The Moon Viewing Party


I was recently at a Zen sesshin led by Norman Fischer in Bellingham where he gave a talk on the following koan. It reverberated in my mind afterwards and I wrote the following in the Greyhound station on the way home:

Here is the case as I remember it:

Mazu Daoyi, Baizhang Huihai, Xitang Zhizang, and Nanquan Puyuan went out to view the full moon.

“What should one do at a time like this?”, asked Mazu.

“It is a good time to cultivate practice”, said Baizhang.

“It is a good time to recite sutras [and make merit]”, said Zhizang.

Nanquan flapped his sleeves and left.

Mazu said:

Meditation returns to the ocean

Merit goes into the treasury

Only Nanquan goes completely beyond.

In Zen symbolism the full moon often represents the awakened mind: the Buddha nature which is luminous, free, and ever present beneath our ordinary grasping mind. The meaning of Mazu’s question, in Chan code, is: “At a time when the Buddha mind is evident, what should one do?”

Baizhang answers: “A good time to cultivate practice.” It is a good time to refine our minds further, to remove subtle obstructions to the clarity of our awakening awareness.

Zhizang answers, “It is a good time to recite sutras [and make merit].” This is a more indirect approach to developing awakening. Zhizang believes that the awakening mind must unfold naturally and that the chief obstacles to such unfolding are karmic obscurations. Therefore when the awakened mind does manifest, there is nothing one can do to develop it. One should instead engage in meritorious activities which purify one’s karma and the awakened mind will thus dawn naturally. Zhizang and Baizhang have diametrically opposed responses. Baizhang suggests willful refinement of one’s state of mind. Baizhang suggests making merit to remove the obscurations which prevent the awakened mind from unfolding naturally. And what of Nanquan’s abrupt and cryptic response?

Nanquan shakes out his sleeves and departs. This symbolizes simply dropping the idea of doing anything in particular and moving on without attachment. Nanquan says, in effect, “Do not cultivate the mind or engage in purification. Simply let things be and continue, neither pursuing nor rejecting.” These three views are reflected in Mazu’s poetic response to their answers:

“Meditation returns to the ocean” refers to Baizhang, and is a play on his Chinese name, which contains “ocean”. Meditation is helpful for Baizhang, but…

“Merit goes into the treasury” refers to Zhizong, whose name contains the word “treasury”. Reciting sutras is helpful to Zhizong, but…only Nanquan goes completely beyond. “Going completely beyond” is, of course, the purpose of Zen practice. The other answers are good, but it is Nanquan who embodies Zen.

What do we see through a Jewish lens? The full moon might be equated to the attainment of a direct experience of God’s reality. What should one do at such a time? Zhizang says: Deepen it. Refine it. Cleave to it in d’veykut.

Baizhang says: You yourself cannot bring on such an experience. Rather you merited it through your Torah and mitzvot. Increase your study, prayer, and good deeds. Through them you will draw the light of the sh`khina upon you and warrant perceptions of Godliness.

Both seem like good kosher advice, and wise too. What of Nanquan’s advice? At first glance his answer doesn’t seem to make much Jewish sense. You experience God’s presence and you just drop it and move on? You’re joking. Equanimity and non-attachement may be the ultimate goals of Buddhism but but they’re not the ultimate goals of Judaism. One doesn’t treat an experience of God as not better or no worse than any other experience and move on, prioritizing one’s freedom of mind!

But perhaps we are reading Nanquan superficially. Does Nanquan really believe that an experience of the awakened mind is no better and no worse than any other state of consciousness? Or is it that he understands that clinging to the experience and trying to perpetuate it is in fact an obstacle to its realization? The awakened mind is not a simple “peak experience” or samadhi, it is the experience of radical clarity and non-attachment itself. Similarly the experience of God’s presence is not any particular ecstacy or vision, although these may be included, rather it is a revelation of reality itself and of one’s place in it- from a Jewish point of view a revelation of truth.

It seems to me there are two ways to understand Nanquan’s approach in Jewish terms. The first way to understand Nanquan is that his gesture communicates that any attempt to perpetuate the experience of the ultimate is in fact an obstacle. An obstacle to what? To serving God in the next moment. Reb Nosson of Breslov points out that one must continuously renew one’s service of God. In Devarim 6:6 it speaks of the mitzvot “that I command you today”. Similarly Rashi writes, on Devarim 27:9, that one’s serving God should always be as though one were starting anew “today” (Likutey Halachot Tefillin 5:5). The Arizal taught that God does not just renew Creation every day, but every second, and that each second the universe is a completely different universe (The Seven Beggars, p. 12). Therefore one’s service must be new every second. It was for this reason that King David was compared to the moon, which is always changing and ever renewed. Like the moon so is life. Thus the Jewish calendar is based on the moon to teach us that we muct constantly renew ourselves and our service of God (Ibid). The insights of the last moment are not the insights of this moment.

A second way to understand Nanquan’s gesture is as communicating that when one experiences God, whether in Torah study, prayer, contemplation, in the face of another, or the unfolding of one’s life- is that a place where “God is” and other places where “God is not?” Perhaps Nanquan’s response is equivalent to a level of d’veykut where it is understood that every experience is God. Thus there is fundamentally nowhere to progress to. A dialogue I had with a (Jewish) Zen teacher comes to mind.

I commented to Peter Levitt, sensei of the Salt Spring Zen Circle, that a Sufi parable teaches that religions are like crafts which carry one to the other shore of a river. Some people disdain such crafts and sink in the water. Some love the crafts so much that they spend all their time maintaining them, repairing them, elaborating them, and forget about crossing the stream. Peter smiled and said, “How does the water cross?”

Water is of course already there. The water is the true basis of one’s travel, and God is the true basis of all experience and all practice (or non-practice). God is already there.

So, is Nanquan right then and Baizhang and Zhizang wrong? Dogen Zenji, the great Japanese Soto Zen founder, comments on this case in the Eihei Koroku: “All of them together make a nice moon viewing party.”

Author: Matthew Zachary Gindin

Freelance journalist and teacher. I write regularly for the Forward, All That In Interesting, and the Jewish Independent, and have been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Elephant Journal, and elsewhere.

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