348. The Tally

The history of East Asian Buddhism is in large part the history of metaphors, such as the mirror and its images or the ocean and its waves. 

One of the lesser known metaphors used in Chinese Buddhism is the tally.

The tally originated in commercial transactions. The tally was something that was originally one piece, like a piece of decorated wood, which was then broken into two. One piece was given to one party in a commercial transaction, and one piece was given to the other. This piece could then be given to agents.

In a vast country like China, it was a very useful device to ensure that you were paying the right person or that you were delivering goods to the right person.

For our purposes, the metaphor is most apt in relation to the other use that the tally was put to, which was to do with military force. Chinese dynasties would generally be overthrown by generals in near or distant provinces, and so it was important for them to keep control of the military. A general would be given one half of a tally and the other half would be held by the Emperor or the Emperor’s representatives. When the Emperor wished the general’s army to be activated, the Court would send an emissary with the Emperor’s half of the tally to the general and the army could then move. The force embodied by the army could then take action. It was no longer stuck.

You can see how this can be applied to Buddhism. For example, when the student responds to the sutras it is as if two pieces fit together enabling both to move, and both to be transformed from the familiar position – a stuck position – to a dynamic position – a fluid position.

 So, it is not that the wisdom is there in the sutras and the student has to uncover it. Rather, the fitting together of the two creates a dynamic wisdom, now. Not forever, now. The wheel of dharma turns the wheel of dharma.

 Likewise, when we encounter our teacher. It is not that the teacher is going to put us right, or that the teacher has this wisdom which he can give us. It is this fitting together, so the whole miraculous world moves.