The Same Place as You

Dharma Talk by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei
Transmission of the Light, Case 28

Featured in Mountain Record 26.4, Summer 2008

The Main Case

The Buddhist master Punyamitra said to Prajnatara, “Do you remember events of the past?” Prajnatara said, “I remember in a distant eon I was living in the same place as you; you were expounding great wisdom and I was reciting the most profound scripture. This event today is in conformity with past cause.”

The Capping Verse

The light of the moon reflected in the depths of the pond is bright in the sky;
The water flowing to the horizon is thoroughly clear and pure.
Sifting and straining over and over, even if you know it exists,
Boundless and clear, it turns out to be utterly ineffable

Although Zen traces its history back to the Buddha, Bodhidharma is considered the first Zen ancestor. He was an Indian master who came to China very late in his own life, and taught in a way that lead to the development of Zen as a distinct school. His teacher was Prajnatara.

The koan typically presents a question on some aspect of the dharma and the response of the teacher. A student takes the question the koan presents deep within herself through zazen. She has to really enter into the koan in order to truly understand the nature of the question and its resolution. For instance, in this koan there’s no apparent question being asked. So what is the student sitting with? What is the problem? What is the question that needs to be addressed? By entering into the koan deep within oneself, the question and its resolution is found.

A The story that comes from the Transmission of the Lamp about Prajnatara begins with Punyamitra, his teacher. Punyamitra was from eastern India, and he was traveling with his sangha. He came to a village that was ruled by a king who had a guru who was a Brahmin ascetic. Punyamitra went directly to the king and presented himself. The king said, “What did you come here for?” Punyamitra said, “I came to liberate sentient beings.” The king said, “By what method do you liberate them?” Punyamitra said, “ I liberate each according to kind.” Then Punyamitra began to teach the dharma and the king began to incline himself toward the buddhadharma.


photo by Cheryl Empey


Punyamitra told the king of a prophecy that in the town there was a sage who would become Punyamitra’s successor. One day when Punyamitra and the king were out, they came across a young man who had been orphaned since he was a child. No one knew his family name, and he spent his day wandering around through the village begging. People would ask him why was he going so fast, apparently because he moved quickly through the village. He would reply, “Why are you going so slow?” If someone asked him what his family name was, he would say “the same as yours.” No one really understood what he meant or what he was about. When the king and Punyamitra came across this young man, he bowed. Punyamitra spoke with him. This dialogue from the Transmission of Light is that conversation between Punyamitra and his successor, Prajnatara.

“This event today is in conformity with past cause.” The Buddha in his own account of his enlightenment described seeing into the nature of past existences. He saw into the nature of all the different existences that we have in our human life, all the realms in which we live, the actions taken, the consequences of those actions, the multitude of effects. He realized the profound nature of cause and effect. This was one of the great enlightenments of the Buddha—understanding causality, without which there can be no liberation. This teaching of causality is so fundamental to living in accord with life that we must understand it in a very profound way.

Karma, the notion of cause and effect, existed in pre-Buddhist India. It was not a novel idea. It was something that was fairly well accepted. But the Buddha’s understanding of it was revolutionary, because prior to his teachings, cause and effect was seen in a somewhat mechanistic way. It was seen as action and its effect. The significance of the action is the action itself. The emphasis is on the action. The brahmanistic practices, for instance animal sacrifices, were all highly ritualized and reflected their understanding of causality and how to appease the gods and bring them into favor through actions. What the Buddha realized is that actions are important, but also of supreme importance is intention. That is, in part, what revolutionized the notion of karma as he had realized it. The emphasis was not only on the action, but on the mind of the person. Thus, karma was not just physical action and speech, but it was also thought and mental actions.

Even with a good intention, however, when we inadvertently cause harm, harm is still done. This has to be understood clearly or else we can fool ourselves into thinking, “Oh, I didn’t mean to hurt you, therefore I can’t be held responsible.” Intention does not negate the harm nor our complete responsibility for creating it; there is still karma as a result of this action.