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Close to the Ground: Sun Buddha, Moon Buddha

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It is easy to get caught up in headlines and tragedy: Boys and girls ripped from their homes by the thousands; drones and missiles competing with each other for how much damage they can do; political parties that have forgotten how to work together; the cancer that has just announced itself in our best friend’s liver. In response, we seem to be left with either choosing between drowning in the tears of our own heartbreak or running away into Twitter and Facebook. 

Happily, Yunmen Wenyan, a major Chinese Zen Master (born in 862 and died in 949), offered up an alternative response to living in the world as it is. When he was dying, a young monk asked him how he was doing. His response: “Sun faced Buddha, Moon faced Buddha”. For the last thousand years Zen teachers have been using this phrase as a key life koan, asking students to demonstrate it.  How can one be a Sun faced Buddha and a Moon faced Buddha at the same time? 

Correct responses to the question are all around us, and inside of us. When we weep at our friend’s news we have Moon faced Buddha down. When we rail at the politicians, ditto. When we double over in pain, there it is again.

But Moon faced Buddha is only half of the story, and if we only show these things to our teacher, we’ve failed the question. We also need to be Sun faced Buddha. For those of us unsure of how to move forward here, examples surround us. As just one, in the park where I walk Bodhi the dog every day, there is a young man who greets us like long-lost friends whenever we see him. The left side of his face is completely bashed in and his mouth at rest is almost vertical. One eye is missing. The other one points at his nose, which is surprisingly straight. It is obvious that he was very handsome before whatever destroyed his face came to call. He can barely talk.

And yet.

Day after day, when he can get a ride there, he walks around the park in slow motion, picking up litter that the rest of us don’t even notice. A gum wrapper; a cigarette butt under a bench; tiny slivers of glass. Within a mile his plastic bag looks heavy. I thank him when I see him. He sticks his hand out for a shake and insists, “No, thank you!”  Sun faced Buddha.  

He is in good company. At 6:00 a.m. on Sundays nobody is in the park because that seems to be when major drug deals go down. By 7:00 a.m., though, an elderly man who can’t stand up straighter than 90 degrees cleans the entire parking lot by hand.  On some Sundays I see him still cleaning when we head out for a second walk of the day. Sun faced Buddha. 

A neighbor shows up to ask if I mind picking some blueberries off of her bush for the hermitage. She has too many. Another stops by with an old puzzle and an offer of books for the free little library we are building to put up in front. This is the other side of Moon faced Buddha. Every one of us has both, is both. So we weep and we wail and we do what we can to bring about peace and safety. We ache and hurt and are scared witless sometimes. But we don’t run away. Instead, we help.

In the Jataka Tales, stories about the Buddha’s life before he was Buddha, there is a story about a parrot and a fig tree that demonstrates the joy that comes from this deep acceptance of both sides of our lives. In the story a parrot befriends a fig tree and lives many happy years in its branches until Shakra, one of the gods, notices and decides to test the parrot’s loyalty. He causes the tree to break down until it is just a dusty stump. But even then, even when his home—the tree—is gone, the parrot won’t stop caring for it. Finally, Shakra asks him why. The parrot replies that since ancient times friends have been content to support each other through good times and bad. Friends know how to be faithful.  We don’t forget to be good to one another no matter what else is happening around us, ever.

Sun faced Buddha.

The author of Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Geri Larkin finds Zen lessons on the streets of Eugene, Oregon.


Geri Larkin is the founder and former head teacher of Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple, a Zen meditation center in the heart of inner-city Detroit. She is the author of many books including Stumbling Toward EnlightenmentBuilding a Business the Buddhist Way,Tap Dancing in ZenFirst You Shave Your Head, and The Still Point Dhammapada


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