My two favorite historical Buddhist teachers called themselves clouds.
I wonder sometimes if that is significant. In many ways there were not similar, but they both inspire me a great deal.
What does it mean to call yourself a cloud?
A cloud is like a wayfarer—a traveler just passing through. A cloud doesn’t stay, but it can do a lot to make the sky look beautiful when it’s there. A cloud is soft, not hard. Indeed, it is so soft, you can’t grab hold of it at all.
But a cloud is also unstoppable. A cloud can get through any obstacle with no difficulty at all.
A cloud can take any shape. It can be whatever form it needs to be.
A cloud doesn’t get pulled this way and that by the circumstances of the world. It just goes on. A cloud is free. A cloud doesn’t want or need anything. And it doesn’t waste time comparing itself to other clouds.
I’m going to tell you about these two Buddhist teachers who called themselves clouds, but I’m going to go backwards, so I’ll start with Master Xu Yun.
The lineage that my teacher transmitted to me was the lineage of Xu Yun.
Xu Yun was a Ch’an Master in China and he lived for 120 years. He lived from 1840 until 1959. Just imagine the amount of history he witnessed in that time. He called himself Empty Cloud. He spent a lot of his long life restoring old temples in China that had been destroyed. That’s why he was a cloud. He traveled from place to place, spreading the Dharma and helping it have a more solid foundation. He gave teachings to many people.
It’s said that he received Dharma transmission in all five of the original Ch’an lineages—an achievement that is mostly unheard of.
So, that’s why he was a cloud. Why was he empty?
In this we should, I think, take empty to mean selfless. He wasn’t caught up in the trip of I-Me-Mine, that we all so easily fall into. He saw himself as part of an interconnected whole. That’s why he was able to dedicate 100 years of his life to rebuilding temples for other people.
Xu Yun is the inspiration behind my lineage. His tireless work throughout his long life is something that impresses me.
The other cloud I want to write about has nothing to do with my lineage. He, in fact, didn’t leave behind a lineage and he didn’t transmit the Dharma to anyone. He lived in Japan during the 1400s. His name was Ikkyu, and he called himself Crazy Cloud.
He was like a cloud, too. He traveled from place to place giving teachings and had a habit of going to places where other Zen teachers would never go. He taught in brothels and bars. He was often seen giving teachings to artists, musicians and homeless people.
This is why they called him crazy—a title he was more than happy to accept.
He wasn’t very comfortable in Zen temples with the other monks. He found them to be more political than spiritual, with different monks competing for the highest positions. And he didn’t see much point in staying there. He wanted to take the teachings out into the world, so everyone could learn, instead of just those who visited or stayed in temples.
His temple was the world.
In the history of Zen he’s often viewed as both a heretic and a saint. He was wild and free in a lot of ways and I think a lot of us wish we were wild and free. But, at the same time he was incredibly dedicated to spreading the Dharma and gave teachings at every opportunity.
So, those two people are my inspiration. Xu Yun is the spiritual founder of my lineage and Ikkyu is my personal hero.
I want to be a cloud too. Do you?