This phrase in Chinese, 無差別 (wú chā bié) literally means “no difference,” or “no separation.” I heard it a few weeks ago after a formal breakfast here at Dharma Drum Mountain, while we listened to a recorded Dharma Talk by the late founder, Master Sheng Yen. The talk was, of course, in Chinese, but I was able to follow along and pick up bits of teaching, as the transcription was shown in Powerpoint to help us understand his words. The phrase has stayed with me, as I find it a helpful triad of characters loaded with meaning.

As far as I can tell, the phrase is part of a larger, fairly common one in Chinese Buddhism:  心佛眾生三無差別 (xīn fó zhòng shēng wú chā bié), and might be translated as, “Mind, Buddhas, and sentient beings: there is no difference between the three.” To me, this summarizes one of the most profound and powerful teachings of East Asian Buddhism: we are all in this together, no one is special, no one is left out.

It is interesting to keep this in mind as you go about doing normal things. Here in Taiwan, my weekdays are fairly well-regulated now, such that I am becoming familiar with the rhythms of the city I pass through during my routines. Although I still can’t understand much more than the very basic Chinese, spoken very slowly at that, I do not feel out of place or unsure of things, for which I am grateful. The basic teaching on the non-separation of ourselves and others is quite verifiable through observation, contemplation, and simple meditation exercises. And, in spite of my own best efforts, it does begin to infuse one’s views and relationships in very helpful and vital ways.

Related to this, I had one of those “well, I’ll chalk that one up to experience” sort of moments the other day. And even though I just said that I am not too unsure of things here, this might show otherwise:

I have to purchase something to eat for the bus ride back to the monastery each evening, as I arrive well past dinner (what we call “Medicine Meal.”) I usually get some bread-type item, which just about always has a “surprise” in the middle; well, it is a surprise to me, at least, because I can’t read the descriptions on the package. So far, the surprise has not been meat, fortunately. I think I can communicate to the clerks that I am a vegetarian. Though, I wonder if I am actually saying, “I eat vegetarians.” Who knows.

Anyway, the other day, I passed a vendor selling cherries. They looked lovely, and I thought they would be a nice alternative to heavy-on-the-belly bread. So, I decided to purchase some. I asked how much they were, and heard $100 Taiwan dollars (about U.S. $3.46 at the moment), and then something I didn’t understand. So, I loaded up about a pint and a half, and the vendor weighed it. The total came to $540 Taiwan dollars, which I couldn’t quite compute in my mind how much that was. So I handed him a $1,000 note and he gave me back $500, with his hands in a prayer position and reciting, “Amitofo,” the traditional and ubiquitous greetings for monks here in Taiwan. As I started to walk a way, I realized that I just paid about U.S. $15 for a little over a pint of cherries.

I was shocked. Not by the price of the cherries, or by the vendor basically selling them as if there were gold-leafed. But, I was more shocked at my ignorance and naivety. I had no thought of going back and getting “my” money back, as the money wasn’t really mine to begin with. Plus, the vendor could probably use it much more than I.

I kind of felt like I just gave him a gift, which would have been a nice feeling if it wasn’t for the fact that the “gift” was really a result of my confusion and ignorance rather than any measure of generosity.

Here is where 無差別 matters: “there is no difference” between buyer and seller, cherries and $500 Taiwan dollars, vegetarians and those who eat them. I mean, of course there is a difference, but when do cherries become cherries and when do they stop becoming cherries? When do sentient beings become a Buddhas, and when do they stop becoming sentient beings? When does a monk become a foolish customer, and when does the vendor stop being a Buddha?

There is no difference, no separation, because nothing is ever one thing more than another at any one time.

So, I’ll know next time that when a vendor says something I don’t understand after quoting me a price, I need to pay attention and ask for more details. That way I will know that I will be paying for $100 per 100 grams, in this case, for cherries.

Oh, and until I get a picture and an audio recording of the what it looks and sounds like to have hundreds of scooters take off at a green light at an intersection in Taipei, this picture will suffice. It will give you a sense of how many motor scooters buzz around Taipei. It is absolutely amazing. It is the preferred method of transportation here, by far it seems. And they are daring drivers, too; of all ages, genders, and positions (monks, even.) And the things they can carry on their scooters, too. Geez…!

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