In the Introduction to this series, I said that physical action is integral to Zen koan training. I chose today’s koan because it uniquely illustrates why Zen favors a physical, “embodied” response to koans rather than a response based on words. Here is a compressed version of today’s koan:
A great Chinese Master was asked to nominate an abbot for a new temple then under construction. He arranged a contest between his temple’s head monk and its head cook to see who would get the post. The Master, pointing to the water pitcher by his cushion, challenged them, “Do not call this a water pitcher. What will you call it?” The head monk answered, “It can’t be called a wooden sandal”. In his turn, the head cook walked up and kicked over the pitcher, spilling its contents. The Master laughed and said, “The head monk loses!”
In those days a head monk was often more of an administrator, while the job of head cook was usually entrusted to someone who showed spiritual promise. Why is that? In making decisions, an administrator can easily get lost in worldly concerns about the future of the temple. In contrast, head cooks make quick, intuitive decisions in handling food with their own hands. As discussed previously, cooks are more “intimate” with their own true nature because their mind and bodies are constantly united in the present moment by their actions in the kitchen.
Bearing this in mind, can you see why the head monk’s presentation was lacking? While avoiding the words “water pitcher”, the head monk merely said it was not something else. This may have been a desperate attempt to mimic the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who held that negating a proposition is more truthful than asserting it.
Nagarjuna’s position was that any positive description remains incomplete because it fails to illuminate the nature of the word “is” in the proposition. In the positive proposition, “That is a water pitcher”, we have left out any description of what constitutes its “is-ness”. We cannot describe the immediate presence of something beyond saying “it is” (here and now).
The fact that the water pitcher is impermanent is also left out; a pitcher in shards is no longer a pitcher. Provisionally, we call it a pitcher, but we can’t say of anything that “this is that” forever. If we leave aside any reference to Nagarjuna, the head monk’s answer is even more unconvincing.
Again, the head monk was attempting to say something about water and pitchers (though in a negative form) rather than showing their nature. In contrast, the head monk, without words – and with one poke of his foot – directly presented the nature of human beings, water, and containers. In the case of humans he presented our unconquerable spirit; in the case of water he presented the flowing nature of water; and in the case of containers he showed the limits of containing.
I will repeat here a paragraph from the Introduction to this series: “Think about it: if it is only your conceptual mind that is being expressed (i.e. you are only expressing propositions about life), your whole being (i.e. your truth in the present moment) is not being expressed… In Zen, mind and body are one, and the fundamental point (the true nature of life) cannot be expressed by saying with words, but only by showing the union of body and mind in this moment.”
Embodiment in physical action is Zen’s answer to the notorious “mind-body problem” of Western philosophy. That “problem” is the still unresolved question of whether physical reality and mental reality consist of fundamentally different “substances”. The idea that they are different is called “dualism”, and goes back to at least Plato and Aristotle. Dualism inevitably results in spooky metaphysics, as shown by the supposed “problem” of free will.
Dualism still survives in the currently fashionable philosophical question of “how the brain becomes the mind”. With Zen, the “problem” of dualism simply disappears. When mind and body are united in action, they are one and the question of “different substances” drops away and we are suddenly beyond mind and/or body! The question of substances doesn’t fundamentally arise during action, but only afterward. I personally believe that neuroscience will ultimately lead to a rethinking of mental causation that can include this ancient insight of Zen.
When a student becomes desperate enough to show the action in the koan with their own body, they often do so tentatively because they are afraid of making fools of themselves. This will not do. The teacher will urge the student to continue working with the koan and come back when they are “more intimate” with it. This may simply mean that their presentation was half-hearted when it needed to be whole-hearted.
I once heard a student complain to the teacher that this physical mode of presentation made her feel she was being forced to “fake it”, as in the game of charades. The teacher simply replied with a formula borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous: “Yes! You have to fake it until you make it!” There is something profoundly true about our practice in that statement. In the end, enlightenment comes down to “whole-heartedness”.
So how will you demonstrate your whole-hearted understanding of the water pitcher? Clearly, a philosophical discussion of the kind I have just offered cannot be considered “whole-hearted”, “intimate”, or “alive”! You must find a presentation that is. And don’t worry about appearing foolish – our practice consists of completely realizing human foolishness!
This blog collects the poorly edited ramblings of urban zen students, finding the teacher underfoot. We will type until someone tells us to stop. We hope you learn from our mistakes
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