Monday, January 30, 2017

Buddhism Gave Me Super Powers

     If I had to describe myself in three words, I'd probably go with "comic book nerd".  The mythologies and social commentaries that can be found in comics have enraptured me for as long as I've been able to read.  While other kids spent their summers playing video games and watching TV, I preferred to patrol the streets of Gotham with Batman and fight epic battles with the Incredible Hulk.  I was fairly small for my age growing up. I didn't have my first serious growth spurt until 11th grade, so the idea of ordinary people getting super powers appealed to me. 

     Of course, that idea isn't new.  In fact, if we go back to the Tang dynasty in ancient China (circa. 9th - 10th century A.D.) we find that people had very similar desires.  In those days superstition was the norm, and it was common for "enlightened" masters to claim that they had supernatural powers.  Firewalking, going days without sleep, and summoning spirits were some of the ways that spiritual teachers would demonstrate their level of attainment in order to get followers.  That might sound silly, but you have to remember that things were different back then.  Starvation was a real threat for most peasant farmers and banditry was common.  I can certainly see how uneducated people who were scared for their lives might want to be friends with a guy who can summon demons.

     That being said, there was a Zen Buddhist named Layman Pang who took a different approach.  His preference was to study the dharma through the wholehearted experience of everyday life.   To this end, he traveled the country with his wife and daughter studying Zen and selling bamboo chopsticks to earn money.  Despite the fact that Layman Pang had no formal monastic training, however, he had his enlightenment confirmed by several Buddhist masters.  In fact, Master Shi Tou was so impressed with Pang's realization that he once asked him if he had any super powers.  Pang replied by saying:
My daily activities are not unusual-
I am just naturally in harmony with them,
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing,
And everyplace there's no hindrance, no conflict.
My supernatural power and marvelous activity
Is drawing water and carrying firewood.
     Drawing water and carrying firewood may not seem very impressive on the surface.  But when we look at the karmic consequences of these actions, it becomes clear that carrying firewood is much more impressive than summoning demons.  Remember, Pang lived during a time without indoor plumbing or gas-powered furnaces.  The simple act of carrying firewood to someone's home meant that they would be able to heat their house and keep from freezing at night.  Furthermore, the simple act of carrying water to someone's home meant that they'd be able to prepare food and keep from starving.  Layman Pang showed his realization not by being superhuman, but by devoting himself 100% to the everyday actions that made life better for the people around him.  His superpower was learning to take joy in being an ordinary human being.  
    This is an important lesson for me in this time of social and political unrest.  It's easy to feel overwhelmed, and think that there is nothing to be done.   But that isn't true.  I don't have invulnerability or endless wealth like my comic book heroes.  But I have my body, and I can use it to do amazing things.  I can give food to hungry people, and I can spend time with my family.  I can be a shield for oppressed people, and I can be a voice for the voiceless.  But if all else fails, the sink is always full of dirty dishes that I can wash.  These are simple actions that anyone can do.  But my Zen practice has shown me that simple, ordinary actions are the most effective way to do good in the world.

     We all have super powers.  We just have to be willing to use them.