Clouds and Thunder

We had rain this weekend in Southern California – lovely, beautiful rain. We’re in a serious drought here and in the last 48 hours I think we’ve had more rain than we’ve had all year. And not just our usual version of rain, which is actually drizzle, but pouring, drenching rain, and thunder.

At one point on Saturday afternoon, as I was standing at my living room window looking out at the vault of clouds over the Los Angeles basin, and listening to the thunder roll, heralding another downpour, I thought of the third hexagram in the I Ching (“Book of Changes”), zhun or difficulty: “clouds above, thunder below”.

And I also thought of the commentary on the I Ching by Chih-hsu Ou-i (1599-1655), who began as a Ch’an (Zen) monk, but later gave it up to devote himself to Pure Land practice as taught by the T’ien-t’ai school. He was a prolific author, composing numerous commentaries, liturgies, and translations, including an interpretation of the I-ching.

zhun_hexagramIn the zhun hexagram, the upper three lines represent water, and the lower three, thunder.  But Confucius, who began the tradition of explaining the images or symbols, rendered the hexagram as clouds and thunder.  In Chih-hsu Ou-i’s interpretation (Chou i ch’an chieh), he offers this commentary on the image:

Clouds and thunder. Leaders set things in order.

To observe that the continuum of consciousness is not bound by time and cannot be found in the past, present, or future, and to observe that it is not interior, nor exterior, or in the middle, and that no one knows its home, this is setting meditation in order.

From the Buddhist perspective, when separated from one’s real nature of subtle realization, radiant and indefinable, the aspect of ignorance moving thought is ‘thunder’ and the false impressions of reality caused by ignorance are ‘clouds.’ When clouds and thunder fill up, this establishes the continuum of ignorance and this is difficulty.

Those who resolutely practice stopping and seeing (chih-kuan or samatha-vipassana) must walk the path to find their way home. They should understand that within the movement of thought, there is the nature of insight capable of realizing its own nature, and even the false impressions can stimulate the arising of this realization.

With regards to causes and conditions and the insight that encourages awakening, to explain how to check the wandering mind, realize the true nature of reality and perceive the essence of all states of mind, is ‘setting things in order.’ It is the supreme insight, the sphere of the inconceivable.”

In nature, clouds and thunder mean rain.  Water in this hexagram represents trouble or difficulty.  The rain this weekend was difficult for many folks here, with mudslides, flooding, and power outages.  But the rain also brought a temporary end to the drought.  So, rain can bring difficulty, and it can bring benefit.

In Chih-hsu Ou-i’s commentary, we see a similar principle. The very things that are occasions for the rise of passion and clinging (nimitta), are also capable of giving rise to insight and wisdom. This is what Nagarjuna meant when he wrote in the Treatise on the Prajna-Paramita Sutra, “In seizing and clinging things, wrong notions may arise. But if all is abandoned, how can awakening be realized at all?”


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