Along the Via Negativa with Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 2: Meeting the Buddha on the RoadCory Panshin on July 11, 2009
It was probably just as well for Alice that she didn’t actually see Nobody on the road. If she had, she would have had to kill him.
Linji, the great ninth century master of Chan Buddhism, understood the questionable nature of encountering something that is beyond all attributes. “If you meet the Buddha on the road,” he told his students, “kill him.”
Lao Tsu had expressed a similar sentiment many centuries earlier, in the Tao Te Ching. “The Tao which can be named is not the true Tao,” he wrote. In the same spirit, Linji was warning his students that the Buddha which can be met on the road is not the true Buddha.
But of course, Alice had already learned that lesson during her earlier visit to Wonderland.
After falling down the rabbit-hole, Alice landed in a hall of many doors, the smallest of which could be opened with a tiny golden key that she spotted lying on a glass table:
Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head through the doorway.
Thanks to a bottle marked “drink me” and a cake marked “eat me,” Alice goes through several changes of size, but she is still unable to get through the door and into the marvelous garden. Only after prolonged wandering and many strange encounters does she make her way back to the hall of doors — and this time she is better prepared to handle the fluctuating Wonderland reality.
Once more she found herself in the long hall, and close to the little glass table. `Now, I’ll manage better this time,’ she said to herself, and began by taking the little golden key, and unlocking the door that led into the garden. Then she went to work nibbling at the mushroom (she had kept a piece of it in her pocket) till she was about a foot high: then she walked down the little passage: and then–she found herself at last in the beautiful garden, among the bright flower-beds and the cool fountains.
Success! Or so it seems. But the chapter ends there, and with the opening words of the next chapter, it is apparent that the garden Alice has finally succeeded in entering is not the true garden.
A large rose-tree stood near the entrance of the garden: the roses growing on it were white, but there were three gardeners at it, busily painting them red.
Not only is the rose-tree a fake, but the gardeners themselves are made out of cardboard, being the Two, Five, and Seven of Spades from a pack of cards. Instead of reaching the place of peace and serenity for which she longed, Alice has merely been led willy-nilly through one more turn of the maze and has entered the domain of the Queen of Hearts, where the insanity of Wonderland reaches a fever pitch.
In the end, Alice’s only way out of this madhouse is to follow Linji’s advice. “Who cares for you?” she tells the Queen. “You’re nothing but a pack of cards.”
Almost immediately she finds herself awake — and instead of outraged playing cards leaping at her head, there is merely her sister, brushing away “some dead leaves” that had fluttered down onto Alice’s face.
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