Dongshan and Sengmi, who were later to become accomplished Zen masters, were walking on pilgrimage, and a white rabbit suddenly darted across their path. Sengmi said, “How swift.”

Dongshan asked him how so.

Sengmi said, “Just like a commoner becoming a high minister.”

Dongshan retorted, “How can such a venerable person as you speak like that?”

When Sengmi asked for Dongshan’s understanding, he said, “After generations of nobility, temporarily fallen into poverty.”

The differing viewpoints about the white rabbit in this story suggest two contrasting approaches to awakening, and to spiritual practice. In Sengmi’s first statement about the rabbit, Thomas Cleary translates the Chinese character as “swift,” William Powell as “elegant,” and it may also be translated as “eminent,” or “refined.” This white rabbit is impressive and grand, not just for his speed. The question is how the rabbit became so eminent. This dialogue about the white rabbit indicates also the issue of how Buddhas or great bodhisattvas become elegant and refined.

Sengmi claimed the rabbit was “Just like a commoner becoming a high minister.” This implies the path of cultivation of a deluded person achieving elevated wisdom through great exertion, often thought of in terms of self-improvement. Many Buddhist sutras and other teachings include various systems of specified stages of development and spiritual growth as guides for practitioners. Wansong, author of several important koan commentaries, says in his commentary in the Book of Serenity, “Usually we awaken by means of cultivation, entering sagehood from ordinariness—a commoner is directly appointed prime minister.” Not only in Buddhism, but in many spiritual and cultural traditions, eminence and achievement are often seen as only the outcome of long, arduous struggle.

On the other hand, Dongshan describes the white rabbit’s situation as “generations of nobility, temporarily fallen into poverty.” This implies that such eminence is a facet of inalienable, inherent buddhanature, not the attainment of some new status or of spiritual social climbing. The upright nobility of a Buddha’s awareness and kindness is a birthright already present, not some new state that needs to be discovered or achieved.

Temporarily falling into poverty is a necessary aspect of the bodhisattva way of life. Bodhisattvas, awakening beings dedicated to universal liberation, join fully with suffering beings and become impoverished, at least spiritually if not also materially, just so they can reenact and exemplify awakening to this innate nobility as an encouragement for others. They practice, sometimes strenuously, not to reach some exalted state but to uncover something already deeply present. Dongshan suggests that the fall into suffering, when bodhisattva practice is engaged, is finally only temporary.

Dongshan’s response refers directly to a parable in the Lotus Sutra, arguably the most important Buddhist scripture in East Asia. In this prodigal son story, a son and father are separated. The son drifts aimlessly and becomes destitute, while the father moves to another city and becomes very wealthy and highly respected. Eventually, the son in his wandering happens upon the estate of the father. The father immediately recognizes his son and sends some assistants to bring him in, but seeing the wealthy, eminent man in front of his mansion, the son is frightened and runs away. The father understands the humble son’s shame and dread and sends his assistants disguised as lowly menial workers to invite the son to come and take a job on the estate shoveling dung in the fields. After a while, when the son feels comfortable with this job, the father has his assistants steadily give the son more responsibilities, until gradually, after a very long period, the son is managing the estate. When the father is finally about to pass away, he calls for all of his friends and the nobles and citizens of the city and announces to them, and to his son, that this really is his son, and that they were separated long before, but that “Now all of my wealth belongs entirely to my son.” The sutra goes on to state explicitly that the very rich old man is the Buddha, and that “we are all like the Buddha’s children.”

Wansong in his commentary to the white rabbit story refers to a saying, “In the metaphor of the destitute son is illustrated the Path; in the verse on presenting the jewel is shown the net of salvation.” The long path of the destitute prodigal son involves realizing a birthright already present. “The verse on presenting the jewel” may refer to either of two other stories in the Lotus Sutra.

In the first story, two friends are up late drinking, and the guest falls asleep. The affluent host is called away but first sews a priceless jewel into the guest’s robe as a gift to provide for him. Later the guest awakens and departs. In his travels he faces hardships and must struggle just to satisfy basic needs. The friends happen to meet later, and the disappointed former host tells his indigent friend about the jewel he still has in his clothing and that he had only suffered want due to ignorance of the jewel. Now he knows and may live at ease. The implications of this story are quite similar to the prodigal son story. The host who provided for his friend is again explicitly compared to the Buddha.

The second Lotus Sutra story suggested by Wansong’s commentary about presenting a jewel is more complex. A bodhisattva and a Buddha visiting from a different world system, what we may consider another solar system or galaxy, or perhaps a different dimension of space and time, inquire of the bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjushri, if there are any beings who could quickly become a Buddha through diligently and devotedly practicing the sutra. Manjushri mentions the dragon king’s eight-year-old daughter, who soon appears. She presents an exceedingly precious jewel to the Buddha as an offering, and he immediately accepts it. She then proclaims that she can become a Buddha even more quickly than the Buddha accepted the jewel, and though she is not human, only eight years of age, and in terms of the prejudices of the time, merely a defiled female, she proceeds instantly to become a Buddha.

The complexities of this story have rightly been much discussed in contemporary Buddhist women’s studies. But in the context of the story about Dongshan and the white rabbit, what is important is that the dragon girl, like the rabbit, is swift and becomes eminent, achieving buddhahood very quickly. In the context of the traditional path requiring ages of effort to achieve excellence, she is quite revolutionary.

The net of salvation demonstrated by these presentations of jewels is immediate, not a product of endeavoring to reach new heights. The path of arhats, the enlightened practitioners of Theravada Buddhism, and even traditionally of bodhisattvas prior to the Lotus Sutra, involves many lifetimes of arduous practice. Dongshan’s statement “After generations of nobility, temporarily fallen into poverty” invokes these stories and the view of awakening as an omnipresent, available capacity, not some product created or achieved through stages of accomplishment.

What of the elegant white rabbit in the original story? Perhaps it is only white in parallelism with the white robe of commoners, as “white-robe” is a widespread Buddhist epithet for laypeople and the phrase used to indicate “commoner” in the original dialogue.

In East Asia a white rabbit is commonly seen in the moon, just as people in the Northern Hemisphere in the West see a man in the moon. With the white rabbit representing the moon, a customary Buddhist image of wholeness and full enlightenment, we can see the original story afresh. Thus, Dongshan and Sengmi are talking not just about a small rabbit, but about enlightenment itself, which somehow they had glimpsed passing quickly in front of them. Therefore, their comments reflect approaches and strategies to developing enlightened awareness.

A more familiar white rabbit may be pertinent. In Lewis Carroll’s mid-nineteenth-century fable, a white rabbit leads a young girl named Alice—at “seven and a half exactly,” she is close in age to the dragon princess—to dive down a very deep hole. This white rabbit, too, is quite elegant, wearing a waistcoat with a pocket watch and holding white kid gloves. This white rabbit is also swift, and seeks to be even swifter, as he worries, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” Such anxiety about the time may be considered more a reflection of Sengmi’s “commoner becoming a high minister,” the practitioner toiling to purify himself with great effort over time to climb to an elevated status, and hoping to get there fairly soon. Perhaps Dongshan’s white rabbit, “after generations of nobility, temporarily fallen into poverty,” may also be nervous about his pace, to the extent that the bodhisattva is fooled in his fallen state before recalling his generations of noble awakened ancestors.

In a more recent invocation, Grace Slick, in her 1967 anthem “White Rabbit” on the Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow album, sings, “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you, don’t do anything at all.” Indeed, in the path of cultivation, for commoners working to become eminent, some practices make you larger, providing a lofty perspective that may lead to self-inflation, and some practices make you small, either via a narrow focus of concentration or through the humbling awareness of one’s self-centeredness. Perhaps from Dongshan’s viewpoint of the foundational generations of nobility and the stark immediacy of suchness, the practices that the Buddha gives you also “don’t do anything at all.” Rather than producing dramatic elevation or diminishment, the practices of Dongshan’s Buddha simply remind the practitioner of the inner uprightness, dignity, and nobility of intrinsic awakening.

The implications of his response to Sengmi after encountering the white rabbit include Dongshan’s advocacy of practices to immediately recognize the awakened qualities of kindness and awareness available presently, and recognize the reality of just this suchness. Seeking to escape to some loftier realm is not the point. Practices of cultivation, seeking advanced concentrations, or seeing through and purifying negative karmic qualities may well be engaged, and even necessary, but only from the perspective of awakening from the temporary obstructions to our generations of nobility.

From Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness by Taigen Dan Leighton © 2015 by Taigen Dan Leighton. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

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