The Sayings of Layman P'ang: A Zen Classic of Chinaby James Green, Dennis Genpo Merzel
These wise and funny stories have been an inspiration to spiritual practice for more than twelve centuries, particularly for all those who follow the Buddhist path as laypeople. Layman P’ang (740–808) was a merchant and family man who one day put all his money and possessions in a boat and sunk it in a river, so that he could devote his life to the study of the dharma. His wife, son, and daughter joined him enthusiastically on his new path, taking up a joyfully itinerant life together as they traveled from temple to monastery across southern China. This collection of anecdotes and verses about the enlightened layman and his family has become an enduring Zen classic.
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From The Layman’s Death(1)
55. The Layman’s Death
When the Layman was in his final days, he called Ling-chao to him and said, “As the day turns from morning to night, can it be said when it has reached halfway [when it is noon]?”
Ling-chao went into the garden and said, “It is midday, yet there is some obscurity.”
When he went outside, the Layman saw Ling-chao sitting in meditation on his meditation bench, but she had died. The Layman laughed and said, “My girl has fitted the arrowhead to the shaft.”
After a week had gone by, Governor Yu came to inquire about the Layman’s illness, and the Layman recited a verse:
Our hollow desires
Comprise what is something [form].
The awareness that has no substance
Comprises what is nothing [emptiness].
A good day in the world
Is but a side effect.
After reciting the verse, the Layman laid his head in the governor’s lap and passed away. Later, according to the Layman’s wishes, his body was cremated and the ashes were scattered in the river.
Monks and laypeople alike mourned the Layman’s passing, and he was posthumously given the sangha name Wei-ma (Yuima).(2) The Layman’s legacy included over three hundred poems that are in circulation in the world.(3)
1. Compare this account of the Layman’s death with that presented in the Prologue. In addition, as Professor Iriya points out, there are widely varying versions of the Layman’s and Ling-chao’s deaths given in other old Zen texts. However, inasmuch as Governor Yu is considered to have compiled the original edition of the text, the account given here—which does not include the segment about his wife and son—should be given more weight than that of the Prologue.
2. Wei-ma is the Chinese version of the Sanskrit Vimalakirti. Vimalakirti is the prototypical “enlightened layman” of Buddhism, and the Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra is one of the earliest writings considered to be part of the Buddhist canon.
3. See the Introduction for a discussion about the “missing” poems of the Layman.
Meet the Author
James Green is a longtime Zen student and former monk who is a disciple of the renowned Japanese Zen master and artist Keido Fukushima Roshi. He is also the translator of The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu. He lives in Vietnam.
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