I was really happy today, because I found links to a story that I’ve been searching for for quite a while. I thought I knew where I had read it originally, and I had looked through that text with no luck, and then I had searched on the internet using key terms, but still no luck. Today perhaps I used slightly different terms, or maybe enough time had passed that some people had put new material up.
The history of the story is that before I became a Quaker when I was 35, I’d practiced Buddhism for much of my 20’s with the Nichiren Shoshu lay group that used to be called NSA and later became SGI. I also spent two years in Japan, wanting to learn more about Buddhism.
The story I was looking for is about single-mindedly seeking the truth. I feel sometimes that my search for truth gets derailed by my anxieties and my depression. Not that I want to become a person who sees things in black and white, because I don’t think that the human world operates that way, but I do think that when I am properly centered, I usually know what I should do, and if I’m not, I frequently do impulsive things that may be interesting at the moment, but which I later come to regret.
So about those demons…The story is about a guy named Sessen Doji who is born before the time of the Buddha, so it’s really hard to learn anything about the truths of Buddhism at that point. Sort of a tautology there. One version of the story I read says that Sessen Doji is an earlier incarnation of Shakyamuni Buddha, so then all of those truths would be there in nascent form somewhere.
But anyway, SD spends a lot of time alone, meditating, trying to happen along the truths he’s looking for somewhere inside himself, or however himself connects with everything out there when he’s meditating. And one day while he’s sitting there, the god Taishaku sees him and decides to test him. So Taishaku takes on the appearance of a demon, stands close to Sessen Doji, and growls, “All is changeable; nothing is constant. This is the law of birth and death.”
Hearing this SD’s eyes flew open. He looked around him but saw only the demon standing there. Finally, he called, “Who said that? I must hear more!”
He couldn’t believe that the demon could have uttered a Buddhist truth, and yet he asked it, “Did you speak that verse?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the demon growled, its sharp teeth grinding, and the hair on the back of its head lifting. “I am so hungry from days without food that I hardly know what I am saying now.”
Sessen Doji agreed with the demon that if it told him the second part of the verse, Sessen Doji would sacrifice his body to it for his dinner. The demon howled. “Extinguishing the cycle of birth and death, one enters nirvana.”
Sessen Doji was so happy to have heard the entire verse that all he wanted was to record what he had heard so that others could learn it as well. He wrote the verse on the trees and rocks around his meditation spot with a piece of chalk he had in his pocket. Then he climbed to the branch of a tall tree nearby and leapt into the demon’s mouth.
Just as he reached the sharp teeth, the demon transformed back into the god Taishaku, caught Sessen Doji in his arms and set him on the ground, apologizing for causing pain to a bodhissatva and asking for assistance in his next lifetime.
What I hear in this story is that my life will be worthwhile if I can find the right place to put my absolute trust and then leave aside all doubt, devoting myself absolutely. The difficulty is in the first clause. There are plenty of groups willing to take your absolute trust. But will they turn into gods as you leap into their mouths, or will they remain the blue demons that you were looking at moments before? We need to listen carefully to their words, this story tells us. The wisdom of their words will tell us everything.