Layman Pang lived during the latter half of the Eighth Century, a golden age for Chan. He was an educated family man - he had a wife and a son and daughter - and was well-enough off financially to be able to devote his time to Buddhist studies.
He got the idea that a person needed solitude in order to meditate and ponder the Dharma, so he built himself a little one-room monastery near his family home. Every day he went there to study and practice.
His wife, son and daughter studied the Dharma, too; but they stayed in the family house, conducting their business and doing their chores, incorporating Buddhism into their daily lives.
Layman Pang had submerged himself in the sutras and one day he found that he, too, was in over his head. He hadn't learned to swim yet. On that day, he stormed out of his monastery-hut and, in abject frustration, complained to his wife, "Difficult! Difficult! Difficult! Trying to grasp so many facts is like trying to store sesame seeds in the leaves of a tree top!"
His wife retorted, "Easy! Easy! Easy! You've been studying words, but I study the grass and find the Buddha Self reflected in every drop of dew." Now, Layman Pang's daughter, Ling Zhao, was listening to this verbal splashing, so she went swimming by. "Two old people foolishly chattering!" she called. "Just a minute!" shouted Layman Pang. "If you're so smart, tell us your method." Ling Zhao returned to her parents and said gently, "It's not difficult, and it's not easy. When I'm hungry, I eat. When I'm tired, I sleep."
Ling Zhao had mastered Natural Chan. Layman Pang learned a lot that day. He understood so much that he put away his books, locked his little monastery-hut, and decided to visit different Chan masters to test his understanding. He still couldn't compete against his own daughter, but he was getting pretty good.
Eventually he wound up at Nan Yue Mountain where Master Shi Tou had a monastic retreat. Layman Pang went directly to the master and asked, "Where can I find a man who's unattached to material things?" Master Shi Tou slowly raised his hand and closed Pang's mouth. In that one gesture, Pang's Chan really deepened. He stayed at Nan Yueh for many months.
All the monks there watched him and became quite curious about his Natural Chan, his perfect equanimity. Even Master Shi Tou was moved to ask him what his secret was. "Everyone marvels at your methods," said Shi Tou. "Tell me. Do you have any special powers?" Layman Pang just smiled and said, "No, no special powers. My day is filled with humble activities and I just keep my mind in harmony with my tasks. I accept what comes without desire or aversion. When encountering other people, I maintain an uncritical attitude, never admiring, never condemning. To me, red is red and not crimson or scarlet. So, what marvelous method do I use? Well, when I chop wood, I chop wood; and when I carry water, I carry water."
Master Shi Tou was understandably impressed by this response. He wanted Pang to join his Sangha. "A fellow like you shouldn't remain a layman," said Shi Tou. "Why don't you shave your head and become a monk?"
The proposition signaled the end of Pang's sojourn with Shi Tou. Clearly, he could learn no more from this master. Pang responded with a simple remark. "I'll do what I'll do," and what he did was leave.
He next showed up at the doorstep of the formidable Master Ma Zu. Again he asked the master, "Where can I find a man who's unattached to material things?" Ma Tzu frowned and replied, "I'll tell you after you've swallowed West River in one gulp."
In grasping that one remark, Pang was able to complete his enlightenment. He saw that Uncritical Mind was not enough. His mind had to become as immense as Buddha Mind; it had to encompass all Samsara and Nirvana, to expand into Infinity's Void. Such a mind could swallow the Pacific.
Layman Pang stayed with Master Ma Zu until he discovered one day that he had no more to learn from him, either. On that particular occasion, Pang approached Ma Zu and, standing over him, said, "An enlightened fellow asks you to look up." Ma Zu deliberately looked straight down. Layman Pang sighed, "How beautifully you play the stringless lute!"
At this point, Ma Zu had confirmed that there was no difference between human beings, that they were truly one and the same individual. As Pang had looked down, Ma Zu would look down. There was no one else to look up. But then, unaccountably, Ma Zu looked straight up and broke the spell, so to speak.
So Layman Pang bowed low and remained in that obeisance of finality as Ma Zu rose and began to walk away. As the Master brushed past him, the Layman whispered, "Bungled it, didn't you... trying to be clever."
One day, as he listened to a man who was trying to explain the Diamond Sutra, he noticed that the fellow was struggling with the meaning of a line that dealt with the nonexistence of the ego personality. "Perhaps I can help you," Pang said. "Do you understand that that which is conditional and changing is not real and that which is unconditional and immutable is real?"
"Yes," replied the commentator. "Then is it not true that egos are conditional and changing, that no ego is the same from one minute to the next? Is it not true that with each passing minute, depending on circumstances and conditions, we acquire new information and new experiences just as we forget old information and experiences?
"Yes," agreed the commentator. "But what is there about us that is unconditional and unchanging? Asked Pang. "Our common Buddha Nature!" replied the commentator, suddenly smiling, suddenly understanding. "That alone is real! The rest is mere illusion!"
He was so happy that he inspired Pang to write him a poem: Since there is neither ego nor personality Who is distant and who is close? Take my advice and quit talking about reality. Experience it directly, for yourself. The nature of the Diamond Wisdom Is truth in all its singular purity. Fictitious egos can't divide or soil it. The expressions, "I hear," "I believe," "I understand," Are simply expedient expressions Tools in the diamond-cutter's hands. When the work's done, he puts them down.
- EMPTY CLOUD - THE TEACHINGS OF XU YUN