Dumbfounded in the Dharma

Helen Tworkov

In Thoughts Without a Thinker, Dr. Mark Epstein recalls an encounter between Kalu Rinpoche and Korean Zen master Seung Sahn that took place twenty years ago at the home of a Harvard professor. As the Zen and Tibetan traditions employ “dharma combat” to test and hone one’s understanding, the students of both masters arranged for them to debate each other. Seung Sahn opened the debate, reaching into his gray robe and removing an orange. With classic Zen theatrics he held the orange toward his opponent’s face and yelled: “What is it?!” The elderly lama just continued to finger his prayer beads. Seung Sahn tried again, holding out the orange and demanding to know: “What is it?!”

Now Kalu Rinpoche was one of the great masters of Mind to be blown out of the land of the snows by the Chinese invasion. When it came to matters of reality he was no slouch. But while everyone waited for the old lama to manifest unfettered Mind, he remained silent. Finally, Kalu Rinpoche whispered to his translator. Then the translator said (to paraphrase) “Rinpoche wants to know,"What’s the matter with this guy? Hasn’t he ever seen an orange before?’”

As the story indicates, while absolute truth is universal and free of cultural conditioning, its means of transmission are not. Today we continue to juxtapose the various modes of dharma—both Asian and Western—in our search for appropriate forms: Tibetan scholar Jeffrey Hopkins (p. 53), addresses the need for inclusivity in terms of ancient teachings on form and emptiness. Hopkins’s version of a famous Tibetan manual on the arts of love aspires to transmit the dharma in ways that meet the needs of gay men. In “Enlightenment Needs a Minyan” (p. 48), Lewis Richmond wrestles with Asian models of hierarchy and authority, while Toni Packer (p. 32) has diverged radically from the Zen tradition in which she was trained and today tends toward the form of no form.

These experiments continue the lively investigation of dharma in the West. Yet insofar as they are a reaction to the forms of the East, these innovative paradigms address somewhat formal concerns.

At the same time, there is a another kind of transmission taking place through nameless, amorphous interchanges with the culture at large. I was reminded of this, again, during a recent visit to Seung Sahn’s Cambridge Zen Center. During the evening dharma discourse the master once more demonstrated his considerable gifts for confounding the rational mind with assaults similar to the one of twenty years ago described by Epstein. The next day, as I waited for the train to South Station, I encountered a Zen center resident. She was on her way to meet with her first-year university literature students. She explained that her students had requested extra discussion time because they were so utterly confounded by her assignment. Asked what the assignment was, she replied: “What is literature?”

During Soen Roshi’s first visit to San Francisco in 1949 he addressed The Theosophical Society where he spoke of Nangaku, the Chinese Zen master. Nangaku was asked by the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng, “Who are you?”

According to Soen Roshi, Nangaku was dumbfounded and could not answer. In conclusion, Soen Roshi said, “Nowadays, there is no one capable of being dumbfounded like Nangaku. Everyone knows everything and can answer any question.”

Even if the literature students of Seung Sahn’s disciple prove Soen right—thinking that they know who they are or what this life is all about, and never wanting to appear dumb—how sweet to consider that for a moment they were stumped; and that, however tenuous, the transmission of dumbfounded dharma continues.

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