Diamond Sutra Fall 2020 practice period: Thoughts on chapter 1

To view Chapter 1 of the Diamond Sutra from a conventional literary perspective, it might be considered an introduction to the sutra itself. Or It could be viewed as the sutra itself – with, as Ed Gōshin said, the remaining 31 chapters serving as commentary.

The part of Chapter 1 that resonated very strongly with me was this:

“One day before noon the Bhagavan [the Buddha] put on his patched robe and picked up his bowl and entered the capital of Shravasti for offerings. After begging for food in the city and eating his meal of rice, he returned from his daily round in the afternoon, put his robe and bowl away, washed his feet, and sat down on the appointed seat. After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.”

It’s all just so simply and clearly told, so quiet. Just one little thing after another. I’m reminded of children’s books, of a mother telling a bedtime story to a child. I’ve read this passage over and over, and it never seems to lose its gentle allure.

When I was a boy, I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and later in life rewatched it with our two young daughters. The same things always struck me: how simple and right Fred Rogers’ life seemed. The right torso covering, hanging neatly in his front closet by the door, for every occasion: a jacket, a sweater, a windbreaker, a rain coat. Sneakers for casual wear, leather shoes for daily chores, galoshes for wet weather. How even feeding his fish was done attentively: just the right amount of food, always a moment to spare to wonder at the small miracle of fish.

And I would wonder – admiringly and a bit jealously, as a young parent pressed for time, my attention drawn in a dozen directions at once – how does he do that? How could I do that?

I realize these shows were scripted, and that “Mister Rogers” was a fictional creation. But it was no less mesmerizing and inspirational for all that. And in some way, I am certain that the jealous admiration I harbored for Mister Rogers helped lead me, decades later, to Zen Buddhism. I wanted to be Mister Rogers.

And so it was, I think, in the Buddha’s lifetime, when people would see him walking the streets, eating, or sitting in meditation. Most of us live life as a continual quiet struggle, constantly stubbing our toes – literally or metaphorically- and cursing, constantly wanting to get to the next thing, hurrying to our next mistake and then running away from it. When there was this guy who did nothing remarkably, and yet looked remarkable doing it – because it was so rare to see the unremarkable. The rest of us, stumbling theatrically through life, and this one little bald-headed guy who, without thinking about it or calling attention to it, seem to be improvising a sort of ballet.

And some people began asking: How does he do that?

How a life is lived can be it own inspiration, a teaching. And the inquiry, which is dropped in Chapter 2 and leads into seemingly infinite vistas of time, self, and space, begins.

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