The First Patriarch of the Hua-yen school in China was Dushan. Accounts of his life are almost entirely legendary: from him curing the sick and performing miraculous deeds, such as parting the waves of the Yellow River.
My favourite story is of Dushan being told that one of his monks had been possessed by a ferocious king dragon demon. Dushan went to see the monk, bowed to him, and sat quietly in front of him. Quite soon after, the king dragon demon spoke in a rather apologetic voice saying, “I’m terribly sorry to have troubled you, I’ll just be on my way.”
The story is engaging, but it’s also seductive because we would like to be like the Dushan of that story; banishing delusion, in a way omnipotent—certainly extremely powerful.
We need to sidestep the seduction. What we need to understand is that Buddhism is not a path of mastery—it’s a path of wholeness.
In our actual experience, sometimes we are Dushan; sometimes the hapless monk; sometimes the demon; sometimes the ground that holds all beings upright; sometimes the space which contains them all.
We’re not seeing the world from the vantage point of a master. We’re seeing the world from the endless vantage points of the world.
And there’s another way of looking at the story too.
We can assume that in the story the dragon demon represents delusion. And so, we might imagine that the purpose of meditation is to banish delusion. And if we banish delusion – the thinking goes – surely all that’s left is wisdom, a wisdom pleasingly obvious, both to ourselves and to other people.
This again is mastery. But we can also look on our practice not as the banishment of delusion but as the liberation of delusion from the body of our certainty—from the body of our love and hate. Imagine the vast energy of the dragon demon, chafing within the puny body of the monk.
It’s as if we’re always standing a little distance away from our delusion and, because of that slight distance, it appears real. Real, permanent, known.
But if we charge towards this delusion with our whole body, the body of Zazen, then we can understand that it is none of these things. And more than one being is freed.