Image from Mogao, cave 305
From the Zhejiang Art Museum, Hangzhou, China
This preaching scene is surrounded by very serious monks. Here's an example:
I think we can all agree, he looks pretty severe. And the background is well populated with them; all sternly and resolutely in meditation, as though they were upset with the world and all of the nonsense that goes on with it.
The attitude, which takes place behind the the sacred prayer of the Buddha and his attendants, is one of opposition. So the surrounding influence within which all of the sacred action takes place is one that, although it adopts a saintly attitude, is oddly oppositional. The Buddha and his attendants bring a softly graceful and feminine attitude which is, to me, entirely absent in the intensity of the meditating monks.
If this sounds familiar, well, perhaps it's because it's what we're like in both our inner and outer work.
It's not enough to be an uncompromising Saint. The uncompromising saint is trying to own something; trying too hard to get into heaven. And although this is a laudable attitude, it is already divorced from the action of sacrifice in the admission of humility that is necessary; because it believes that it owns something, and can go somewhere.
Whether or not the masters who painted this artwork actually intended this interesting juxtaposition, it seems compelling to me. The whole range of religious activity comes into question: the descent of a higher energy from a realm we are unfamiliar with; a prayerful attitude; a relentless determination to attend. And, perhaps above all, a delightful relief that can be taken in seeing the whole scene with a sense of humor — that is, a refusal to bow one's head to asceticism and gravity, and instead turned towards a lighter moment of surrender and release. This subtle sense of humor is often present in Zen painting of much later dates; and I think I need to find it within myself at times, lest I grow too stern and uncompromising myself.
This attitude of severity is a great danger. People adopt it as though they knew something, and could guide others. It's one thing to do this in business, where there are temporal issues at stake and money needs to be made; but in spiritual work, to believe that you know what is right for another is, ultimately, an arrogance. At least, coming from a certain place, it is. My own teacher Betty Brown knew this well, and was strikingly hesitant to dispense personal advice on inner work. She set standards; and she enforced rigor; but she didn't preside.
That was always, for better or (more often) for worse, left up to me.
Believing that things should be special and intense in order to create real Being is like thinking that we know how to arrange the inner and outer world better than God does. I'm no different than anyone else in this regard; of course I think I know more than others. Those who deny such thoughts are liars not only to the world at large, but to themselves. It's seeing this arrogance and juxtaposing it against the real force of a living energy that enters and informs that can help go against the stern nonsense I manufacture in myself.
Ever since I first saw them, I've found the images of these uncompromising monks both delightful, amusing, and instructional. The execution is simple and masterful; and the underlying sense of humor shines through.
Life, I think, ought to be more like this.