“Medicine and sickness heal each other. The whole world is medicine.” — Blue Cliff Record, Case 87
In this week’s Dharma talk, I mentioned a parable that’s been on my mind lately. I don’t know its origin — I’ve heard different versions, some attributing it to the Zen or Taoist traditions, but I haven’t been able to find its source, and I don’t think it matters. Here’s the version I discussed:
Most Zen monks in the west only wear their robes for ceremonial purposes. But I've found that when I'm on my way to or from the zendo and wearing my robes, strangers in the street will approach me, wanting to talk. It's not usually that they're interested in Buddhism, it's that they're lonely and feel isolated and need someone to talk to, and the robes give them an invitation, or maybe just an excuse, an icebreaker.
My friend Sister Petra is a Christian nun who also practices Zen Buddhism with our sangha. A few months ago she told me, “During the pandemic, I’ve been praying for everybody who’s sick, in body, mind, or spirit.”
I was moved by this, and it has continued to resonate with me. As I’m not a Christian, my view of prayer is probably different from Sister Petra’s (or maybe not), but I realised this prayer could easily be adapted into one that could be recited by anyone, of any faith or no faith.
So, most days now, using my mala, I chant, 108 times, May all who are sick, in body, mind or spirit, be well.
At last Sunday’s meeting, I gave a Dharma talk about free will, which I think is a myth, and so it’s a mistake to make too much of our locus of control, though having an external one makes more sense than having an internal one. A couple days later, this article appeared in The Guardian. It brought to mind Shakespeare’s tragedies, in which the inescapable fate that dooms the protagonist is not something written in the stars by gods, but by everything that makes the person who they are.
If our faults are not in our stars, but in ourselves — or, more accurately, our selves — then praise and blame are irrelevant, and the only sane response to anyone, however admirable or heinous their behaviour, is compassion. This doesn’t mean not restraining someone from causing harm, but it means restraining them for everyone’s good, not as punishment.
I was talking with my friend and brother monk Jikan Sensei, about the legend of Huike, the Second Ancestor, who went to Bodhidharma’s cave and asked for teaching. Bodhidharma is said to have ignored him, and left him waiting outside in the snow. Finally, Huike cut off his own arm and presented it to Bodhidharma as evidence of his seriousness, and Bodhidharma accepted him as a student. I remarked to Jikan that I hope the story is apocryphal, and that I agree with the poet and great master Ikkyu, who wrote: