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Sunfaced Buddha / Master Ma is Unwell

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 10/19/2006
In Topics: Zen Koans

Koan on Sunfaced Buddha or Master Ma is Unwell as published in case 36 of the Book of Serenity and case 3 of the Blue Cliff Record. This koan reminds us that rebust life or weakness, like all states, are pure or perfect in themselves.

Sun-face Buddha / Master Ma is Unwell

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Oct 19, 2006

Edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager

Tonight I will talk about the koan “Master Ma Was Unwell, case three from The Book of Serenity:

Master Ma was unwell. The monastery superintendent asked,

“Master, how has your health been in recent days?”

The Great Teacher said, “Sun-face buddha, Moon-face buddha.”

The first time you hear this story, it sounds a little enigmatic, but, in fact, this story is pretty clear, although, it is pretty hard to live.

Two small bits of information will illuminate this story. First of all, it is good to know that Master Ma was a very famous Zen master, who was particularly known for his tremendous strength and vitality. He was a very early Tang dynasty master, and he was the one who set the tone for the model of Zen master as macho: shouting and beating and asking questions. The image that you have in Zen of such a person was originally set by Master Ma, which is why it is particularly interesting in this story that he is sick.

The sense of the story is that he doesn’t just have a cold. He is really sick. He’s completely laid low. He is a shadow of himself. Maybe he’s emaciated and weak. As a matter of fact, most commentators of the story say that he is on his death bed, maybe hours away from death.

The second thing it helps to know is the reference to “Sun-face buddha, Moon-face buddha.” Anytime you read the case, the footnote says there is a sutra that lists many different buddhas. Sometimes sutras list buddhas and bodhisattvas in extravagant numbers, page after page of names of buddhas, with maybe one or two lines about their characteristics. In one such list, in one such sutra, you find the Sun-face buddha and the Moon-face buddha. The Sun-face buddha is a buddha who lives for a really long time, maybe hundreds and hundreds of years, or even eons. The Moon-face buddha is the buddha who lives for one day and one night.

When you know these things, it’s not that hard to figure out what is going on in this story. Here we have a tough and robust Zen master on his death bed. The superintendent of the monastery comes along, knowing all too well that the great man’s days are numbered, but euphemistically asks, “And how is your health?” Imagine going to somebody on their deathbed and saying, “How is your health, sir?” In reply the Zen master says, “Sun-face buddha. Moon-face buddha.” Master Ma means sometimes robust, healthy and strong, with many years of life ahead, and sometimes weak and on the point of dying, maybe with a few hours remaining.

Master Ma is well aware that these two things – Sun-face buddhas, Moon-face buddhas, robust life, and weakness – are like other states we could experience. They differ from one another, but he also knows that whatever the state, it is always Sun-face buddha, Moon-face buddha. Buddha is always Buddha. All life, even when you are emaciated and one day from death, is completely pure and completely buddha. So, you can find deep happiness and satisfaction regardless of circumstances, even though one recognizes that strength and weakness, laughter and tears, differ from one another.

Most of you know me fairly well and know that I spend a certain amount of time running around, encouraging people to meditate, because it is good for them. I believe in it. Meditation really is good for you. It slows your heart rate. It makes you more peaceful and calm, which lowers your blood pressure, reduces your stress level, and might prevent illness, or even possibly cure illnesses that you have. We could probably claim that meditation practice makes you more creative, gives you more spaciousness and open-mindedness, makes you more flexible mentally and emotionally, and, therefore, more able to deal with troubles that come up. Instead of being completely overwhelmed by them, you might have some ability to look for solutions that you might not ordinarily be willing to look for.

Meditation also gives you the capacity to get beyond the various emotional or mental habits that you might be stuck in from old conditioning, to the point where you have identified them as you. This is how I am. But it might not be so, and maybe through meditation practice, you can overcome these ancient habits. Not to say that this happens overnight, but this is really possible. I have seen this happen.

I also know that meditation practice—when you combine it as we do here with some sense of community and friendship, with teaching, and with encouragement to apply what you learn on your cushion to your everyday life—will almost certainly help improve your human communication and your relationships. It will almost certainly open your heart to love and compassion. It will probably make you a more ethical and responsible human being.

I have a group of lawyers that I work with, and we have come up with a term “the meditative perspective.” This describes in a non-sectarian way the attitude and approach to life that will eventually arise out of a regular meditation practice, when you combine it with teaching, with some community, and with some active self-reflection.

This begins to remind me of the sentence on your tube of toothpaste: “This product has been proven to be an effective, decay preventing dentifrice when combined with a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene.” I actually believe in the virtues of toothpaste. Since my dentist is sitting nearby, I will tell you that I brush every day, twice a day, and use an electronic toothbrush.

I believe in the virtues of toothpaste to keep your teeth healthy, and I really believe in the virtues of meditation practice to help make your life better and the world better. Still, I confess that I often feel slightly uneasy about promoting meditation practice in this way. One reason that I feel a little uneasy is that if you are looking too hard in your meditation practice for improvements to occur, there is a really good chance that you will be disappointed, because your very looking and hoping and desiring for those improvements might stand in the way of those improvements. It works that way sometimes.

Besides, I have noticed that by the time the meditation practice improves your life in just the ways you wanted it to improve your life, you are no longer interested in these particular improvements. You have already taken them for-granted, and now there are other improvements you are seeking. Furthermore, on top of all this, meditation practice, like anything else in this world, does not come with guarantees. It might not work. Or, at least, it might not work as clearly and simply as one would like. As you all know, because you may have experienced this yourself, it is possible to brush well every day and still have tooth decay and gum disease.

These are minor things. The main reason I feel uneasy about promoting meditation practice as something that will improve your life is that in the end, it definitely won’t work, because everything is impermanent, and you are going to lose your life and everything that you cherish. This is not what you point out when you are selling meditation practice and decay preventing dentifrice. It seems disingenuous. Also, in the end, quite counter-productive.

Someone asked me if I would endorse his health book. So I read the book. It was actually really good. It advocates a very do-able and sane program that includes a good diet, exercise, and meditation, as the pathway to a good and long, healthy life. This is impressive and really great, but it seems slightly misleading. The book never mentions anywhere that sickness, old age, and death really are problems that sometimes do not have solutions, even with a good diet, good exercise, brushing every day, and meditation. You still could possibly get sick and die.

Somebody might say, Why worry about that? Why not enjoy life now while you can? The problem is that impermanence doesn’t come later on. Impermanence and the suffering it brings is the shape of every conditioned moment of time right now. If you want to live your life with some depth and some truth, you have to take all of this into account now. Yes, you have to brush every day, meditate, be happy, be healthy, be as strong as you can be, and, at the same time, recognize how vulnerable and fleeting your life actually is, moment by moment.

In fact, to digest the truth of our lives is the only way to be truly and lastingly happy. Only when we have incorporated impermanence and life’s sadness and tragedy into our living as something necessary and beautiful for every day—rather than as something that is unfortunate and deniable and feared and avoided at all costs—can we really find a happiness that is all-inclusive. Not only inclusive of everything that will happen to us in our lifetime, but also inclusive of the suffering of others too, which means compassion.

When he was really ill toward the end of his life, just like Master Ma, Suzuki Roshi said – this is one of his most wonderful sayings – “We may believe that zazen will make us physically strong and fundamentally healthy, but a healthy mind is not just a healthy mind in the usual sense, and a weak body is not just a weak body. Even though I die, it is all right with me. That is Buddha. If I suffer when I die, that is all right. That is suffering Buddha. No confusion in it. We should be very grateful to have a limited body like mine. Like yours.”

So it’s nice that Master Ma, of all of the Zen masters, joins Suzuki Roshi in teaching us this poignant teaching. If we are lucky enough to be robust and healthy and tough, let’s enjoy it. There are many stories of how Master Ma enjoyed and made use of his tremendous strength and robustness. The numbers range, but it is said he had between 84 and 109 dharma successors. When I think of just the ceremonies themselves, let alone the relationships and training of 109 people, I almost take to my bed. But supposedly Master Ma actually did this. So he really made use of his robustness and energy.

It’s also important to enjoy being weak and sick and very near to death, when that is what is happening. Master Ma was an acute enough Zen master not to have been caught in his identity, an identity that I am sure was very much reinforced by his students and by the great fame he enjoyed in Tang dynasty China. He enjoyed it while it lasted; he made use of it while he could; and when it changed into something else, he embraced that too.

We may ask, How possible is such a thing for us? I think it is actually quite possible. If you wash away the patina of ancient, Chinese literary style and our own innocent projections, what is the difference between Master Ma and us? There is a difference, just as there is a difference between a Sun-face buddha and a Moon-face buddha, but they are both buddhas. So, also, there is no difference between ourselves and our great Chinese ancestor.

Here is how I suggest we go about this project. We could ask ourselves on all occasions, What do we expect? When we ask this question, all the time asking ourselves this, we will uncover the fact that we are always expecting something. We expect a lot all the time. We will see very quickly that when our expectations are not fulfilled, we are suffering, as we are madly trying to adjust the universe to conform to our expectations.

Suppose that we trained our minds in Sun-face buddha and Moon-face buddha to the point where we were aware all the time that things happen. They just happen, and they always happened beyond our expectations. The world operates on a pattern larger and more mysterious than the pattern we dream up according to our needs and wants. This is actually great news! This larger pattern is more inclusive, more profound, and more beautiful than our little ideas, preferences, and expectations, which are so much less interesting.

Knowing this, and seeing it over and over again in our experience every day, we can internalize it as an over-arching attitude. Then I think we would be able to face experience without being too caught up in expectations. And we would finally be happy to let go of expectations. We would be happy to let go of expectations, because we would find it much more satisfying simply to be as present with what occurs as we can be and see what happens. If we are healthy and young – excellent. If we are falling apart and we are ill – not so excellent. That is how it is. A whole, new, interesting pathway that we would never expect, and could never have predicted, now opens before us: a new adventure, a new identity, a new chance for wisdom, courage, connection, and love.

This story of Master Ma has the same point as the story that is so often told of Hakuin, an 18th century Japanese Zen master, who, by the way, also was quite ill most of the time in his early life. This is what made him practice Zen, his inexplicable, serious illness.

When he was older and was a priest in a village temple, the parents of a young girl in the village came to him outraged. Their daughter had told them the father of her illegitimate child was none other than Hakuin, the village priest. Thrusting the newborn into the old priest’s arms to take care of from now on, they cursed him and went off in a huff. Hakuin said to them, “Oh, is that so?” Later on, when the daughter revealed the true identity of the father, the parents came back to Hakuin in a tremendous state of remorse and embarrassment, and Hakuin said, “Oh, is that so?”

We might criticize the Hakuin of this story as a little too passive. Shouldn’t a person defend himself when unjustly accused? Possibly so, but the story, whether true or not, is true and beautiful in another way. Wouldn’t it be nice to have so much inner balance and acceptance of whatever happens that we could greet everything, good, bad, or indifferent, even attacks on our reputation with equanimity and appreciation? Defending oneself from that inner solidity and peacefulness would be different from defending oneself out of desperation or fear.

The Blue Cliff Record pointer to this story about Hakuin includes the following lines:

“This way will do. Not this way will also do.” This is too diffuse. “This way won’t do. Not this way will not do either.” This is too cut off. Without treading these two paths, what would be right?

When we hear the story of Hakuin, we might think Hakuin’s response is Whatever. You might even think that Zen non-dualism is the path of Whatever. Whatever happens is fine. After all, it’s all Buddha. But this is too diffuse. Not crisp enough. There has to be some strictness. But with too much strictness, you can reject almost everything as being not quite good enough. Not quite Zen enough. Not quite correct enough. And this is too cut off. Too severe. Too unfriendly.

So, without falling into these two extremes, how do we conduct ourselves? In a way, we are always wrong, no matter what we do. In a way, we are always right, no matter what we do. Still, here and now, as far as our capacity and understanding go, we have to do something correct and strong and compassionate. What is it that we do?

Suzuki Roshi commented on this case, “Master Ma is Unwell,” many years ago, and I have always been impressed by his comment. He says:

Once you realize buddha-nature within and without, there is no special way to follow for a student or any specific suggestion to give for a teacher. When there is a problem there is the way to go. Actually, you continuously go over and over the great path of the Buddha with your teacher, who is always with you.

When we practice zazen, we commit ourselves to coming back to our breath over and over and over again, no matter how many times we stray, content to let everything go as we exhale and to accept everything that comes as we inhale. To sit, returning over and over again to the simple feeling of just being alive, no matter what content is present, until, finally, we are never far from this feeling all day long. We always trust it as primary, as foundational, no matter what. When we feel that way, we have realized buddha-nature within and without, and there is no special way for us to follow. When it’s Moon-face buddha, that is the way to go. When it’s Sun-face buddha, that is the way to go. When something really difficult happens, there is the path – straight ahead. Nothing but the path, no matter what happens later.

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