Book of Serenity, Case 36: Master Ma Is Unwell

Kusen Collaboration Book of Serenity Case 36, artwork by Blair Thomson

The Case: One day, Master Ma’s personal attendant asked him, “How is the master these days?”

Master Ma answered, “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.”

This case is also Case 3 in the Blue Cliff Record.

Master Ma is Mazu or Baso, who along with Sekito, is one of the great masters of 8th Century Chinese Zen. The reference to “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha” comes from the Buddha Names Sutra, where Sun Face Buddha is said to have a lifespan of 1800 years, and Moon Face Buddha has a lifespan of only one day and one night. Baso would die shortly after this exchange.

On the face of it, Baso is talking about two aspects of his experience, and of all our experience, namely that from one perspective we experience our lives as particular and  karmic, limited in place and time. And from the other, we experience ourselves as part of the great body of all being, unlimited, universal. Rather like we may see a particular stitch on cloth as being, on the one hand, just that particular stitch, and on the other hand, part of the fabric of great being, so we can see our lives in the same way.

It seems to me that we can also look at the answer in another way, which is pointing out two aspects of experiencing non-duality. 

When we experience things in sunlight, everything in this vast world is illuminated, except for the sunlight, which is invisible. We see the manifold vibrant things of the world, but the light of the Self is invisible. 

In moonlight, by contrast, we see all the things on which moonlight shines as being somehow part of the moonlight. They lose their distinctiveness and their separateness and they all become part of the moonlight.

Similarly, I think when we are in Zazen, sometimes the Self drops away and we’re aware of this vast dynamic world, this vast body of all-being. And other times, our experience is quite different. It’s quite soft and intimate, particular in both place and time. It’s as if the whole of existence is taken within the soft light of the non-egoic Self and the world, as it were, disappears.

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