the notable role of being Bodhidharma’s teacher, Prajnatara is also an interesting figure because there is some evidence that she was a woman. This possibility first came to my attention a number of years ago through a brief article by a successor of Jiyu Kennett Roshi, the founding abbess of Shasta Abbey. When Jiyu Kennett Roshi was training in Japan, her teacher, Koho Zenji, told her that there were female masters in their direct ancestral line. Years later, Jiyu Kennett asked one of her students to try to find them. His research led him to records within the Korean Zen lineage in which Prajnatara is remembered as being a woman, as well as to historical and oral traditions from Kerala in southern India, where Prajnatara lived and is remembered within local historical memory as being a woman. He also learned of archaeological discoveries in Kerala that confirm the presence of a well-known woman master around that time. All of these factors aligned to offer a convincing argument that although within most modern scholarship Prajnatara is assumed to be a man, this important teacher may have actually been a woman.
When I first found out about this, I wrote several Buddhist scholars. One dismissed the matter out of hand, but another said he had heard about this rumor and thought that it was entirely plausible. In fact, he allowed that there may be other female masters within the Zen lineage who have been mistakenly assumed to be male. In written Chinese, gender is inferred from context rather than stated explicitly. So in the context of lineage within a male-dominated religious tradition and society, there would be an assumption that a master of this stature was male. Prajnatara’s female form may have been lost over time, buried beneath cultural assumptions.
Although historical records don’t contain nearly as much information about female teachers as they do male teachers, we know there have been many realized women masters. There are sutras in which the Buddha states that there is no high or low in the dharma and in which he makes clear not only that the four groups in the sangha—male and female monastic, male and female lay—were all capable of realizing enlightenment but he also recognizes individuals from each of these groups as having achieved enlightenment during his lifetime. Although there are other sutras that seem to refute the capacity of women to realize themselves, some modern scholars believe these sutras were added later by conservative male disciples.
Whoever Prajnatara was, whether male or female, certainly as Bodhidharma’s teacher she holds a special place within our lineage. She is said to have been an orphan who lived on the streets and didn’t even know her own name—a very good beginning for a Buddhist master. She made her living by begging, and one day she encountered Punyamitra. It seems she had a karmic connection with Punyamitra going back into past lives; he recognized her as a dharma vessel, and she eventually became his dharma heir. To escape the mayhem of the Hun invasions in northern India, Prajnatara traveled to the southern part of the country. This is where she first encountered Bodhidharma’s father, who was a king there, and then later met the son who would become her disciple. Just as her teacher had seen something special in her, she also recognized something in Bodhidharma.
In this koan, Prajnatara is asked by her teacher, “Do you remember events of the past?” She says, “I remember in a distant eon I was living in the same place as you. You were expounding a great wisdom and I was reciting a most profound scripture. This event is in accord with past cause.” What is the question in this koan; what needs to be resolved? What does “in conformity with past cause” mean? This can be understood from Buddhism’s perspective on karma, but the koan is asking for a deeper, more direct understanding.
“This event today is in conformity with past cause”—this is always the case. This is never not true. Our presence wherever we are is fully and utterly in accord with past causes. We didn’t just suddenly get here by ourselves. We should reflect on the multitudes of past actions, just in this one brief flicker of a lifetime, that brought us to this moment. Prajnatara is reflecting in this way on eons past.
One of our cultural identities or myths is of the one who goes it alone and pulls herself up by her bootstraps—the rebel, the outlaw, the self-made person. What a lie. What an ingratitude. What a danger. We are each the recipient of innumerable currents of life—through the lives of others—streaming into and influencing our own lives. How many thoughts and intentions, how many words and actions of others have influenced us to wonder about things or even led us to the dharma? How many acts of kindness or words of inquiry or concern have we received that helped lead us to this very moment? How is it that on this very day we can study these teachings, learn these practices, be tested in our understanding and be in intimate contact with a spiritual process that began over 2,500 years ago?
For many Western Buddhists, this koan presents a challenge: how are we to understand the Buddhist teachings on past lives and rebirth? We could just dismiss them out of hand because we have no personal evidence to verify them, but is it possible that we just don’t recognize the evidence?
Does it make sense to deny something simply because we haven’t experienced it as being true? How often do we come to discover things as true that we didn’t know were true before? We rely on the observations or reflections of others—thinkers, scientists, explorers—to teach us truths even when we haven’t experienced them directly.
Could we just decide to believe in rebirth with a kind of blind faith, simply because it’s a Buddhist teaching? That tension between deep faith and direct experience challenges us to hold the deeper truths and greater mysteries that are not easy to understand or verify. Is there another way of holding something that we do not yet know to be true?
We do this all the time. We come into practice not knowing much about the dharma, not having verified it for ourselves. In the beginning, we may not even have experienced the truth of the suffering of attachment, but we take it on a measure of faith and begin practicing. We’re constantly practicing with faith in that which we don’t yet know to be true, even stretching sometimes to bring that faith forward. Through practice, we discover how to remain open, how to simply not know, and how to let go of our attachment to the certainty of yes or no.
Punyamitra asks Prajnatara to reflect on events from the past. Now, we do this a lot in ways that are habitual, obsessive, and utterly nonconstructive. We can become mired in memories of things that are long gone, continually giving them life and meanwhile missing our own life right here. But there’s a different kind of reflection on the past that is in accord with practice: reflecting on the karmic streams, on how “this event today is in conformity with past cause.” This is looking at the past to understand our conditioning and how all of those many actions—thoughts, words, deeds—moved us, moved others, and influenced the course of our lives. Each of us can think of pivotal moments—something that happened, something we saw or read, something someone said—that stand out amid all the others. Sometimes we don’t recognize it as pivotal until later; looking back, we realize its significance. This event here, today, is in accord with past cause.
This is why it is so important to understand how in every moment we are changing the course of our lives. In that sense, practice has been happening since we first gained active consciousness and were able to discriminate, understand, and think. Consider the first time you encountered death—that’s a decisive moment in a person’s life. It may come early in our lives, when a pet dies or we lose someone in our family. We realize something in that moment: this doesn’t last forever.
The Buddha said that if we don’t understand impermanence, we go through life blind; we don’t know what we’re in the midst of. Popular culture is all about living on the surface, but practice leads us beneath the surface and beyond the perceived levels of understanding and reality. It’s easy to live on the surface—to talk and act, to provoke and inspire in a superficial way. We can think that’s enough and have no idea what the possibilities are, what is slipping by, who we really are. But to have encountered the dharma means that we have dipped beneath the surface of things, that we have practiced cultivating enlightened qualities before we even know what that means. If this were not the case, we couldn’t have encountered the dharma. We might have come across the teachings, but we would not have turned our attention toward them. For this to happen, seeds had to have been planted and cultivated. Each of us can look at our own path to practice and see that this is true.
In his teachings, Bodhidharma speaks about the six realms of existence as the terrain that we inhabit:
Those who blindly follow the precepts and foolishly seek happiness are born as gods in the realm of desire. Those who blindly observe the five precepts and foolishly indulge in love and hate are born as human beings in the realm of anger. And those who blindly cling to the phenomenal world, believe in false doctrines, and pray for blessings are born as demons in the realm of delusion.
In each of these, Bodhidharma speaks about practicing blindly. We can be practicing the precepts and do it without understanding ourselves or the precepts. We can be engaged in the world of love and hate and be led by selfish desires. We can be asking for and receiving blessings and be looking outside ourselves. He says when our greed is greatest, we become hungry ghosts. When our anger is greatest, we enter into hell realms. And when our delusion is greatest, we become beasts reduced to desire–impulses.
We arrive in a realm of existence due to the strength of our karma. Karma is strengthened by the number of moments or days or years that we’ve devoted to creating certain desires and mental states, by the energy we’ve given to it and the degree to which we’re caught in it. But that strength can also be a form of spiritual power. When we don’t understand, then it’s a blind power. We see how people use great power blindly and wreak great destruction all the time. But when we have opened the eye that sees without looking, understands without knowing, and trusts without expectations, that karmic power can be transformed into something that has liberative qualities.
What does this mean? When you find yourself in a difficult place, don’t just look for an exit in panic but reflect on how this event right now is in conformity with past cause. We can study and understand how our life is being transformed in that very moment. Who names this place as a hell realm? Someone else might see it differently. Seeing into this, how do we leap free? This is the power that comes with understanding mind directly—not through analysis but through examination.
The wonderful thing about practice is that this ability to see into our mind and to shift is available to us at the very beginning, in the very first moment. That’s how powerful we are. Keizan, the second founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan and author of Transmission of the Light, says, “Even if you seem to be a beginner, if in a single moment the mind is turned around to reveal its originally inherent qualities, nothing is lacking at all; together with the realized ones, you will commune with the buddhas.” Since the very beginning, it is this way. Since the beginning and all the way through, nothing is lacking at all. Even in those challenging moments, in the presence of challenging people, sitting with that challenging mind, nothing is lacking. Whether the mind is realized or not, this is so.
This moment is always in complete and utter conformity with past cause. Daido Roshi often used to say, “What you do and what happens to you are the same thing.” I remember hearing that again and again and thinking, “Huh? What are you saying? How can that be?”
What is time? What is today? What is past? Through deep inquiry into this very moment, we can begin to have insight into how it is in accord with all time, all events. Time seems by nature to be dualistic, a witnessed measurement of something passing. What is time without the witness, without passing? How does that change our way of living during our days of time, people, and consequences? We’re all implicated, we’re all exerting our power, we’re all changing the world. The question becomes, how do we use this great power? What do we do with this human life? Realize your very being as all of time—past, present, and future—and the unity of cause and effect. What you do and what happens to you are the same.
My mother visited recently. She’s always had a very active, creative life. But she’s eighty-seven now and moving a little bit slower, and she spoke of being with the question, “What am I to be doing at this time in my life?” I said, “Maybe this time in your life is about not doing.” But not doing can be frightening, perhaps particularly as we approach the end of our lives. From a distance, imagined in our mind, doing nothing might appear too still, too naked. But we should understand, while we’re still in the midst of our doing, the profound nature of not-doing: that spiritual power, that kind of influence.
We need activity, but when we look at the state of our world, we can see how essential it is that there be those who know how to stop for a moment, for a day, for a week—how to stop within every moment, how to realize the stillness in activity. Then in arriving, no one comes. Then in living this life, no one is born. Then in facing our death, no one will be extinguished. In facing suffering, fundamentally there’s not a single thing. From this place, move amid the many things and intermingle.
The light of the moon reflected in the depths of the pond is bright in the sky.
The water flowing to the horizon is thoroughly clear and pure.
These images and their qualities describe our basic nature, our potential: the radiant moon, the deep pond, the night sky, the fluid, clear, pure water. These are the unknowable, undefinable qualities we each possess.
Sifting and straining over and over, even if you know it exists,
boundless and clear, it turns out to be utterly ineffable.
Even if we know it exists—that we are naturally endowed with enlightened nature—we sit on this cushion having faith. We face our mind in trust. We hear the teachings and somehow, inexplicably, we know they’re true.
Bodhidharma says, “Do not use your mind to seek mind. Do not look for something.” As Daido Roshi used to say, “It’s not like anything.” Trust deeply, let go deeply. Do you remember how you got here? Do you know how to move forward? You know enough. Practice this.