Priest Myoe: The Deer, the Island, and the Moon

The history of Buddhism features a fascinating cast of characters, some of whom were quite eccentric. One in particular is Myoe, a priest who lived during the very interesting Kamakura period of Japanese Buddhism.

Myoe (1173–1232) was not only eccentric, he was also eclectic. He was ordained in both the Shingon (“True Word”) and Kegon (“Flower Garland”) traditions, and he studied Zen. While he was known as a restorer of Kegon school, he was famous as well for popularizing the Mantra of Light, one of the primary mantras of Shingon Buddhism. Most of all, Myoe was respected for being a very “pure” priest, owing to his strict observance of the precepts.

There are many stories about Myoe. Here is one told by Seikan Hasegawa in The Cave of Poison Grass, Essays on the Hannya Sutra:

One day in the snowy morning a deer wandered into his temple garden. As soon as Priest Myoe saw the deer he picked up a stick to chase it out, shouting, “Go out, go, go!”

The deer ran away beyond the garden house. The disciples of Priest Myoe, however, were watching this sight and they complained.

“Our teacher, why should you chase the deer out? He was sorrowfully cold and hungry on the mountain so he came to the village to find food.”

Priest Myoe replied, “I know about it as well as you. But in this village there are many hunters with bow and arrow. I hope he can escape from these hunters and patiently await the coming of spring.”

Outside Japan, Myoe is probably best known for his “letter to the island.” Most people would consider it a bit odd to write to an island. This didn’t bother Myoe, however. He wrote to the island anyway. In fact, he had a messenger deliver it for him, instructing the messenger to “Simply stand in the middle of Karma Island; shout in a loud voice, ‘This is a letter from Myoe of Tonganoo!’ Leave the letter, and return.”

Myoe lived on this island, which is located in Yusa Bay in Wakayama prefecture, during 1190’s. Here is an excerpt from his letter: [1. Myoe’s entire letter can be found in Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Princeton University Press, 1995 and Dharma Rain Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism by Stephanie Kaza, Kenneth Kraft, Shambhala Publications, 2000]

Portrait of Myoe seated in meditation on a tree housed in the Kaisan-do Hall, Kozan-ji, Kyoto.

Dear Mr. Island:

How have you been since the last time I saw you? After I returned from visiting you, I have neither received any message from you, nor have I sent any greetings to you.

I think about your physical form as something tied to the world of desire, a kind of concrete manifestation, an object visible to the eye, a condition perceivable by the faculty of sight, and a substance composed of earth, air, fire, and water that can be experienced as color, smell, taste, and touch. Since the nature of physical form is identical to wisdom, there is nothing that is not enlightened. Since the nature of wisdom is identical to the underlying principle of the universe, there is no place it does not reach. The underlying principle of the universe is identical to the ultimate body of the Buddha. According to the rule by which no distinctions can be made between things, the underlying principle of the universe is identical to the world of ordinary beings and thus cannot be distinguished from it. Therefore, even though we speak of inanimate objects, we must not think of them as separate from living beings . . .

Why do we need to seek anything other than your physical form as an island since it is the body of the radiant Buddha?

Even as I speak to you this way, tears fill my eyes. Though much time has passed since I saw you so long ago, I can never forget the memory of how much fun I had playing on your island shores . . .

And then there is the large cherry tree that I remember so fondly. There are times when I so want to sent a letter to the tree to ask how it is doing, but I am afraid that people will say that I am crazy to send a letter to a tree that cannot speak . . .

Myoe was 26 when he wrote his letter, and he was no more crazy than Dogen, who lived during the same Kamakura period and who equated rivers and mountains with the body of the Buddha. One of the prime characteristics of Kamakura Buddhism was its fierce sectarianism, but when we scratch below the surface a bit, we find that most of the leading figures of that time were pretty much on the same page. Myoe’s grasp of non-duality is similar to not only Dogen’s Zen thought but also that of Tendai and Shingon.

George J. Tanabe, Jr., who translated the letter, says “Far from being eccentric in writing a letter to an island, Myoe was acting out the central fantasy of Mahayana Buddhism: all things are one.”

Well, there are many incidents in Myoe’s life that point to him being eccentric, or perhaps we could say that he had “crazy wisdom,” not in the sense that term is used today to justify misbehavior, but it does take non-linear, intuitive thinking to truly grasp dharma. I don’t believe I would term non-dualism a fantasy, as Tanabe does (assuming he means it literally), but he is correct in that Mahayana indeed teaches that all things are one. Actually it’s so much a case of oneness, after all, we are not teaching monism, rather, it is that all things are non-differentiated. In the ultimate sense, as Myoe states, no distinctions can be made between things.

Myoe was also a poet. Here are three poems on the winter moon quoted by novelist Yasunari Kawabata in his Nobel Lecture [2. Yasunari Kawabata’s Nobel Lecture can be read in its entirety here.] delivered on December 12, 1968 :

I shall go behind the mountain. Go there too, O moon.
Night after night we shall keep each other company.

My heart shines, a pure expanse of light;
And no doubt the moon will think the light its own.

Bright, bright, and bright, bright, bright, and bright, bright.
Bright and bright, bright, and bright, bright moon.

Kawabata commented on these poems by saying, “Seeing the moon, he becomes the moon, the moon seen by him becomes him. He sinks into nature, becomes one with nature.”



Inspector Maigret on Non-duality

I’ve always been a fan of detective stories, and over the years, one of the detectives I have enjoyed the most is Jules Maigret, Commissaire de la Police Judiciaire, the creation of Georges Simenon. The Maigret novels are short, and written in a spare and simple style. Deceptively simple. Maigret is a detective who’s often more interested in whydunit, than whodunit. I can’t recall the Inspector ever using a gun. His weapon of choice is his psychological insight.

There’s a certain Buddhist/Taoist quality about Maigret. As Pierre Weisz wrote in his essay, Simenon and ‘Le Commissaire,’ “Maigret’s great asset is being there.” Maigret has his own unique way of working cases, and many times, he’s like Lao Tzu’s sage, who “goes about doing nothing.” It may seem like he’s doing nothing, perhaps strolling along the banks of the Seine smoking his pipe, or having a casual beer in a small Paris cafe, but actually he’s deep into an investigation of the causes and conditions behind the actions of both the guilty and the innocent.

My cable company carries the MHZ Network (KCET) which has “International Mysteries,” currently featuring Beck, a Swedish police detective, based on the novels by Sjowall and Wahloo, who were pioneers of Scandinavian crime fiction in the ‘60s and ‘70s; Inspector Montablano, created by Italian writer Andrea Camilleri, an absolutely great series (and great books); and Maigret. The Maigret series was produced for French TV in the 1990s and are set in the times of the novels.

I was watching “Maigret and the Candle Auction” last night, and I forget what the other character said to provoke this response, but Maigret said, “Happiness is just dormant sadness.”

It seemed to me that Maigret was making an important point about non-duality. That was probably not his intent, and possibly not Simenon’s either, assuming the line was taken from the book.

It reminded me of something I read by Krishnamurti not long ago:

There is sorrow. My son is dead. I do not move away. Where is the duality? It is only when I say I have lost my companion, my son, that duality comes into being.

Even though we talk about the cessation of suffering, there really is none. Suffering is never completely absent. Sadness at the loss of a loved one, for instance, never leaves. Not even after decades. I know. Like Buddha Nature the potential for suffering exists within us always, and can arise at any time. Peace is just dormant suffering.

Sadness and happiness are advaita: two, but not two. They are non-dual. Duality comes into being when we begin to make distinctions and comparisons. And cessation comes into being when we stop suffering from ruling, and ruining, our lives.

When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way,
nothing in the world can offend,
and when a thing can no longer offend,
it ceases to exist in the old way.

Seng-ts’an, Verses on the Heart-Mind

Just in case you’d like to learn more about the novels of George Simenon and his character, Inspector Maigret, hop over to pattinase, the blog of Patti Abbott, a writer of short stories, and check out Friday’s Forgotten Books. This week the bloggers at taking a look at Simenon’s work.


Original Enlightenment Pt. 1

One view of nirvana is that it is the termination of undue influence by trsna, literally “thirst” but signifying “desire” or “craving.” As noted previously, unwholesome desire is considered to be like a fever, and as Professor Trevor Ling notes in The Buddha,

Cessation [of passion] may be thought of as a ‘cooling’ after fever, a recovery of heath. In fact,  in the Buddha’s time the associated adjective nubbuta seems to have been an everyday term to describe one who is well again after an illness. It is evident from this that the original Buddhist goal, nirvana, was the restoration of healthy conditions of life here and now, rather than in some remote and transcendent realm beyond this life.

This is why in Mahayana Buddhism we say that samsara, the world of suffering, is nirvana. When one is afflicted by dis-ease, when one is stricken by the fever of unwholesome desire, then this is indeed a world of samsara. However, when one is healthy and free of fever, the world appears different, we see it in more positive, wholesome light, and this is nirvana. It is not about the absence of suffering, but the transcendence of suffering.

Buddhas do not obtain some special knowledge that the rest of us do not have. Rather, they have changed the way they know the world.

When we recover from a fever, we cannot be assured that we will never be sick again. The potential for disease is always present. Alternately, the potential for health is present. Health in this sense is realizing the world as nirvana.  We are not speaking of two separate worlds, one that is full of suffering and one that is full of peace. We are speaking of the disintegration of dualistic thinking.

In this same way, a common mortal and a Buddha are not two different persons. Because the potential for enlightenment is present, a common mortal can realize enlightenment and become a Buddha. To combat our tendency toward dualistic thinking, we say that the common mortal is already a Buddha, albeit an unrealized one.

The Chinese T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i taught a doctrine called “The Ten Life-conditions and their Mutual Possession.” The Ten Life-conditions, or spiritual realms (Jpn jikkai), are potential mental states inherent in each living being. In ascending order, they are Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Humanity, Rapture, Learning, Realization, Bodhisattva and Buddhahood. In the Moho Chih Kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”) Chih-i wrote,

One mind contains ten spiritual realms. At the same time, each of the ten spiritual realms contains all the others, giving a hundred spiritual realms. . . It is obscure, subtle, and profound in the extreme. Knowledge cannot know it, nor can words speak it. Herein lies the reason for its being called ‘the realm of the inconceivable.’

What is important here is not the numbers, but that it is another way to express the non-dualism of nirvana and samsara. Hell contains Buddhahood and Buddhahood contains hell, as well as all the other realms. Instead of being distinct worlds unto themselves, they are potentialities, conditions that we can experience at any given moment.

The potentiality for Buddhahood should not be slighted. At the same time, merely thinking that one is a Buddha does not a fait accompli make. Realizing enlightenment is a process, like peeling an onion. We strip away layer after layer, and eventually we reach the core.  Some layers do not peel away easily. We have to rip through our hard karma, tear away at our dualistic mind, our prejudices and attachments. It can be painful. Onions produce tears. But it is necessary. The core awaits.

Mahayana Buddhism stresses the importance of starting with this basic understanding of original enlightenment, inherent Buddha-nature, the mutual possession of all life-conditions – awareness that this potential exists is the first step in uncovering it.

Tsung-mi, the  the fifth and final patriarch of the Flower Garland School and a Ch’an (Zen) Master of the Ho-tse School, wrote,

All sentient beings have been endowed with the true mind of original enlightenment. From the beginningless beginning this mind has been constant, Pure, luminous, and unobscured; it has always been characterized by bright cognition; it is called the Buddha Nature or the Womb of the Awakened.

From the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it. Because they recognize in themselves only the ordinary person’s characteristics, they indulge in lives of attachment, increasing the bond of karmic power and receiving the sufferings of birth and death. Out of compassion for them, The Awakened One taught that everything is empty; then he revealed to all that the true mind of spiritual enlightenment is pure and is identical with that of the Buddhas.

More on Original Enlightenment in the next post.