While browsing online recently, I came across a link to a collection of Buddhist humor. The table of contents included several familiar titles and one entry that, though its title was not one I recognized, made me think that the article itself might be the most familiar of them all. It was called “The Cucumber Sage,” and when I read it, my suspicions were confirmed, and in a most surprising way.
It turns out that “The Cucumber Sage” has long been rather popular on the web. A quick search showed that it has been posted numerous times and even been published in a book. When it appears, there is usually a note saying that no one seems to know who wrote it and that it just appeared anonymously. But I happen to know who the author is, and it is not by chance. Because I wrote it.
Back in the early 1980s, I wrote a series of humor pieces for the Zen Center of Los Angeles’ journal The Ten Directions, and “The Cucumber Sage” was one of them. Actually, it was two of them, as it appeared in two installments, the second of which being the article that now circulates.
When I came upon the article online, I went deep into my old files and found the originals. They were not titled “The Cucumber Sage”, though I understand how the main character might be characterized that way. The original title, for both parts, was “Being Here,” the story being a kind of Buddhist “lives of the saints” by way of Jerzy Kozinski’s novel (later adapted into a terrific Peter Sellers film) “Being There.”
When it was first published, I wrote an introduction to the story, describing how I kind of stumbled upon this “ancient Chinese text.” It was written with tongue planted firmly in cheek. But maybe it was planted too firmly. In any case, here is the full story of the Cucumber Sage, along with the illustrations that originally accompanied it.
The following article is my own translation of a Chinese text which appeared mysteriously in my mailbox several weeks ago. My immediate, intuitive sense told me that it was a work of profound significance, and more than 10 minutes of the most scrupulous scholarly research left me satisfied as to its authenticity. So convinced was I of its importance that despite a mastery of Chinese that extends only as far as several items on the menu of the Dragon Palace and a natural linguistic sensibility that enabled me to flunk out of Hebrew school and maintain a solid “D” average through three years of high school French, I sacrificed my Sunday afternoon basketball game and an opportunity to view “A Night at the Opera” for the 12th time in order to render this first section into English for readers of The Ten Directions.
The Record of the Life and Teachings of Wu-Ming
Compiled by Master T’ung-wang, Abbot of Han-hsin Monastery in the 13th year of the Earth Dragon period (898)
Great bodhisattvas, more numerous than grains of sand in the Yellow River, throughout worlds as countless as stars in the galaxy, lead incalculable numbers of sentient beings to nirvana through an infinitude of means. Nevertheless, in a lifetime of more than 80 years, this old monk has seen nothing that compares in strangeness and unaccountability with the life of Wuming (No Light), known variously as the ”Accidental Bodhisattva,” the “Witless Saint,” and the “Perfect Idiot.” Through some unexplainable quirk of karma, Wu-ming’s unmitigated self interest, incorrigible laziness, and outright stupidity served to open the minds of thousands to their innate buddhanature. In his favor, I feel that I must say that his selfishness was without malice, his laziness without guile, and his stupidity without self consciousness. Still, how one who, in terms of prajna wisdom, could not compete with a ball of earwax could serve such a wondrous function, remains a mystery to me.
Even as an infant Wu-ming showed signs of the dim-witted small-mindedness that would eventually lead multitudes to enlightenment. He was born in Szechuan Province to parents who were known and envied throughout the region. His father was a man of not tremendous personal force and pride. Tall and strikingly handsome, so skilled was he as a general and so cunningly ruthless in the world of courtly intrigue that by the time he had reached his 30th year he stood as the designated heir to China’s greatest warlord, Wang Shih-fu. Wu-ming’s mother’s beauty was legendary, as were her intelligence and cruel ambitiousness, said to surpass even her husband’s. To see them together, one would have thought that nothing in this world stood beyond their means, that no person or thing could long stand in their way, and that they, more than anyone else, were aware of it. And when their first and only child was born, they were a certain that he would one day be a lord of such wealth and power that even the Emperor himself, the vey Son of Heaven, would lower his gaze before him. But their fate was much kinder.
By the time he was 9years old, it was obvious that, on all counts and by any standards, Wu-ming was a complete and utter failure. While children of comparable position had by this time mastered the classics and were composing verses, Wu-ming had not even learned to read and write. In the arts of war his ineptitude was without rivalry, and as he failed to remember even the most rudimentary of social conventions and customs, his lack of observance in this regard caused his parents continual embarrassment. In fact Wu-ming never showed even the slightest interest in anything whatsoever, with one exception: pickled cucumber.
Though his parents did their best to conceal it, stories of Wu-ming’s failings became a favorite topic of conversation throughout the province. People who had once been bitterly jealous and resentful now laughed uproariously as they discussed the noble couple’s misfortune; those who had been intimidated, defeated, and humiliated in the couple’s rise to power now ridiculed Wu-ming’s parents right to their faces. The shame was unbearable! The once proud father wiled away the days in a drunken stupor, the mother (that once most beautiful of creatures) took to wandering aimlessly through the palace grounds in a tattered robe with broom in hand, hair matted, giggling, sobbing, and muttering to herself all the while about pickled cucumber, the vast wealth of the Imperial Court and the kindness of strangers.
On Wu-ming’s 10th birthday his parents left him at the door of a small village temple with a note pinned to his chest and a jar of pickled cucumber tucked under his arm. The note said:
Reverend Priest, though we have always scorned those who follow the Buddha’s teachings, we have come to see the error of our ways. We are certain that our wrongdoing over many lifetimes must have been of the gravest sort, and that this hapless child is the fruit of such ruinous karma. Fearing that perhaps further misfortune awaits, and realizing that life passes quickly, we will retreat to the mountains, there to spend the remainder of our days in diligent religious practice, in the hope that through such penance we will be able to avoid falling prey to another calamity such as this nitwit child. We have heard that to have one’s child join the holy order of monks and nuns brings great merit. Though it seems doubtful that this rule applies in the present case, we are leaving Wu-ming in your care. Good luck.
It might be argued that their interpretation of karma was a bit askew and self-serving. Nevertheless, true to their word, Wu-ming’s parents vigorously pursued their practice in the seclusion of their mountain hermitage and were never seen again. Many years later stories spread of two mountain dwelling Buddhas, and pilgrims came from far and wide to pay homage. But those who sought them out found only their poems of realization scribbled on rocks and walls, and heard their crazy laughter ringing through the trees and gorges.
Chin-mang (Totally Blind) was an elderly priest whose great kindness and humility was born of more than 60 years’ devotion to the Buddha’s teaching. For many years he had lived alone and content in the modest simplicity of his temple. Several hours after Wu-ming was left at the temple gate, Chin-mang found him sitting there happily munching on pickled cucumbers. Though he had barely enough food and funds to take care of himself, he did not hesitate to take the boy in. In fact, he considered Wu-ming’s arrival a stroke of good fortune, for perhaps now he would have someone to take over the temple when he died.
The old monk labored long and valiantly to train the child as a Buddhist priest, but Wu-ming proved to be as resounding a failure as a priest as he had proven to be as a student and a soldier. One day, after Wu-ming had been at the temple for five years, Chin-mang became gravely ill. The old monk, knowing death was near, called Wu-ming to his bedside for a final word.
“Before I took you in, living alone in this sanctuary, I was buffered by my isolation from all concerns and had become complacent and self-satisfied. Though it is evident that my efforts to instruct you in the dharma have met with no success at all, by your very obtuseness you have shown me many painful inadequacies in my own practice and have taught me much of the way of the bodhisattvas.”
The old priest, weakened by sickness and age, lay silent for a minute. His eyes filled with tears as he continued. The Tathagata, in his great wisdom and compassion, taught that all beings, without exception, have the same wisdom and virtue as the Buddha’s; that all things intrinsically possess buddhanature. Observing you over the past five years I have developed serious doubts about the truthfulness of this teaching. The faith which has sustained me for so many years has been shattered and, try as I might, I am unable to regain it.
Instead, I am disturbed with a constant feeling of great doubt, as though a red hot ball of iron had become lodged in my throat, and I am unable to either swallow it or spit it out. Day and night I ask myself, “What is this buddhanature, that even a fool such as Wu-ming could possess it?” Now I stand at the abyss of death, and still I do not understand. Though I know you are simply a wastrel who cares nothing for the Buddha’s holy dharma, I beg you to try to help this old monk. If you have the buddhanature, please help me to see it!”
Wu-ming, of course had not an inkling as to what Chin-mang was talking about. All he knew was that he was hungry, and, seeing that the priest had left his lunch uneaten, he picked up a pickled cucumber from the tray and happily bit into it. At the crack of the cucumber Chin-mang’s mind opened; his question was utterly resolved.
Taking his brush in hand, Chin-mang wrote:
Crushing faith and doubt,
This preposterous Buddha
Sits before me and bites a cucumber.
He wrote one more note and pinned it to Wu-ming’s robe. Then, smiling serenely, he lay back and passed away.
to be continued . . .
BEING HERE II
Several months ago a hitherto unknown Chinese text concerning the extraordinary life and teachings of the “accidental bodhisattva” Wu-ming inexplicably came into my possession. Since the publication of the first part of my translation of it appeared in the last issue of The Ten Directions, a number of people have expressed doubts about my reliability as a translator, claiming that even the most thorough familiarity with “Kung-Ju” reruns does not qualify someone to render obscure writings in medieval literary Chinese into English. Others have raised questions about the authenticity of the text itself, some going so far as to intimate that no such text even exists. In response to such questions I can only say that I was perfectly willing to produce the original manuscript upon request. But unfortunately it was so damaged when I carelessly mixed it in with my laundry and put it through the “durable press-hot water” cycle, that even drying on “air-fluff” could not salvage it.
The Record of the Life and Teachings of Wu-Ming
Compiled by Master T’ung-wang, Abbot of Han-hsin Monastery in the 13th year of the Earth Dragon period (898)
My dear friend, the most reverend Master T’ung-wang,
Old and ill, I lay here knowing that writing this note will be my last act upon this earth and that by the time you read it I will be gone from this life.
Though we have not seen each other in the many years since we studied together under our most venerable master, I have often thought of you, his most worthy successor. Monks from throughout China say that you are a true lion of the buddhadharma; one whose eye is a shooting star, whose hands snatch lightning, and whose voice booms like thunder. It is said that your every action shakes heaven and earth and causes the elephants and dragons of delusion to scatter helplessly. I am told that your monastery is unrivaled in severity, and that under your exacting guidance hundreds of monks pursue their training with utmost zeal and vigor. I’ve also heard that in the enlightened-successor department your luck has not been so good. Which brings me to the point of this letter.
I ask that you now draw your attention to the young man to whom this note is attached. As he stands before you, no doubt smiling stupidly as he stuffs himself with pickled cucumbers, you may be wondering if he is as complete a fool as he appears, and, if so, what prompted me to send him to you. In answer to the first question, I assure you that Wu-ming’s foolishness is far more complete than mere appearance would ever lead you to believe. As for the second question, I can only say that despite so benumbed a condition, or perhaps because of it, or, still more likely, despite and because of it, Wu-ming seems to unwittingly and accidentally serve the function of a great bodhisattva. Perhaps he can be of service to you.
Allow him 16 hours of sleep daily and provide him with lots of pickled cucumber and Wu-ming will always be happy. Expect nothing of him and you will be happy.
After Chin-mang’s funeral, the supporters of his temple arranged for Wu-ming’s journey to Han-hsin monastery, where I resided, then as now, as abbot. A monk found Wu-ming at the monastery’s gate and seeing a note bearing my name pinned to his robe, led him to my quarters.
Customarily, when first presenting himself to the abbot, a newly-arrived monk will prostrate himself three times and ask respectfully to be accepted as a student. And so I was taken somewhat by surprise when Wu-ming walked into the room, took a pickled cucumber from the jar under his arm, stuffed it whole into his mouth, and happily munching away, broke into the toothless imbecilic grin that would one day become legendary. Taking a casual glance around the room, he smacked his lips loudly and said, “What’s for lunch’?”
After reading dear old Chin-mang’s note, I called in the head monk and asked that he show my new student to the monks’ quarters. When they had gone I reflected on Chin-mang’s words. Han-hsin was indeed a most severe place of training: winters were bitterly cold and in summer the sun blazed. The monks slept no more than three hours each night and ate one simple meal each day. For the remainder of the day they worked hard around the monastery, and practiced hard in the meditation hall. But, alas, Chin-mang had heard correctly. Among all my disciples there was none whom I felt confident to be a worthy vessel to receive the untransmittable transmitted dharma. I was beginning to despair that I would one day die bereft of even one successor, and fail to fulfill my obligation of seeing my teacher’s dharma-lineage continued.
The monks could hardly be faulted for complacency or indolence. Their sincere aspiration and disciplined effort were admirable indeed, and many had attained great clarity of wisdom. But they were preoccupied with their capacity for harsh discipline and proud of their insight. They squabbled with one another for positions of prestige and power, and vied amongst themselves for recognition. Jealousy, rivalry and ambition seemed to hang like a dark cloud over Han-hsin monastery, sucking even the most wise and sincere into its obscuring haze.
Holding Chin-mang’ s note before me, I hoped and prayed that this Wu-ming, this “accidental bodhisattva,” might be the yeast my recipe seemed so much in need of.
To my astonished pleasure, Wu-ming took to life at Han-hsin like a duck to water. At my request, he was assigned a job in the kitchen pickling vegetables. This he pursued tirelessly, and with a cheerful earnestness he gathered and mixed ingredients, lifted heavy barrels, drew and carried water, and, of course, freely sampled his workmanship. He was delighted!
When the monks assembled in the meditation hall, they would invariably find Wu-ming seated in utter stillness, apparently in deep and profound samadhi. No one even guessed that the only thing profound about Wu-ming’s meditation was the profound unlikelihood that he might find the meditation posture, legs folded into the lotus position, back erect and centered, to be so wonderfully conducive to the long hours of sleep he so enjoyed.
Day after day and month after month, as the monks struggled to meet the physical and spiritual demands of monastery life, Wu-ming, with a grin and a whistle, sailed through it all effortlessly. Even though, if the truth be told, Wu-ming’s Zen practice was without the slightest merit, by way of outward appearances he was judged by all to be a monk of great accomplishment and perfect discipline.
Of course, I could have dispelled this misconception easily enough, but I sensed that Wu-ming’s unique brand of magic was taking effect and I was not about to throw away this most absurdly skillful of means.
By turn the monks were jealous, perplexed, hostile, humbled and inspired by what they presumed to be Wu-ming’s great attainment. Of course it never occurred to Wu-ming that his or anyone else’s behavior required any such judgments, for they are the workings of a far more sophisticated nature than his own mind was capable. Indeed, everything about him was so obvious and simple that others thought him unfathomably subtle.
Wu-ming’s inscrutable presence had a tremendously unsettling effect on the lives of the monks, and undercut the web of rationalizations that so often accompanies such upset. His utter obviousness rendered him unintelligible and immune to the social pretensions of others. Attempts of flattery and invective alike were met with the same uncomprehending grin, a grin the monks felt to be the very cutting edge of the sword of Perfect Wisdom. Finding no relief or diversion in such interchange, they were forced to seek out the source and resolution to their anguish each within his own mind.
More importantly, and absurdly, Wu-ming caused to arise in the monks the unconquerable determination to fully penetrate the teaching “The Great Way is without difficulty” which they felt he embodied. All of this they did admirably and with much success.
Though in the course of my lifetime I have encountered many of the most venerable progenitors of the Tathagata’s teaching, never have I met one so skilled at awakening others to their intrinsic Buddhahood as this wonderful fool Wu-ming. His spiritual non-sequiturs were as sparks, lighting the flame of illuminating wisdom in the minds of many who engaged him in dialogue.
Once a monk approached Wu-ming and asked in all earnestness, “In the whole universe, what is it that is most wonderful?” Without hesitation Wu-ming stuck a cucumber before the monk’s face and exclaimed, “There is nothing more wonderful than this!” At that the monk crashed through the dualism of subject and object shouting, “The whole universe is a pickled cucumber; a pickled cucumber is the whole universe!” Wu-ming simply chuckled and said, “Stop talking nonsense. A cucumber is a cucumber; the whole universe is the whole universe. What could be more obvious’?” The monk, penetrating the perfect phenomenal manifestation of Absolute Truth, clapped his hands and laughed, saying, “Throughout infinite space, everything is deliciously sour!”
On another occasion a monk asked Wu-ming, “The Third Patriarch said, ‘The Great Way is without difficulty, just cease having preferences .’ How can you then delight in eating cucumbers, yet refuse to even take one bit of a carrot?” Wu-ming said, “I love cucumbers; I hate carrots!” The monk lurched back as though struck by a thunderbolt. Then laughing and sobbing and dancing about he exclaimed, “Liking cucumbers and hating carrots is without difficulty, just cease preferring the Great Way!”
Within three years of his arrival, stories of the “great bodhisattva of Han-hsin monastery” had made their way throughout the provinces of China. Knowing of Wu-ming’s fame, I was not entirely surprised when a messenger from the Emperor appeared summoning Wu-ming and me to the Imperial Palace immediately.
From throughout the Empire exponents of the Three Teachings of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism were being called to the capitol, there to engage one another in a religious debate, at the conclusion of which the Emperor would proclaim one to be the true religion to be practiced and preached in all lands under his rule. The idea of such competition for Imperial favor is not to my approval and the likelihood that a religious persecution might follow troubled me greatly. But an order from the Emperor is not to be ignored, so Wu-ming and I set out the next day.
Inside the Great Hall were gathered the more than 100 priests and scholars who were to debate one another. They were surrounded by the most powerful lords in all of China, along with innumerable advisors, scribes, servants, and guards, all waiting in anticipation for the entrance of the Son of Heaven. All at once trumpets blared, cymbals crashed, and clouds of incense billowed up everywhere. The Emperor, borne on by a retinue of guards, was carried to the throne.
After all due formalities were observed the Emperor signaled for the debate to begin.
Several hours passed as one after another priests and scholars came forward presenting their doctrines and responding to questions. Through it all Wu-ming sat obliviously content as he stuffed himself with his favorite food. When his supply was finished he happily crossed his legs, straightened his back, and closed his eyes. But the noise and commotion were too great and, unable to sleep, he grew more restless and irritable by the minute. As I clasped him firmly by the back of the neck in an effort to restrain him, the Emperor gestured to Wu-ming to approach the throne.
When Wu-ming had come before him, the Emperor said, “Throughout the land you are praised as a bodhisattva whose mind is like the Great Void itself, yet you have not had a word to offer this assembly. Therefore I say to you now, teach me the True Way that all under heaven must follow.” Wu-ming said nothing. After a few moments the Emperor, with a note of impatience, spoke again, “Perhaps you do not hear well so I shall repeat myself! Teach me the True Way that all under heaven must follow!” Still Wu-ming said nothing, and silence rippled through the crowd as all strained forward to witness this monk who dared behave in so bold a fashion in the Emperor’s presence.
Wu-ming heard nothing the Emperor said, nor did he notice the tension that vibrated through the half. All that concerned him was his wish to find a nice quiet place where he could sleep undisturbed. The Emperor spoke again, his voice shaking with fury, his face flushed with anger: “You have been summoned to this council to speak on behalf of the followers of the Buddhist teaching. Your disrespect will not be tolerated much longer. I shall ask one more time and, should you fail to answer, I assure you the consequence shall be most grave. Teach me the True Way that all under heaven must follow!” Without a word Wu-ming turned and, as all looked on in dumbfounded silence, he made his way down the aisle and out the door.
There was a hush of stunned disbelief before the crowd erupted into an uproar of confusion. Some were applauding Wu-ming’s brilliant demonstration of religious insight, while others rushed about in an indignant rage, hurling threats and abuses at the doorway he had just passed through. Not knowing whether to praise Wu-ming or to have him beheaded, the Emperor turned to his advisors, but they were none the wiser. Finally, looking out at the frantic anarchy to which his grand debate had been reduced, the Emperor must surely have realized that no matter what Wu-ming’s intentions might have been, there was no only one way to avoid the debate becoming a most serious embarrassment.
“The great sage of Han-hsin monastery has skillfully demonstrated that the Great Tao cannot be confined by doctrines, but is best expounded through harmonious action. Let us profit by the wisdom he has so compassionately shared, and each endeavor to make our every step one that unites heaven and earth in accord with the profound and subtle Tao.”
Having thus spoken the Son of Heaven concluded the Great Debate.
I immediately ran out to find Wu-ming, but he had disappeared on the crowded streets of the capitol.
Ten years have since passed, and I have seen nothing of him. However, on occasion a wandering monk will stop at Han-hsin with some bit of news. I am told that Wu-ming has been wandering about the countryside this past decade, trying unsuccessfully to find his way home. Because of his fame he is greeted and cared for in all quarters with generous kindness; however, those wishing to help him on his journey usually find that they have been helped on their own.
One young monk told of an encounter in which Wu-ming asked him, “Can you tell me where my home is?” Confused as to the spirit of the question, the monk replied, “Is the home you speak of to be found in the relative world of time and place, or do you mean the Original Home of all pervading buddhanature?”
After pausing a moment to consider the question, Wu-ming looked up and, grinning as only he is capable, said, “Yes.”
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