up a tree

I have been reading an excellent book entitled Subtle Wisdom by Ch’an Master Sheng-yen. Ch’an is the Japanese equivalent of Zen, although technically Ch’an came first when Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Chinese Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism, brought the teaching from India. In the book, Master Sheng-yen recounts a popular story in Buddhism about the government official who pays a visit to the eccentric Master, who just happens to live in a tree. The official said, “Master, you are in a very dangerous situation.” The Master replied, “I am not in any danger. You, however, are in a dangerous situation.” The official, perplexed, asked, “How can I be in a dangerous situation. I am the leader of the local government. I have people at my disposal to protect me and keep me safe. How can my situation be dangerous?” The Master replied, “Earth, water, fire, and wind constantly vex you. The process of birth, old age, sickness, and death can affect you at any time. Greed, anger, ignorance, and arrogance are your constant company. How can you claim that you are not in a dangerous situation?” The official, understanding, replied, “Indeed Master, I am in a position far worse than yours.” Thoreau moving out to his cabin at Walden Pond was like the Master living in his tree. I’m sure he received many visitors from nearby Concord and elsewhere who thought he was crazy. But I think Thoreau knew the secret, just as the Master did, that only by giving up our attachments to the things that are supposed to set us free can we achieve true liberation. (In Thoreau’s time, it was the post-office and the newspaper. In our time, it’s our cellphones, Blackberries, and yes, much as this blogger hates to admit it, even our computers) I’m vexed almost every morning by anger, ignorance, and the need to get my daughter on the school bus by 7:50 am. The morning routine in my house can be a real crucible of vexations, I can tell you for sure! I suppose if someone were to ask me if I am a Buddhist I would have to say yes, but not a very good one. But I have faith in the possibility of enlightenment. I don’t know if I’ll ever live in a tree or a cabin in the woods, but Buddhism teaches me that no matter where we are, we can learn to be free not from the vexations themselves (because those will never cease) but instead free of the effects those vexations have on us. With this freedom, we can respond to anything that comes along, without being troubled.


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