Tying the Camel

Featured in Mountain Record 29.4, Summer 2011

George Bernard Shaw once said: “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.” Any good teacher knows that having a strong message is only half the battle. Knowing how to deliver it is the other half. That is why in Buddhism so much emphasis is placed on upaya—the many ways that spiritual teachers have developed to communicate the dharma so that it will be heard by students with varying skills and capacities, at different stages in their training.

This issue of the Mountain Record includes articles that both speak about the importance of skillful means in spiritual practice and show those very means in action. In the classic burning house parable of the Lotus Sutra, a wealthy man promises his three sons a beautiful cart each in return for their safety. Knowing they are too self-absorbed to notice what is happening around them, the father appeals to their desire for playthings to get them to get them safely out of the crumbling building and only then, the sutra says, does he offer them the largest, most comfortable carriage—the carriage of wisdom. Master Dogen says in “Shoho Jisso” that this expounding of wisdom or reality is the work of all Buddha ancestors. And this work, Tibetan teacher Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche reminds us, need not be complicated or esoteric in any way. He says, “When it is totally easy and simple to recognize your natural face, you have ‘established the natural state.’”

Karen Armstrong strikes a similar chord when she speaks of the centrality of compassion in all of the world’s religions and the need to bring out this basic teaching from under the layers of dogma, intolerance and superiority that often characterize religious dialogue. If we could all practice the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—we would be in a better position to treat each other with the respect and compassion that we are all due.

In the secular world, author and media consultant Clay Shirky makes a case for social media as a vehicle for change, arguing that these tools are making it possible for us to cooperate with one another in unprecedented ways. And in the field of education, John Holt questions our school system and points out that rather than encouraging children to learn, it is teaching them failure.

But regardless of the form it takes, true skillfulness comes from a clear understanding of what is needed. Quoting a Sufi proverb, Linda Hogan says, “Yes, worship God, go to church, sing praises, but first tie your camel to the post.” In his discourse, Ryushin Sensei underlines the fact that, as spiritual practitioners, our only concern should be to realize impermanence, emptiness, and causality. Anything else is a distraction that creates separation. And “in the moment that separation appears,” Shugen Sensei says, “all suffering becomes possible. Practice is to ceaselessly close that gap, to see through the illusion of separation.”

Upaya, in all its many forms, is the lens that helps us to see the illusion for what it is

Mn. Vanessa Zuisei Goddard, MRO
Mountain Record, Managing Editor