For your benefit

by Ross Bolleter Roshi

The Case:

Once when Dongshan was washing his bowls, he saw two birds contending over a frog. A monk nearby asked, "Why does it come to this?"

Dongshan said, "It’s only for your benefit, Acārya.”

Comment:

The bell and the clappers are only for your benefit, how much more the squabble of birds! You do not end at the skin of your head. The world does not end at the skin of your head. With the human eye and ear the waterfall and thrush find their home. The deer know that you and I are the fulcrums.

Verse:

With the impersonal turn of a switch,

Ten thousand homes are destroyed.

With quiet sitting in one place,

The doe brings her fawn to show off.

 

Teishō:

I imagine Dongshan washing his own bowls in the creek that runs past the meditation hall at Dongshan Monasatery. ii You can hear the sounds of the lapping creek, and bowls being scraped with sand. Abruptly, there’s a thump of wings and a frog is swooped by one bird. Another bird tries to wrench the frog away. The frog is torn in two. The birds squabble over the spoils. A monk, perhaps also washing his bowls, asks, "Why does it come to this?"

Even if his question is posed lightly, there feels like a dichotomy, a wormy doubt at the core of it. It brings to mind ‘nature red in tooth and claw,’ an important theme for Tennyson in his In Memoriam(1850):

(Man) trusted God was love indeed 
   And loved Creation's final law -- 
   Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
 With ravine, shriek'd against his creed -- iii

‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ troubled Tennyson, and was a dilemma for many Christians in the mid nineteenth century, if not today. It’s harder though for such a notion to get traction in Chan. No transcendent God to be called into question, and, no creeds.

Perhaps the monk was thinking, ‘If all beings have Buddha nature, then why do they act so cruelly?’ Isn’t this savagery at odds with the vastness and pure Dharmakaya.

Dongshan replied, "It’s only for your benefit, Acārya.”

He addresses the monk as teacher. There may be respect, but it’s hard to see benefit for the monk, or anybody else, in the birds’ snapping beaks and the frog’s death.

What’s in play here? What’s "It’s only for your benefit," about?

A monk challenged Yunmen, "What is the roar of the earthen ox on top of the snow ridge?"

Yunmen responded: "Heaven and earth darkened red." iv

"Heaven and earth darkened red." Yunmen doesn’t inform; he doesn’t elucidate. "Heaven and earth darkened red," roars out of the vastness, as that vastness.

There’s roaring too in this quiet encounter between Dongshan and his old teacher:

Dongshan asked Yunyan,

"When I wish to meet you, what shall I do?"

With "When I wish to meet you, what shall I do?" Dongshan is doing exactly that –

laying bare the ground of true meeting.

Yunyan replied, "Make an enquiry with the chamberlain."

The chamberlain was the court official who waited on the Emperor, and served as an intermediary between him and the nobility. Is Yunmen brushing off his eager student? Actually he’s meeting him unrestrainedly with, "Make an enquiry with the chamberlain." The interview could have finished there, but Dongshan pushes back with,

"I am enquiring right now."

Did he really think that Yunyan was telling him to wait? Hardly. "I am enquiring right now," gets rid of all middlemen, including the chamberlain. They disappear into "I am enquiring right now."

"What does he say to you?" asked Yunyan. v

"What does he say to you?" is as innocent of meaning, and benefit, as the sounds of the rain in the night, or the thump of wooden boats against the wharf in the harbour. With "What does he say to you?" Dongshan is truly met, as we all are.

Dongshan’s teaching as it comes down to us is (like Yunyan’s) often dark and elliptical. His corner of the mouth delivery gives us nothing to hold on to. When he was ordained, he received the Dharma name Liangjie, which means ‘good servant.’ He has a good servant’s discretion. We might feel that with "Only for your benefit," he is serving up abundant life to the monk, or at least something good. But actually "It’s only for your benefit" is fatal – for the doubting monk, and indeed, all of us.

In her late seventies, Irina Harford, even when she was gravely ill with cancer, still climbed the wooden steps to the Zendo to dokusan. When she was very close to death, she asked me if she could take up another koan. I gave her the verse:

True intimacy transcends friendship and alienation;

On the great plum tree fully blossomed

the southern branch owns the whole Spring

as also does the Northern branch. vi

Irina was not expected to live a fortnight. Because I was about to fly to New Zealand, and I thought that she would die before I returned, I came to the hospital to say goodbye to her. As I brought my hands together to indicate dokusan, she sat up with great effort, and silently held up her withered arms. That blossoming – only for you: only as you, and as us all.

So what about the frog being torn in two, and the birds squabbling – all that bright carnage? Doesn’t it have hands, feet and face? That little holy family – isn’t it innocently and obliviously you? That blood, those entrails – aren’t they yours?

We can’t acquire benefit, any more than we can avoid it.

A monk asked Dongshan, "When cold and heat visit us, how do we avoid them?

Dongshan replied, "Why not go where there is neither cold nor heat."

The monk asked, "Where is the place where there is neither cold nor heat?"

Dongshan said, "When it is hot let the heat kill you; when it is cold let the cold kill you." v

 

Dongshan’s monastery was situated near Nanchang in northern Jiangqxi province. Conditions would have been tough there, especially in the summer months, where 40 degrees centigrade isn’t unusual, and the humidity can be high. It’s below freezing for stretches in winter too.

The monk asks about avoiding cold and heat. Dongshan invites him to go beyond them. The monk probably imagines Spring in a fortunate location – a monastery without extremes. "Where is that place?" he asks eagerly. He makes it sound as if ‘that place’ was remote. "Can I really go there?"

Dongshan comes back with"When it is hot let the heat kill you; when it is cold let the cold kill you." He’s setting the monk right. You don’t need to go anywhere. You, just as you are, right where you are: let the heat kill you; let it kill off your ideas about it. Let there be nothing but heat. Then the entirety of things sweats and complains.

This isn’t masochism though. Don’t cultivate feeling cold. When you are cold, pull on a pullover. When you are hot, turn on the fan. But stop tinkering with conditions in your mind. Stop bothering the heat! Allow it to be. Just heat through and through – only for your benefit.

The issues between my mother and myself could never be talked about, and endured for a lifetime. When she was dying as a result of a massive stroke, I remember flying home from New Zealand. I remember how urgent it was that I got back to her, even though I was very afraid of being close to her, and even more afraid of being close to her dying. In the hospital I held her right hand trying to reach her.

"You’ve done well. I love you. If you understand just squeeze my hand."

The squeeze came back.

"You’ve had a massive stroke. If you understand just squeeze my hand."

The squeeze came back.

"If you want us to let you go, just squeeze my hand."

The squeeze came back.

 

Squeeze Squeeze Squeeze

Kafka wrote, ‘You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have permission to do so, and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering that you could have avoided.’ Holding back is suffering. The place of avoidance is lonely and fraught, yet is no other than the silent immensity – easily overlooked in the deafening reveille of ‘engagement’ and ‘uniting with circumstances.’

But whether we hide, or whether we front up, the world continues to destroy our safe havens. We can never delete it. How could we? I think of Richard Nixon frustratedly – and fruitlessly – trying to wipe those hundreds of incriminating Watergate tapes. I wonder what ‘only for your benefit’ was for him in those small hours.

Robert Aitken comments on Dongshan’s ‘Only for your benefit’: The bell and the clappers are only for your benefit, how much more the squabble of birds! You do not end at the skin of your head. The world does not end at the skin of your head.

You can be awakened in the Zendo by hearing a bell, or by the squabbling birds in a paddock. Bell intimacy; bird intimacy – no scale of benefit at all. And truly, your skin and your skull do not confine you. My bone-headedness doesn’t block the world, any more (or less) than the soft drumming fontanelle of a newborn baby.

The world that doesn’t end at the skin of my head offers suffering in abundance.

Just watching the news on evening television can have us asking, "Why does it come to this?" The deadly Tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 claimed some 230,000 victims, with 43,000 missing. Thousands more were left homeless. I asked a student about the disparity between the suffering of people in Banda Aceh, and the comfort of people in Perth, which shares the same ocean. He responded reluctantly, "You are in the water struggling for your life, and dying, as them; they stand at the fridge as you."

The consolations of emptiness are no consolation. If you remain with, "Only for your benefit" as an abstruse, silent heaven, then you are useless – obscenely so. If you descend into the literal, "Only for your benefit" can seem, for grief stricken survivors, and all other suffering beings, like the grossest obscenity. Uncannily, as I write this, the tragedy of the tsunami in the Solomon Islands is unfolding with the risk of diseases like malaria causing many more fatalities. Given that we’re all in this together, what do you and I do?

 

With the human eye and ear the waterfall and thrush find their home. And without the waterfall and the thrush, the human eye and ear have no home. But this doesn’t mean that the magpie warbles through the small hours in order to delight me. That tumbling aria cuts deeper than utility or purpose. Finds its home? It’s a long-term lodger with a tenancy older than the stars.

 

The deer know that you and I are the fulcrums.

 

Without a drop of oil, the universe is pebble pivoted, breath pivoted. However, I doubt the deer know a thing about us being the fulcrums, or ever have. Such knowing is a human problem. The deer’s gaze is far too wide and ancient for all that. Hearing about fulcrums, or other such contrivances, should be enough to startle you – and have you sniff the air.

 

Verse:

With the impersonal turn of a switch,

Ten thousand homes are destroyed.

Robert Aitken pays tribute to Dongshan adroitness and lightness of touch. As casually as a deer flicks off a bug with its tail, his "Only for your benefit" deprives us of our names, let alone our separate being. "Only for your benefit" may seem friendly, but its obliterating darkness rolls back forever.

With quiet sitting in one place,

The doe brings her fawn to show off.

Dusk. The yellows and reds of the lantana blossoms stand out so vividly. I stretch, sigh, and shamble from my computer to the piano to play Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo.

 

Easter Sunday, 2007.