bright light

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These days, it might seem as though there isn’t much light in the culture and civilization of the world. And that’s as true of this country as it is anywhere else, especially on this January 6 anniversary.

Let’s consider Case 86 from the Blue Cliff Record, the Hekiganroku. This koan, “Unmon’s Bright Light,” presents a scene from the teaching of Unmon, a Zen Master of the Tang dynasty; he was born in 862 or 864 and died in 949. As far as I can tell, Unmon was an indefatigable proponent of what’s-right-in-front-of-you truth. He didn’t hold with running about quoting scripture and relying upon written teachings when giving instruction to students. He was an in-your-face and and right-under-your-nose kind of guy.

Accordingly, we have this Case 86, in which he makes a clear case to students that they have their own light, their own True Nature. Moreover, everything else has and is its own light – its own True Nature. He wants the students to “get” what and where that True Nature is. Here’s the case:

Unmon, giving instruction, said, “Everyone has his or her own bright light. When you look at it, you can’t see it; it is complete darkness. Now, what is the bright light of you all?” He himself answered on behalf of the monks, “The kitchen and the entrance gate.” Again, he said, “It would be better not to have even the best things.”

The main question the koan poses is, Now, what is the bright light of you all? And assuming the students won’t venture an answer, the master gives one. The kitchen and the entrance gate. So, how can those two parts of the temple be seen as the bright light of everyone? How can they be seen as light, at all?

As usual with Unmon, the answer is very simple: Everything has and is True Nature. Original Nature. Essential Nature. Buddha Nature. Everything, bar nothing. The kitchen. The gate. The wall. The tree by the window. The window itself! It’s not just humans – or other sentient beings – that have and are Essential Nature. All things have and are That.

If we seek outside ourselves for our True Nature, we are bound to fail to find it. Looking for it outside is like trying to see our own eyeballs without using a mirror. Can’t be done. That’s what he means when he says, you can’t see it; it is complete darkness. We can’t separate ourselves from everything that is, from our inherent Nature, because we actually are everything that is. Adam and Eve tried that one, and look what happened to them!

Now, I’m not crazy about this language. He’s talking about bright light, but he says it is complete darkness. What madness is this? Well, consider this line from the Christian Gospel of John, 1:5:

The light shines in the darkness
And the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

So, whether we can see it or not – whether we acknowledge it or not – the light is still there. When we look for it, we see darkness, but that doesn’t mean the light isn’t there. People might quarrel with this interpretation, especially when it comes to the words of the Gospel. But isn’t it possible that these two rather obscure expressions might be saying essentially (that word again!) the same thing?

In the phenomenal world, we humans always judge things – including people, events, ideas, thoughts, feelings – as being good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, happy or sad, and on and on. But all our judgments are the result of picking and choosing, of trying to make things be one way or the other. To suit what we think of as ourselves. My self, to be honest about it.

But underneath all that is the one constant that we can truthfully rely on: In its essence, all existence is one substance, one state, one ocean (to use an oft-cited analogy). All the judgments, people, events, thoughts, feelings, opinions that we experience are just waves upon and within that ocean. So when we’re asked what is our own bright light, we have to go beneath/above/within that ocean to realize what’s Essential about it all.

And as we do that, we become able to at worst, fight against it all, at medium, grin and bear it all, or at best, find compassion for it all. And it’s possible that within the ground of our compassion, growth and change can emerge. And though this may sound ridiculous, it may be our best bet for living in peace with ourselves and with all that is. It may be our best bet for finding freedom from ourselves, within ourselves, and among ourselves.

The bright light that we all are shines forth. We don’t even need to try to look for it or to see it; it’s just there, and it’s what we are.

Let it shine.