Nanyue, a Ch'an (Zen) master of eighth-century China, once came upon a student meditating earnestly. Without a word, the master picked up a tile that happened to be lying nearby and began to rub it vigorously.
His concentration broken, the student looked up and asked, "Master, what are you doing?"
"I'm making a mirror," Nanyue replied.
"But," the student protested, "you can't make a mirror by polishing a tile!"
"That's right," said the master. "And you can't make a Buddha by sitting in meditation."
What was Nanyue teaching? It is unlikely that he was telling the student that meditation is pointless. Perhaps he was intimating some central tenets of Zen practice—everyone is inherently a Buddha from the beginning; enlightenment is not a matter of getting something one lacks; and proper meditation reflects that understanding. The act of rubbing the tile would then double as a concrete expression of Buddha nature, which is not confined to a seated posture or any other fixed form.
Good Zen anecdotes almost always yield more than one meaning. In this case, Nanyue's cryptic demonstration may also imply that meditation practice, by itself, cannot bring anyone to full spiritual maturity, or Buddhahood. There must also be bodhisattva practice, which is expressed in an infinite variety of ways. So suggested Tsung-mi, an influential master who lived a century after Nanyue. Wisdom and compassion must be enacted. Read in this way, the story also illustrates a cardinal principle of engaged Buddhism.
The ten paths pictured in the Wheel testify to the diversity and adaptability of contemporary bodhisattva practice. Although meditation may be indispensable, neither it nor any other single discipline can stand (or sit) alone. Engaged practice also entails development of character, cultivation of generosity and other virtues, refinement of ethical sensitivity, and the day-by-day activation of compassion. The continuous process of reshaping practice is itself an essential part of practice. It is not a matter of finding a specific technique or formula and then repeating it mechanically. That would be like rubbing a tile to make a mirror.
The Japanese lay Zen teacher Hisamatsu Shin'ichi (1889-1980) believed that a spiritually authentic life in the modern world rests on three components: penetrating investigation of the self, penetrating investigation of the world, and penetrating investigation of history. On a personal level, these disciplines are none other than practice, engagement, and study. (Here, "practice" refers to traditional spiritual training, and "study" is not confined to the academy.) Ideally, those three elements complement and reinforce one another, like the legs of a tripod.
The same goes for engaged Buddhism as a movement. Its potential will be fulfilled through continued development in three domains that fit this model: practices that enhance inner and outer awareness, modes of effective involvement in the world (including the environment), and incisive analysis of social conditions and social change. The exploration of bodhisattva mind is a telling investigation of the self. Aung San Suu Kyi's nonviolent fight for democracy, Issan Dorsey's humane hospice work, and all of the more common forms of commitment pertain to investigation of the world. The effort to understand the implications of engaged Buddhism in light of Buddhist tradition is a relevant variant of historical investigation.
A radiant mandala
Imagine a mountain with several trails to the top. From the base of each trail, the view is limited and one-sided. In a similar way, any of the ten paths in the Wheel, or any of Hisamatsu's three arenas of inquiry, have a partial quality. Closer to the peak, the trails begin to converge, the view expands, and the scenes from the different paths increasingly overlap. That corresponds to integration of the various elements that make up an aware, committed life. At the summit, the trails meet, and the view is unimpeded. The panorama is the same no matter which trail one hiked to get there: a radiant mandala of bodhisattva mind, all the way to the horizon.