Introduction: Play
(Rev. Trevor Maloney)

For good reason, our Zen tradition is known for being a little serious, perhaps even harsh. The kyosaku is meant to help practitioners stay awake—and it does—but it still looks like someone getting hit with a stick. Linji was known for his deafening shout, and Te Shan for his tendency to beat his students with a staff. Our ancestors often remind us to be single-minded in our pursuit of truth. With death as our constant companion, what room is there for play, for goofing around?

You could easily focus on the dignity, majesty, and life-or-death seriousness of our tradition, if you wanted to. But, you would be forgetting Chin Niu, who would call his monks to lunch by beating a pot, laughing, dancing, and singing, "Bodhisattvas! Come and eat!" You would be forgetting the spontaneous laughter that came about at moments of awakening. You would be ignoring the Pang family's teasing each other as they sharpened their understanding together.

While buddhas and bodhisattvas are traditionally depicted with a slight smile, or at least a rather warm expression, Bodhidharma, the first Zen ancestor in China, sits there scowling. He's a scary sight. His beard is scraggly. He wears his robe over his head, which gives me the impression that he's hiding, that he doesn't want to talk to me. He probably wouldn't want to talk to me, in fact. He brought a teaching "not dependent on words and letters." Hui-Ke had to cut off his own hand just to get into his dokusan room. Bodhidharma was so dead serious and intent on practicing zazen, the legend says, that he sliced off his eyelids to keep from dozing off. (Fortunately for us, his eyelids fell to the ground and a tea plant sprung up, so we can just have some tea to stay alert.) Google image-search "Bodhidharma" and you'll see some serious-looking faces. Our way is difficult, he seems to say, demanding everything. Don't slack off.

This image is different, however. Hanging in the AZC zendo, it shows Bodhidharma playing with a chubby little kitty, and smiling. I've never seen such a depiction of the blue-eyed barbarian. Sure, practice hard, it seems to say, but know that this is all for the sake of liberation. Dogen tells us that if you realize that your mind is unlimited, "your priorities about everything change immediately." Maybe playing with the cat, or tying a pretty red ribbon around his neck, becomes the most important thing. Devote yourself wholeheartedly to this way that directly points to the absolute. Know that your mind is unlimited. Smile. Bodhidharma wants to play.

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Trevor said...

I wonder if folks take much notice of this scroll, if they've noticed the cat?

TxLostWolf said...

Why would a tradition be life or death serious when life and death are the same? Why not take joy in all life's moments?

Anonymous said...

"We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing."
George Bernard Shaw

Trevor said...

TxlostWolf: Exactly.