Tesshin was back from Japan this week. One observation he wanted to share with us are the statues of Manjushri which commonly guard the entrance of Zen temples. Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of wisdom. A Bodhisattva in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition is an accomplished being who delays their entry into nirvana in order to help all other sentient beings achieve awakening. Many Japanese and especially western tourists see these statues as representing warrior daemons that protect the temple and monks from outsiders. Tesshin reminded us that this could not be further from the truth!
So why would an accomplished being dedicated to saving all beings wield a sword – a recognized instrument of violence? One clue that Manjushri is not meant to scare away “infidels” is what is in his other hand – a scroll containing the Dharma or the codification of all wisdom. (I would like to believe that in Zen this scroll would be BLANK!!)
Here Tesshin was very clear. Manjushri is holding “Tools of the Trade” for awakening. The scroll is pretty obvious. The Dharma is our guide for alleviating suffering. We can think of the Dharma as the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path, etc. The sword is a symbol to remind us to cut away all of our delusions. So the sword is not an instrument of vengeance used on others in violence. It is used only on ourselves. But why a sword and not something more peaceful like a “dust whisk” to remove delusions. It is because the removal of delusions is critical and is not to be taken lightly. We do not casually remove delusions – this is a matter of life and death and we must be constantly reminded of this fact. So, these statues are put out in front of the temple, not to protect it from others, but to clearly tell everyone what is going on INSIDE the temple. The monks are working with wisdom and simultaneously training their mind by constantly cutting out distractions. Tesshin then asked – is this not what we do every time we sit down on the cushion? We work with the mind – constantly eliminating distractions, fantasies, thoughts, etc.
Tesshin then explained that Zen is not the only tradition which focuses on contemplation, wisdom, and the removal of distraction. It so happens that right next to his temple sits a Carmelite nunnery. Tesshin has known these nuns for decades as they were already cloistered when Tetsugyuji temple was established. While the theology and traditions are quite different, it is striking how much the Carmelite nuns and Zen monks share in practical practices for mental discipline, contemplation, and focus. In fact, Tesshin mentioned that this group of Japanese women joined the nunnery as the felt that modern Buddhism in Japan has become too casual and “indulgent.” Tesshin mentioned that he gained a lot of inspiration from these spiritual sisters in the early days of his temple.
Tesshin next told a story about his own delusions. When he was a Japanese monk, his teacher once asked him what faith tradition he came from and why he turned towards Buddhism. Tesshin explained that he did not like the hypocrisy and corruption in the Western religious traditions. The wise teacher laughed and “bonked” Tessin on the head and said that is the most stupid reason for turning away from a wisdom tradition covering thousands of years of teaching. It is just another form of delusion to think that one faith is a better road to realization than another. They all have something to teach. As such, Tesshin started reading the Western Bible again – this time with fresh eyes! What Tesshin began to realize is that there is wisdom everywhere in the world – if you can cut out your delusions, fantasies, preconceptions – in other words, if you can cut your ego away and see reality as it really is. Tesshin reminded us that this is the real lesson of Zen – not the history – not the Sutras – not the lineages – but raw reality! This reality can be apprehended in Zen, in a Carmelite nunnery, or in a mosque. It can be apprehended everywhere because the apprehension is in YOUR mind – not in a building or a tradition.
Tesshin wrapped up by saying he was happy to be back with us and encouraged all of us to strengthen our meditation practice.