Playing at Paste…Until Qualified for Pearl – PART 1


Welcome Dear Friends.

This piece may be longer than most of what ZATMA posts. But it is hot off the heart – heated up by the Divine Mother of Time – of Birth and Death – and the Truth. It may be for you and it may not be. You get to decide whether this work is for you. The Work being:  “if you want to be free” or “if you don’t.”

I know a choice is obvious but i must add that there is always the possibility for a breakthrough – a breakthrough out from behind the veil of ignorance.  With that possibility in mind, read it. What do you have to lose?

I wish each and every one of you good luck, the good luck of hearing the sound of the high bird that waits patiently to sing to you.


Order of the Work. Read this first.

I am tempted to go in many directions all at once but I know that will be too confusing. I don’t want to add to your confusion. We are confused enough. The Order is offered as a way to help you hear what is told, understand what is given and to see where you go with it on your own. For the sake of clarity and utility, I recommend you print this out.

  • We’ll begin with a poem by Emily Dickinson, titled, We Play with Paste. 
  • Followed close behind comes a teaching of Layman P’ang. A Ch’an master of great esteem. He, like most of you, was not a monk, but he encountered two Ch’an masters upon whose shoulders he stood. The key word in his history is encountered; meaning faced the difficulty of working with a Master. He wasn’t a monastic and yet, his teachings went beyond the two he encountered. One does not need to ordain, but one does need to face the difficulties and deliberations of a master.
  • The third teaching comes from a novel by Anthony Wolff (aka Ming Zhen Shakya). It is a very familiar Zen Buddhist story. Read it several times. My guess is you’ll have heard of it and may even decide you know what it is saying. Hold off with your thinking you know what it means. Don’t decide beforehand.


We Play with Paste by Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886


We play at Paste

Till qualified, for pearl.

Then, drop the paste

And deem ourself a fool.


The shapes- though- were similar,

And our new hands

Learned Gem-tactics

Practicing Sands.


I hope you have read it several times and thought about it as well. In this context, both Ming Zhen and I agree that for an indeterminable amount of time we spiritual seekers play at spiritual practice. As you’ll read later we enjoy and find the Zen stories entertaining, amusing and light. But as in all things, we cannot stay there although we may get stuck there. Getting stuck tends to look like dogma, doctrine and concrete. It is often laiden with judgement as in I know and you poor fool do not.

Don’t lose heart if you find yourself still playing with paste. It’s part of the training. Afterall, we have to start somewhere and learning fanciful Zen tales is an appealing place to start. This happens in all spiritual practices. Ancient stories and parables are taken in at the level of the listener or in this case in the hands of an unskilled but willing seeker. A spiritual kid, if you will.

What determines whether or not we’ve given up our childish ways with paste? A sense of being a fool. Yes. That is it. A sense that you have been playing around with spiritual pearls all the time thinking you were cool. In the know. Some think they are awake. At some point, a spiritual adept confesses being a fool. I know exactly when I confessed to my teacher. It was that part of the poem that says, deem myself a fool. I still laugh about it. If you can’t laugh at yourself, well – that’s a sure give-away you’re still playing around with paste. Remember, however, that’s a place most of us begin. Whatever you do, don’t try to fake being a fool, or fake laughing at yourself. This is why you need a teacher; because a teacher can spot this stupidity and chicanery – and that my friend’s is a priceless gift.

As the poem goes on it portends to give a hint at what comes next. NEW HANDS. Yes, something happens and we realize what we have been given is a gem; a precious jewel that we play with skillfully – with wisdom – in the shifting sands of this impermanent realm. We take it seriously, but not too seriously. Notice I say take it seriously first…and you do this for a long time until you realize you are after all playing with sand. But don’t try to reverse these. Don’t think you’re playing with sand first. That will lead you to despair and even nihilism. No. First, take the teachings and practices seriously – and at some point you’re likely to see it is all sand. Always has been.


Layman P’ang’s Teaching on Ultimate Reality — 740-808

This teaching by Layman P’ang impacts how you might understand the Zen parable in the next section. Layman P’ang’s teaching is so lucid I feel as though I do not need to add anything except to encourage you to read it and take it into your life practice.


The past is already past.
Don’t try to regain it.

The present does not stay.
Don’t try to hold it from moment to moment.

The future is not yet come;
Don’t think about it

Whatever comes to the eye,
Leave it be.

There are no commandments
To be kept,
There’s no filth to be cleansed.

With empty mind truly
Penetrated, nothing remains.

When you can be like this,
You touch ultimate reality


The Thorn Crown Murder – Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

“We play at paste till qualified for pearl,” noted Emily Dickinson. The observation also applies to instructions about Zen’s attitude toward life. We begin with parables that seem, to the beginner, to be such pretty little jewels. Later, when we deepen our understanding, we see them as the glass substitutes used to acquire in the ‘gem-tactics’ needed for handling real pearls.

Early on we learn about the monk who, while fleeing from a tiger, clings to a loose sapling on a cliff’s side and sees death whether he goes up or down. Yet, he picks a wild strawberry and savors its sweetness. Yes, we say, we should all live in the ‘now’ moment. But once we grow in Zen, the story loses its charm. It is no easy task to live in the now – to be able to concentrate and focus right where you are with what shows up, but Ming Zhen goes onto to write…we call out to the monk, “instead of picking a strawberry, scrape out a foothold for yourself!” And I add climb up, get out of there because…There are degrees of advancement in Zen’s regimen…

Yes, there are degrees of advancement but it does not mean to skip this work of being in the present moment. Work there – work with a decision to concentrate and focus and when you are stable in doing that then, and only then, go to Part 2 where we will take up the task of advancement.

Humming Bird

Image Credit: Fly, 2020 From the Bottom UP

The image depicts the chakra energy.

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

Image credits: Fly, 2020

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