This morning in our Sunday service, i gave a talk about the meaning of the fan that is often carried by a Buddhist teacher. I had with me a fan that my mother purchased in Cyprus in 1952 or thereabouts. Today is the anniversary of my mother's death so there is great sentimental value in this object. I can imagine her choosing it on a stall. Life in Cyprus moves at a slow pace so there would probably have been conversation with the woman behind the stall who may qell also have been the maker of the fan. Mummy would have been wearing a white frock with a flower pattern on it. I remember the wide skirt. I particularly remember it because I was a shy child and when Mummy wanted to introduce me to one of her friends I would catch a corner of her skirt and twizzle round so as to disappear into the fold of the cloth not to be seen.
The fan has a similar purpose. When the teacher imparts something - gives the precepts, for instance - he may cover his face with the fan. This is a way of becoming invisible. It is not the teacher that is being transmitted, it is the Dharma. The teacher is a medium. This is similar to the point about things being done by the robe.
In order for the Dharma to be transmitted, the teacher must disappear. The Dharma is bright and the teacher becomes dark, hidden. This is what in China, especially in Taoism, was called the dark wisdom. It did not mean dark in the sense of malevolent, but dark in the sense of modesty, of yin rather than yang, and of naturalness. So the good teacher is not trying to be anything more than just what he or she is. When one is completely natural, one is, in this sense, not there. There is much talk these days about the importance of 'presence' but the best presence, from the point of view of Buddhism and Taoism, is one that displays emptiness.
So the fan can symbolise effacement, the letting go of self and the willingess to perform whatever task or duty is needed. It is also a protection. The light of the Dharma is brilliant, like the sun. You cannot look at it directly. The appearance of the Dharmakaya will burn your eyes. Thus we always actually encounter the Dharma in some slightly less intense or 'sambhogakaya' form, a form in which we can enjoy it. As long as there is the least self-consciousness left, the Dharma will scorch us. This is very like myself as a little child hiding in Mother's skirt. Self-consciousness is actually horribly unbearable.
So the priest, performing the holy work of the Dharma, may occlude his face - may resort to the 'face before birth' - in order to simply be there transmitting the Dharma which is other than self.