One day, Layman Pang addressed Zen Master Mazu, saying,
“A man of unobscured original nature asks you to look upward.”
Mazu looked straight down.
The layman said, “You alone play marvelously the stringless zither.”
Mazu looked straight up.
The layman bowed low. Mazu returned to his quarters.
“Bungled it just now, trying to be smart,” commented the layman.
(From the Recorded Sayings of Layman Pang.)
Layman Pang Yun, who lived in the 8th Century AD, met many renowned Zen masters, engaging in testing conversations that queried his understanding of Buddhism. Not some intellectual or philosophical understanding, however, but the direct comprehension of the Dharma, unaided by fancy scriptures. When visiting Mazu’s monastery, he apparently opened his Dharma-eye during one of these encounters. Later on, he had the above ‘dialogue’ with Master Mazu. I put the word dialogue in quotation marks for it is only the layman that actually speaks, whilst the ‘master’ remains mute. Pang Yun refers to himself as having an “unobscured original nature” – what is this? According to Buddhism, we all have it, but most of the time we remain oblivious to it, caught up in identifying with the obscuring unoriginal nature of the temporal ego. Seeing our “original nature” is seeing beyond the apparent self to that which lies ‘underneath’ it. By inviting Mazu to look upward, Layman Pang is suggesting a sharing of this vision; two empty heads gazing into infinity.
But the Master is having none of it and looks downwards instead. For, in the state of awakening, there is no up and down. Recognizing this, Layman Pang compares Mazu’s wordless expression of the Way with the playing of a soundless qin (a kind of Chinese zither). At this, the master looks up, for too much has been said already, and to continue to look down would start to ‘sound’ like dogmatism. There is no repetition due to attachment to views when living in the light of the Buddhadharma. Next, Layman Pang bows, recognizing the accuracy of the Master’s wordless teaching; but he was lingering too long at this point, for Mazu got up and walked away. Or perhaps the latter simply fancied a rest. Chinese language often omits pronouns in sentences, so it makes no reference to the subject of the layman’s next statement that someone “bungled it just now, trying to be smart.” Is he referring to himself, maybe using more words than he needed to, or is he commenting on the lack of verbal response of Master Mazu? Perhaps neither. Perhaps it is ‘I’ who am the smartass that bungles it by looking too deeply into the above extract. For, looking upwards or looking downwards, ‘it’ is right here, staring us in the face if we have the clarity to recognize it…