Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Conversation between a Zen Master and a Tibetan Lama

The teachers, seventy-year-old Kalu Rinpoche of Tibet, a veteran of years of solitary retreat, and the Zen master Seung Sahn, the first Korean Zen master to teach in the United States, were to test each other's understanding of the Buddha's teachings for the benefit of the onlooking Western students. This was to be a high form of what was being called _dharma_ combat (the clashing of great minds sharpened by years of study and meditation), and we were waiting with all the anticipation that such a historic encounter deserved. The two monks entered with swirling robes -- maroon and yellow for the Tibetan, austere grey and black for the Korean -- and were followed by retinues of younger monks and translators with shaven heads. They settled onto cushions in the familiar cross-legged positions, and the host made it clear that the younger Zen master was to begin. The Tibetan lama sat very still, fingering a wooden rosary (_mala_) with one hand while murmuring, _"Om mani padme hum"_ continuously under his breath.
The Zen master, who was already gaining renown for his method of hurling questions at his students until they were forced to admit their ignorance and then bellowing, "Keep that don't know mind!" at them, reached deep inside his robes and drew out an orange. "What is this?" he demanded of the lama. "What is this?" This was a typical opening question, and we could feel him ready to pounce on whatever response he was given.
The Tibetan sat quietly fingering his mala and made no move to respond.
"What is this?" the Zen master insisted, holding the orange up to the Tibetan's nose.
Kalu Rinpoche bent very slowly to the Tibetan monk near to him who was serving as the translator, and they whispered back and forth for several minutes. Finally the translator addressed the room: "Rinpoche says, 'What is the matter with him? Don't they have oranges where he comes from?"
The dialog progressed no further.


At February 21, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

LOL! Looks like Kalu Rinpoche won that one.

At February 21, 2006, Blogger Gareth said...

Perhaps - maybe it suggests more about thier understanding of each others culture, rather than of Dharma.

I wonder who arranged this event?

At February 21, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

gareth: it's from a book by mark epstein called thoughts without a thinker. i cut out the first paragraph but here it is. it explains who arranged it:

In the early days of my interest in Buddhism and psychology,I was given a particularly vivid demonstation of how difficult it was going to be to forge an integration between the two. Some friends of mine had arranged for an encounter between two prominent visiting Buddhist teachers at the house of a Harvard University psychology professor. These were teachers from two distinctly different Buddhist traditions who had never met and whose traditions had in fact had very little contact over the past thousand years. Before the worlds of Buddhism and Western psychology could come together, the various strands of Buddhism would have to encounter one another. We were to witness the first such dialogue.

At February 21, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Although there are of course differences between Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, I don't think this conversation illustrates it. It could just as easily have occurred between two Zen masters.

At February 21, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

i love the story.

what is this?
it's an orange.

absolutely brilliant.

At February 21, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Just as it is

At February 21, 2006, Blogger DA said...

Honestly, as amusing as that anecdote is, I hate dharma combat. It seriously just seems like a Buddhist dick-measuring contest, if you'll forgive me saying so.

At February 21, 2006, Blogger Gareth said...

Maybe you're right Justin. I suppose as much depends on the reader as on the original nature of the text.

Thanks Dan - I had heard the story before, but didn't know where it came from.

At February 21, 2006, Blogger Jules said...

da: Bwaaahahaha! right on. :-)

At February 21, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

:) It seems that dick measuring has a long tradition in Buddhism.

At February 21, 2006, Blogger karen said...

I agree da! But I love the story. I think the Tibetans were truly stumped by why this person kept asking what it was!!! Very similiar to when my husband tells me a joke that goes right over my head (although I have to admit, sometimes I do this on purpose to spoil his fun!).

At February 21, 2006, Blogger endofthedream said...

Dan references Mark Epstein's wonderful book (the title says it all): "Thoughts Without A Thinker." That, and his two other books, are stellar examples of the merging of zazen, Buddhist psychology, and Western psychiatry. I found all three extremely helpful, especially the aforementioned "Thoughts." It provided some compelling insight into why and how we end up ascribing attributes of mass (something that is unchanging) to processes that are not things in themselves (something that changes). It appears that this mental state is a fundamentally necessary constituent of mental health for a young child, but, once it becomes ingrained (as it most surely does if normal mental development procedes), it becomes a burden for adults and leads to much confusion. Thus, something (psychotherapy, meditation) is called on to "undo" the necessary, but inaccurate, learning (conditioning) that occurs in one's early, formative years.


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