Layman Pang and Hanshan

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Pang and Hanshan: Lay devotees

While Baizhang Huaihai advanced Chan's organizational and analytical side and Nanquan embodied the illogical, psychologically jolting approach to the teaching, little has been preserved that would shed life Chan or Mazu's influence in the lay community. In fact, alhough Huineng and many later masters promoted Chan practice for laypeople, the stories that make up Chan and Zen literature paint a picture of a path followed almost exclusively by monks.  

We do have the stories of two Chan poets who operated outside the monastic system: Layman Pang (740?-811) and Hanshan (760?-840?). They were part of a movement called chu-slih, lay believers who were drawn to Buddhism but rejected the formal practices, preferring to remain outside the establishment and seek enlightenment on their own.

In Lessons 32 and 33 we will see that the tradition of Zen poets in Japan — lay and monastic — looked back to Pang and Hanshan as models.

Layman Pang

The man known to history as Layman Pang became a practicing Buddhist early and became so obsessed with the classic Chinese ideal of a spiritual-poetic hermitage that he actually had a thatched cottage built adjacent to his house. Here he spent time with his wife and children meditating, composing poetry, and engaging in characteristically Chinese musings.

A story relates that he was sitting in his thatched cottage one day when he became exasperated with the difficulties of his path:

Pang: "How difficult it is! How difficult it is! My studies are like drying the fibers of ten thousand pounds of flax by hanging them in the sun."

His wife: "Easy, easy, easy. It's like touching your feet to the ground when you get out of bed. I have found the teaching right in the tops of flowering plants.”

His daughter, Ling-chao, hearing both outbursts, showed them the truth: "My study is neither difficult nor easy. When I am hungry I eat. When I am tired I rest.''

Another version of this story has the Pang family working with Sengsan's "The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences."

Layman Pang explained at length how difficult it is to live in accordance with the Great Way.

His wife: 'What is difficult about that? Everyone in the world is a Buddha!"

His daughter: "There is nothing difficult or easy about it. When you encounter food you eat it and when you meet up with tea you drink it! That's all there is to it!"

Finally Pang decided to go the final step and sever his ties with the materialism that weighed him down and his daughter helped him wend his now-penurious way through the world by assisting him in making and selling bamboo household articles. Free at last, Pang traveled about from place to place with no fixed abode, living, so the legends say, "like a leaf."

The image of Pang and his daughter as itinerant peddlers, wandering from place to place, made a searing impression on the Chinese mind, and for centuries he has been admired in China — admired, but not necessarily emulated.