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Layman Pang’s Daughter: Fugue: "Luckily no one was looking."

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

I had been blown away by Roshi Eve Marko’s presentation of this koan. My first thought in sharing it had been to omit the last line.

The Layman was once selling bamboo baskets. Coming down off a bridge he stumbled and fell. When Ling-chao saw this, she ran to her father's side and threw herself down. "What are you doing!" cried the Layman. "I saw Papa fall to the ground, so I'm helping," replied Ling-chao. "Luckily no one was looking," remarked the Layman.

I was embarrassed by the Layman’s remark. I want Layman Pang to be the perfect Bodhisattva. He’s a hero to me, a layperson living with a family and a job, not even earning a living out of Zen, who is remembered for his remarkable teaching. The classic Zen world is sharply divided between monks and laypeople. Almost all the ancients remembered for their teaching and wisdom were monastics.

While the Zen world is not as sharply divided as some Buddhist traditions in which it is believed that only the monastics can achieve enlightenment, where laypeople are left to putter along, bringing alms to the monastics and saying their prayers in the hopes of someday being reborn as a monastic, Zen believes it is possible for every one of us to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime.

But even the more egalitarian Zen has more hierarchy than I like. I resisted “joining” ZCNY whose “members” wore black layperson’s robes, -- mind you not monk’s robes, -- to distinguish them from the hoi polloi. In my ordinary street clothes, I was on the floor of the zendo. I was comfortable there in my resentment of hierarchy. Ultimately, Jishu prevailed, and I became a member. She said as chairperson of the board, I really ought to be a member. And then somehow, I did ordain, but despite my mother’s fears that I would disappear into a monastery never to be seen again, I did not become a monastic. Ordained, but living the life of the lay person, taking care of family responsibilities, earning a living not from Zen. My practice was a busy layperson’s practice, managing to sit 30 minutes a day, managing a sesshin or two a year. When others could race off around the world with Roshi Bernie, I was secretly jealous.

I stuck to my layperson’s and life and was very proud of Layman Pang. Look at his accomplishment. “There really is hope for me and all lay practitioners,” I think.

And there he is. Layman Pang is lying on the ground with his daughter lying next to him, taking care. And he’s relieved that no one saw her lying next to him. He’s embarrassed, ashamed. I’m horrified. These are not things that I want the perfect Bodhisattva to be feeling. Why is the enlightened Layman Pang concerned about what others might think?

A memory arises. I am sitting in Roshi Joan Halifax’s kitchen. I am in Santa Fe on a study trip with Bernie, and I am going to take advantage of this opportunity. Roshi Joan is not just a great Zen teacher, she is a renowned expert on being with the dying. My mom is at the end of her life, living with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home. I visit her frequently, not frequently enough, but sometimes when she is most confused, I find it very difficult. I don’t stay long. It’s very upsetting. I asked Joan’s advice.

“Just hold her hand,” she suggests.

Back in Staten Island, I try it, just holding her hand when conversation is too painful. It does help. It helps me, and it seems to help my mother. And then after a while, that doesn’t really work any longer.

“Why didn’t I just lie down on the bed next to her?” I wonder now.

Absurd. I know the answer. I remember. Growing up, the TV was always in my parents’ bedroom. When I was little, I would lie on the bed there to watch. When my father was out at a meeting or pitching his custom-made furniture to potential customers, my mother would watch with me, lying on the bed next to me. I loved the westerns. Wyatt Earp was my favorite.

I don’t remember how old I was, maybe 12, when I suddenly got uncomfortable. I must have been watching alone while Mommy was busy with something downstairs. When she came upstairs and lay down to watch with me, I got up and moved to a chair. I had never done that before. I didn’t say anything, but I might have.

"Luckily no one was looking.”

I am sure that the Layman had never heard of Oedipus. But he was a family person, had not abandoned his family as so many Zen ancestors had to follow the Way, had not set aside family feelings. Layman Pang continued to live in the world of family feelings. I don’t know what he felt when his daughter lay down next to him. Did he feel sexual stirrings? I kind of doubt it.

But Layman Pang continued to live in the world of appearances, of everyday life. He knew what others might think if they came along and saw him lying in the road next to his daughter. Why should he care? Shouldn’t he be beyond that?

There is the wonderful story about the great Japanese teacher, Hakuin, who is credited with reviving the Rinzi Sect during the early 1700’s. According to the story, a young village girl becomes pregnant. To protect her boyfriend who has run off, she tells her parents, “Priest Hakuin is the father of my child.” The outraged parents confront Hakuin and demand that he take responsibility for the baby. Hakuin responds, “Is that so?”

He accepts the responsibility and raises the child.

Sometime later, the village girl and her boyfriend are reunited. They will be getting married and want their son. The girl confesses to her parents. In embarrassment, they all troop out to Hakuin's hermitage with the new story. “Is that so?” says Priest Hakuin.

I love that story. Why couldn’t the Layman exhibit such detachment, such stoicism?

Wouldn’t it be better to leave this last line out? Preserve the Layman’s enlightened image?

And then, wonderful, wonderful: Layman Pang is Human Being Pang. There, in that moment, Human Being Pang is just perfectly imperfect.

The last line of the koan is perfect.

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James Breslin
James Breslin

Is that so?

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