Does the spiritual life demand starkness and sacrifice? Can we follow our spiritual aspirations when we still have connections to the material world? In this excerpt from Dialogues in a Dream, Zen master Musō Soseki addresses this timeless matter.
Question: If there is no difference between worldly activities and practice, why is it that masters of both the doctrinal and the Zen schools urge their students to set aside all activities and cut off relations with all things?
Answer: An ancient master said, “In the Buddhadharma there are no fixed forms. What is important is responding to circumstances.” None of the Dharma gates used by the masters to guide students have fixed forms. Since it is a universal principle of Mahayana Buddhism that no separation exists between the Buddhadharma and secular affairs, how could any master that supports the Mahayana—regardless of the differences between Zen and the doctrinal schools—say that Buddhist practice is to be found outside of worldly activities? However, those who have not yet understood this principle view the activities of the world in an illusory and inverted way. In their compassion, Zen masters encourage such people to set aside all worldly concerns as a temporary expedient to help them relinquish their attachments. Good masters teach in accordance with their listeners’ capacities, so they do not bind themselves to predetermined patterns.
During the time of the Buddha there was a man named Devasarva. For five hundred lifetimes he had resided in the celestial realms, and in this lifetime he had been born into the luxury of the royal household of Śākyamuni’s father, King Śuddhodana. When King Śuddhodana encouraged five hundred members of the Śākya clan to enter the Sangha, Devasarva was one of those requested to do so. Owing to the lingering karmic influences of his many lifetimes in the celestial realms, Devasarva had a love of fine clothing and lavish residences.
When he heard Śākyamuni admonish the members of the Sangha not to adorn their clothing or habitations, Devasarva thought to himself, “I was born into a wealthy household and lived in a mansion decorated with gold and silver inlays. My clothes were embroidered with beautiful threads. Yet I wasn’t satisfied even with that. How then can I wear coarse clothing and live in a rude dwelling? I should return home for a while, satisfy my desires, and then come back.” He called upon the Buddha and informed him of his decision to leave.
Realization of the Way and its fruits is entirely a matter of the practicer’s mind and has nothing to do with clothes or dwellings.
The Buddha called his attendant Ananda and told him to go to the royal palace, borrow a number of beautiful ornaments, decorate a room with them in a way that would please Devasarva, and have him spend the night there. Ananda did as he was told, and Devasarva slept in the beautifully appointed room. That night, his ordinary desires having been fulfilled, Devasarva’s unruly thoughts ceased of themselves and the clarity of wisdom immediately filled his mind. Toward the end of the night he realized arhatship and flew through the air. Ananda was puzzled, and asked the Buddha about this. The Buddha responded, “There are people whose aspiration for the Way grows through adorning their clothes and houses. For such people adornment is an aid to practice. There are other people whose aspiration for the Way diminishes when they adorn their clothes and houses. Such practicers must be cautious about ornamentation. Realization of the Way and its fruits is entirely a matter of the practicer’s mind and has nothing to do with clothes or dwellings.” Thus people today, if they are like Devasarva, will not be hindered in their practice of the Way even if they have a taste for beauty in their homes and clothes. However, when people without the slightest desire to apply their minds to the Buddhadharma use examples like that of Devasarva to claim that their love of finery and riches does not constitute a hindrance to the Way, this is the work of the celestial demons.
From ancient times many people have enjoyed designing landscape gardens, piling up earthen mounds, arranging rocks, planting trees, and directing flows of water. Although the resulting gardens resemble each other in appearance, the spirit behind them is often quite different. Some people have little personal interest in gardens but have them made as decorations so that visitors will admire the beauty of their residences. Other people, whose love of landscape gardens is part of the same craving for material things that drives them to collect the rare treasures of the world, seek out strangely shaped rocks and unusual trees to place in their gardens. Such people have no appreciation for the gentle refinement of the garden; what they love are worldly things.
Bai Letian dug a small pond and planted bamboo around the edge to create a garden he was very fond of. In a poem he wrote:
Bamboo is my friend
because its heart is open.
Water is my teacher
because its nature is pure.
Those in the world who love landscape gardens and share the feelings of Bai Letian are truly free of worldly things.
There are also people who by nature are modest and unaffected, and have little interest in the secular. Such people find nourishment for their souls in the recitation of poetry and the appreciation of beautiful scenery. This is the sort of person that the expression “the chronic disease of beautiful scenery, the incurable illness of lovely views” is referring to. One might call them secular people of refined taste. But if such people are lacking in the spirit of the Way, even such refined qualities become the basis for future rebirths in the samsaric realm.
Still others use landscape gardens to ward off sleepiness and boredom as an aid in their practice of the Way. This is something truly noble and is not at all the same as the delight ordinary people take in gardens. However, since such people still make a distinction between gardens and the practice of the Way, they cannot be called true Way-followers.
Then there are those who regard mountains, rivers, grass, trees, tiles, and stones to be their own Original Nature. Their love for gardens may resemble worldly affection, but they employ that affection in their aspiration for the Way, using as part of their practice the changing scenery of the grasses and trees throughout the four seasons. One who can do this is truly an exemplar of how a follower of the Way should consider a garden.
Therefore it cannot be said that a love of gardens is necessarily a bad thing, or necessarily a good thing. In gardens themselves there is no gain or loss—such judgments occur only in the human mind. The Chinese have always loved tea for its healthful effects in promoting the digestion and clearing the mind, although the medical texts warn against drinking too much—just as medicines are harmful if the prescribed dosage is exceeded, so tea can have ill effects if taken in excess.
Long ago in China, people like Lu Tong and Lu Yu esteemed tea as a way to dispel sleepiness and melancholy and thereby facilitate study. In Japan the same effects of tea were valued by people like the Saint of Toga no O and the founder of Kennin-ji357 as aids in the practice of the Way. However, the often excessive indulgence in tea that one sees nowadays cannot be good for the health, much less for study and practice. It simply increases worldly expenses and sows seeds for the decline of Buddhism. In this way, whether a love of tea does harm or good is entirely dependent upon the attitude of the individual.
This is not simply a matter of sansui gardens or tea drinking; it applies equally to such arts as poetry and music. The various forms of poetry and music all have their distinctive qualities, but they share the purpose of bringing harmony and refinement to the coarse human mind. However, the present fashion of performing the arts as public entertainment fosters ego attachments, and consequently it has the opposite effect of diminishing refinement and increasing coarseness. It is for reasons like this that teachers of the doctrinal and Zen schools sometimes tell their students that worldly activities are not separate from practice and sometimes tell them that they should set aside all such activities when they practice. There is nothing to be surprised about in this.