As soon as a single mote of dust arises, the whole earth is contained therein; with a single horse and a single lance, the land’s extended. Who is this person who can be master in any place and meet the source in everything?
As the World-Honored One was walking with the congregation, he pointed to the ground with his finger and said, “This spot is good to build a sanctuary.” Indra, Emperor of the gods, took a blade of grass, stuck it in the ground, and said, “The Sanctuary is built.”
The World Honored One smiled.
The boundless spring on the hundred plants;
Picking up what comes to hand, he uses it knowingly.
The sixteen-foot-tall golden body, a collection of virtuous qualities
Casually leads him by the hand into the red dust;
Able to be master in the dusts,
From outside creation, a guest shows up.
Everywhere life is sufficient in its way—
No matter if one is not as clever as others.
This spot is good to build a sanctuary. Indra takes a blade of grass, sticks it in the ground and says, “The sanctuary is built.” I’ve always liked this koan because there is something so clear and direct about it, something so good, though we shouldn’t underestimate its depth.
In the poem, Hongzhi says “Everywhere life is sufficient in its way.” As we reflect on our world today and take in all the suffering around us, Hongzhi’s comment may sound like an expression of being unaware or indifferent. After all, how could anyone experience the world nowadays as being “sufficient”? But actually, what we see around us now—the intolerance, conflict, shortages of food and water—was true in Hongzhi’s time as well. It’s important to appreciate that these ancient masters lived in a real time and place and confronted great challenges in their societies. It was from within those challenging times that they practiced and realized the Way. Hongzhi’s words, “Life is sufficient in its way,” come from a place of enlightenment, although ordinary eyes would have perceived the world he lived in as insufficient, just as we do today.
When we see injustice or suffering, we reject it. We see it as wrong, as something that should not be, and there is truth to that. Injustice and suffering should not be perpetuated or condoned. Spiritual practice begins in the moment we no longer accept samsara; in other words, when we no longer accept our suffering and resolve to free ourselves from it. Our life is governed by forces we don’t recognize, shaped by cycles that are invisible to us. And as long as we are blind to them, we will never be free of them. Waking up begins within the faith that there is another way. But what is that way? To begin, we have to accept everything that seems unacceptable, inside and outside, so that we can meet it on the ground of reality. If we don’t accept it, then we can’t meet it, and this distance means we cannot encounter it, let alone examine and realize it. The Buddha taught that the only path that can bring us to liberation is in this very moment. This place. This awareness. There is no other door. Every other door is fantasy.
In this koan, the Buddha says, “This spot is good to build a sanctuary.” A sanctuary is defined as “the innermost part of a temple.” So what does that mean? What is a temple? What is the innermost chamber? What kind of place offers such refuge? Where do we find it? Indra takes up a blade of grass and sticks it into the ground, saying, “The sanctuary is built.” In the pointer, it says, “As soon as a single mote of dust arises, the whole earth is contained therein.” A speck of dust is tiny; the whole earth is huge. How can the earth be contained in a speck of dust? When we look with our eyes, when we measure and assess with our usual tools, it is not possible. Clearly, the Buddha and Indra are not measuring, but are seeing things with the Dharma eye, the penetrating eye of wisdom. Each and every thing is boundless, measureless self-nature appearing as sound and form. Its form does not restrict its vastness; its vastness is in perfect accord with its form. We look up and see the sky overhead, but how large is this sky?
The verse says, “The boundless spring on the hundred plants.” This is the spring of enlightenment, the time of liberation, the season of no suffering, of no boundaries in the mind. Here, everything is alive. But what is aliveness? What do we see as having life? Many of us might think of life as being sacred, yet how do we actually relate to, interact with life? Often, not very well. Just think of how human beings treat one another, how we treat our non-human creatures. So just because we believe something is alive does not ensure we will take care of it. Now, think about what this means for things that we don’t see as alive. If it is not alive, then it is dead. Then what is it to us? We live in a world of things, of objects. Are they alive or not? When we experience something that touches us deeply, that moves us, and it comes from something we don’t necessarily think of as being alive—a stone, a cloud, a stream—what is it that is speaking to us? What is hearing this within us? Dogen says that between ordinary beings and enlightened beings there is a subtle communication—not through words and not through conveying meaning. Neither is it a secret message. But something is being communicated. What kind of realm is this? Zazen is a doorway into this subtle communication, with all things, with the entire universe. Yet this kind of communication can be heard most deeply when things have been liberated of their thingness.
“As soon as a single mote of dust arises, the whole earth is contained.” Here, the ‘whole earth’ appears as confused and at odds when the mind is cloudy, and the cloudiness appears to be in the dust. Enlightenment is to illuminate what we call dust, and realize each speck of dust is clear and bright. Now, within a single mote of dust, no dust. Where is the earth to be found then? “Because the world is not a world,” the Buddha said, “we call it the world.” When the self of ‘self and other’ have been forgotten—freed of all existence and non-existence, then all things are seen as they are, radiant, vast and complete.
Hongzhi says, “With a single horse and a single lance the land is extended.” He uses an image of his time—horse and lance—to convey how large it is, as in extending the nation through military conquest. For the moment, consider your horse and your lance to be your meditation seat. In one moment—when time and place can’t be found—“the land is extended,” the world is realized as limitless. This is the source of our compassion, the realization of all things being of ultimate equality. But before we realize this, how can we trust this is true? With such distress in our lives and in the world, how can we trust that the moral arc of the universe, to paraphrase Dr. King, is actually inclined towards justice rather than toward greed and anger?
When we experience something that touches us deeply, that moves us, and it comes from something we don’t necessarily think of as being alive—a stone, a cloud, a stream—what is it that is speaking to us? What is hearing this within us?
In his fascicle Suchness, Dogen says,
You should know this. It is thus because we are people of suchness. By what means do we know that we are people of suchness? We know we are people of suchness because we want to attain the matter of suchness. We already have the face and eyes of a person of suchness and we should not worry about the matter of suchness in the present moment. Because this worry is itself a matter of suchness, it is not worry.
If peace and harmony weren’t already within us, how could we long for them? How could we raise bodhicitta, the great aspiration for wisdom and compassion for every being? We know that this is possible because it is our original nature. Nothing comes from the outside.
How do we take care of this great earth and every thing? That’s what training is. We do it through a whole complex of practices that are brought to us through a body of wisdom teachings handed down across hundreds of years by thousands of people. We engage it in a multitude of ways, all to realize the nature of this great earth, the nature of sanctuary. How is it that Indra could take a blade of grass, put it in the ground and say, “The sanctuary is built”? Did he even need to pluck a blade of grass and put it in the ground? He could have just stopped, faced the Buddha and said, “Built.”
In the Vimalakirti sutra, Vimalakirti speaks about the sickness of dukkha as being our “total involvement in a process of not seeing clearly from beginningless time.” How do we heal ourselves of this sickness? Vimalakirti says “Free yourself of egoism and possessiveness.” Okay. How do you do that? He says, “Free yourself from duality.” What is that? “It is the absence of involvement with either the internal or the external.” Give up your obsessive involvement in inside and outside, yes and no, self and other, right and wrong. How does this bring freedom? Vimalakirti says, “Non-deviation, non-fluctuation and non-distraction from equanimity.”
Equanimity is not a contrived state. It is definitely not putting on a suit of cool. Within deviation, fluctuation and distraction, it is not losing your ground. Not resorting to obsessive involvement in internal and external, not resorting to self-centeredness and possessiveness. It is “within a single mote of dust the whole earth arises” and “being a master in any place and knowing the source.” Where does this equanimity come from? Vimalakirti says it is our original self-nature because self and liberation are both empty. Neither can be established in reality. When one makes no distinction in their mind between sickness and emptiness, their sickness is itself empty. Even that “sickness as empty” is empty. Vimalakirti says these are all verbal designations. Just like the Buddha saying, “This is a good place to build a sanctuary.”
And then Vimalakirti says, “Most importantly, the bodhisattva who is ill with the illnesses of the world should recognize that sensation is ultimately non-sensation, but they should not realize the cessation of sensation.” Do not cut yourself off. Do not dwell in an idea of “no sensation.” In other words, don’t oppose your sentience. Don’t oppose anything. Then Vimalakirti says,
Although both pleasure and pain are abandoned when the buddha-qualities are fully accomplished, there is then no sacrifice of the great compassion for all living beings living in the bad migrations. Thus, recognizing in their own suffering the infinite sufferings of these living beings, the bodhisattva correctly contemplates these living beings and resolves to work on behalf of their liberation. As for those living beings, ultimately, there is nothing to be applied and nothing to be removed.
Nothing is broken. Nothing is flawed. Everything is sufficient in its own way. We have to see this for ourselves and help all beings to see that very truth. This is the Bodhisattva Way.
Indra takes up a blade of grass. Hongzhi speaks of it as the sixteen-foot golden body of the Buddha. Life is sufficient in its own way. That is the basis of understanding in Buddhism: all life fulfills its nature. All life deserves respect. All life is sacred. And although these are words, they are speaking truth. When we live in accord with truth, our life affirms that truth. Things work. We are free of conflict and suffering. Suffering and conflict are always a signal, calling our attention to where there is disregard or blindness. Hongzhi’s verse says, “To pick up what comes to hand and use it knowingly.” Compassion and upaya are indivisible; they can’t be separated. In Buddhism they are essentially one truth. As we cultivate our compassion, we need to be cultivating our skillfulness, which is challenging. It’s difficult enough to be skillful with ourselves, how much more so as we venture forth and mingle with the lives of others. Fortunately, we’ve got lots of opportunities to practice this.
How is this blade of grass a refuge, a sanctuary? That question comes from the perspective that the world is not me, that the world is not sacred, that the world is not complete and sufficient in its own way. But no one has ever been able to show that the world is incomplete and separate. Not truly. We’ve told lots of stories about that, but no one has ever actually proven it true. On the other hand, many have realized directly the truth of “not two.”
The poem says, “The sixteen-foot gold- en body of the Buddha, a collection of virtues,” and the footnote says, “How are you?” Hongzhi is saying to go beyond you and everything else and now ask: How are you? Go to that place of profound spiritual poverty that “kills the living and brings life to the dead.” Discover the truth of the sanctuary. Earlier in the koan, when Indra sticks a blade of grass in the ground, the footnote says, “Repairs will not be easy.” Will they be necessary? How do you repair what has never been broken? What tools do you use where there is nothing outside of it? It can’t be bought or sold. And although we’re never apart from it, it can’t be possessed.
Dogen says, “Enlightenment exceeds all worlds. We ourselves are the instruments that exist amidst all of these worlds of the ten directions.” We ourselves are the instruments. How do we know that this fundamental truth exists? We know because it is thus. We know because body and mind manifest together and are not “me.” They cannot be possessed.
I’ll end with a poem:
The sacred mountain—
stand before it and tremble.
Raising and lowering the foot,
foot and ground meet in perfect accord.
Do you see?
This great turning of the eternal spring,
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei is the head of the Mountains and River Order and the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of New York City.
The Book of Serenity is a collection of koans compiled during the 12th century and commented on by Master Wansong with poems by Master Hongzhi.