The Black Hound, Maha-Kanha Jataka

Black Hound

By Rafe Martin©

Long ago, in a distant past world age, the Bodhisattva came to life as Shakra, king of the gods. Resplendent and radiant, shining with the glory of the merit he’d acquired in the course of countless lifetimes of noble and selfless effort, he sat at ease on his golden throne. It was peaceful up there in vast empty space where countless stars shimmered and distant galaxies glowed. Then the Buddha-to-Be peered down towards the Earth, his old home, far below. The sun’s light and warmth pouring through space glinted off shining seas and shone on pearly clouds. Snow-capped mountains gleamed. There were continents of many colors. It was very beautiful, yet, somehow, Shakra felt restless and uneasy.

His luminous senses expanded further. Now he felt the heat of war. He heard the bawling of calves bound for slaughter, the yelping of dogs, the cawing of crows. He heard children crying. He heard voices shouting in anger. He heard the weeping of the hungry, the lonely, and the poor. Tears fell from his eyes, showering the earth like meteors.

He struck the arm of his throne with a mighty hand. “This can’t go on. Something must be done!” he exclaimed. He called for his charioteer, the skillful god, Matali who, as is the way of gods, appeared at once.

“Shall I get the horses ready? Do you want to travel, my Lord?” asked Matali.

“There is work for us,” said Shakra. “Down there.” He pointed towards the Earth. “No need for horses or chariot. We’ll go ourselves.”

Shakra rose from his throne and transformed himself into a grim-looking forester with a great horn bow in his hand and a quiver of sharp arrows on his back. Matali became a black hound with tangled fur, crimson eyes, sharp teeth, and a blood-red mouth and tongue.

Shakra leapt into the blackness of space, whistling for the Matali to follow. The hound leapt after. Down they plummeted from among the shining stars to land at last on the Earth beside a great, walled city.

“Who are you, stranger?” called out the astonished soldier looking down from his post on the wall.

“I am a hunter, as you can see,” said Shakra. “And this” he added, “is my hound.”

The hound opened its jaws. Smoke curled from deep in its throat. Its jaws opened wider. The soldier felt like he was staring into a cauldron of blood and fire.

“Bar the gates!” screamed the soldier. “Bar them now!”

Quickly the city gates were shut and barred tight.

What did Shakra and Matali care about that? They leapt over the city’s high wall and its gate shut so tightly against them. Shocked to see the grim hunter and his terrible hound dropping down upon them, the people of the city fled madly in every direction. The great hound landed, shook itself, and then bounded hungrily after them, herding the people together like sheep. Men, women, and children fell to the ground and cried aloud in terror.

“Hold!” ordered Shakra. “Do not move! Stay where you are! My hound is hungry. He must feed. Feed my hound!”

The king of that city, quaking with fear, cried, “Bring food for the hound! Bring it now!”

Quickly wagons rolled into the market, loaded with meat and bread, fruit and grain. The hound gobbled it down in a single gulp. Gone.

“My hound is hungry. My hound shall feed!” cried Shakra again, more loudly still. “Feed my hound!”

Again the wagons rolled. Again the hound gobbled all the food that had been brought, in one great gulp. Then it opened its muzzle and it howled a cry of anguish that seemed to rise from the belly of hell. The people covered their ears in horror. Shakra plucked his bowstring making a sound like thunder on a stormy night.

“Can you not see? He is still hungry!” cried Shakra. “Feed my hound!”

The king wrung his hands and wept. “We have tried, my Lord. But he has eaten everything. There is nothing left!”

“Then,” said Shakra, “my hound shall feed on the unrighteous, greedy, selfish, cruel, and hard-hearted. It shall feed on those who lie, kill, and steal. If no righteous ones are found among you, none with compassionate hearts and courageous minds that ever seek for truth, my hound will gorge itself on your forests, gnaw your mountains, gobble up the birds and beasts, devour rocks and rivers, and even tear your sun and moon down from the blessed sky. Oh, my hound shall feed on you!”

“Mercy!” cried the king and all the people. “Have mercy, please! We beg you! Spare us and our world!”

“Cease your endless fighting,” said Shakra. “Use your wealth to feed the poor, care for the sick, homeless, orphaned, and old. Teach your children kindness and courage. Respect the Earth and its many creatures. Care for one another, and learn at last to be content. Your self-centered ways have gone unchecked far too long. Only when you have done these things shall I leash my hound. Heed my words!”

Then Shakra grew huge and blazed with light. The black hound leapt up curling like smoke. Together they rose into the air, higher and higher.

Down below, in the streets of the city, men and women looked up in dismay. They reached out their hands to one another and vowed to change their lives, vowed to do as the mighty huntsman had decreed.

Back on his golden throne high above, the Bodhisattva looked down once more, and sighed. He shook his star-crowned head sadly, then smiled at Matali, standing nearby. “Maybe a good scare will do the trick,” he said, wiping his brow with a radiant arm. “I hope they get the message and change their ways.”

Around them countless stars blazed with light, while the darkness slumbered like a dog by the fire.

Black Hound—Upaya paramita; perfection of skillful means

The priest Chosa (Shi-shuang) said, “How do you step from the top of a hundred foot pole?”

An eminent master of former times said:

You who sit on the top of a hundred-foot pole,

although you have entered the Way, it is not yet genuine.

Take a step from the top of the pole

and worlds of the ten directions will be your total body.

Case 46, Mumonkan, Gateless Barrier


The hermit Renge Ho took up his staff before an assembly and said, “When the old worthies reached here, why didn’t they stay?” The audience was silent. He himself answered, “It has no power for the way.” Again he said, “After all what is it?” The audience was again silent. And again he answered for them, “Carrying my staff across the back of my neck, going into the thousand, the ten thousand peaks.”

Case 25 Hekigan Roku The Blue Cliff Record

“What about when there’s a head but no tail?”

“After all, it’s not sublime.”

from Case 66 Shoyoroku, Book of Serenity

To talk skillfully about the paramita of skillfulness itself, also known as liberative means or upaya, is so daunting that I’m just going to take a leap, jump right into it like the bodhisattva in our story, and devil, as they say, take the hindmost.

The Bodhisattva has worked hard for countless lifetimes. Without thought for himself, without thought of getting somewhere, or gaining personally, he has offered heads, eyes, hands, ideas, food, shelter, kindness, wisdom—whatever has been needed to be of aid in whatever challenging situation or circumstance has been before him. And without trying to gain, he has gained. Having worked hard, he’s actually earned a terrific reward. What he got is—heaven! As the Talking Heads neatly put it, “Everyone is trying to get to the bar, name of the bar, the bar is named heaven.” And the Bodhisattva has made it there. But heaven, as the Talking Heads also remind us, is a place “where nothing, nothing ever happens.” It’s perfectly still there, calm and serene, without motion or function, empty of all names, all forms, profoundly void and profoundly clear.

Nothing may happen there, but even that wonderful vast, empty nothing isn’t permanent. According to Buddhist tradition heaven is just one of the six realms of still conditioned, i.e., unenlightened existence and, so, still bound by the workings of karma. Nonetheless, it is a pretty great condition—while it lasts.

Devas, or gods, the dwellers in heaven—and there are many kinds of devas, many different “radiant ones,” “shining ones,” or “sky walkers” as they’re variously called—have great times. Spiritually speaking, some of the heavens are said to be absolutely sublime. Others are fantastic sensual wonderlands. But when the good karma that sent those happy beings up to whichever heaven they’ve settled into, (and there are many heavens and kinds of heavens in Buddhist tradition), when that karma becomes exhausted, as it eventually must, then they fall back down into much more ordinary states. And that fall from on high it is said can be devastatingly painful. Having had such a great time as a god, many devas—not all—but quite a few, unless they’ve made it to the very high spiritual heavens—have wandered, tradition tells us, from the Way, gotten somewhat selfish and spoiled, forgotten how tough things can actually be, take the ease and delight and splendor they’ve experienced as simply normal, a given. So, when they fall from that millions-of-years period of grace—heaven can last quite a long time; it’s on the galactic year’s time frame—they fall very hard. Their garlands wither, their armpits start to smell, their fantastic beauty fades and, as in the case of old movie stars, the loss of love, respect, attention, the best table at the Ivy, and glamorous looks can be so devastating that they often fall, not simply back down to Earth, but continue further, plunging straight into hell.

Still, when you’re there, you are There! Where it is better than being a billionaire, or a matinee idol, or Elvis, or Lady Gaga, or whoever might turn out to be the greatest rock star of all time. And being King of the Gods is the absolute best of all.

And that’s where the Bodhisattva finds himself at the opening of this jataka—in the unbelievably, enviably glorious condition of being not just a god, but king of the gods. He has reached this lofty pinnacle by dint of eons of his deep dhyana practice, the clarity, insight, and compassion of prajna, as well as countless good works. There is nothing higher, more glorious, radiant, or perfect in all the conditioned, samsaric, (which literally means “wandering,” or unsettled-in-enlightenment), universe. He’s sitting pretty, at the top of the heap, the highest tip-top point, the most ultimate peak in all the endless, conditioned worlds.

And up there, in his radiant god-kingdom, it is perfect, star-studded, glowing, unchanging, eternal, beautiful, calm, happy, and peaceful. There are no problems, no deficiencies, and no unfulfilled desires, not a one. Peace at last.

This very enviable condition is similar to the one that our great Western hero, Odysseus, finds himself in, more or less, at the opening of The Odyssey. After many trials and dangers through which he alone has come alive—all his shipmates having perished through lack of steady discipline—he has landed on the island of Kalypso, the beautiful goddess of the “pretty braids.” She wants to keep him with her, eating fantastically good meals and having fantastically good sex, sleeping each night with her in her shimmering caves. She even plans to make him immortal, lifting him up forever out of mortality, out of the endless cycles of birth and death. After years of danger and difficulty the hero has finally got it made, can live with the gorgeous goddess in a timeless realm, forever. And what does he do? He mopes. He wants something more complete. He wants above all to return home—to his aging wife and maturing son, to time and change, difficulties and challenges. Remaining stuck in emptiness is not his cup of tea. And so eventually that’s what he does—he sets out for home, his own home, our very own ordinary, dusty, familiar, all too fleeting human realm, the very place we’re so often trying to get away from in our own restless search for “eternity.”

The heroic “take,” on reality, both East and West, means really going for it, going all the way, which means continuing right on and bringing it back home, not resting at ease on the merits of past accomplishments.

Back to the Bodhisattva. Pretty cool, pretty wonderful, sitting up at the topmost peak of the universe. And yet . . . And yet, as with Odysseus, something’s wrong; something’s off. There’s something rotten down there in Denmark, as poor Hamlet discovers. “Maybe I’ve got it made, but is that really the point?” The Buddha-to-Be doesn’t think so.

Zen, it turns out, is not about being “zenned out.” Being calm, peaceful and cooled out, despite how much modern advertising would like to have us believe it is that, is not yet Zen. Vimalakirti, the greatly enlightened layman of the Buddha’s own time, resoundingly declares this truth from his sickbed of skillful means, his illness being a teaching upaya, a crafty liberative technique. When the Bodhisattva of Wisdom himself, Manjushri, comes to his bedside and asks why he’s sick, Vimalakirti, (the name means “Spotless Reputation”), answers in The Vimalakirti Sutra—a deeply imaginative, humorous, and iconoclastic text revered in Zen—that he’s sick because all beings are sick. And what is their sickness? It is the ancient sickness that springs from the three continually arising poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance. “And if others are sick with these poisons, then I, too, am sick,” declares Vimalakirti. “If others suffer, I also suffer.”

Even if we make it to the highest heaven, if anyone is still sick, that is, deluded as to their true nature and the true nature of the universe, and so continues to experience and to cause suffering, how can we be truly at peace? To ignore suffering is to mar our freedom. But to try to take it on, only increases a false sense of duality. There’s an entire jataka—“The Banyan Deer” which appears in two forms in the Pali Jataka, “Nigrodhamiga Jataka,” No. 12 and “Nandiyamiga Jataka” No. 385, which examines and clarifies this point in detail. In it the Bodhisattva is a King Deer who will not accept personal freedom until all beings are also freed. “How,” he tells the startled human king, “can I be at peace when my freedom will only increase the sufferings of others?” And he stands his ground, refusing to lead his herd from the stockade where they’re trapped, until all the forest creatures, even the birds and fish are released from the hunt, too. Mahayana Buddhism, the practice-path of the Great Way, or Great Vehicle, the one able to carry all beings to liberation teaches, “All beings, one body.” The first Bodhisattva vow of Zen practice is, “All beings, one body, I vow to liberate.”

So sticking to some personal, quiet, peaceful, empty, blissed-out, “zen” place, as it turns out, as wonderful as it can be, is not yet genuine Zen, for it’s not yet the Bodhisattva Way. “It has no power for the Way,” as the koan says. “It’s not sublime” to have insight and peace but no practice, no vocation for expressing and embodying that insight and peace in terms of our own life. Without that kind of functioning in life—daily life, ordinary life—something crucial is still missing. Being “zenned-out,” or in “the zone,” is neat, it might even be profoundly life changing, but it is not yet the real deal. Though it may have taken a lot of guts and effort to climb up there, we still have to take a step from off the top of that hard-won pinnacle of the hundred-foot pole where we’re resting at our ease. Only then, says Chosa in the koan of the hundred-foot pole, will all the worlds of the ten directions be revealed as our very own body.

And so though the Buddha-to-Be is King of the Gods, resting at his ease up in glittering, shining, radiant, happy, star-studded, quiet, peaceful, vast empty space—he doesn’t stay. The Way is not one of perpetual quietism. Of course, when he goes back down to Earth, he does take his peace and joy and freedom with him. Only we might not see it.

Bodhisattvas, it is said, can take any form in order to help free deluded and suffering beings. They can take wrathful forms, wild and crazy forms, childish forms, animal forms, erotic forms (there is a story—not a jataka—in the Japanese tradition, of the Bodhisattva Fugen or Samantabhadra—Bodhisattva of Compassionate Action, who takes the form of a courtesan to save beings), artistic, ordinary, humble, pietistic, deluded, healthy as well as sick (like Vimalakirti) and maimed ones, all to fulfill the first great bodhisattva vow and save the many beings. That is their great bodhisattvic play, their boundless upaya or skillful means, freely sporting beyond all limited thinking. Bodhisattvas aren’t always calm, sweet, gentle, polite, and soft-spoken as an ideal Boy Scout. Conversely they are not cruel, self-centered, egotistic, or greedy, either. There’s no excuse for crude, self-centered behavior, and no way to pass over hurtful actions by saying, “Oh, I was just being a bodhisattva.” Watch out for that!

The future Buddha-to-Be, having accumulated an immense store of merit through countless lifetimes of selfless action, sees our difficulties down here on his former stomping grounds, this old, spinning earth, and takes a leap, not up higher, away from all that disturbance, all that heat and noise, up up and away, into greater peace and emptiness. No. Instead he freely leaps back down into time and change, hardship, error, and sorrow, back into the muck of all that torments, overwhelms, saddens, and defeats us. And there he makes yet one more great effort to teach the many beings—that is, us, you and me—by sticking a monkey wrench into the works in a selfless attempt to break the cycles of bad karma we all know too well.

Even as King of the Gods, when he is free of all personal sorrow, he remains committed to being of use, drawn by his own vows and fundamental temperament to DO something. So he gets off his golden throne, takes off his starry crown, and, putting on a rough demeanor, sets out to embody the Way, perfecting upaya paramita, the skillful means to liberate beings from sorrow, delusion, and suffering, taking a form that, given the circumstances, might actualize the great task, and give some added spin to the old dharma wheel.

And so he leaps heroically back down to earth, letting go of his own hard-won, peaceful, empty place. Yet calling it “heroic” doesn’t quite do it justice. Koan # 89 in The Hekigan roku, or Blue Cliff Record asserts that it is not a self-consciously heroic effort. Rather, bodhisattvas offer help, taking any forms necessary, like a sleeper reaching back for a pillow in the night that’s fallen or shifted from under their heads. “Oh, there’s discomfort.” And their hand reaches out, finds the pillow, and settles it comfortably again. No big deal. Though such selfless spontaneity usually can’t manifest without the solid groundwork of serious effort in dhyana practice, still, it’s not about trying to be kind, courageous, or selfless. And it’s certainly not about looking calm and peaceful and wearing a glowing halo. Ideally, it’s activity that, at the same time, abides in stillness, settled and at peace within.

The King of the Gods is happy, at peace, and free of personal suffering. Yet he has eyes, ears, and a brain. So he can see, and hear, and understand the reality of suffering. And so without thinking, “Should I, or shouldn’t I get involved?” he just gets up and, by mirroring what’s before him, reflecting it perfectly without getting himself in-between, takes the form that the conditions below call forth, that they elicit, and then does what’s appropriate; something, that, given the time and circumstance, is “just right.” He’s reaching out in the night to straighten the pillow. (If you recall the story of “Angulimala, the Robber,” that’s what he’ll also do countless lifetimes later when as the Buddha, he hears a woman crying and instead of going into the forest where it’s quieter and he won’t be disturbed, he gets up from his zazen to offer help.)

And it’s not something “done for others.” It’s not “Crumbs! Here I am finally all peaceful and all, and the baby is crying, or the neighbor needs a hand changing the flat tire, or whatever it is, so (sigh) I’ll get up and attend to it.” No. It’s not that old “for others” drag. Instead, it’s a spontaneous expression of wholeness. If he doesn’t act, if he blocks it, he stands against the wholeness that is his—and our—own nature. Relationships, family responsibilities, communal responsibilities, vocations are opportunities to act. They mobilize us, call us forth to take appropriate forms. Experiencing vast, calm, quiet emptiness in peaceful zazen sitting, Zen teachers keep reminding us, is only half the story. For the bodhisattva, there remains the endless perfecting (which necessarily implies failing and trying again and again) of skillfully embodying the Way. “The Black Hound” jataka shows the bodhisattva actualizing the paramita of skillful means, coming forward to help others who, while fundamentally as free as he, don’t know it, and so act self-centeredly and create terrible suffering.

So maybe it is heroic, after all. Certainly it is deeply generous. We should all be as lucky as the citizens of that city who get scared out of their wits enough to not just think, “Well, you know, maybe one day we’ll change,” but, “I’ve got to change now! I will change!” Which is where it begins. As the old saw goes—a journey of a thousand miles or even ten thousand miles always begins with a first step.

But the journey continues on. Back in 1953 Yamada Mumon Roshi gave a series of talks on the Ten Oxherding Pictures to a group of newly arrived monks at Shofuku-ji Temple in Kyoto, where he was then abbot. The Oxherding pictures, a brilliantly visual teaching device and wonderfully resonant upaya from twelfth-century China, present all the stages of bodhisattva practice in Zen, the ox being a metaphor for True Nature. In the final talk, the one on the tenth and last Oxherding picture—“Entering the Marketplace with Helping Hands”—he said:

You set out in search of the ox, spotted the track and caught sight of the ox. Then you caught, tamed and trained the ox, and pushed yourself to the limit in discipline. But the object of all this effort must be to reach this final stage of consciousness. When you have reached the highest awakened state where the world, just as it is, is the Pure Land, where you yourself, just as you are, are the Buddha, then you must throw away this satori and for the sake of those in suffering and distress descend to the bottom of society, to the farthest corner of society, and awaken everyone else to this Pure Land as well. You must give this light of Buddha to everyone else too. This is the ultimate purpose of the Ten Oxherding Pictures. With this in mind I ask you to dedicate yourself to the utmost. (Lectures on the Ten Oxherding Pictures, Yamada Mumon, p. 102.)

But how will the Bodhisattva save others? Bodhisattvas, we are told, have endless ways of skillfully manifesting the Way. Not all are sweet or pretty — as the Buddha-Who-Will-One-Day-Be here demonstrates. Sometimes strong words or a kick in the butt are the only way to get us moving. But sometimes, a gentle touch or a kind word might work just as well or even better.

In the final Oxherding picture the bodhisattva doesn’t look heroic or fearsome at all. He’s a wandering monk named Hotei, and he’s big, fat, stoop-shouldered, bare-chested, round-bellied, with long, droopy ears, goofy grin, flapping robe, and a bag full of toys and treats, which he freely gives away. Yet, though he’s “Muddied and dust-covered, how broadly he grins! / Without recourse to mystic powers/ withered trees he swiftly brings to bloom.” And who is Hotei? Tradition holds that he was an emanation of the Future Buddha, Maitreya, the Buddha-to-Be of our time, who right now, at this very minute, is seated in high up in the splendid Tusihita Heavens on a lotus throne, looking down at the mess here on Earth, one hand to his chin, one leg down in Western style, contemplating the vast array of skillful means he’ll need in order to save all living beings. Soon now, in a mere 5, 670, 000, 000 years or so, (a snap of the fingers in the endlessness of cosmic time), he’ll rise from his throne, descend to Earth, and get to work. Meanwhile, back down here on Earth, things have been heating up. A deep yearning for the future Buddha begins to grow. Already, a thousand years ago, cliffs in China, Tibet, and Mongolia get painted, and imploringly inscribed with the words, “Come Maitreya, come!”

Skillful means, that is, appropriate means, are endless, without limit. The bodhisattva will keep at it, try and try. She’ll succeed at last, like it says in Jimmy Cliff’s classic reggae song, “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” And yet, even then suffering beings will be numberless, and so, too, will be the need for skillful bodhisattvas and helpful upaya without end.

But why does the bodhisattva do it? Why does he jump back down into this world of troubles, trials, dangers, and difficulties? Why, as in “The Black Hound,” go through it all, take on the weird form and tough words that could so easily arouse misunderstanding, opposition, and even revolt? Maybe those frightened people will just be better armed next time he visits, better prepared to face him and fight. Maybe his selfless efforts will go sadly awry. An awful lot of science fiction movies make a case for it going like that. The Visitor comes, but do we learn? No. We get out backs up, call out the military, and it all goes south. Is there ever a guarantee?

There is a word little used in Buddhism and hardly mentioned in Zen. But if you lean in close eventually you’ll hear it, nonetheless. Love. Maybe Blake hits the old nail on the head once again: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell; “Proverbs of Hell.”). From the ground of eternity or emptiness, the hand and foot find they are one being. The bodhisattva simply can’t help herself.

The koan of the hand and the pillow is actually about Avalokitesvara, the great 1,000-armed Bodhisattva of Compassion. Each of those arms ends in a hand. And in the palm of each hand is an open eye—the eye of awakened, transcendental, non-dual prajna wisdom. Without that opened eye, who knows what damage a thousand unskillful arms might do? The road to hell is, after all, paved with countless good intentions. Skillfulness implies wisdom. So Ungan asks Dogo, “How does the Bodhisattva of Compassion use all those many hands and eyes?” And Dogo answers, “It is like a man in the middle of the night reaching behind his head for his pillow.”

The Bodhisattva of 1,000 arms, all different, is himself a visual upaya, embodying the endless ways of skillfulness, each way springing from the wisdom and compassion that are emptiness (empty of self-reference and self-centeredness!) and love. Some hands hold a bow or spear, a noose or mace, weapons with which to tame, subdue, or overwhelm rampant egotism. Others lift spades, rakes, trowels, hammers, oven mitts, paintbrushes, pens, pencils, computers, cell phones, baby bottles, lunch boxes, and notebooks, while others remain empty, full of an as yet unformed potential. How to know which of those approaches to apply? How to use all those many arms skillfully, wisely? Without functioning arms, without wisdom, the compassionate Bodhisattva him or herself, is as useless as a compass without a needle.

The Bodhisattva on the Path towards Buddhahood, looks down from on high, sees the terrible mess, takes off his hard-won crown, whistles up his black hound, (black as empty space, black as the middle of the night in which nothing can be separated out from anything else), and leaps. And that’s how he does it. But how does he change shape, turn a god into a dog, survive the fall, and then soar gracefully back up into radiant empty space after he’s delivered—and skillfully—his solid message, with some clearly perceived, dramatic oomph behind it? How? Chosa’s challenge in the Mumonkan or Gateless Gate, about the need to step from the top of the hundred-foot pole is amplified in the Shoyoroku, or Book of Serenity. His original challenging verse is repeated and then followed by a monk asking a crucial question: “How do you—how do I—step from the top of that lofty pole, that calm serene place I’ve finally gotten to in my practice?” Chosa’s response is to the point, but for now, let’s leave it here, with the question, “How do I do it?”

How do we negotiate our own transitions and efforts? Zazen practice, dhyana paramita, opens the eye of prajna. But then the bell rings, and we uncross our legs, get up, and head back out from the zendo, out of our Zen Centers, out from our living room sitting groups, and back into the street to start our cars, and drive away.

Which is, as this jataka shows, exactly how it’s supposed to be. You can’t stay in that calm, comfortable place. Only, if you think too much about it, and carry even that along with you, you run the risk of closing the eye in the hand, and letting all those terribly good intentions once more run amuck.

Still must one really wait till all the eyes in every hand are open? Must one make it all the way to the tenth bodhisattva stage before one can offer helping hands in the marketplace? Does Maitreya really stay out of the action all those billions of years till he gets his skillful means totally perfected? I mean, isn’t he already here? Wasn’t Hotei a form of that great, gentle, loving presence? Which might be way of simply saying that zazen sitting, focused dhyana meditation, is a good foundation for any worthy effort we might try—even as taking action fulfills a potential already inherent in quiet sitting itself. We experience the world afresh in sitting, experience it intimately, no longer, something “out there,” but woven into our very breath, flesh and bones. The call of a bird, the rumble of traffic, the wind in the trees is us, as it has always really been. Why wouldn’t we be then drawn to interact with everything around us in new, more peaceful, less self-centered ways? Quiet and still zazen and an active life of meaning and purpose need each other, like the two wings that propel a bird through the air, the two legs that carry us on the longest journeys.

At the same time, the razor’s edge is never far away. Getting up the mountain may not be so hard, an old Zen adage goes, but coming down is endless.

Skillful is as skillful does, and we each one of us still have a looooong way to go, even when our seated zazen practice becomes quite nearly heavenly.