Guishan and Yangshan were master and disciple in 9th century China. Together they formed the Guiyang school, which was one of the main five houses of Zen in China. There are quite a number of koans with the two of them displaying a very close, spiritual relationship. Here they’re plowing the field, working together, examining the dharma—our lives should be like this.
Yangshan said, “Master, this place is low. How can I level it with the higher place?” We tend to see the whole world in terms of high and low. Seeing things this way, we usually want to get to the higher place, and so we have various ranks, positions and titles to establish exactly what ground we’re on. Then everyone knows where we stand and we know everyone else’s place. This is the tyranny of possessing an identity: how does our identity measure up? Are we inferior or superior, ahead of the rest or falling behind? But as Daido Roshi says in the footnote, “This dharma is equal—no high, no low.” That is, the true world doesn’t function in terms of high and low; it just moves in accord with its nature. High and low is the functioning of our conditioned mind.
In formal training we employ various positions and titles that resemble, in a sense, worldly positions and titles. We do this so that we can realize that they are void of any kind of inherent truth—no position or hierarchy can endow someone with superiority. Then, seeing this clearly, we can use these positions for skillful purposes; we can use them knowingly. Yet how much suffering, how much human destruction—past, present and future—arises from a view that places everything in a relative position? This is the mind that dominates and subjugates the earth and everything on it for our own convenience. This mind confuses us, giving rise to the idea that it is our place and our right to subjugate. That’s why we examine the many ways those false assumptions get played out. And what we realize is how frequently our behavior just comes down to habits of convenience and our tendency to be lazy. But ours is not a practice of laziness.
New York City is such a perfect place to notice how quickly our mind turns toward those sharp and decisive discriminations because everywhere we look, we see the vast spectrum of humanity. And so we can practice just observing the mind as we walk down the street and pass people by, or as we sit on the subway or stand at a counter. What do we perceive? The attraction, the repulsion, the formations of mind, the unreal mental constructions, what we imagine about another—all this is mind. We say to ourselves, “This person is smart; that person is stupid. This person is lazy; that person works hard. This person is interesting; that person is boring.” We’re so busy silently judging, we miss the show completely.
One of the first years that I was at the Temple, I came out early on a Sunday morning to go for a run. There was a homeless fellow on the front sidewalk who had bags of his gear spread out around him. A limb had also broken off the tree in front of the Temple from the previous night’s storm, so the whole sidewalk was a mess. I went over and said good morning and asked, “What’s up?” and he said, “I’m just organizing my stuff.” And I said, “You know, in a little bit people are going to be coming in here, so this is going to be a little bit of a problem.” He said, “Don’t worry, Reverend, I’ll have it all cleaned up.” So I went off on my run, and went around the block figuring I’d swing back by just to see how it was going. As I ran past, he saw me and called out, “I’m on it, Reverend!” I said, “Okay, great,” and figured I’d give him a little bit of room, so I just went off running. When I came back a while later, the sidewalk was immaculate—perfectly clean. All of his gear was carefully organized, meticulously packaged. Not only had he taken care of his own personal gear, but he had broken up all of the wood from the fallen branch into same-sized sticks, and tied them into a bundle with a piece of cloth. He had lashed the bundle to a branch of the tree, and on a piece of cardboard, written a note that said, “Dear Sanitation Workers, just pull this string and this wood will drop out and you can haul it away.” I kid you not. If we were a business, I’d have hired the guy.