The Formless Field of Benefaction

Helen Tworkov

There was a time when the Heart Sutra evoked associations with Asian monastic rituals, and not Florida hospitals; and when "the great matter of life and death," as the Zen tradition puts it, did not apply to the American abortion debate; and when running an AIDS hospice may have been considered too secular for Buddhist priests; and when Buddhist priests felt obliged to deny their sexuality, all the more so if it was homosexual. There was a time, not long ago, when Russia did not tolerate inquiry into Buddhist affairs, and it was beyond imagination that Russia would release, as it did recently, new revelations about Stalin's gruesome annihilation of Buddhist monks, or 'allow His Holiness the Dalai Lama to visit Mongolia, which it did last summer.

This range of Buddhist activity, all of which appears in this issue of Tricycle, is further reflected in an investigation of the killings which took place inside a Thai temple in Arizona, and in a pilgrimage to a temple in Northern Thailand. And in the Ancestors department, Rick Fields introduces Hui Shan, a fifth-century Chinese Buddhist monk who may have reached the New World almost a thousand years before the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria set sail.

If Hui Shan was an historical reality, who—we might wonder—was his Queen Isabella? To whom did he owe his patronage or bid his adieus? And for what benefits did he risk a Pacific voyage? Probably not cardamom, cumin, or rubies. For liberation on the other shore? Perhaps he was a restless monk, rebelling against the rigors of meditating with rocks on his head-a custom of Chinese adepts to ward off sleep. Or perhaps he wanted to escape the tedious practice of rote memorization of scripture.

Whether or not Hui Shan represents the first ocean crossing to the New World, or the first Buddhist to touch foot in this hemisphere, the very existence of this story—fact or fiction—lingers in mid-air like a holographic harbinger of contemporary Buddhism travelling its own very curious course through uncharted waters. However fanciful the conjectures, they share the ingredient of surprise, for Hui Shan's story defies all our expectations of a fifth-century Buddhist monk. If in no other way, this alone makes monk Hui Shan, the sea-faring adventurer, a true ancestor of Buddhism in America.

Often, people who claim to know nothing of Buddhism will be astonished by Buddhist programs within prisons or AIDS hospices, or surprised by the commitment of artists, or scientists, or business people to Buddhist practice. So it seems that many people entertain very specific ideas about what Buddhism is not. At this time, a great deal of Buddhist activity in America conforms to no one's expectations of what Buddhism should be. We keep being surprised, even by ourselves. Just now, ours is not predominately a Buddhism of removed monasticism. It is out of robes, in the streets, in institutions, workplaces, and homes. Finally, what seems consistently to defy everyone's expectations is how ordinary the expressions of Buddhism can be, how much Buddhists are just like everyone else—concerned with sex and death, abortion, AIDS and homelessness, the economy, and the environment. Ironically, this immersion in social concerns is creating the anonymity that monasticism has long achieved by the uniformity of appearance. The monastic robe, which in some Zen lineages is called "...the robe of liberation, a formless field of benefaction..." encourages the ordained to forsake materialistic values. This renunciation cultivates the interior seeds of wisdom and compassion; without this, there is no dharma, in or out of the monasteries, in or out of robes. While Buddhist history is steeped in monasticism, our own democratic traditions compel us to share the burden of social problems. The challenge now is to see just how inclusive, and how formless, we can make the field of benefaction.

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