Gratitude of the Clams—Zen Master Dae Kwan

One of my students likes to go snorkeling during her family trips to Japan. They like sea creatures, such as coral reef fish, shellfish and starfish, very much. One day while shopping at a supermarket in Japan, her 10-year-old daughter was greatly saddened to see customers picking clams from a huge basin; some children were playing with the clams with an iron spoon as if the clams were toys. Some of the clams even have broken shells. On the verge of tears, the little girl said she would buy all the clams with her own pocket money, then bring them to the seafront and set them free. She kept urging her mother to act fast, so that the clams wouldn’t become someone else’s dish. The teary-eyed girl couldn’t hide her anger: “How could anyone ever want to eat shellfish?”

The girl’s parents could hardly turn her down. They thought of buying all the clams as their daughter wished, but circumstances didn’t permit it. So they decided to teach their daughter the fact that sometimes in life, there is nothing one can do. So they stood in frontof the clams, chanted softly and dedicated merits to them. At first,the daughter was a little shy and said: “We can’t do that. No one would chant in a supermarket!” The mother assured her: “Don’t worry. If we chant softly, no one will hear us.” The girl asked: “Their shells are broken. Aren’t they in pain?” They then started chanting the Medicine Buddha Mantra. The girl added: “Wouldn’t they be scared when they know they’re dying?” They then chanted Kwan Seum Bosal instead.

Finally they had to leave, but when they hapchang and said goodbye to the clams, one of them sprayed water at the daughter and wetted her clothes. Shocked, the girl said: “They must be mad at me because I didn’t save them.” The mother said: “Just the opposite. That’s the only way the clam can thank you for your compassion and dedication.”

After sharing her story, this 10-year-old girl asked me: “How come the clams thanked me? I didn’t really help them, I just chanted. They still had to die at the end.” I said: “You did a great job! Karma brought you and the clams together. They got the opportunity to hear the Dharma before they died — that’s priceless. All beings, whether long- or short-lived, young or old, by sickness or by accident, have to die eventually. Even if the clams were not eaten by humans, they might be eaten by other sea creatures in the ocean. The point here is not the way of dying but the attitude and direction towards death. What matters most is not to bear any resentment and anger. When we chant, make Dharma speech and dedication, we are wishing them not to be reborn as clams again or as other animals, but as humans, so that they can take precepts and practice. This is the seed of becoming Buddha.”

The girl’s sharing also reminds me of a story from the sutras. A long time ago, a dog was almost beaten to death and abandoned in the wilds after stealing meat from its master. When Shariputra saw this, he fed the dog and gave it a Dharma talk. The dog died soon after. Later, the dog was reborn as a human boy to a Brahman family. When the boy was seven years old, he became Shariputra’s student and ordained as a novice monk. He then practiced hard, attained Arahathood and freed himself from all suffering.

Ananda asked Buddha: “What bad karma had this novice monk created to be reborn as a dog? And what good karma had he created to attain great freedom?” Buddha told Ananda that a long time ago, there was a young monk who chanted really well, and many people liked to hear his chanting. One day, he heard an old monk chant, which sounded terrible. He told the old monk: “You sound like a barking dog!” The young monk soon found out that the old monk was an Arahat. He immediately knew his mistake and repented, but because of his bad speech, he was reborn as a dog for many lives. When he finally attained a human body, he practiced hard and kept precepts sincerely, thereby achieving great freedom from life and death.

The wheel of life and death is like floating clouds, rainwater, dew, snow, and ice. Even though the floating clouds, rainwater, dew, snow and ice have different names and forms, their substance are all the same H2O. Zen not only teaches us about cause and effect, it also helps us realize our true nature and our original job as humans. By doing so, we won’t be wasting this life, and we’ll be able to use our karma to transform our lives.