Saturday, March 5, 2011

You've Got to Serve Somebody

Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693), Sakyamuni and Maitreya, ink on paper, 11 1/4x221/4", private collection.  Image courtesy of Stephen Addiss and Audrey Yoshiko Seo.

By Hozan Alan Senauke

Zen Master Bankei’s enso is completely his own.  So graceful and strong.  Usually the enso is one circular stroke, perfectly imperfect, expressing the wholeness of existence, which is peace. Emptiness is encircled by action.  Although enso is beyond words, the Zen poet often includes a verse as commentary.  In this case Bankei writes: “Sakyamuni and Maitreya are both servants.” 

In The Art of Zen Stephen Addiss writes about this particular enso:
Bankei, ever the individualist, used two strokes, each strongly and quickly articulated.  The effect is to give an entirely new meaning to the form; the strokes enclose each other like an embrace yet still suggest both emptiness and completeness.*
Addiss explains that Bankei’s commentary — “Sakyamuni and Maitreya are both servants.”  — refers to case 45 of the classic koan collection, the Mumonkan which says: “Even Sakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of someone else. I ask you: whom?”

Whom?  I cannot answer, but there is power in the two embracing strokes that create this circle, with emptiness at its heart. Two lines, two actions, each with its own energy and boundary, come together as one circle. This, for me is the image of peace, not a false merging like peoples fighting for domination, or nations created by the stroke of a pen at gunpoint, but a dynamic mutual relationship.  Rev. Martin Luther King called this relationship “the beloved community.”  There will naturally be conflicts in the beloved community. Conflict is human. In the beloved community, however, conflict is not resolved by threats or violence, but by persistently turning toward each other. Many ensos have a small gap at the end of a single brush stroke. The gap embodies beginning and end. Conflict is implicit, but it is just part of the story. Here Bankei uses two strokes in two directions, interlocking like yin and yang, reaching out for completion.

Coming back to the koan, Sakyamuni is the embodied Buddha of our age and place.  The time is this present eon. The place is the Saha world we inhabit.  Saha means the world that is to be endured. When he woke up under the bodhi tree Sakayamuni declared: “Now I am enlightened together with all beings.”  All beings were his servant and he is servant to all beings. The power of this koan, and of Bankei’s enso is that this is undeniably true for us…each of us. We are servant and we are served.  All life is a circle of giving.

As for Maitreya Buddha, she is currently teaching in Tusita Heaven, a pure Buddhaland beyond our comprehension. She is destined to be the future Buddha of our world. Something like a messiah. When will she arrive?  Are we ready?  Do we deserve her presence? Will it be a new millennium?  Driving into Oakland from Berkeley the other day, I saw a billboard: Judgment Day — May 21st, 2011.  Guess I had better get prepared.

Maybe Maitreya is already here.  Maybe Maitreya is you.  Or me. Servant and the served, host and guest are not separate.  They co-create each other in the circular activity of giving. This is a fine idea. But if it is just an idea, the circle is broken. Keep it real. Who is serving you?  Who are you serving? Such questions…this is the work of peace. 

Alan Senauke is here standing beside a painting by Max Gimblett, at the time on view in the Sweetcake Enso exhibit at the Brooklyn Zen Center, and which later sold to raise money for the Village Zendo.**  Alan Senauke is the author of the beautifully written book The Bodhisattva's Embrace:  Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism's Front Lines.  Recently he became a Buddhist blogger - currently travelling in India, you can read of Hozan Alan Senauke's wanderings at the


*  Stephen Addiss, The Art of Zen, NY: Abrams, 1989.  See also Audrey Yoshiko Seo,  Enso:  Zen Circles of Enlightenment, Boston and London: Weatherhill Press, c. 2007.
** Photo by Ian Case of the Brooklyn Zen Center.

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