Do You Remember? A Buddhist reflection
by Robert Aitken
Ordinary memory is affected by the meditation practiced in Zen Buddhism,
and perhaps in other Buddhist traditions as well. As you sit on your
meditation cushions, you forget everything that ordinarily presses on your
consciousness and focus exclusively on counting your breaths, facing your
koan, or on the practice of sitting in pure vacancy.
After you have imprinted the theme of your practice in your meditation, it
will come up naturally as you pursue workaday affairs. Schedules and
obligations tend to fade--to the extent that "Zen memory" is good-humored
slang among practitioners for their tendency to forget important matters.
Thus I learned early on to carry a notebook in my back pocket. (The
phenomenon is not so severe, however, that I forget to take out my notebook
and look in it from time to time!)
The inconvenience of carrying a notebook is offset by the delight of
realizing, at least to some extent, "why the sea is boiling hot, and
whether pigs have wings." An insight into existence and nonexistence and
their complementarity, and other similarly deep realizations, can be
liberating, and I treat my notebook as simply part of a larger practice.
There are other experiences possible in Buddhist practice, and one is what
Mircea Eliade called the "eternal return." Past times, hundreds, even
thousands of years past, are recalled to the personal present. For example,
in Case One of The Gateless Barrier (a twelfth-century collection of koans
or "cases" put together by Wu-men Hui-k'ai), a monk asks Chao-chou, "Has
the dog Buddha-nature?" Chao-chou responds "Wu" (Japanese, "Mu"--"Doesn't
have it."). When you realize the hard nut of Chao-chou's response, then,
You will not only interview Chao-chou intimately, you will walk hand in
hand with all the ancestors in the successive generations of our lineage,
the hair of your eyebrows entangled with theirs, seeing with the same eyes,
hearing with the same ears. Won't that be joyous!
This is a model of sacred memory, a peak experience. It is kept alive in
the dedication of sutras to past ancestors and teachers, but it should not
be considered to be a be-all and end-all kind of realization, but rather a
temporary condition called makyo, "uncanny realm," a phase of practice
which simply affirms that you are on the true path. The Shurangama Sutra
describes fifty kinds of makyo and comments at the end of each account that
the experience shows that your meditation has been effective, but warns
that it is a temporary achievement and "does not mean that you are a sage."
If you understand it for what it is, then you are making progress, but if
you do not, "you will succumb to demons"--to spiritual pride, in other
Thus, while they are simply milestones that you pass along the Way, these
conditions should not be dismissed as irrelevant. In fact, they have an
esteemed place in Zen Buddhist literature. Here is a story of Yang-shan,
honored in his time with the nickname "Little Shakyamuni," finding himself
in the dream time beyond all temporal dimensions:
Yang-shan dreamed that he went to Maitreya's place and was led in to the
third seat. A senior monk struck the stand with a gavel and announced,
"Today, the one in the third seat will preach."
Yang-shan arose, struck the stand with a gavel, and said, "The truth of the
Mahayana is beyond the Four Propositions and transcends the One Hundred
Negations. Listen! Listen!"
This "dream within a dream," in Wu-men's words, is another case of The
Gateless Barrier, studied as a koan in the Zen Buddhist curriculum. In
presenting this case before your teacher, you tangle eyebrows with
Yang-shan, who lived so long ago, so far away, and in such a different
culture. With that old Chinese master as your very body, you evoke the
timeless realm of Maitreya, the Future Buddha, waiting in the Tusita Heaven
to be born down here below. You stand forth as Yang-shan, the axis of the
world, affirming the truth that transcends all metaphysics.
This kind of intimate, sacred memory is not experienced exclusively in the
context of Zen Buddhism. Recollection is essential in Pure Land schools in
the practice of the Nien-fo (Japanese, Nembutsu--"Recalling Buddha"). The
practitioner chants Na Mi-to Fo (Japanese, "Namu Amida Butsu,"--"Veneration
to Amitabha Buddha)." At the temple Rokuharamitsu in Kyoto, you can see the
image of Kuya Shonin, an early Pure Land teacher who went about the country
calling out "Namu Amida Butsu." The sculptor renders him as a young pilgrim
walking slightly bent over, with a row of little Amitabha Buddhas coming
out of his mouth on a wire. Kuya Shonin's every breath is Amitabha Buddha.
He is Amitabha Buddha recalling Amitabha Buddha. D.T. Suzuki quotes a
Myokonin, a Pure Land mystic:
How grateful I am now! Namu Amida Butsu. I was utterly blind and did not
know it. How shameful to have thought I was all right. I thought the
nembutsu was my own, but it was not. It was Amida's call.
Another aspect of this "eternal return" kind of recollection relates to
karma. Karma is the Buddhist term that is usually understood to mean "cause
and effect," but it also refers to the mystery of affinity:
The Buddhist master Punyamitra said to Prajnatara, "Do you remember events
of the past?
Prajnatara said, "I remember in a distant eon I was living in the same
place as you; you were expounding the great wisdom and I was reciting the
most profound scripture. This event today is in conformity with past
Thomas Cleary, who translated this passage in Transmission of Light,
renders the original term kalpa as "eon." It is more than eon, I think. A
kalpa is explained in various ways; for example, the length of time it
would take a cube of iron, one hundred miles on a side, to be worn
completely away by a celestial maiden who descends once every hundred years
and brushes the top with her ethereal garments. Such a past is so far in
the past that it transcends past--yet, Prajnatara is saying, by our
affinity, I recall its presence. We are together again.
If you are not mature, however, karma can evoke an "eternal return" in very
negative ways. Here is an example, the remarkable story of the return of an
edible fungus, also from the Transmission of Light:
When Kanadeva was traveling around teaching, he came to Kapilavastu and
visited a rich man in whose garden grew a fungus on a tree. It was like a
mushroom, with an exceedingly fine flavor. Only the man and his second son
Rahulata partook of it. After they ate it, it regrew, and when they ate it
again, it sprouted again. Other members of the family could not find it.
The rich man asked Kanadeva about this and he replied, "Once in the past,
you gave offerings of food to a monk, and that monk's perception of the Way
was not clear. He could not receive alms without feeling obliged to you,
and so he became a tree fungus to repay you. Since just you and your second
son provided offerings with pure sincerity, you are the ones who have been
able to partake of it."
In attendance upon Kanadeva, on hearing about past cause, Rahulata
Dante himself could not have imagined worse retribution nor a more vivid
metaphor for this poor monk's failure in his life to find liberation from
his deeply held sense that he was unworthy of kindness. After his death,
his feeling of inadequacy is re-collected in the edible fungus, to be eaten
again and again for all time. Keizan Jokin, compiler of the Transmission of
Light, comments on this case in a poem:
How sad that his eye of the Way was not clear;
Astray within, compensating others for his lack.
The cycle of karma has not yet come to an end.
So it seems to me that memory, in its deepest, most sacred sense for the
Buddhist, comes with emancipation from self-concern. You are then in touch
with the eternal, the place where giving and receiving are interactions
within the same personal container, where Yang-shan can crack my lectern
with his gavel.
What might be the significance of the "eternal return" for North Americans?
To some extent, native Americans, including native Hawaiians and Alaskans,
still recall the eternal, though of course their expression differs from
people to people. Contemporary Hawaiians are reconstructing their religion
by the place names of their land, by the names of subtly different kinds of
meteorological phenomena, and by names of plants, trees, birds, insects,
animals, and fish. The rest of us tend to float in our bioregions, and
indeed in our families, careers, and temples of religion--more or less
oblivious of inner histories and their implications. We even mock our Asian
sisters and brothers for lighting incense before photographs of their
ancestors, and thus we expose our own inability to recollect with
When I visited Wendell Berry in Port Royal, Kentucky, he took me into town
to visit his great-grandfather's grave. How many of us can do that! How
many of us live in the same town as our parents, much less our
great-grandparents! How many of us can even name our eight
As a teacher of Buddhism, I find myself offering a reconstruction of the
old Buddhist models of mercy, noble action, and enlightenment. We recall
our profound humanity through their images: Avalokiteshvara, Samantabhadra,
Shakyamuni. We live up to ourselves as those marvelous ancient archetypes,
as well as we can, and find ourselves rooted and enriched in their
Incidentally, this dimension of memory is also the place of compassion, as
distinguished from mercy, for in our practice of the eternal return of the
ancients--our realization of them as ourselves--we suffer with them, and
with all other beings as well. But that is another story.
1 Cf. Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-men kuan (Mumonkan) (San
Francisco: North Point, 1990) 7.
2 Charles Luk, trans., The Surangama Sutra (Leng Yen Ching) (London: Rider,
3 Aitken 160.
4 D. T. Suzuki, Shin Buddhism (New York: Harper and Row, 1970) 86.
5 Jokin Keizan, Transmission of Light, trans. Thomas Cleary (San Francisco:
North Point, 1990) 114.
6 Keizan 70.
7 Keizan 74.