Within The Vast Web

· Teachings · ,

by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi

Priest Xixian’s “I Am Watching”

True Dharma Eye, Case 227
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Main Case
Xixian Faan of Lushan was asked by a government officer, “When I took the city of Jinling with an army troop, I killed countless people. Am I at fault?” Xixian said, “I am watching closely.”

Priest Xixian’s response, “I am watching closely,” is at once fatheaded and misguided. He has missed an opportunity to cause an evil that has already arisen to be extinguished, and to cause good that has not arisen to arise. Both he and the general deserve thirty blows of my stick.

Governments and rulers are traditionally driven by power, politics, and money, and are usually not inclined toward clear moral commitments. However, for a Zen priest to avoid taking moral responsibility when asked is inexcusable.

Enlightenment without morality is not yet enlightenment. Morality without enlightenment is not yet morality. Enlightenment and morality are nondual in the Way. One does not exist without the other. The truth is not beyond good and evil as is commonly believed. It is, rather, a way of living one’s life with a definite moral commitment that is practiced, realized, and verified within the realm of good and evil itself, yet remains undefiled by them.

Setting aside impostor priests and phony followers, you tell me, how do you transform watching into doing, the three poisons into the three virtues? More important, what is it that you call yourself?

Utterly devoid of abilities, the guide can’t lead;
lost in self-deception, the evil one can’t find his way.
Take off the blinders, set down the pack, and see
beyond god masks and devil masks, there is a Way.

Koans are excellent training for being in the world because they present us with a moment of reality and challenge us to not get confused by words, meaning, and appearances. To see a koan clearly is to see right into the heart of the matter, to not rely on interpretation or what we think we know, but to recognize what is true in and of itself.

Within our Zen training, we speak a lot about taking responsibility. How are we manifesting in the world, for what purpose? Based on what intention? Grounded in what clarity? Arising from what desires? These questions continually bring us deeper into the study of the conditioned self.

In this koan, a government officer, a general perhaps, comes to Xixian and says, “When I took the city of Xing Ling with an army troop I killed countless people. Am I at fault?” What is he asking and why? Is this a sincere question? Does he believe he was just following orders, and so this wasn’t really his responsibility? Does he believe it was a just cause or that the people who died were not important? How do we distort reality to make insanity seem sane, to make hatred seem virtuous? More to the point, do any of us actually have the power to distort reality? We’re powerful, but not that powerful. If you say it is the mind that is distorted, how can this be? The nature of mind is pure and unconditioned. Rather, it is the appearance of things that becomes distorted. And in that distortion we act, and things like killing countless people can seem logical and even good.

The Buddha saw into the nature of this distorted view; this is what he called our attachments—clinging, and rejecting. An attachment places our desires over mind and heart. Through attachment, we put ourselves before others, pleasure before wellbeing, suffering before compassion, false before true. The nature of attachment is to grow, to strengthen, to accumulate. This is the cycle of samsara. As practitioners, we need to be able to open our eye from within those attachments, to recognize that we’re caught in desire. And we practice releasing that desire, so that we see what happens when we let our attachments go. We see how difficult and painful it is to be bound in self-clinging.

Practicing in accord with the Buddha’s teaching, we begin to experience for ourselves how it’s much more natural and effortless to feel empathy, love, and concern. These are the signs of our fundamental nature, of Buddha-mind.


The Buddha Left Home to live a wanderer’s life, yet he had great concern for humanity. He opened his door to a wide range of people who wanted to encounter the Dharma. In addition to teaching those of other spiritual traditions and those from oppressed sectors of Indian society, it’s well documented that there were leaders—very prominent, powerful people—who studied with him and sought his guidance on matters of power and governance. He taught the importance of social and economic justice, not just for the people, but also for the rulers. He taught that to live an unencumbered life, we have to strengthen our understanding of and living within moral truth and justice. This means to live in accord with the essential equality of all phenomena, and see through our impulses that put self above other, or privilege one group over another. How do we cultivate this spiritual vitality? How do we take the cause of justice personally, not separate from our own well-being, and work toward it in our present, daily life?

One way to cultivate a rightful sense of urgency is by recognizing the preciousness of this human life. This is a classic Buddhist teaching, and we can expand this view beyond the human and appreciate that all life is sacred. Every thing, animate and inanimate, every object that is brought into this world either by a natural process or by our own hands—including bridges, buildings, and plastic bottles—has a role to play, is part of this vast interdependent web. This web is such that when we touch one part of it the whole web quivers. The context for anything is everything.

How do we live in impermanence and not see it as
hopeless or futile, but appreciate the miracle, the wonder?

Think about climate change, one of the great urgencies of our time. What is outside of this? All aspects of our life on earth are implicated. Clearly, it includes social and economic justice as it disproportionately effects people of color and those without wealth and material resources. Is there any- thing that climate change does not effect?

Some scientists say they recognized that when the global temperature was raised 1°C, it was significant, but they didn’t think it would have the power to disrupt the vast web of our earth systems. And now they know they were wrong about that—we see how intimately interwoven and utterly unified all of this is. And in the midst of this interconnection, through our uniquely human consciousness, we see that we have the power to literally change the world. We are recognizing our ability to destroy life on a scale never imagined. But the very same wheels of karma—thoughts, words, deeds— that are causing such terrible consequences can also give life when we take responsibility: How are we manifesting in the world and for what purpose? What is our intention? Do we understand self and world? Are we awake to the force of our desires?

Nothing is fixed. The truth of impermanence is that there is nothing in the whole universe that will be here forever. Everyone in this room will be gone in a matter of years. We know this, but do we live in this truth and let it inspire us? The Buddha taught, “Everything that gathers will disperse, everything that appears will disappear.” This is not a mistake; it is the natural way of things. Everything: our homes, relationships, work, possessions will all pass away. But everything in the universe is this way: the Earth, the seasons, moon, stars, the tides. How do we live in impermanence and not see it as hopeless or futile, but appreciate the miracle, the wonder? It seems hopeless only when we hold on to the idea that permanence would be the most wonderful thing. But think about it. What if the daffodil, the herald of spring, blossomed and never withered? Impermanence, continual change, is inextricable from the sacredness and wonder of life.

Photo by Eskinder Debebe

Photo by Eskinder Debebe

How does this relate to karma? The Buddha said, “I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions to everything, and have my actions as my arbitrator.” Our actions bring us into contact with the world. It is through our activity that we both influence the world and create our sense of the world. The Buddha said “Whatever I do, for good or evil, skillful or unskillful, it is that to which I will fall heir.” What we do belongs to us. We should reflect on this deeply: our words and actions are born of intention. They affirm or they deny, create or destroy, help or hurt. If we don’t understand karma, then we are destined to repeat it. This is the cycle of samsara. The practice of the dharma can break this cycle. It offers us a path to freedom.

Xixian says, “I am watching closely.” Daido Roshi says, “. . . fatheaded and misguided. He has missed an opportunity to cause an evil that has already arisen to be extinguished, and to cause good that has not yet arisen to arise.” Xixian let this student down. His response implies distance, yet in our practice we see that our sense of distance is illusory. If all we’re doing is watching, then closely or not, we may as well be a hundred miles away. When the general asks Xixian this question, he is inviting his teacher to meet him in that place of horror, of unimaginable pain. And because nothing is fixed, this is also a place of tremendous possibility. Nothing will bring the dead back to life, but what other transformation might be possible? What future harmful actions might be prevented? What present lives might be restored and cared for? Yet Xixian’s response doesn’t open that door. Of course ultimately, it is up to the general. It’s his responsibility. Each of us holds the whole of our lives. There is no absolution by another. Yet at the same time, we are deeply accountable to each other.

We come to places like the Monastery and the Temple to train. This is offered for us to step more deeply into a life of wisdom and compassion, but it can also be a turning away from the world. When you come to the Monastery, are you moving toward or away from something? It’s an important question. Are we stepping away from our daily activities so we can deepen our insight and open our hearts and then return and integrate this into our lives? Or are we seeking an escape from the concerns of the world, pursuing a self-centered salvation?

Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran

Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran


Mahayana Buddhism teaches the nonduality of samsara and nirvana, the unity of the marketplace and the mountain, of mundane and sacred. But there are those who say that Buddhist practice has no place in politics, economics or worldly affairs. However, the Buddha himself was involved in the governing of his community, and men and women  came to him with questions about how to bring the dharma into their work, homes, families, and relationships. He taught on all these matters. How can we isolate spiritual practice from the concerns of our lives and the world if we are listening to what the dharma is teaching? How can we isolate the Monastery from this very mountain, from our local community, from the economy, from politics, from the world? And even if we try to disengage from the world, we are still responsible.

Taking responsibility means acknowledging that we are affected by everything and are also affecting everything in turn, even if we can’t see this clearly. One vast web.

That’s why Xixian missed this opportunity. The teacher waits for the student to come forward and to ask this very question, “Am I responsible? How do I practice this?” To respond with, “I am watching closely” is simply not enough.

There is a practice of seeing things as they are, of bearing witness to the world, to others’ pain, to tragedy and horror. Sometimes bearing witness is our offering, like when you’re sitting at the bedside of someone who is dying. This is not a problem to fix; it’s something to be utterly present to. And bearing witness to others’ pain or experience can be a profound gift. But in many instances, bearing witness is not enough. We chant “Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.” The word for desires is klesas, the afflictions of mind. Within an obstructed mind it’s very difficult to be present, to respond, to care. Calming the klesas opens the mind, brings us closer to selfless compassion, expands our confined views, thaws the frozen heart. Thomas Merton said, “Love and prayer are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and the heart is turned to stone.”

How do we practice this? By having courage. By being present to our feelings, even if what we feel is painful or disconnected. By stepping forward to meet our present challenges. In the Metta Sutta, the Buddha taught, “Wishing in gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease.” Every being, living and nonliving, animate and inanimate, the whole complex Earth and universe itself—may all of this sacredness be at ease, in harmony, without conflict. Taking responsibility means acknowledging that we are affected by everything and are also affecting everything in turn, even if we can’t see this clearly. One vast web. “Let none deceive another or despise any being in any state. Let none through anger or ill will wish harm upon another.” It starts here.

Just as with zazen practice, we sit with the clear intention to be present and awake, to see deeply and realize self-nature. Then we meet the fear and anxiety, the laziness and complacency, the many attachments arising from desire, aversion and delusion. Practice is right here. So too with our vows to alleviate the suffering of others and our earth. It’s not enough to utter the vow with sincerity. We must then practice it in the midst of the suffering of others and our earth.


This General Is asking this question after the fact. Better now than never, but how much destruction might have been avoided if he’d asked it earlier. Ask it before you march into that village, ask it before you put on your armor. “Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child”—the one thing she would give her life for without an instant’s hesitation—“so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.” That’s why it’s a great vow. To be in the world in this way, and to not get hung up on being imperfect. It’s a practice; it’s a path. We practice cultivating this love towards those beings who we do love, and thereby strengthen it. And we practice cultivating this toward those beings we do not love, and thereby diminish that ill-will. That’s why Daido Roshi says, “Enlightenment without morality is not yet enlightenment. Morality without enlightenment is not yet morality.” They are non-dual; they arise together. All things meet and arise on that one formless ground.

The age that we have been given is a great challenge. Wendell Berry said, “To have patience within a crisis is a tremendous trial.” But patience is not waiting. It’s seeing clearly, without false views or beliefs. As humans we have become too many. Our reach has grown too far and our destructive powers too great to live in servitude to our selfishness and fear. As practitioners, we can see that with every hindrance in the mind, a wall is perceived which divides and leads to conflict. Rather than reifying these walls and feeding such conflict, may we renounce self-righteousness and choose a path of real peace. May we realize the equality of every dharma and actualize this equality in how we live our lives and relate to all the many beings of this Earth. This is our basic nature of selflessness. May we do this with the whole of our lives.

“Wishing in gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease.” When the Buddha said “wishing,” this is a heartfelt desire. May we all have such a desire, and live it. This is what we are being called to do, in any and every way we can. The world is depending on us. The world is us, and all that we do is the world. And although each of us is just one person who has but an instant of time, it is this present reality. How will we use it? What a wonderful question.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Roshi 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 True Dharma Eye is a modern English translation of Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koan Shobogenzo, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and John Daido Loori Roshi.

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