One Saturday afternoon in December, Mu Soeng, the longtime co-director and now resident scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts, walks down a street in Manhattan, talking about the sheer force of American corporate capitalism and consumer culture. This is like talking about the weather in the middle of a hurricane, because at this particular moment we are threading our way through a tide of Christmas shoppers surging into the side streets from the megastores on Sixth Avenue, and pooling around the entrance to the open-air antique and flea market at Twenty-sixth Street.

 

Mu Soeng, who trained in the Korean Zen tradition and was a monk for eleven years, speaks of the Zen image of the old man entering the marketplace after his enlightenment: the old man’s hands are empty, and his expression is jolly and free. This is the surprise ending of some versions of the Oxherding Pictures, a traditional Zen guide to awakening told in drawings.

“He bestows blessings with empty hands,” explains Mu Soeng. “He doesn’t try to grasp anything. He wants nothing. He carries nothing.”

“Prada! Gucci! Right here! Fourth floor!” yells a young man who is balancing on a brass fire hydrant, the better to be heard.

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