Sep 24, 2021
Martin Goodson

The Lion’s Roar

Exercises in Mindfulness

The fierceness of the Zen Masters can leave us feeling uneasy, however what they are pointing us towards is the secret gift of Zen training, open to everyone.

Tamatori being pursued bya dragon


Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There is a Zen saying to the effect that a Zen master should have the “face of a lion and the legs of a cow”.

When a monk [1] goes for interview, he enters into a confrontation with the master. The rough treatment we read about in the stories describing these encounters is fierce. Sometimes there is shouting; sometimes, hitting. The monk submits his answers, and – more often than not – the master snatches them away with great force. 

On the face of it, such behaviour appears quite cruel. Yet the master is motivated by a deep compassion for his or her students. He knows he must play this role for them if they are to succeed in their endeavours.

Rather than deter the monk, the master’s actions and rough treatment can trigger a fierce determination in him: this is precisely what the master is after. This determination is a source of great strength, and novices with more timid temperaments may come to realise that they really do have access to such strength – often for the first time in their lives. Thus the master’s kindness toward his students is as the cow’s toward her calf.

There is a story that tells of a man who possesses a wonderful jewel, and who is in the habit of taking it out frequently and polishing it, the better to then admire it. One day, he takes a walk by the sea, and looks at the jewel glinting in the sun. The glinting attracts a dragon who lives at the bottom of the sea, and who is also fond of lovely jewels. The dragon rises up and out of the water, snatches the jewel and descends back to its palace on the seabed. 

The man recovers from the shock, turns toward the sea and demands that the dragon return his jewel. The dragon laughs, believing the man powerless to act. Yet the man draws himself up and makes the following vow:

“I shall empty out this ocean, bucket by bucket, until one day your beautiful palace will stand, ruined, in a sandy desert!”

The dragon laughs again, and exclaims: “Even if you do attempt such a feat, you are too puny to achieve it.”

“Then I shall wait until I am once again reborn as a human,” replies the man, “and shall return to continue the task. And when that life expires, I shall be reborn again and again, always returning until it is complete, and your palace is a desert ruin.”

Now, dragons live for a very long time, and this one could tell from the man’s voice that he really meant what he said. The dragon could well picture its great palace standing in a dry and sandy desert one day; so it leaps once more into the sky, spits out the jewel and plunges back down to the depths. 

The man picks up his jewel, polishes it dry and goes on his way.

This magical story conveys something of the great power of a heartfelt vow. But the shallow ‘I’ does not generally feel up to all this. Such a vow – like the one made by the possessor of the jewel, or that made by the ascetic Gautama before sitting under the Bodhi tree – must come from the bottom of the heart.

In daily life practice, ‘I’ rarely feel such strength; instead, half-heartedness creeps in easily. When difficulties arise, I might abandon the practice, thinking: It’s all too much at the moment. The practice becomes like a fair-weather friend, instead of a stalwart ally who stands by us through thick and thin.

The secret of training is to use these difficulties, and to make use of opportunities as well, to progress: to see for ourselves that, in such moments, rather than allowing despair to take hold, we can turn toward the Buddha with hands folded and bow, asking for help – and then face doing what needs to be done. Thus we can discover a strength that goes much deeper than ‘I’, which can be trusted if ‘I’ can just get out of the way sufficiently.

There are stories of Zen masters who face their own difficulties with this kind of sheer determination, even when it costs them their lives. Such stories are not meant to evoke a ‘rather-you-than-me’ response, but to stir us to admire this deeper quality, to connect with the sort of strength that – as Master Mumon said – does not come in through the front gate …

For it is already our inheritance.

[1] This article uses the term ‘monk’ for any person who is ordained.

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