When we go beyond the outward characteristics of a person, of a thing, we find a ground of being that is perfect, complete, and lacking nothing. But there is more. Once we have reached the top of the mountain—that ground of being—we must keep going down the other side, back into the marketplace to manifest the great heart of compassion. The poem that accompanies the tenth ox-herding picture of the stages of training says:
Entering the marketplace, barefoot and unadorned,
blissfully smiling though covered with dust and ragged of clothes,
using no supernatural power,
you bring the withered trees spontaneously into bloom.
The commentary says, Do not mistake a withered tree for a lifeless tree. It abounds with life and celebrates each and every spring with new foliage. It’s out of that absolute basis of reality that the whole phenomenal universe manifests. As Master Dogen said, “Spring is in the branches buried beneath six feet of snow.” Life is always present within emptiness. The bloom is already there. The manifestation of the absolute among the ten thousand things is already there. It’s just that few have realized this.
The experience of falling away of body and mind is not that unusual, once you start practicing. The difficulty is manifesting what you see in the world of differences. Countless practitioners have gotten stuck in emptiness, thinking that’s the goal of Buddhism. Most of the koans we deal with speak of people who are stuck there. As the Faith Mind Sutra says, “To assert the emptiness of things is to miss their reality.” Things are objects because of the subject. The mind is such because of things. To understand the relativity, as well as the unity, is what Buddhism is all about.
As for the dragon’s song, actually, everyone is able to hear it, because it exists everywhere. But most of us are preoccupied with our own self-interests, so we miss it. An exception is when we’re on the receiving end of an act of kindness, of generosity or compassion. Then we’re aware of it. But even then, the warm glow fades rapidly, and we return to our self-interest. It’s not that there’s no wisdom and compassion in the world, it’s just that it’s rare. The need is so much greater than the number of people who are willing to enter the fray. After all, we’re busy. We’re all busy. And the things we’re busy with are all important things. Most of the time we think to ourselves," It’s okay if I don’t do it. Others will." Or, "I’ll do it this time, but I can’t keep doing it forever."
It’s not unusual to feel enthusiastic about something in the beginning, and then slowly let our enthusiasm peter out. Just look at our history at this monastery. Tens of thousands have passed through this mountain gate, and after spending a couple of days here, a good number of them said they wanted to become monastics. They started wearing black clothes, shaved their heads, and walked around with their hands in shashu, like they were in deep samadhi. Two weeks later, their bags were packed and they were on their way out.
I’ve always said this is a practice for long distance runners, not sprinters. The world is filled with sprinters. We need people who are in it for the long haul.