The Great Way Is Not Difficult Part 3
This post is devoted to the exchange Zhaozhou had with a spirited member of his assembly. Here, I will use an expanded version of the dialogue based on elements from other translations of this koan (i.e. this version simply removes the square brackets I inserted in Part 1).
Part of that expanded version includes two intriguing sentences that precede the exchange itself: “As soon as words are present there is choosing – there is understanding. This understanding can take the delusive form of attraction and aversion, or can manifest in one’s clarity about our true nature.”
We have discussed the point of the first sentence many times before. For Zen, words can never completely express the complexity of something we experience. Nor can it say anything about the bare “presence” or “being” of a thing, event, or thought, other than to say that “it is”. The word “is”, in my view, is what philosophers call “a primitive”; it cannot be unpacked further except perhaps by adding, “it exists”, or “it is here and now”. These attempted expansions only compound the inscrutability of “is”, by adding the additional primitives “exists”, and “being here and “now”. From a Zen point of view, we could say that the meanings of “is”, “exists”, “here”, and “now” are cached in our bodies .
Next, let’s parse the second sentence. It says that understanding can either result in attraction or aversion – a superficial, delusive understanding, or in clarity about our true nature – a deeper, direct seeing into human nature.
The latter kind of understanding (“clarity”), seems at odds with the sentence that follows: “The Way is not to be found in understanding”.
The second sentence is also at variance with the equivalence implied in the preceding sentence: “As soon as words are present there is choosing – there is understanding”.
Taken together, these two surrounding statements seem to say that “understanding” is not to be trusted because it is equivalent to the prohibited “choosing”. So, how can understanding sometimes lead to “clarity” which I interpret as the clarity produced by the sudden insight that Zen calls kensho?
A quick answer is that anything can trigger kensho if the conditions are right. It can happen on suddenly seeing a scarlet blossom, and it can happen on suddenly seeing a deeper meaning in someone else’s words. The latter is what we have previously called “turning words”.
Whether it is a blossom or words, however, experiencing clarity is a rare occurrence relative to our everyday words and thoughts. The latter normally express explicit or implicit value judgments of the “things” we encounter. As such, they pre-consciously limit our thinking to a particular human use or purpose of the thing in question .
Thus, in encountering the things of this world, we can either see one or more human use-values, or we can see in them a revelation of the fundamental nature of all things, including ourselves.
We are now in position to discuss the exchange between Zhaozhou and his outspoken student. It begins with Zhaozhou saying, “This old monk does not remain in a state of clarity”. Is understanding the thing you uphold and sustain?”  A monk in the assembly then stepped forward and asked, “If you do not remain in clarity, what is it that you sustain and uphold?” Zhaozhou replied, “I don’t know that, either!’ The monk said, ‘If you don’t know that, how can you be sure you don’t remain in clarity?’ Zhaozhou said, ‘It’s fine to inquire into this matter, but now you should return to your seat’.
Zhaozhou’s final statement was that the student’s questioning was fine, but that it was time for him to sit down. Given that others may have perceived their fellow student as disrespectful, Zhaozhou’s rebuff seems mild, even sympathetic .
Be that as it may, let’s examine Zhaozhou’s question to his assembly, “Is understanding the thing you uphold and sustain?” I suggest that we read this as, “Are you attached to understanding things? Here, “understanding” refers to something that becomes a permanent part of our “knowledge” in the form of “facts”. In other words, Zhaozhou’s implication is, “if you believe you can reach a final understanding of things, you are mistaken".
Just before putting his question, Zhaozhou admitted that he himself did not remain in clarity. This was not an admission of personal failure. He was not confessing that he was not enlightened. Rather, given his recognized status as an enlightened teacher, he was saying that no enlightened person enjoys permanent clarity in daily life. Enlightened people are not faultless; they make mistakes.
Zhaozhou’s admission was meant to fundamentally shift his followers’ conceptions of enlightenment so as to free them from illusions of perfectibility. He is telling us that enlightenment does not guarantee the purity of our actions, and that attachment and aversion remain part of the terrain that an enlightened practitioner must navigate daily. This is our practice.
There is another important lesson here about not remaining in clarity. What we should take away from his “admission” is not simply that we often fall short of our ideals. Rather, he is saying we should not remain in clarity. This is because efforts to remain in permanent clarity miss the point of our practice entirely .
Let me explain. The part of Zhaozhou’s talk that disparages striving for understanding in the form of fixed “knowledge” was meant to address the most common form of delusion among Zen students. That delusion is the belief that enlightenment will bring absolute perfection of our behavior at all times. As we have seen, that is a trap for the unwary, who can end up convinced by their subsequent mistakes that they are somehow “not worthy” of enlightenment.
But there is a second, even more insidious kind of delusion that sometimes afflicts Zen students. It is what Zen Masters call the “Zen sickness” of students who have had a glimpse of their true nature and believe they are now fully enlightened and therefore incapable of making mistakes.
Such delusions of grandeur are common in the wake of a kensho experience. Fortunately, in less than a month the tribulations of life teach most students that they still have a long way to go in aligning their behavior with whatever wisdom they gained from their insight.
Unfortunately, some such students become hoarders of their kensho experience. In order to protect their treasured memory, they end up “hiding on their cushions” in a quietism that disappears as soon as they rise from their cushions to resume daily life. This part-time quietism is meant to shut out all the doubts that would naturally occur to any practitioner who lives a normal life. This is called being “trapped in the Cave of Mara” , and reminds me of Tolkien’s Gollum, who hides in sunless caves in order to protect his “precious” ring of power.
In saying that he does not remain in clarity, Zhaozhou is warning his students that they should not take permanent clarity as their goal, any more than they should make a goal of reaching some form of fixed “understanding”.
In Zen terms, a fixed understanding is a rigid attachment to the forms (ideas or concepts) generated by the mind, while permanent clarity is a mistaken attachment to the emptiness (i.e. the utter openness) that allows the mind to generate those forms as human needs require.
What Zhaozhou is saying, then, is that his students should somehow go beyond understanding and clarity. How does one do this? It is by not worrying about using either perspective to get a job done, as long as one remains fully aware that neither perspective represents the whole picture .
The gateless gate between the two perspectives is the realm of true freedom, according to Zen. Anxiety is fatally undermined when one has avoided picking and choosing by following one’s intuitions as we have described previously. This carefree passage back and forth between the two perspectives is the means by which Zen transcends (goes beyond) dualism.
We are now in a position to address two remaining questions. The first is to ask why Zhaozhou responds to the student’s first question by saying “I don’t know that either!” That first question was how Zhaozhou can “uphold and sustain” anything if he goes in and out of clarity.
What is the significance of the word “either” here? This “either” refers to the student himself and in effect says, “I, a Zen Master, am as much in the dark about how it works as you are!”
The point is that Zhaozhou doesn’t trouble himself about how this wisdom of not knowing works; it is enough to have learned through experience that it does. He does not know the precise source of this freedom – he just knows freedom is the fruit of practicing The Way. This wisdom is the only difference between him and the student . With this answer, his teaching is complete. There is nothing to be added. Attentive readers of this blog should recognize that with this comment, Zhaozhou has given us a perfect demonstration of the intimacy of not knowing .
And so, when the student asks his second question (about why Zhaozhou refuses to describe what he upholds and sustains as “understanding”), Zhaozhou terminates the exchange by saying that the first question was a natural one, given the student’s limited awareness, but that he has already been given the only answer he will ever find on his own. Sending him back to his seat at that point is saying, “Just ponder my first answer to confirm its truth for yourself”.
The remaining unaddressed question is how a koan student should present their understanding of this koan. Here, as elsewhere, I will only suggest a way to approach this question.
Imagine that it is time to order dessert in a restaurant. You ask what flavors of ice cream they have and the waiter says they only offer chocolate and vanilla. Given that choice, I would order chocolate without hesitation. Why? I don’t know, it is just that I “like” chocolate. Is there any picking and choosing involved? No, because I don’t need to “understand” why I like chocolate, I just do.
Now, what will you order?
 The expression “cached in the body” is my way of describing the sources of linguistic “meaning”. The philosopher Wittgenstein roused the philosophy of language from its slumbers by holding that words do not name “things” but refer to human “uses” that he called “forms of life”. These “forms” are whole networks of meaning that extend into the physical movements necessary to achieve the human purpose being addressed by a particular act of will. As such, we can say these meanings are “hidden” in the body to the extent they involve “muscle memory” at a pre-conscious level. In this sense, all meanings ultimately “disappear into the body”, i.e. become lost in the complexity of our nervous system. We can’t further specify any particular meaning because at that point we “lose its tracks”.
 All of our ideas and meanings of “things” are based on the use-values or purposes of those things for a particular person or group at a particular time. For example, landowners might see the trees on their property in terms of their commercial value for lumber. Other owners might see the value of their trees in the beauty they lend to their estates. Even when they cursorily happen to notice their trees, they pre-consciously activate a network of alternative (i.e. conflicting) values. Though philosophers starting with Hume tried to distinguish between facts and values, Many philosophers of science today argue that all “facts” are pre-consciously “value-laden” because they are derived from an individual or group perspective regarding human needs. Such facts are “empty” in Zen terms because they are relative only (i.e. they are not “total” or all-encompassing). As such, any decision about what to do with particular things is “self-ish”, and though necessary to carry on with our communal lives, effectively restricts our ability to see that thing in its totality (i.e. as representing the universe in all its relations). That latter ability, from the Zen perspective, is what we must experience at least once in order to ever truly understand who we are.
 I believe “uphold and sustain” was Andy Ferguson’s best effort to translate a polysemous pair of Chinese characters. Thomas Cleary translates Zhaozhou’s question as, “do you still preserve anything or not” [from what I said about not remaining in clarity]. Katsuki Sekida, to whom I generally defer, translates the question as, “Do you appreciate the meaning of this or not”, where this again refers to the preceding statement about clarity. Sekida then (correctly, in my opinion), adds by way of clarification: “Do you value the attitude of mind that does not stick to anything”. Ferguson’s translation may have been an attempt to get close to the literal meanings of the characters, which are [Do you] protect/defend | a favorite side [on this issue?]
 I have called the student “spirited” and “outspoken”. As a teacher, Zhaozhou was treated with customary reverence by his disciples. The way this monk stepped forward to cross-examine Zhaozhou may have struck the other students as disrespectful. Still, this bold student is asking Zhaozhou a question that most students would like to ask their teacher but for lack of courage: “What is it that you understand about The Way that I do not yet understand?” His questioning is therefore both brave and compassionate. It is compassionate because he risks being rebuked for impertinence in order that they all might learn more through his effort.
 The point of our practice is illuminated by Dogen Zenji in Actualizing the Fundamental Point (Genjo Koan): “Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are [ordinary] sentient beings.” Buddhas greatly realize delusion when they stop trying escape it.
 Mara, whose name means “death” or “murder” is the Buddhist Satan who tried unsuccessfully to thwart Buddha’s enlightenment, and continues to tempt Buddhists to abandon their vows.
 This is why Zen should be considered a variety of pragmatism.
 Those with a background in philosophy will see this that this Zen view of wisdom coincides perfectly with that of Socrates.
 See the earlier posts: “Not Knowing Is Most Intimate” Parts 1-3.
The Great Way Is Not Difficult, Part 2
In Part 1, I said that our koan, The Great Way Is Not Difficult, “provides a revealing emotional context” for the preceding koan, Ordinary Mind Is The Way. It also provides further insight into our earlier koan, Not Knowing Is Most Intimate.
To reveal the relation between our present koan and those earlier koans, we must ask how the former deepens our appreciation of the latter. To put that question in terms that we have discussed previously, we can ask, “When Zhaozhou tells his assembled students, ‘Your old teacher does not remain in clarity’”, was this “not remaining in clarity” the “blankness” of Ordinary Mind Is The Way, or the “intimacy” of Not Knowing Is Most Intimate?
To answer that question, we must examine the role of emotions in all three koans. Among other things, this examination will help us see that Western philosophy of mind must be reset from an enterprise preoccupied with “rationality” and “objectivity”, to one that synthesizes the “rational” and the “irrational”. “Irrational” is the classification given by Western Enlightenment philosophers to the emotions they called “passions”, and “sentiments”.
The drive to unmoor philosophy of mind from its obsession with “pure reason” in its various versions is well underway due to the perturbing influence of neuroscience. The work of Joseph Ledoux and Michael Gazzaniga in the 1970’s initiated the growing popular, quasi-scientific belief that all of our higher cognitive functions are mediated by the amygdala, popularly dubbed “our fear center”.
This “fear center” is part of the limbic system (popularly dubbed our “reptilian brain”) that underlies our later-evolving neocortex . Our currently popular notion of the amygdala regards it as a repository of past experiences that evoked great fear or trauma, creating more deeply inscribed neuronal circuits that take precedence in both speed and influence over our slower-moving functions of abstract reasoning.
Note that this emerging popular notion of fear is in potential conflict with certain philosophical notions about fear. For instance, we call fears “rational” when they arise in situations where we believe fear is “warranted”. On the other hand, fears that are “excessive” or “unwarranted” are called “irrational”.
From a Zen point of view, separating “rational” fears from “irrational” fears only obscures our true nature. That separation creates a polarity of opposites that seems substantial but is not. Both kinds of fear exercise their power through a synthesis of emotion and reason.
I can’t resist observing here that the Yogacarin model of a “Storehouse Consciousness” that mediates all our actions, whether good or bad, rational or irrational, seems on its face to provide exactly the synthesis of the rational and irrational that we are looking for.
Returning to our question about the nature of Zhaozhou’s not remaining in clarity, our past discussions should have indicated that Zhaozhou’s statement reveals his “intimacy”, rather than his “blankness”.
As we saw, these two terms have markedly different emotional content. With “blankness”, there is a paralyzing confusion (e.g.“drawing a blank”) when suddenly confronted with an event or query that demands a response there and then. Anyone who has “choked” in such a situation knows that is both painful and embarrassing. The accompanying sense of impotence makes one feel like a failure, especially when that "failure of the will" is witnessed by others.
Koan students certainly feel this kind of shame when they cannot answer the teacher’s questions about a koan, even though they realize that no one can expect to “triumph” in every such encounter. Their embarrassment is keen because they believe that Zen practice should have made them unflappable in meeting challenges. They should realize that the challenge in the interview room is merely a ritual challenge (albeit potentially transformative) meant to build their capacity to meet more substantial challenges in real life. Yet their momentary failure still stings.
It may sound flippant, but I can assure you that their embarrassment is due to the fact that they still believe in their own egos. Long-term meditation and koan practice erodes this belief. Once a certain threshold is crossed – either suddenly or gradually  – they will realize that even feeling embarrassed is just a mark of being human; it is just the Great Dao at work, and no real “failure” at all.
As Dogen kindly reminds us, all of us are overwhelmed at times, and that this is what allows us to see our true nature: “Mind overwhelms mind, words overwhelm words. Overwhelming overwhelms overwhelming and sees overwhelming. Overwhelming is nothing but overwhelming”. In other words, being overwhelmed is just part of the human condition that helps us to see (realize and come to terms with) our true nature.
Even accepting that being overwhelmed is part of the human condition will not automatically eliminate the pain of feeling overwhelmed. However, to the extent that meditation and koan training allow us to see that the ego is an illusion, we will begin to empty the ego of its sting and this source of mental suffering will diminish. 
To those who find it hard to accept that the ego is an illusion, I offer the following metaphor. The ego – that persuasive sense of a personal self, separate from every other “thing” in the universe – is simply an illusion very much like the phantom limb phenomenon in amputees.
That an amputee feels pain is not an illusion; the pain is real. But fear that the missing limb is experiencing harm is an illusion. There is no limb so there is no real cause for alarm.
Because the specific neural causes of phantom limb pain are various, so are the modalities for treating them. Interestingly, in some cases, cognitive therapy and meditation help to reduce the condition .
Likewise, there is only an imagined ego and thus there is no real harm to our true nature. The causes of “ego pain” are likewise various, including the death of a loved one, a job loss, a divorce, or the failure of an important relationship through a sense of betrayal or abandonment. Yet in most cases we are beginning to recover a year or so after the trauma even without therapy or meditation.
Indeed, I attribute this natural healing process to our subconscious awareness that we are more than than the isolated ego we think we are. For that reason, I have no doubt that meditation and therapy can accelerate this spontaneous healing process.
Now, what has all this to do with Zhaozhou declaring that he does not remain in clarity? The answer in a word is, “everything”. His declaration is not that of someone who is admitting the sense of capitulation and defeat that we have classified as “blankness”. Instead, it is the declaration of an enlightened person who remains resolute, even when events overwhelm him. The enlightened person is also perfectly comfortable with experiences of yielding to the delusions of a normal human being (i.e. attachment and aversion). When their “mastery” of the Great Dao seems to fail them, they remain at ease because they can honestly say, as other Masters have said before and since, “I am perfectly intimate with this” (i.e. “I am perfectly all right with the way that I am right now”).
Hopefully, you will take encouragement from learning that Zen Masters do not always remain in a state of perfection. Rather, Zen "mastery" consists in rapidly recovering from the experience of failure or defeat. Again, my favorite quote regarding this particular fruit of our practice is that of the anonymous twentieth-century Japanese Master who, when asked to describe his attitude in hard times, answered, “Things are difficult right now, but I am doing pretty well!” That, in one sentence, is the attitude of an enlightened person facing difficulty.
On a deeper level, however, the notion of “recovery” from failure is itself a delusion, because the notion of personal "failure" is likewise a delusion of the ego. Zen Masters of every era know that the enlightened mind is a wide open bridge over which horses and donkeys (“the more desirable” and “the less desirable”) pass freely all day long. 
In Part 3, we will turn our attention to what we can learn from the exchange between Zhaozhou and his outspoken student.
 Joseph Ledoux has publicly apologized for inadvertently contributing to the popular view that all our emotions reside in our limbic system. See, for instance, his book, Anxious, or his podcast discussion at:
Ledoux believes that our neocortex participates with our limbic system in creating what he interestingly calls, "the experience of fear". This suggests to me that fear is a a hybrid product of our minds that Zen would regard as an ego-based "illusion". LeDoux also carefully distinguishes fear from anxiety, regarding the latter as a generalized reaction to deep-seated pessimism about the future, whereas fear is an alert to a present danger triggered by a specific object or event. (Pace LeDoux, from my own experience representing veterans with PTSD, I continue to believe that some traumas are encoded solely in limbic system, making them extremely difficult to reach through cognitive therapy.)
 Benjamin Libet, a university physiology professor, set off a firestorm in philosophy when he highlighted research implying that unconscious neuronal processes ready us to act before we have made any conscious decision to act. This could mean that our notions of free will are mistaken, or in need of serious retooling. Faced with anxious queries from philosophers, Libet pointed out that reason can override our unconscious (emotional?) predilections if we pause long enough to review and ratify our wishes with our slower neocortical circuitry. Along similar lines, see also Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow.
 And because the Yogacarin model rejects the concept of a personal self, it has the added virtue of providing something like Jung’s “collective consciousness of mankind”. We would likely entertain Jung’s hypothesis of archetypes more favorably if we put it in popular-scientific terms by pointing out that much of our behavior is, after all, genetically and epigenetically “hardwired” in our brains in a way that connects us to everyone equipped with the standard mental functionality of Homo Sapiens, past, present, or future.
 For those who know their Zen history, I am not referring here to the controversies regarding sudden vs. gradual enlightenment, the early Southern vs. Northern Schools of Chan, koan zen vs. "silent illumination", or Rinzai vs. Soto. As a practitioner belonging to a Soto reform lineage that stresses the importance of koan training, I long ago decided that enlightenment can come suddenly or gradually, since I have met people who were clearly enlightened, whether or not they ever had a sudden, "cosmic wow" experience. I of course also agree with the many Rinzai teachers who insist that insights that come suddenly must be followed by years of practice in which we gradually bring our behavior in line with those sudden insights. In my own experience, this process has been a real but grudgingly gradual one.
 The quoted language comes from Uji or The Time Being, in Section 17 of Tanahashi, Moon in a Dewdrop. Here, Dogen is saying that when the complexity and ambiguity of sense data overwhelm all our defenses based on concepts and words, we must cast away those concepts and words and simply see the true nature of things directly. We can see directly precisely because all our preconceptions have been swept away, leaving us clear-eyed to see who we really are.
 This statement about diminished "sting" is based on my own experience. The idea that failure allows us to see our true nature was beautifully expressed by my fellow koan practitioner, the late Leonard Cohen, in the last lines of his song "Anthem":
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
That's how the light gets in.
 For an overview of the phantom limb phenomenon (PLP), see:
 This reference to horses and donkeys comes from the koan, "What Is The Bridge of Zhaozhou", that I will discuss in a future post.
“A Course on Koans” is the delusion-riddled work of Chris Kufu (“Wind in the Void”) Wilson, who began practicing Zen in 1967. He regards Taizan Maezumi, Robert Aitken, and David Weinstein as his root teachers. Each of them pecked at his shell until he “completed” the never-ending koan curriculum of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
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