Can we safely assume that the Buddha was a golden fish? At age 32, he passes through the net completely: total liberation. "I, all sentient being and this great Earth now attain the way." And now closely watch what happens, what his life after enlightenment is like. It's grueling. Forty-two years, day in, day out. Wake up with your feet still healing from the 10 miles walked the day before. Start walking, begging for your food, crossing a landscape that isn't the most friendly. Eat a meager meal, make it to the next place of rest. Deal with a lot of really convoluted people, trying to guide them, both in the convolution of their minds and in the convoluted relationship that each one has with you. Sit for three, four, five hours in the afternoon. Take care of the sick. Get some rest. And do it all over again. Is that what you want? Is that what you're looking for?
Xuefeng's answer, in the end, is exactly the same thing, "My affairs as abbot are many and complicated." It's not some glib statement. He's got to end that conversation because there are things happening—he's got 1,500 monks. We've got what, 30 residents? And just look at how much happens with that crew. Now, to understand Xuefeng's position, fill the zendo with 1,500 people. What was his life like? What was he nurtured by?
Remember the question of that vow. There was nothing but nurturing. It seems like there's a groan when Xuefeng says, "My affairs as abbot are many and complicated." Don't mistake this for a groan for an instant. He is flourishing his mane and tail. He is hurling a ten-ton body above the surface of the ocean, creating waves that reach fifteen hundred years later into this zendo. We have a capacity to observe, to imagine, to visualize, to wonder. We also have the capacity to practice. And that practice is always amidst and towards the reality that's stalking us.
Over those 42 years, Buddha didn't often venture to offer a description of an enlightened reality. When he does, it's not very attractive. The best he can come up with is, "the deathless." He wasn't interested in that—he was interested in providing you with the capacity to practice. If you want to know what enlightenment is like, here are practical ways for you to see it for yourself. What are they? Right view. Right thought. Right speech. Right action. Right livelihood. Right effort. Right mindfulness. Right concentration. Samadhi. Sila. Prajna. The virtues and perfections of the bodhisattvas.
The moment you step into the reality of practice, this question is being responded to. Zen is a practical response taken to the extreme. And it's so utterly practical because the only time that you can practice Zen is now. So all of the true teachings of the dynamic Zen tradition don't just visualize, explain, or wonder—they point to how to gain access to this reality, practically, at this particular instant. That's what this exchange is all about.
When Xuefeng says, "Oh, sometime in the future when you pass through the net, I'll tell you," it may seem like he's postponing something. Like saying, "I'll give you instruction in zazen tomorrow." But within the context of this tradition, recognize that he's pointing to right here, right now. Within the context of vow, there is no future time. Only here and now can you practice, verify, and respond to that question. "I will tell you when you come out of the net"—in saying this, he is showing it to you now. And if you're seeing what he is showing you, you're out of the net.