“With my staff across my shoulder, I pay no heed to people,” says the hermit. This is a curious statement. We’re talking about an enlightened teacher, somebody who has realized, not just the nature of the self and the nature of all things, but the interdependent relationship of the whole universe in which nothing is extraneous or unimportant. The hermit, in his realization, manifests compassion. How does that relate with paying no heed to people?
The other translations of this phrase are equally unnerving. One of them reads as “minding no one.” Then there is the edgiest “unconcerned for anybody, I head into the myriad peaks.” What is that “unconcerned?” What kind of an unconcern are we speaking about when referring to somebody who vows with every cell of his body to live a life dedicated to saving all beings, exhaustively and unceasingly?
Hsuah-feng, another teacher that was present on the landscape of Chinese Zen at about the same time, said that when you’re looking for a teacher on this path, make sure that you find one that is completely unconcerned about you. Good advice. “Close-fisted teacher,” was Hsuah-feng’s qualifier for such a person. A negative void is a positive thing.
Earlier, I was officiating our morning liturgy. Immediately after the service, a student came up to me and pointed out that I was late in doing a standing bow during the recitation of the female ancestors. Indeed, that was true. There was a delay; I spaced out for a moment. It was a sluggish dawn. I asked her, “Did you notice everything else in the service that was off?” For there was quite a bit. I was up too early from my bow when recognizing Shakyamuni Buddha. I completely missed two bows in the male ancestors’ lineage, and held prostrations for a couple of names that we normally don’t acknowledge that way. “Did you notice all of that?” How unconcerned was your awareness?
Hermit Sheng of Lotus Flower Peak was an unusual teacher. He chose to live his life as a hermit, but when he was discovered by students who flocked to his abode, he accepted them and taught them without reservation. Like many teachers in the Mahayana tradition, his decision to seek isolation in the mountains came after his deep realization experience. It was an acknowledgment of his need to mature in his clarity. This way of practicing in isolation was encouraged at a certain point in the history of Zen. It was referred to as the “maturation of the holy embryo.” A newly realized person was seen like a premature infant, needing special care—fragile and vulnerable. He or she needed time for practice to mature.