Layman Pang's Daughter: Prelude, "Im Helping"
Updated: Apr 20
Roshi Eve Marko spoke to our Tuesday evening Zen group recently. Eve has been a close friend for a long time. She was married to my teacher, Roshi Bernie Glassman, for many years until his death. Our friendship goes back even further. Eve shared a koan about Layman Pang and his daughter, Ling-chao.
Pang Yun lived in China during the second half of the 8th century. Although he was a lay practitioner, earned a living, married, raised a family, his doings and sayings have been preserved in the Zen koan literature and are still studied today. He is known today, simply, as Layman Pang.
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.
As soon as I hear the koan, I have the familiar feeling: this is one of those koans that I really don’t get at all.
Then Eve tells a story. After his stroke, Bernie had been hospitalized two months, first in the intensive treatment required to stabilize his condition and then on a rehab unit. Eve was very impressed with the care which he received and the number of people, -- doctors, nurses, aides, physical therapists, occupational therapists, -- who were involved in the care taking.
Once the day for his discharge home was set, Eve felt herself panicking. Days were spent reorganizing the house, creating a first floor bedroom where their office had been, rearranging furniture for wheelchair accessibility. For nights, Eve barely slept. How would she manage?
And then Bernie came home, and despite their anxiety, they managed the first day. The second day, as Eve was helping Bernie back into bed in the evening, there was calamity. Eve was struggling to help him lift himself out of the chair and onto the bed. Eve was supporting him, but Bernie needed more support.
“Lean on the wheelchair.”
Bernie leaned and the wheelchair rolled away. It hadn’t been locked. Someone had always locked it in the hospital. Bernie crashed to the floor facedown. Eve was trying to help him up. Bernie was trying to help, but they couldn’t get him up.
Eve had no choice but to call 911. What else could she do? She lay down on the floor next to Bernie. They waited together. When the first responders arrived, they were able to help Bernie into bed. And eventually, Bernie and Eve learned how to help him up when he fell.
Listening to Eve’s story, suddenly I understood Layman Pang’s daughter. For the first time. And I remembered a story of my own.
I was working at Brooklyn Children’s Center, a State psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents living with serious mental illnesses. A big part of my job was supervising the Day Treatment Program. The kids in the program lived at home or, if their parents couldn’t manage with them, in group homes. Five days a week, they came to the hospital for school and treatment. The program space was actually set up a lot like an inpatient unit except there were no bedrooms. Everything else was there, including a locked seclusion room in which kids who were out of control and dangerous to themselves or others could be safely isolated. Padded walls. No furniture. A small narrow room. One small window high up on the wall opposite the door. An unbreakable window in the door through which the out-of-control patient could be observed.
One afternoon when one of the adolescent boys, maybe 14 years old, had been placed in locked seclusion, I went to the unit to see how things were going. No one was injured. No one knew for sure yet what set the boy off, but he was still upset, sitting on the floor of the seclusion room, back against a wall, banging on the walls on either side of him with his fists.
I went into the Seclusion Room, not something that I or anyone else generally did. Staff never want to get hurt. But that afternoon, I went in. I sat down on the floor across from, leaned back against the opposite wall. I don’t remember what I said. I don’t imagine what I said made much of a difference, but after a while the boy calmed down and we were able to leave the Seclusion Room.
If someone had asked me what I was doing, I probably would have shrugged, “Don’t know,” but I wish I would have answered, “I’m helping.”
That story, that moment was long forgotten, until Eve’s story reminded me.
Eve’s wonderful story has shown me a way of working with koans which I have never been so clearly aware of.
The most useful advice that I had ever received on how to enter a koan had come not from a Zen teacher but from a fellow Zen student, the actress Ellen Bursteyn, who for a while was part of our group studying with Bernie. Her performance in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was one of the most riveting I had ever seen. I was awed to be in those groups with Ellen. I hung on every word.
In Ellen’s opinion, entering a koan was like the Method Actor’s approach to a role, the approach which she had studied at the Actor’s Studio. I knew enough from my college theater days about Stanislavski’s Method to take what I heard Ellen saying and run with it when I was finally doing koans myself years later. And I would share this Method with my Zen students. “Find the role in the koan which is most accessible to you and enter there.” I had passed Mu, for instance, by becoming the dog.
This entering was always for me a work of imagination. It was only when the role had already been entered imaginatively was it enacted in dokusan, in the presentation to my teacher. I had known that Method Actors often became the person they were enacting by entering that world physically, for instance, by donning a hat or other piece of clothing. I had known this before I knew anything else about acting because my father’s best friend, Bobby Moss, had been a paraplegic on the Veterans’ Hospital Rehab Unit where Marlon Brando spent months in a wheelchair preparing for his role in The Men.
Why hadn’t it ever occurred to me to work in this physical way with a koan? What a wonderful teaching.
 The Recorded Sayings of Layman Pang. A Ninth-Century Zen Classic translated from the Chinese by Ruth Fuller Sasaki Yoshitaka Iriya Dana R. Fraser (New York, Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1971), page 75.