Walking alone in the red sky

by Susan Murphy


Great Master Ma was unwell. The accountant-monk asked him, 'How is Your Reverence feeling these days?'

The great master said, 'Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.'


Case 3, Blue Cliff Record

I would like to dedicate this talk to my beloved sister Gael, who died earlier in this year on a full moon in May. The Harvest Moon, in fact, the very moon just beginning to wane here now, five months ago to this day. We were very close, and very different, and yet not so different that we could ever lose the mysterious overlap of our souls that sisterhood, shared childhood, creates.

An Australian writer, Gillian Mears, has written about her sisters in a piece she called The Childhood Gland.It's a little-known extra gland that especially sisters, but undoubtedly also brothers, can grow if the childhood is intensely lived and shared. It stores childhood memory in the form of tiny, potent, unpredictable moments and images and stories, and these little jets of shared childhood memory, released at times of being with your sister at many moments throughout your life, keep your childhood unusually open and alive, woven right through your adult life. You can enter it freely at any time you are together; and even when you are not, the access to that country grows practised and easy, a great shared dreaming. This works its own effect on your life, and on your relationship with that sibling soul, I think. You are joined, like Siamese twins, at the childhood gland. Not two, not one.

And our childhoods were very entwined, conjoined. Shared room, shared baths, same clothes made up for us in two sizes, (different colour rick-rack braid), overlapping dreams at night, and in the intensely cocreative space we formed between us, we had a rich shared make-believe with a dozen different stories running in as many different locations. The Open Sesame was very simple: we would say the words "Just say...." or "Let's say....", and we would be in England in the Fourth Form of an exclusive girl's boarding school, we would become various girls called Angela, Imogen, or Frangipanni, who conducted ruthless internal gang warfare and savage external persecution of a large and noisy girl called Strauk, the worst name we could think up.

Or at night, when the light was finally turned out because we had read so long (shared books) that our mother determined we were risking permanent eye damage, we would settle down into the dark and enter there. In the darkened stables waited two horses, Lightning and Midnight, and we would swing onto them bareback and easy, and gallop and gallop up through the sky to many ports of call, that included a mysterious place called The Toyshop where anything you wanted was available, and given to you, and then on to see God in heaven, and show off to him how incredibly well we could shoot bows and arrows, stuff like that, and after a satisfactory level of approval from God we could stream down, down through the stars and the planets back to the tired stables and the onset of dream itself.

Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha. The Buddha Name Sutra tells us that the Sun Face Buddha lives in the world for eighteen hundred years, but the Moon Face Buddha enters extinction after only a day and a night. What is it, to live in the world for eighteen hundred years? What is it, to enter extinction after only a day and a night? I think that children know a lot about both of these aspects of Buddha-nature, and can transmit their dharma effortlessly. You only need to get down at rug level to play with a baby or gaze into their ancient shining eyes for a little while to begin living in the world for eighteen hundred years and to be dawning and growing dark, entering extinction tiny moment by tiny moment. Down there you can realize that now is the only time there is. And that there is no time at all.

Sesshin can be not unlike playing with a baby on the rug, when we are luminous, open, radiant, and living every breath and heartbeat of our lives in such minutely slowed spaciousness that there is no time at all. But what about when we are tender and touchy, unable to settle deeply, keenly aware of the merciless clock that won?t release us for thirteen more minutes, hating the shabby quality of our practice (while everyone else is clearly a soul in bliss), knowing that our lives will run out and we won?t get enlightened. We are no less precious when we are lost in a haze of love and fear and doubt, than when we are boundless and free in the sky of samadhi. Sun Face Buddha - truly marvelous. Moon Face Buddha - beyond compare.

Great master Ma-tsu lived long and taught with huge energy in 8th-century China - so much so that vivid legends collected around him. It has been said that he glared like a tiger and ambled like a cow. He bore important marks of Buddhahood that I myself am still working on - he could cover his nose with his tongue (I knew a kid who could do that in primary school), and had significant wheel-shaped marks on his feet. No signs like that on my feet yet. Not yet, but - later, surely!

He trained monks vigorously and in huge number, producing somewhere between eighty-four and a hundred and thirty-nine successors, some as extraordinary as Pai-chang. But today?s dialogue took place between Ma-tsu and his accountant-monk late in Ma-tsu?s life, probably on his deathbed, and it is impossible not to feel Ma-tsu's deep accord with the Way, right here in the grip of severe, perhaps fatal illness.

I like it that it is the accountant monk who asks him a question, at such a time. Accountants, I think, are obliged to work at the coalface of Moon Face Buddha, in the realm of death and taxes, mortgages, deadlines, bottom lines.... And so, or and yet, his question is simple, heartfelt, very spacious and simple. How is Your Reverence feeling these days? I know you are sick unto death. Can you say something from that borderland? What is your teaching at this moment?

Aitken Roshi tells a story of Yasutani Roshi?s last days. In the afternoon before Yasutani's last jukai ceremony, Yamada Roshi came home and found him sitting in the living room. "How is your health these days?" he asked him. "When I am sitting down it is all right, but when I stand I am very short of breath." After the jukai ceremony for, among others, both Anne and Robert Aitken, he went and stayed with his daughter. A few day later, he was dead. That night, at the first memorial service for him, Yamada Roshi gave teisho on this case: "How is your health these days?" "When I am sitting down it is all right, but when I stand I am very short of breath." Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.

I began driving regularly south from Sydney to the mountain-ringed country of my sister beyond Canberra at the start of the year in mid summer when it became abruptly plain and unmistakable that the breast cancer had come back with a vengeance, into her bones and liver, and that there was only some limited, and fearsome, time left. Different to those of us who are not sick, of course, who still have eighteen hundred golden years to go. As I drove those roads again and again on that four-hour journey, I came to know every rise and fall, lean and tilt of the land, many trees and rocks became familiar beacons and friends. Gradually, the leaves of some avenues of trees began to change colour, fretting my heart. One time a flock of tiny yellow birds rose from the trees at exactly the moment the wind swooped and flung thousands of golden leaves up into the air like confetti. But the change of season wasn?t bringing a wedding, or not the way we usually think of weddings. My own heart was shaken loose by that wind of golden leaves. Each visit, her hold on life was visibly lighter, looser, she was moving closer to that moment of wedding with the air, the wind, the earth, the rain, the stars. And I could not bear it.

A monk asked Yun-men, "When the tree withers, and the leaves fall, what is that?" When the sedge has withered from the lake, everything is completely dark and empty, and no bird sings, what is that? Yun-men replied, "Golden wind is manifesting itself". That's it! Golden wind is manifesting itself. Golden wind is the wind of autumn, and brings the brilliant death fire of the leaves, but there is nothing symbolic here at all. Golden wind is manifesting itself. Just that, nothing sticking to it. And yet the scent of death is there. We die. This spreads gold all over the earth.

Several years before, I had come in early summer, still cool up in that high country, to see her after the operation. To look into her face for the first time since her life had turned and she was more consciously holding Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha, together in one face. Her eyes looked out at me with all her life and love and vulnerability. We both woke extremely early and found each other in the dark corridor at the centre of her house, and in silent accord we made our way to take two chairs and a cup of tea to the big windows that face east. A slender moon in company with the Morning Star was slowly, slowly losing itself into a sky that was lightening by infinitesimal degree. Gradually, gradually, the soft heads of the trees stepped out from the dark sky and announced themselves in some quality of the air that you couldn't yet call light. We talked, and we sat in deep companionable silence. We didn't have a single trivial thing to say. We were so laid bare to each other, there was not a veil left between us. Or between us and the eternity of a fading moon. How long is a moon setting? How long is a sunrise?

I remember a tale from the Hassidim that I like very much, one of many that I find can be taken and played with as koans... Actually I remember it a little differently to Martin Buber's original - I have to acknowledge that I have begun to let it drift in a Zen direction...

An old rabbi was talking with his assembly. He asked his people, "How do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?" After a moment someone ventured, "Is it that moment when the individual trees begin to step out of the forest?" The old rabbi shook his head. No it it not that moment. Another one spoke up. "Is it that moment when we can begin to tell a cloud from the morning rnist?" No, said the old rabbi. No it is not that moment. They all fell deeply silent. Finally someone said, "Please tell us, rabbi, how can we know that moment when the night has ended and the day has begun?" And then the old rabbi said, "It is that moment when you can look into the face of a stranger, and recognise your own original face. Until then, the night is still with us."

The changing of the light - dark into dawn, afternoon into dusk - has always been my favourite time for sitting. There is something about that transition time, that threshold state, that is peculiarly rich. It is the littoral zone, between the dayworld and the depths. I have sat intimately with two deaths, in the vast littoral zone of two dyings, in the past three vears - a very dear friend, David, submitting to AIDS, and now my sister, Gael, relinquishing her life to cancer. Both these people were special, gifted, loving people, a huge and radical loss to their worlds; both had to part from life right in the thick of their lives. Parting with the eighteen hundred years and entering extinction is a searingly painful business. Almost impossible for the ones looking on to consent to. And yet where is Sun Face Buddha to be found on this earth, if not right there in every rasping breath?

There is something about looking out of windows to the trees. Trees bear such silent and complete witness to our lives, our lives of muddled grace. Czeslaw Milosz wrote a poem about it from one angle of view:

I looked out of the window at dawn and saw a

young apple tree

translucent in brightness.

And when l looked out at dawn once again,

an apple tree laden

with fruit stood there.

Many years had probably gone by but I remember

nothing of

what happened in my sleep.

And from the other angle of view, Dennis Potter, the great English television dramatist, managed to give an interview to the BBC in the last fortnight of his life, before his death from pancreatic cancer. He sat there, gaunt and burning with life, with death, and the interviewer asked him, well - "How is your Reverence feeling these days?" Dennis talked about his passionate desire to complete the series he was writing with all his might, by far his greatest work, and the sharp sense that his time was running out so fast, his work might not make it across the final deadline... And that was so painful. And yet, he said, you know that almost does not matter now. Because you see there is a tree outside my window where I am working. Of course the tree has always been outside my window. But now it is in blossom. And now for the first time in my life, I have seen it. I have seen the blossom! It is the blossomest blossom in the world. And everything is worth it, for this! Everything is worth it.

Moon Face Buddha. Sun Face Buddha. So which one is which?

The special gift of a slowly approaching death, as well as its mesmerising pain, is consciousness of death, itself. However hard that inner relinquishing may be, whatever gut-wrenching and impossible grief may lie on the road to it, I think that the gift is always received, always passed across. I was awed, privileged, and utterly demolished, by being present to her vast, agonising dropping away of body and mind. She was on heavy morphine for the pain, and was half conscious for much of the time, but when she sensed someone's presence she would swim up into a pure and somehow timeless consciousness, full of grace, completely there as long as she could manage for whomever was present. And her presence was as fragrant and open as a newborn baby's at the other end of life, at that equally mysterious moment when the sudden ball of a new life is tossed onto the fast flowing stream.

Her gentleness had always been extraordinary, but now her touch went right through to the core of you, from the core of her. She still worried and fretted at moments, she anxiously kept her watch on, and indeed her glasses to see it by, but as the story drops away, drops away, the mystery at last is laid bare, directly touched.

She and I had a special, secret pastime. We used to walk to a nearby dreaming place - there is always a nearby dreaming place - and the one on the farm was a semi-wild hillside gully formed by a tiny creek, or thread of pools, making its way down to the sheep-paddocks. The tiny birds, the frogs, the dragonflies, the wombats, the lichens and mosses and crumbling rocks and twigs, all loved this place. lt was enchanting - it literally casts a slow spell that eases you into dreaming openness, and we would sit and stare and absorb and move on, and talk a little, and sit again, and just stare; but all the talk was no more than quiet celebration of being, a long slow feast of it. Walking back across the paddocks after having our secret fill, brings to mind another case in the Blue Cliff Record, Chosa Goes Picnicking:

Chosa, one day, went on a picnic in the mountain. When he returned to the gate, the Head Monk asked, "Your Reverence, where have you been wandering?"

"I have come back from strolling in the hills,"

said Sa. "Where did you go?" asked the Head Monk. Where did you stray?....

Sa said, "First I went following the scented grasses, then came back following the fallen flowers." "That is spring mood itself", said the Head Monk. Sa said, "It is better than the autumn dew falling on the lotus flowers."

(Setcho said, "I am grateful for that answer.")

Our lives, our practice, is the scented grasses and fallen flowers in the one vast spring mood itself. The words of the traditional verse touched on through this exchange are used in Buddhist funeral services for monks and nuns. First we go out following the scented grasses, and then we come back following the fallen flowers. We live, and we die. We die, and we come forth. We die the great death into emptiness, into such a deeply autumnal and fiery freedom, but we must turn back again and again to come forth and offer ourselves to life, to the deep fresh spring of all beings.

Spring mood itself is this hazy state of mid-morning sesshin weariness, happiness, aching, longing, impatience, frustration, boredom, hopefulness, grief... "Some people want it pure white, but sweep as you will, you cannot empty the mind" said Keizan concerning the hazy moon of enlightenment. I, too, am grateful for that answer. Can you hear the answer? Deep fog this morning. The redwoods are just breaking through into light.

Autumn is always fragrantly mixed up in spring, and spring in autumn. We are always waking up to life, letting go, letting go even of life itself, in every moment of our great lives. It is Gloucester, isn't it, in King Lear who says, "Even in our coming hither is our going hence. Ripeness is all"....... "Even in our coming hither is our going hence. Ripeness is all."

Fortunately, there is nothing that can be done about it. Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha see with the same eyes, our own eyes. Truly not two, not one. "When you know what this public case comes down to," says Hsueh-tou, "you walk alone through the red sky." That's where I meet my sister, now. Alone together in the red sky is a good place to meet. See you there, now.


First published in MIND MOON CIRCLE, Sydney, Summer 1997-98.
©Susan Murphy 1997

No reproduction without the authors permission please.