In Mandarin Chinese cicada and Zen are both pronounced as Chan and the character is also similar. They have more similarities too. (If you are unable to see the Mandarin Chinese characters in the title you will need to download a Chinese font. There are many free programs on the web).
But first, the cicada/Chan. Back in May I read an interesting news article called “Brood XIII: Billions of Cicadas Party in Midwest”. The gist of the article is how once every 17 years, three species of cicadas hatch in the Midwest. In June literally billions of the scary looking, noisy (but harmless) creatures hatch, crawl from the soil and make nuisances of themselves in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. It’s Brood XIII! Their lifecycle is unique: the nymphs of the periodic cicadas live underground, at depths of 30 cm (one foot) or more, feeding on the juices of plant roots. They stay immobile and go through five development stages before constructing an exit tunnel in the spring of their 13th or 17th year. Adult periodical cicadas live only for a few weeks, about thirty days, so by mid-July they are usually gone. Their short adult life has one sole purpose: reproduction.
After I read this article I felt a little bit melancholic. I thought about how many multiples of seventeen years we could experience in our lifetime; probably only four or five. To see six we would be very lucky. How old will I be when I have a chance to see the next seventeen-year brood? These cicadas spend seventeen long years isolated and immobile under ground, that’s 99.9% of their lifetime! Then the adult emerges only to live for about thirty days so they can propagate the next generation. The circle of life of a cicada is one kind of Chan life.
The cicada /Chan makes me think of the other Chan: Zen. There are Zen masters who spend their whole lifetime trying to break out of Samsara (the circle of life). A Zen master is a person who persistent seeks the true essence of life. To settle their heart they abandon normal life and wear a robe, becoming a mendicant monk: one who roams about practicing Zen the rest of his life.
When the Zen master Yongjia Xuanjue went to see the sixth Patriarch Hueneng, on arrival, he circumambulated the patriarch thrice and then, holding his staff straight, stood still before him. Hueneng said, “I wonder where you come from and what makes you appear to be so conceited?” Yongjia Xuanjue replied to him, “The question of birth and death is of capital importance. Everything is impermanent and fleeting. I have no time to waste on ceremony”.
This story illustrates a Zen master’s persistence and feeling of urgency in understanding the truth. Everything compare to this very critical point are trifles. They regard fame and gain as worthless and regard good and evil as floating clouds. Nothing can make them embarrassed and fear; nothing can make them concerned and feel attached. They exert themselves and strive hard without stopping therein finding joy in their own way. They are not bound by ceremony and convention; their hearts are not formal.
When an adult cicada breaks through the soil it means they are going into their final stage of life and they are going to die soon. When a Zen master breaks through the opposite happens. He has broken free from the cycle of rebirth and successive incarnation and gained freedom from death.
I like Chan (cicada) and Chan (Zen). When I listen to the sound of cicadas I think they are singing a threnody for their lives. I am also reminded of how Zen masters seek the true essence of life.