Dropping Ashes on the Chalice
Service for UUMAN, 7/8/18
Let’s begin with a story—more of a question, really—that Korean Zen master Seung Sahn was fond of asking his students.
Suppose that a man were to walk into this sanctuary, light a cigarette, and start using the chalice as an ashtray. What would you do? Would you stop him? Would you allow him to continue? Why or why not? Take a moment to decide, then, if you feel like it, share your response with someone sitting near you.
Here is how Seung Sahn, the Zen master I just mentioned, would respond:
If you said you’d stop the man, you’re wrong. Seung Sahn would threaten to beat you with a stick for that answer.
If you said you wouldn’t stop him… you’re also wrong. Seung Sahn would threaten to beat you with a stick for that answer.
If you said, “the sun is shining and the breeze is rustling the leaves,” then you’re on the right track, and you might escape a beating.
Let’s see if we can unpack this paradox.
I encountered this question in a book called Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, a collection of Seung Sahn’s teachings drawn from dharma talks, letters, interviews, and personal anecdotes. In his version, the man blows smoke and drops ashes on a Buddha, not a chalice, but the point is the same, and the point, as you’ve probably guessed, has little to do with either Buddha statues or chalices. The point he’s making is about attachment, which is a particularly important concept for Buddhists, and one we can learn much from, too, whether we call ourselves Buddhists or not.
Here is some context. The problem that Buddhism sets out to solve is the problem of suffering—this is true of Buddhism in the same way that we could say Christianity sets out to solve the problem of sin. Why do we suffer in life? Is suffering necessary? Buddhist philosophy investigates this phenomenon and offers a path out of suffering.
Buddhist teachings, called dharma, hold that we suffer because of our attachments. Clinging to the past, or to ideas about how things ought to be, rather than experiencing things as they are, is the cause of suffering. So if it pains or offends us to see someone flick cigarette ash into the chalice, that’s because we’re clinging to an idea about the chalice as a sacred object or symbol of our identity. We haven’t yet grasped that all things are interrelated, that a cigarette and a chalice are not so different.
The Sanscrit word for this kind of suffering—this desperate clinging to ideas, perceptions, memories—is dukkha. Dukkha implies thirst, an insatiable thirst. Imagine working all day outside in the hot Georgia sun and trying to quench your thirst with salt water. That’s dukkha. No matter how much you drink, your thirst does not, cannot, ever cease. So for Seung Sahn, stopping the man is a sign that the student has not yet let go of attachments.
A major symptom of living in a state of dukkha is reliance on conceptual thinking—any sort of thinking really—because our concepts about things get in the way of experiencing them directly, like looking at the world through tinted sunglasses. Thich Naht Hanh, another Buddhist teacher, describes going on a walk with a young girl. She points to some flowers and asks him what color they are. Aware that she is young enough to just see the colors without a concept like “red” getting in the way of the experience, he responds, “They are the color you see.” I think this is something we all feel from time to time, sometimes acutely, and we often become aware of it as when the labels we adopt for ourselves or that are placed on us become constricting. Girl, sister, woman, lover, wife, mother. Gay, lesbian, straight, queer, bi, trans, asexual. White, black, Latino, Eskimo, and on and on, and on… while these labels help us orient ourselves to the world, they also stand between us and the world, between me and you. They make it difficult to see ourselves or each other as simply human.
Okay, but what about not stopping the man? He said that was also a wrong answer. This layer takes a bit more thought to unpack. Imagine that you are a young Buddhist monk or nun, earnestly trying to understand, practice, and live the dharma. Remember that in most Buddhist traditions, monks and nuns give up most material possessions, shave their heads, eat simple food—sometimes only eat what they are given by the community outside their monastery—practice celibacy, and practice meditation, all of which cultivate a mindset and lifestyle based around nonattachment. If you were living in that environment, aspiring toward living in the present moment and not being overly attached to ideas, you might start to venerate, even possibly enjoy the feeling of nonattachment and to relish signs that you were moving away from attachments—which is to say, you might become attached… to nonattachment.
For Seung Sahn, the man dropping ashes on the Buddha represents someone who has become attached to nonattachment. He has gone so far in his spiritual progress that he no longer recognizes the difference between ash and Buddha, but this itself is a sneaky form of attachment—I think of it as a cousin to nihilism, the belief that nothing truly matters, in the end, because there is no God or higher purpose to life, and anyway the sun is going to go out someday, leaving this whole planet a cold, lifeless hunk of rock spinning quietly through space, so why bother with anything? That’s attachment to nonattachment.
Here is how Seung Sahn explains the point of his story:
“This person has understood that nothing is holy or unholy. All things in the universe are one, and that one is himself. So everything is permitted. Ashes are Buddha; Buddha is ashes. The cigarette flicks. The ashes drop.
But his understanding is only partial. He has not yet understood that all things are just as they are. Holy is holy; unholy is unholy. Ashes are ashes; Buddha is Buddha.”
In a way, the spiritual progress he is describing is a kind of circle. We start out attached to words, ideas, and concepts. With work and better understanding, that attachment loosens, and we may become instead attached to emptiness, to nonattachment. The point, however, is to return from that place and to see things, again, as they truly are. The chalice is a chalice, the cigarette a cigarette.
What’s tricky about this question, I think, is that it lays an ethical question over the spiritual one, forcing us to think about what we should do about the man, not about the state of our spiritual progress. What strikes me in Seung Sahn’s response is the generosity and caring he exhibits. It’s almost as if he doesn’t consider the answer most people, including me, would give—that the man is an inconsiderate jerk. Instead, he assumes the best about him, thinking that he has let go of some attachments, but is now woefully attached to emptiness.
Here is another variation:
He says: “Here is a bell.
If you say it is a bell, you are attached to name and form.
If you say it is not a bell, you are attached to emptiness.
Is it a bell or not?”
Seung Sahn gives four answers to this question. The first three are “good” answers.
- Only hit the floor.
- Say, “The bell is laughing.”
- Say, “Outside it is dark, inside it is light.”
- Pick up the bell and ring it. This one is the only complete answer.
Two of these answers use words, and two are actions. The two statements, “The bell is laughing,” and “Outside it is dark, inside it is light,” seem to have no relationship to the question; their purpose is not to answer it but to bend the rules and expectations of language to get the student to stop thinking for a moment. The other two, hitting the floor and ringing the bell, also are meant to shock the questioner out of thinking. And it’s that moment of nonthought that all these puzzles and word games are trying to achieve. Not thinking, just being. When Zen masters strike their students or scream KATZ at the top of their lungs, as they frequently do in the stories he tells, the point is to provoke that moment of nonthinking.
This talk has been too abstract, so let’s ground these questions in something concrete.
I am, among other things, a classic Fox News boogie man: a liberal professor at a four-year college, one far more inclined toward Karl Marx than Ayn Rand. Though I do try to keep my personal politics out of the classroom, my perceptive students can glance, say, at the many black, brown, female, and gay authors on my American literature survey syllabus and correctly deduce my leanings well before we discuss Mina Loy’s “Feminist Manifesto” or Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Those are some of my labels, and there is something seductive about them—something that makes them easy to attach onto. If I were more important than I am, Fox News might target me with claims that I was brainwashing America’s youth with liberal propaganda, which to me is, I must admit, a rather more romantic and appealing story about me than what I really do, which I read the same freshman essay over and over until my eyes, in pure self-defense, cut their ligaments and drop out of my head.
A few months after I finished reading Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville happened, and I watched aghast as white supremacists marched through the streets protesting the removal of Confederate monuments. A few months after Charlottesville, I began a new semester of teaching. The first thing I noticed about one of my new students, who I’ll call Steven, was that his beard stretched down nearly past his shoulders. The second thing I noticed was that he had a big tattoo of a Confederate flag on forearm. With Charlottesville on my mind, I was immediately worried. This was a small night class, with a pretty even split between men and women, and a few more brown faces in the room than white ones. As a first-year writing course, we have less overtly political material to cover than in my literature courses, but we do end up talking about issues of race, class, and immigration over the course of the semester.
So, let’s flip the question around: A man walks into my college classroom—or into the UUMAN sanctuary—with a confederate flag tattooed on his arm. What do I do?
If I confront the tattoo, I am attached to name and form.
If I don’t confront it, I am attached to emptiness, to nihilism. Both ways, I’m wrong.
A couple weeks went by, and the more I got to know Steven, the more I liked him. Nothing in his behavior or attitude caused me the slightest concern. Yet there was the tattoo. One day, we were discussing an essay about how the rapper Tupac Shakur helped a biracial girl embrace her black side, something she couldn’t do before discovering his music. I came to class mildly worried about how the discussion would go. Steven, though, not only listened respectfully to his classmates, but he also spoke about race and class with a degree of sensitivity and insight that I honestly have not encountered in any other college freshman.
In discussions we had both in and outside of class, I later learned that he had served in the Army for many years before leaving to return to college. During his time in the Army, he had taken a series of seminars on racial and gender discrimination. These classes, he said, opened his eyes to the fact that other people had lived experiences vastly different from his own, and he’d so taken them to heart that he went on to become a trainer for these seminars.
I don’t know the story behind his tattoo—maybe he got it as an 18-year-old and grew to regret it. What I do know is that if I had reacted to the tattoo before getting to know him, our relationship would have suffered, and I might not have gotten to see the real Steven. As a self-identified conservative student, Steven, too, might have just seen me for my label, as the liberal propagandist professor that Fox News warned him about. I’m not saying that I was particularly wise in this situation. I think rather that I was very lucky—there are not many Stevens in this world, and one happened to pass through my classroom. I just didn’t screw it up. In these moments with him, I could feel my mind pulled in two directions. On the one hand, there was the tattoo, with all the negativity it symbolized to me. On the other hand, if I could consciously set down those associations and just focus on the present moment, everything was fine—more than fine, in fact, for he was unfailingly considerate and conscientious.
My two-year-old son has reached that stage where the question he most frequently asks is, “What that?” He delights in learning all the names for things, and I enjoy telling him, too. He is entering the world of concepts—“mine” is another new favorite—with all of the joy and suffering they bring. Later, I’m told, we’ll reach the “why” stage, just to make things more complicated. For now, though, I occasionally try to channel some of Seung Sahn’s spirit when he asks me “What that?” sometimes just handing him the thing he’s curious about, other times popping a morsel of food in his mouth instead of saying “tomato.”
Lately, I’ve begun thinking of “What that?” as a useful question for me to ask, too. The Zen mind is a child’s mind, after all, so I’ve been making a practice of asking myself, “What that?” I think I know what a chalice is and what a cigarette is, but looking at a familiar object, idea, or situation and asking myself, “What that?”, slows the busy pace of my mind and, sometimes, puts me back into a state where I can see something without being so wrapped up in thoughts.
Attachment, nonattachment. “What that?” Ring the bell. It’s Sunday and you are here.