Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Buddhist Lay Practice in History



The Eighth Century Chinese Chan (Zen) Master Layman Pang understood that Buddhist practice does not have a fixed form to be followed by all. But while he is remembered amongst the famous teachers of the past, in my opinion, it was the synergy of the family as a whole that led to such great understanding.

Here is a snippet of their story:

Originally from Hengyang in the southern Chinese province of Hunan, Pang was a successful merchant with a wife, son, and daughter. The family's wealth allowed them to devote their time to study of the Buddhist sūtras, in which they all became well-versed. Pang's daughter Ling Zhao was particularly adept, and at one point even seems to be have been more advanced and wise than her father, as the following story illustrates:

“ The Layman was sitting in his thatched cottage one day [studying the sūtras]. "Difficult, difficult," he said; "like trying to scatter ten measures of sesame seed all over a tree." "Easy, easy," Mrs. Pang said; "like touching your feet to the ground when you get out of bed." "Neither difficult nor easy," Ling Zhao said; "on the hundred grass tips, the great Masters' meaning."[1] ”

After Pang had retired from his profession, he is said to have begun to worry about the spiritual dangers of his material wealth, and so he placed all of his possessions in a boat which he then sunk in a river.


There are so many learnings to be gleaned from this tiny bit of narrative about them. Notice the way material possessions are dealt with. They clearly benefited from having some wealth, given the freed time for Buddhist study it allowed them. In fact, you can take from this that if what you have materially gives you more time to study and practice, then it's beneficial in your life. Yet, at a certain point, there was also a realization that attachment to possessions is commonplace, and a great hindrance, and thus needs to be abandoned. The dramatic sinking of the family's valuables puts one hell of an exclamation point on that teaching, but I do wonder if it might have been more powerful to hear that the Pangs gave their wealth to another family or individual desiring to have time for study and practice. This is one of the challenges I have always had with the heavy emphasis on poverty and material renunciation in the old stories. That works fine for monastics and wandering individuals, but it's unrealistic for most lay practitioners. With that, I still think theirs is an example for all of us today, who struggle with views about both wealth and poverty.

The second learning from this story is the relational quality of practice. This simple story of a father studying the sutras, and a mother and daughter responding to his comments with their own insights is an important reminder to those of us who have been steeped a bit too much in "just sitting" practice. Chan/Zen is relational. Awakening is relational. Whatever wisdom Layman Pang developed over his lifetime and infused into his poems and sayings came together through studies and practice with his family, interactions with his customers (as a merchant), and practice with other Chan teachers of the day. Even if we each must break through the veil covering the truth on our own, it's our relationships (both with humans and with the entire universe of beings) that provide the ground for awakening.

A third learning, which maybe is less apparent, is that if you look closely enough at the old stories, you'll discover brilliance that hasn't been elevated into the traditional canon. We know very little about Ling Zhao, yet her appearance as a young woman of wisdom is just one of many examples throughout old Buddhist stories. And you can bet that for every Layman Pang and Ling Zhao, there were plenty more who lived unrecorded lives, perhaps completely unrecognized outside of the small community they came from.

It tended to be the monastics who were educated, who wrote down the stories, and who passed along what was considered to be the teachings of the day. So, we're left with a partial record of events, persons, and practices - one that privileged monastics, privileged men, and privileged those who had wealth in their lives at some point.

Even so, this doesn't mean we can't uncover some of the wisdom of great lay practitioners of the past. We can. This little story offers a lot, and it's just one of many. Instead of relying solely on the teachings of modern and current practitioners, I think it's wise to dig into the past - to glean what we can from those who came long before us.

8 comments:

Adam said...

Wonderful post Nathan! I've read a little bit of Layman Pang, and have "A man of Zen" up next in my 'to read' queue. Hearing stories like his were part of the reason I decided to explore the path of Zen.

Petteri Sulonen said...

Thanks, Nathan. Layman P'ang has long been a favorite of mine, and especially significant—not to mention encouraging—for us "householders."

Dean Crabb said...

Nice post Nathan, I really enjoyed it. Well done.

To throw some contemplation into one aspect of this topic I don't tend to agree with your comment "In fact, you can take from this that if what you have materially gives you more time to study and practice, then it's beneficial in your life." This is an assumption, and I feel an incorrect one. If you pay close attention, when you have any possessions, they require your attention and time to maintain them, clean them, paint them, store them, wash them, let alone the struggle we have with our attachment to them. It is a trap. Just look around, any accumulation of karma results in ... more karma! It is the truth of life - the 1st and 2nd noble truths - there is suffering and a cause of suffering. This is the very struggle of us in the lay life, our possessions and attachments consume us. This wealth does not allow us time to study the dharma more, it seriously limits our ability to study the dharma. If we see this would we really be helping others to give all our attachments to someone else so they too can then get attached to them and suffer? If you truly wish to help them study the dharma, give up your possession, and then go to them empty handed and teach them that this is the path to the cessation of suffering. Lead by example (the 3rd and 4th noble truths).

Metta
Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb
http://themindfulmoment.blogspot.com

Nathan said...

"If you truly wish to help them study the dharma, give up your possession, and then go to them empty handed and teach them that this is the path to the cessation of suffering."

You know, how many lay practitioners are really going to do this? And beyond that, is the only way to really practice and awaken in this world a way that involves renouncing all possessions?

If you are in dire poverty, and are trying to raise children, keep a roof over your head, etc. - your practice is seriously hindered. Certainly, one can still apply mindfulness in each moment as best they can, but it's much, much harder than someone who has enough to "make ends meet."

The thing about "going empty handed" back into the world is that I don't believe is has to mean become a monk or nun, giving up all your possessions. The problem as I see it is the view that things are "possessions" - and that we need to "hold onto them, protect them." The cause of suffering here is desire for possessions, and all the efforts to protect them. The things themselves are neither good nor bad.

From what I have read in the Pali Canon, I don't think the Buddha told lay people to give up everything they owned. He seemed more to point to the desire and clinging around objects, money, and property, and counseled people that any material wealth should be given out generously. Shared generously. There are some really interesting teachings on this in the suttas about King Pasenadi.

http://www.vipassana.com/canon/samyutta/index.php

I think your right to warn about attachments to possessions. And the statement from my post you pointed out is flawed as I look at it because it doesn't qualify that beneficial status. Having enough materially "can" be beneficial if you learn how to let go and let things flow.

Dean Crabb said...

I do agree I've taken an idealistic viewpoint. I inherently agree with most of what you are saying. If you have the ability to give to help others then do it, but to say that material possessions help one practice the Dhamma I think is a flawed idea. In their case it's just circumstantial that this helped and either way it can't ever really be proven. I don't think it's a good idea to promote however that material wealth benefits one's Dhamma practice.

I guess we have to see if time will tell and question, who is going to be talking about Laymen Nathan and Laymen Dean in another 1200 years? How good is our message? Are we great living examples to even question Layman Pang? Hmmmm...

"The problem as I see it is the view that things are "possessions" - and that we need to "hold onto them, protect them." The cause of suffering here is desire for possessions, and all the efforts to protect them. The things themselves are neither good nor bad."

I agree with this however we cannot negate Dependent Origination, that there are conditions that support the arising of these desires. While the conditions remain, so too do the desires. To negate this is a mistake and overlooks this inherent truth. Without it, we'll only get so far in our practice.

Interestingly I just wrote a post on my blog yesterday about desires and sensual pleasures which is right on topic with this.

Anyway, minor points, I agree with a lot of what you are saying and think overall it's a great message.

Metta
Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb
http://themindfulmoment.blogspot.com

Nathan said...

I don't want to equate wealth with "good practice." It's more about not suggesting that having stuff means that we can't wake up.

I have no idea if many of us lay practitioners will be memorable in the way Layman Pang is, but I feel strongly that the recorded history of Buddhism has been slanted too far in the direction of mostly monastics, and mostly men for that matter. Having a more diverse picture, where different kinds of approaches and ways of life are upheld, would give all of us a better sense of how Buddha's teachings function the world as a whole.

Dean Crabb said...

Nathan, I read this earlier today and thought "Yeah, I agree hence why we both are blog writers. This is both our aims so I agree with you there".

Then as I came back today to post just this to you, rereading your message got me thinking. This diversity can also lead to dilution and obscuring the Buddhist teachings. I guess we just have to mindful of this.

Metta
Dean
http://themindfulmoment.blogspot.com/

Nathan said...

"This diversity can also lead to dilution and obscuring the Buddhist teachings. I guess we just have to mindful of this."

I totally agree. It's going to be one the issues we face in the 21st century - having too much information too easily at our fingertips.