Wise rulers have always modelled themselves on Emperor Yao.
Treating others with propriety, you bend your dragon waist.
When you pass through the bustling market, you find it civilized throughout, 
and the august dynasty celebrated. 

Dongshan Liangjie

Dongshan set out a training path to awakening and maturity in five stages. He called this path, the Cycle of Merit. What follows is an account of the first stage, that of Orientation.

We hear about the Way, and recognize that it is for us; then, perhaps even after years, we embark into it, 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 turn towards it. We haven’t yet entered the gate, but we’ve discerned the path, and as we cultivate enquiry and learn to meditate, we begin to travel it in reverence and awe. 

The original meaning of “orientation” is “turning eastwards.” This implies turning towards the rising sun, an image that is auspicious and evokes the dawn mood of setting out. When we make a commitment to travel the Way, circumstances gather to support us. This is a time of intimations and significant meetings. Sometimes it is hard to tell these apart!

I remember flying from Perth to Sydney for my first Sesshin. There I met Robert Aitken in one of those personal interviews he generously gave new students. We sat up 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 Sunyata (Emptiness), so he used Ku, the Chinese character for sky.” His words linked my naïve and azure intuitions with the Zen tradition. He suggested that I work on the koan Mu, and told me the story of Zhaozhou’s dog. 14 At that moment a dog burst on to 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.

If this Way is for you, seek out a teacher who is worth their salt – one who will thoroughly test anything you think you may have realized, and won’t approve you readily. They will also encourage you during the arduous stretches of training. If you decide to commit to a teacher, stay with that teacher until you have passed the first barrier, at least. Under the influence of a good teacher we make changes for the better in our life, and may awaken to our true nature. In turn, we may also become helpful to others, and this brings us to the virtue and wisdom of the Emperor Yao. 

Integrity and grace
The legendary Emperor Yao (2357-2257 BCE) was the first emperor of China’s first dynasty, the Xia. This Emperor is remembered for having re-directed the Yellow River, thus preventing the floods that threatened his subjects who lived along its banks. This is what Dongshan means by “bending the dragon.” It is said that Yao’s light covered the extremities of the empire and extended from heaven to earth – imagery that hints at his awakened nature. Instead of killing off opposition, Yao seems to have been able to hear complaint and incorporate objections. Being modest, he preferred to parley, rather than to overpower. Seen thus, Yao can be understood as an exemplary figure who represents the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha. 

Treating others with propriety suggests holding form, as well as being consistent and just in our dealings – in short, behaving with integrity. “Bending the dragon waist” can be understood as courtesy, grace under pressure, even forgiveness and mercy. On the 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. In the light of this, “bending the dragon waist” means that you are available to talk to a friend who rings you late at night to discuss what’s troubling them, while “treating others with propriety” means not ringing others late at night to discuss your problems, instead hunkering down to meditate, and examine your own heart. For me, this adds up to friendship in another’s trouble, courage in one’s own.

Propriety also has a personal dimension, especially as it relates to practice. When you cultivate a regular daily zazen schedule and commit to stay with the particular form of practice that you’ve taken up, that’s the integrity of the Way. Sitting thus, you sit the Universe – people and stars, cats and kings. And it sits you with your unrepeatable quirks and quiddities. In this spirit, the old teacher Linji, said, “Just make yourself master of every situation, and wherever you stand is the true place.” This isn’t about imposing yourself on others. You’re not being invited to fulfil your fantasies of power and control like some autocratic three-year old. Rather, wherever you stand, the glimmering waters of the world are right there as you. Linji continued, “No effort is necessary. You only have to be ordinary, with nothing to do – defecating, urinating, putting on clothes, eating food, lying down when tired”. 

You are noble right where you are, as you are. The night sky flares on your out-breath; the night ocean circulates within you. No need to be arrogant though. A newborn baby is like this, as is a blade of grass, or a stone.

“Treating others with propriety” and “bending the dragon waist” can also be understood as learning to take form, and learning to let go, respectively. When you sit with others you learn the guidelines, and keep them out of respect for your companions and for yourself. You hold the form so that everyone can learn to trust it, and be deepened and nourished by it. That is also “governing with propriety.” In this spirit, you wouldn’t drink water during a round of zazen, but the woman sitting next to you is pregnant, and sips water when she needs to. And you’re at ease with her doing that. Learning the form is one thing, but you must also be able to respond compassionately, forgetting the rules when the occasion demands. 

All that propriety and pliancy, how majestically they go together. When you practice wholeheartedly, and engage with your life, unknowingly you touch others. You shift the field, and bring ease and release to situations that were formerly difficult. In this regard, a student whose practice has begun to mature told me how she brings “big mind” to her fights with her partner: “Where I would have come down hard in the past, now I leave a space, an opening. Then I notice that instead of coming back at me, he’s also silent – and I see that there are tears in his eyes. And then I can say something quite different, actually encouraging. And then after a while he says ...” Opening space like this allows tenderness, and compassionate warmth. 
When you pass through the bustling market you find it civilized throughout 
I like it that Dongshan begins our journey in the marketplace, to where––as the tenth ox herding picture has it––we return at the end of our journey. To say that the marketplace is civilized throughout, is to sense that it is your true nature in its unfolding. The brightly coloured noisy stalls steal your sense of separation. You are allured and joyous, and you can’t fathom why. Just walking down the street feels large and alive. A sudden wind lifts the shining leaves and you are gusted away. 

Celebrating the august dynasty in daily life
You discover the ancient teachings, and they shake up the kaleidoscope of your presuppositions. It’s like being in love. You see your beloved everywhere: in changing light, in a mountain, as well as in a flight of birds and your own smile. You see things through his or her eyes too – “That’s how she would see it.” You know that unerringly, and, like Shakespeare’s Juliet, you wish but for the thing you have.

When you get to know the stories and sayings of the old teachers, their words can open a path for you. Dahui Zonggao wrote:

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 you’ve seen into your deepest nature, reading the old stories is like going outside and running into an old friend – or, 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 this richness. The old stories illuminate us, and we shyly illuminate them. We find glimmering intimations of this everywhere. 

We are always orientating. At any stage of the Way, we seem to lose contact and then regain it. This is a bit like air traffic control bringing a plane in to land. Now we are on-beam, now off-beam, but correcting. Whether we are a beginner, or an old-timer, each stage of the way, including orientation, is expressive of our Buddha nature. 

In the stage of orientation, intimations gather and we are allured and drawn in. We encounter the teachings and see the world with changed eyes. We learn to meditate, and set it at the centre of our life. We may also seek out a teacher. In orientation, we turn towards the Way, and that is the Way in its turning. 

Ross Bolleter