Green Koan Case 52: Yen-shou’s Sand Stupa

Clark Strand

CASE #52:    Yen-shou’s Sand Stupa


Master Yen-shou of Yung-ming once summarized for his students the Expedient Means chapter of the Lotus Sutra:
 

Even if you recite the buddha-name with a scattered mind or praise Buddha in a low voice, or scratch out a picture of the Buddha with your fingernail, or make a stupa out of a pile of sand, and thus gradually accumulate merit, all of you have achieved enlightenment.


BACKGROUND:
Yen-shou of Yung-ming  
     The Ch’an monk and Pure Land practitioner Yung-Ming Yen-Shou (905-975) was the key figure in the synthesis of Ch’an and Pure Land Buddhism in China. He taught that the Pure Land was the realm of the Purified Mind, rather than an actual realm many light years to the west of this world, as traditionally taught in the Pure Land Sutras. He is said to have been a military official who converted from Confucianism to Buddhism.

Recite the buddha-name       Refers to the Pure Land practice of nien-fo—reciting Namo-omito-fo, Amida Buddha’s name. A simple devotion, performed by laypeople and monastics alike, it could be used to express simple faith or to enter deep samadhi, and often both at once.

Expedient Means chapter… 
      The Sanskrit term upaya, sometimes translated as “skillful means,” is the subject of the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra. According to Burton Watson, it refers to “a device or temporary means adopted in order to relieve suffering and bring beings to enlightenment, often by offering provisional teachings as a means of guiding them to the truth.” The Lotus Sutra stresses that there are myriad expedient paths to enlightenment but cautions its readers not to cling to any one method as the final word. The most famous example of upaya in the Lotus Sutra states that even a child’s stupa made of mud or sand may be the karmic cause of enlightenment.

NOTE: The Lotus Sutra teaches the oneness of samsara and nirvana. In ecological terms, this means that this world and the world of enlightenment are identical. Upaya may therefore be reinterpreted as “those beliefs, practices, rituals, or ideals which lead to a sustainable (or “enlightened”) human presence in this world, rather than the next.”

 

COMMENTARY:
If you gradually accumulate merit, all of you have achieved enlightenment. What can that mean? How can enlightenment be gradual and, at the same time, already achieved?

Reciting Namo-omito-fo, doodling a Buddha with a nail, making a Buddhist sand castle on the shore—the list could go on and on. Are they an arrow pointing to the future, or the stone that marks the way? Maybe that’s why the sutra tells us they all work—and that none of them do.

VERSE:

There once was a monk from Bodhgaya
Who decided to master Upaya.
He set out on the path
Got as far as Sarnath,
But never arrived at Bodhgaya.

 

Find all the Green Koans here.

 

 

Image via krustacean (Flickr)

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Dominic Gomez's picture

Hmm, you seem to be saying, "But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of denouncing pleasure and praising pain was born and I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness."
Sounds like something Shakyamuni may have mentioned sometime during his 40 year teaching career. Which of his 84,000 sutras are you quoting? It isn't from the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni's culmination of all that he taught during his lifetime.

Jim Spencer's picture

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Dominic Gomez's picture

;-)

Jim Spencer's picture

no.

we must get beyond the dualistic nature of words.

Dominic Gomez's picture

But are not "words" (as is any "thing" within the realm of phenomena) neutral entities that have no intrinsic nature of their own, save whatever is instilled in them by the human beings who use them?
IOW, in and of themselves, words are "empty". It is people who breath life into them (using qualities such as a "dualistic nature", et al.) and then use them to portray the dualism that actually exists only in their minds (as the way they think).

Jim Spencer's picture

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

The Buddha only raised a flower at Vulture Peak.

ClarkStrand's picture

Wow. Turn your back for a moment, and people start speaking Latin.

Jim Spencer's picture

And so castles made of sand fall into the sea, eventually. - Jimi Hendrix

But I build them anyway, because that is what I do. - Jim Spencer

Dominic Gomez's picture

"castles made of sand fall into the sea, eventually...But I build them anyway, because that is what I do"

As is your right as a human being, Jim. No one should be denied or deny themselves the opportunity make the world a better place...to build "castles" that may be enjoyed by one and all. You and I, after all, are conscious and sentient beings living in the real (albeit often imperfect) world. It is nothing less than the bodhisattva imperative to "build", or make efforts towards the happiness of others, because that is what we do.

Jim Spencer's picture

The castles that I was thinking about are things like zazen and sutra chanting. When I am done chanting the Heart Sutra, where has it gone? Back into the sea. Actually, it has never left the sea.

I'm not sure that I am living in the real world. I'm living in a particular temporal emanation, the reality of which I question constantly. This world is completely perfect as it is; it is my layering of perceptions over it that create like and dislike, perfection and imperfection.

I do my practice for myself. I say this with the understanding that there is only one life in this world, all beings being inseparable. When I sit, all beings sit. When I eat, all beings eat. There is no mutual benefit. There is only benefit.

Dominic, I appreciate and look forward to reading your comments.

Gassho

Dominic Gomez's picture

I can understand your perspective regarding the ephemeral nature of "castles" that we build, or desire to build. And I can also see your point that, by extension, the real world that you and I share may not actually be "real" at all. That's a common perception.
But that "there is only one life in this world" and that "when (you) sit, all beings sit" etc. seems rather presumptuous, don't you think?

Jim Spencer's picture

I feel that it is presumptuous only as long as I cling to duality. Once I let go of duality, it becomes truth.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I can accept your belief. But isn't this "truth" actually a subjective notion that you have formed?

asagacki's picture

What does this mean?
I don't know.
What do I know anyway?
I don't know.
I do know
It's just like this ....

Dominic Gomez's picture

>If you gradually accumulate merit, all of you have achieved enlightenment. What can that mean?<

I would venture that Master Yen is clueing us in on the immeasureable vastness and ubiquity of the life condition of enlightenment . His realization is akin to William Blake's ability to perceive an entire world in a single grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower, or hold infinity in the palm of his hand and experience eternity in an hour. Regardless of how seemingly minute and humble an act or offering is made in homage to the universe, as long as it is done in all sincerity, it encapsulates the essential nature (buddha) of the entire universe.

> How can enlightenment be gradual and, at the same time, already achieved?<

One drop of water from the ocean has the same molecular make-up as the entire ocean. When one holds a single drop of sea water in the palm of one's hand, one is already holding all the bodies of water of planet Earth. And in time, each drop of water will eventually add up to become an ocean.

ClarkStrand's picture

This last reminds me of a metaphor I used in "How to Believe in God"--namely, that we can't hold the ocean in a thimble, but we can toss it into the ocean so that "it is contained by what it cannot contain." This is analogous to the mind in meditation and samadhi.