NOT KNOWING PART 3
In Part 3 we return to the question of what constitutes an adequate response to our koan.
In Part 2, I provided few suggestions about how to respond to this koan, except by proposing a description of Buddhist enlightenment that would help readers understand the transformative effect that Dizang’s turning words had on Fayan.
There I offered “total intimacy” as a useful metaphor for describing enlightenment. I chose “totally intimate” because “being intimate” has so many positive emotional overtones; we don’t feel intimate with someone unless we feel safe in letting down our guard. “Total intimacy” implies that we have let down our guard completely. This “guard” is our perpetual battle to protect our egos. The fragility of our ego is revealed by our ceaseless and often compulsive efforts to shore up our ego by the pursuit of fame and gain.
Our not knowing koan worked its magic on Fayan in a before-and-after fashion. After Dizang’s turning words, Fayan had an insight. Before those turning words he felt lost. This implies that if we are to merge with Fayan in the flesh, eliminating the time and space between him and us, we must somehow present him in both his “before” state of confusion and his “after” state of relief. Anything else would be one-sided and therefore incomplete.
In other words, I am suggesting that you try to imagine what it would be like to be on the cusp of this transformation. You should embody that moment in your presentation to the teacher.
To do this, you must be at the point where “not knowing” changes from a negative to a positive. I marvel at the number of idioms American English supplies for the negative state of confusion. “Clueless” is one, “Up the creek without a paddle” is another, as is “Twisting in the wind”. And there is always the venerable, “being at my wit’s end” (which I have used several times already), not to mention “being on the horns of a dilemma" (ouch!)
Zen has its own evocative metaphors for this state. One such is, “Facing towering iron cliffs”. Another – to be treated later – is [Needing to] “step off the top of a hundred-foot pole”
How will you show the teacher that you understand this state! It is a state of being so overwhelmed that you can only throw up your hands in surrender. If there is something to utter in emphasis, it may be something akin to “I give up!” Calling on your own most formative experiences, you must find the gestures authentic to you.
Perhaps you can find the cusp between confusion and liberation by the way you throw up you hands. We also have idioms for reaching a positive sense of surrender, including “Starting over from scratch”, or “Turning the page”. These idioms express a sense that the current situation offers the chance of a new beginning.
Under this positive view of surrender, we can better understand Dizang’s turning words. We can now hear him telling Fayan, “In your state of not knowing, you have no idea how close you are to self-liberation. Don’t you see that you are in the perfect position to take the leap that closes the gap?” In other words, Dizang’s words are deeply encouraging.
Accordingly, when I spoke earlier about Fayan’s “before state” being one of surrender or “giving up”, you should not infer that Fayan’s state was one of defeat or despair. Instead, he was in the most propitious state for having an insight, which Zen has forever described as a state of “Great Doubt, Great Faith, and Great Effort”.
Fayan’s Great Doubt was his fear of a spiritual failure from which he might never recover. His Great Faith was his intuitive trust that something within him would rally. His Great Effort came in response to Dizang telling him he was very close to breaking the stranglehold of Doubt.
This is when Fayan rediscovered his fighting spirit. In Chinese mythology, this is the moment when a carp at the bottom of towering falls becomes a dragon and ascends effortlessly into the heavens to cause rain, renewing the life of water.
To conjure up a sense of being on the brink of rebirth, it might help to remember a bitter experience in your own life. Perhaps it was a divorce, or a deep disappointment with a friend or business partner. These can be overwhelming and you may remain in mourning for a considerable period. This is entirely human and accords with Zen unless one becomes permanently fixated on grief. In most cases, however, we reach a stage where we will begin to pick up the pieces and move on. This is also completely human and completely Zen.
At that point, it is a necessary part of the cycle that you admit you don’t know what to do. You are clueless. And yet something is stirring, and green shoots are appearing out of the scorched earth. Precisely because you don’t know what to do, you are open to any sign or hint of a way forward. A creative urge animates you. Hope with no apparent basis returns as if by magic.
To test this for yourself, I recommend that whenever you find circumstances threatening to overwhelm you, you should find a broad vista point over the mountains, ocean, or cityscape and declare sincerely to yourself that you are overwhelmed and have no idea what to do. Curiously, you should feel a palpable lightening of your burden, even if only faintly. I assure you, if you make this a regular practice in crises great or small, you will slowly feel more relief each time. Why? As one of my teachers said, quoting a maxim from Alcoholics Anonymous, “You should fake it until you make it!”
Any koan practitioner with even a faint glimmering of how not knowing frees them to start afresh will be tempted to think this “I don’t know” is the answer to every koan. It is not, but it is the prologue to every koan. You must relinquish all your common sense beliefs and approach the koan empty-handed.
I should quickly add that sometimes “I don’t know” is the perfect answer to the deepest questions human beings can ask. When Emperor Wu demanded of Bodhidharma who it was that stood before him, Bodhidharma answered, “I don’t know”. When Bodhidharma said he didn’t know, he meant none of us know. This is not a negative judgment. Rather, he meant we have no idea what we are capable of. Hopefully, you will gain a sense of the freedom these turning words can produce.
In conclusion, your presentation to the teacher should reveal an incipient understanding that not knowing frees you to start over on your own terms. Even though you have been stripped of all your certainties, show that you trust that something good will arise from returning empty-handed to sincere practice.
In the holiday spirit that comes with the winter solstice, let me wish you the very best in the coming year. I hope that this discussion of the intimacy of not knowing will help you sense how uttering the words “I don’t know”, is the ultimate tribute that the universe can make to itself.
Not Knowing Part 2
Here are comments on the koan, “Not Knowing Is Most Intimate” that are meant especially for newcomers to Zen.
As I have said, this group includes many who will never pursue koan practice and may not even practice meditation. Still, many of them are sincere seekers who scour the world’s spiritual traditions in hopes of synthesizing a “personal philosophy” that will make them more resilient in the face of life’s insults.
To just such people, the suggestion that “not knowing” is a powerful tool in achieving that resiliency may strike them as outlandish or at least counterintuitive. To make our koan less outlandish, I feel I should say something about an element of koan practice that we have largely skirted so far: it is the whole notion of Buddhist enlightenment.
For non-Buddhists who follow this blog, Buddhist enlightenment may seem too “religious”, or at least more than they are willing to take on. Yet it always lurks in the background of any koan. After all, many, if not most, koans culminate in the disciple experiencing some transformative experience that remains undescribed. As I have said, newcomers can feel some resentment that they experience nothing transformative at all when they hear what, for the disciple, were “turning words”.
Here, I ask only that non-Buddhist readers keep an open mind on the topic of Buddhist enlightenment. Part of their resistance to the topic is because they have inflated ideas of what it is to be “enlightened”. They may regard it as gaining super powers that protect a person from ever having a bad day. In coming posts I will try to properly deflate the notion of enlightenment. For now, just know that the great Chinese Master Linji (Jap. Rinzai) commented when he suddenly experienced deep enlightenment, “Oh, there’s not much to it!”
I will start by discussing how the Western philosophical concept of “enlightenment” (as in, “The Enlightenment”) differs from the Buddhist conception of enlightenment. Now, the reason for comparing European with Buddhist enlightenment is to show that whereas the former produces knowledge, that latter is designed to produce wisdom. (Please excuse the following detour into Western intellectual history.)
The European Enlightenment marked the emergence of “modern” philosophy in the early seventeenth century. That “modernity” consisted of the emancipation of philosophy from the stagnant Aristotelian scholasticism of the Catholic Church. In general, The Enlightenment was a transition away from religious dogma, and arced slowly over the next two-plus centuries toward the scientific method as the sole means of establishing knowledge.
The Promethean power of science has intoxicated us ever since. Technologies enabled by science have benefited us so much that we forgive science’s failure so far to place the “human sciences” of psychology, sociology, and political science, on the same “covering law model” that underlies physics and chemistry.
One key difference, then, between The Enlightenment and Buddhist enlightenment, is that the former restricted itself to the material realm (i.e. the realm of objective, not subjective, “things”). In contrast, wisdom belongs to the subjective realm and represents the ability to decide what to do when knowledge fails to provide certainty.
Buddhist enlightenment is rigorous in calling for a new account of the subjective realm that does not depend on elusive linguistic constructs like “the self” and “objects”. Buddhism asks us to drop such concepts in favor of “Buddha Nature”, a name that implies no boundaries between inside and outside, or between self and other. Indeed, even the term “Buddha Nature” is misleading if it implies an unchanging “something”.
Perhaps it would be less confusing to newcomers if I said the Buddhist enlightenment is realizing Buddha Nature and that that realization is very aptly described as “total intimacy” between “you” and “your world” so that any opposition between them disappears.
To illustrate “total intimacy”, I will tell you how Fayan’s study under Dizang after his initial opening resulted in an even deeper enlightenment experience.
First, though, I should explain that initial opening experiences are usually not complete. Nevertheless, this partial insight starts the dominoes falling as it subconsciously erodes deeper and deeper layers of assumptions about “reality”. This slow process depends on meditation experience and skillful midwifery by the teacher. Wisdom may take a decade or so after the initial opening to reach critical mass.
When Fayan decided to stay with Dizang to learn more, what ensued was a long series of conversations. I can do no better than quote Katsuki Sekida’s summary of those conversations in his Two Zen Classics (another must-have for koan fans):
“In his interviews with Jizo [Dizang], Hogen [Fayan] often quoted from the Avatamsaka [Flower Garland] Sutra, or the philosophy of the Consciousness Only school [that I have elsewhere called the Imagination Only school]. Jizo always rejected Hogen’s answers, saying, ‘Buddhism is not that sort of thing’. Finally, Hogen broke down and said, ‘I can have no words, no reasoning’. Jizo said, ‘Speaking from the point of view of Buddhism, everything directly presents itself.’ At this, Hogen had a realization.”
What was this realization? It has to do with directness. Knowledge is about things; explanations are about things. They are indirect because they are not the things themselves.
Directness is “total intimacy” in which things directly present themselves and we respond reflexively. At that moment we are one with the thing that presents itself. There is not even time for an “I-Thou” moment in between. The I-Thou moment is a shamanic facsimile of true intimacy. It is a facsimile because it relies on viewing the thing presenting itself to us as having a soul. It is an effort to prolong an afterglow that has already faded. As such, it is only a halfway station to directness, because there is still an “I” and a “Thou”.
So what is “total intimacy” and what are the reflexive responses I’m referring to? The response is always the same. It is not an overt action, although it exhibits outward signs depending on context. It is simply alertness, or keen attention to what is happening. Total intimacy is just complete openness. It is signaled by a wariness indicating that, at that moment, all ideas and assumptions have disappeared in order to attend to the event. Dogen calls this “dropping body and mind”, because all awareness of body and mind drop away at that moment. If there were an outward sign, it might be an utterance like, “Hmmm, what is happening?” – yet leaving that question unanswered.
That is why Lao-tzu said the ancient Daoist masters were, “Alert as a winter way-farer crossing a snow bridge over a stream” or “Wary as a man in ambush”. In those situations there is no time for analysis. There is only open-minded alertness. There is only “feeling one’s way along the wall”.
That is why one ancient Master gave a lecture to his assembly that consisted only of the words, “Attention! Attention! Attention!”
And that is why Dogen tells us, “To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That the myriad things come forth and experience themselves is your awakening.”
Enlightenment is the union of you and all “things”, a union in which your body-mind accords instantly by opening up completely. This is your awakening. It is happening constantly, but that doesn’t mean we notice it before it gets papered over with our afterthoughts. It becomes total intimacy or enlightenment only when we reflexively drop all barriers and just “not know”.
Not Knowing Is Most Intimate - Part 1
This week’s koan comes from a story beloved by all seasoned Zen practitioners:
Master Dizang asked the visiting Buddhist philosopher Fayan, “Where are you going now?
Fayan answered, “I am resuming my pilgrimage.
Dizang asked, “Why do you go on pilgrimage?”
Fayan said, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
Hearing these words, Fayan had an opening experience.
Here the koan student must demonstrate that they understand why “not knowing” is called “most intimate”, and why these words, taken together, allowed Fayan to get a glimpse of his true nature. The answer obviously depends of the meanings of “intimate” and “not knowing”.
This koan is especially appropriate for Westerners because our culture regards not knowing as ignorance, i.e. a negative state to be avoided at all costs. In this koan, however, “most intimate” clearly implies that not knowing is a positive state.
This koan illustrates par excellence the difference between the Western view of “objective knowledge” – including scientific learning – and the Zen view that wisdom is quite unlike such knowledge.
In a previous post, I admitted having a personal interest in how Zen might rejuvenate Western philosophy. In that regard, it might help to recall that the word “philosophy” comes from the Greek, “love of wisdom” (sophia), not “love of knowledge”.
A Chinese Buddhist scholar, Fayan (Jap. Hogen), who had made a name for himself among the intelligentsia of the dynastic capital, decided to tour the imperial hinterlands in order to bring the monks of remote monasteries up to date on Buddhist philosophy. He was joined by several other Buddhist scholars who set out together on a pilgrimage to visit a specific list of provincial temples.
At a certain point in their pilgrimage, snow, rain and flooding forced them to seek shelter in a small temple that was not on their itinerary. The temple’s Abbott came to greet them as they warmed their hands over a glowing brazier just inside the gate. The scholars barely acknowledged him. After hearing a description of their mission, the Abbott asked if he might pose a question to them. One of Fayan’s colleagues assented without lifting his gaze from the red-hot coals.
The Abbot, whose name was Dizang, asked, “Are the mountains, rivers, and earth identical with, or separate from, you scholars?” Fayan’s colleague tersely replied, “Separate”. At this, Dizang held up two fingers. The scholar, perhaps interpreting this as a criticism for dividing the world between inside and outside, quickly said, “Identical! Identical!” Dizang again held up two fingers, and left them.
Fayan asked the other scholar what he thought the Abbot meant by raising two fingers both times. His colleague, perhaps embarrassed by his own loss of composure, replied that there was no meaning other than contrariness on the Abbot’s part. Fayan protested there was no need to insult the Abbott. (I believe Fayan understood the Abbott was signaling in response to both answers that his colleague still hadn’t overcome the dualism of “the Many” and “the One”.)
In any case, Fayan had come to see that the Abbott was no country bumpkin. He also suspected that Dizang knew more than he did. This suspicion must have completely undermined his self-confidence. How could he present himself as an expert to numerous monasteries when he knew there was much he still didn’t understand?
Perhaps this was why, in a later conversation with Dizang, Fayan candidly admitted that he no longer knew why he persisted in his mission to bring the latest philosophical developments to remote monasteries.
Recognizing that Fayan was in what I have called an existential crisis, Dizang uttered the turning words, “Not knowing is most intimate”. This was enough to give Fayan an initial insight, or kensho. (This was not to be his final enlightenment experience under Dizang. In Part 2 on this koan, I will describe the conversations that led to a deeper awakening.)
Meanwhile, we must ask, “Why did Dizang’s use of the word “intimate” cause Fayan to have an initial insight?”
To give you a sense of what Dizang realized, I can think of no better prompt than a poem cited by Zenkei Shibayama Roshi, the revered twentieth century Rinzai master in his book, Zen Comments on the Mumonkan. (For what it’s worth, if I could take only one book with me into solitary confinement, it would be this one.)
There, in commenting on Case 10 about a monk who brags that he is "poverty-stricken" because he has rid himself of all conceptual understandings, Shibayama recites a poem by another Zen Master on how such poverty is actually a blessing:
Do not light a lamp: in the house is no oil.
How pitiable it is if you want a light
I myself have a means to bless poverty:
I will let you feel your way along the wall.
This poem imagines a host telling a guest that he must find his guest room for the night in the dark. He has no oil with which to provide him a lamp. The guest must proceed by feeling his way along the hall until he finds his destination.
The poem is a metaphor for Zen practice; we must feel our way forward as if blind – no conceptual understanding will get us to our destination. Instead, the host says he is providing his guest a priceless gift by letting him feel his way along the wall with his hands.
Here we get a hint of what “intimacy” means. When we are lost in the dark, we are forced become intimate with the wall through our hands. We learn much about the contours of the wall that we would have missed in daylight.
Now, how does this notion of intimacy apply to our koan about not knowing? Here, we can perhaps see how “not knowing” loses its negative connotation of ignorance and becomes a blessing in disguise. Ignorance, from a Buddhist point of view, is being stubbornly stuck in delusions about our true nature despite mounting evidence that those beliefs are not sustainable. For a person with enough meditation experience, this dissonance between our “common sense” assumptions, and our intuitions that there is something more we don’t yet understand will eventually result in an existential crisis.
Such a crisis occurs often in ordinary human lives, as when we feel that a friend or loved one has betrayed or abandoned us. At such a time, all of one’s longstanding assumptions are in question. A change in those assumptions is called for, but we find ourselves not knowing what to do.
Whether in ordinary life or in koan practice, not knowing what to do forces us to suspend our past assumptions and look for a solution “outside the box” of those beliefs. Luckily, we are blessed with an innate freedom that we call creativity. As with fine art painters, this search for a solution proceeds by intuitive means. Painters “feel their way along the wall” by applying a daub of color here or there. If it doesn’t “look right”, they apply other colors until it does. The point is, this process proceeds intuitively through feelings, not through a rigid set of written rules.
It is only in such a state that Zen practitioners, having newly discovered a willingness to consider new possibilities, realize that “not knowing what to do” is precisely the state where they are freed to discover those possibilities through trial and error guided by intuition. It is only in such a state that practitioners come nearest, or become “most intimate” with their true nature, which is one of inherent freedom guided by compassion.
Fayan reached such a state when he admitted he didn’t know what to do next. With Dizang’s turning words, he suddenly realized he was not imprisoned by not knowing, but freed by it. He was free to “feel his way along the wall” until he found his own authentic response.
Now, how will you choose to demonstrate this “intimacy of not knowing?” If you are still bewildered, don't despair. Part 2 will add a few more hints.
Original Face – Part 2
In my last post, I described the experience of two women with the Original Face koan presented in the form of a single sentence: “Do not think of good, do not think of evil. At this very moment, what is your original face before your father and mother were born?”
Due to the circumstances that brought them to me, the single sentence version had to suffice. Nevertheless, I believe their work with that single sentence gave them each a helpful insight into their own true nature.
On the other hand, by using a single sentence, I deprived them of any surrounding context that might have helped them reach an even deeper realization. For that reason I want to examine Case 23 of The Gateless Barrier. There, a shortened version of that one sentence plays a pivotal role in a dramatic background story that raises subtle themes easily overlooked in our one sentence version.
For students working on Case 23, the story is told in a terse form that leaves out the events that led to confrontation between the two leading characters. That is doubtless because Chan monks in those days were already completely familiar with the events leading up to that fateful encounter. I will later add a few notes to fill out those details for newcomers. Meanwhile, here is a paraphrase of that terse story.
The Monk Myo pursued the Sixth Patriarch [whose name was Huineng (Hway-neng)] into the mountains. Seeing him getting ever closer, Huineng placed the robe and bowl of the Fifth Patriarch on a rock, and sat down to await his pursuer. When Myo arrived in a state of great anger, Huineng calmly said to him, “This robe and bowl should not be taken by force. There they are; take them if you wish!" Suddenly shamed by the truth of this statement, Myo tried to lift the sacred objects but could not. Trembling, Myo said, “Truly, I am not here for the robe and bowl. I am here to learn the truth of the Dharma. Please, lay brother, instruct me!” The Sixth Patriarch replied, “Do not think of good, do not think of evil. At this very moment, what is the original face of Monk Myo?” Hearing these words, Myo was deeply enlightened.
Since this story begins in medias res (in the middle of things), here are notes to fill in the background.
Huineng was an illiterate woodcutter who had a deep spontaneous enlightenment on hearing some monks recite a sutra. For him, the turning words were, “[Just] Bring forth that mind that has no fixed abode.” In this phrase, you should hear an echo from my earlier posts, “Bring Me Your Mind, Parts 1 and 2, where I said:
“There is one thing we can say about the heart-mind: it is ceaseless activity. And what kind of activity is that? As discussed in Part 1, introspection reveals the heart-mind to be a relentless roving of attention. The nature of the heart-mind is endless searching” (italics added here for emphasis).
Huineng asked the monks where he could find a teacher and they referred him to the Fifth Chan Patriarch. According to the traditional history of Chan, each Patriarch passed on their robe and a bowl to a single person worthy of leading and protecting the still emerging Chan sect. You should also know that Huineng is credited with completing the task of transforming Chan from an offshoot of Indian Buddhism under Bodhidharma to an authentically Chinese synthesis of Buddhism and Daoism. Because of this, there was no Seventh Chan Patriarch. Instead, Huineng had multiple successors who established multiple lineages of transmission that (in theory) branched into the many Zen lineages we have today.
On his arrival at the Patriarch’s distant monastery, Huineng was assigned to the kitchen, since he was an illiterate layman and not a monk. Some time later the Patriarch, who was quite old, asked all monks to submit a poem proving they were worthy to become the next Chan Patriarch. In response, Huineng asked a monk to write down a poem that expressed Huineng’s understanding of the Dharma. Huineng then posted the anonymous poem on a wall at night. (That poem will be the subject of a future post.)
When the Fifth Patriarch saw the poem, he realized that the author was deeply enlightened, but said nothing. After some inquiries, he summoned Huineng to visit him secretly. There he gave Huineng his robe and bowl, thereby making him the Sixth Patriarch. At the same time, he warned Huineng that he should flee that same night, since many senior monks would be jealous and assume Huineng had stolen the robe and bowl.
The next day, discovering that the robe and bowl were gone, several monks set out in pursuit of the kitchen worker they believed had deceived their aged Master. Among them was Myo, a monk who had been a general before repenting for the deaths he had caused. Despite his years as a monk, he still retained a hot temper. After the other monks gave up and turned back, his strong will and physical strength allowed him to press on. That brings us to his confrontation with Huineng in the mountains.
We are now in a position to see how this theatrical tale enriches and modifies the single sentence version of Original Face treated in Part 1.
First we should note that Huineng’s turning words to Myo do not include the bit about “before your parents were born”. Why not? One answer is that this phrase is redundant. After all, Huineng’s admonition has already said, “At this very moment” (i.e. “Right now”). This negates the past and the future completely if we grasp that, for Zen, only the present moment embodied here and now is real. Our conceptions of the past and future are riddled with delusion (or as Buddhist philosophers of that time would put it, “are just images produced by the imagination only”).
The question then becomes, “Why does the classic collection of koans known as Entangling Vines add the clause, ‘before your parents were born’ to its version of Case 23?
I have read that Entangling Vines is used in the Rinzai sect of Zen as a kind of test of a student’s mastery of the koan curriculum, a bit like the oral exam of a Ph.D candidate. Perhaps, then, this clause is an added hurdle meant to make sure the advanced student realizes this point about past and future.
Another virtue of this clause, as I have said before, is that its use with beginners forces them more quickly into a quandary of the kind that can produce their first breakthrough insight, or kensho.
Second, we should notice another subtle difference in the one sentence version of Part 1. That one sentence version is addressed to you, but in Case 23 we are in effect invited to enter the mind of Monk Myo to understand what he was experiencing.
You don’t have to be a gifted empath to enter Myo’s mind. In fact, it should be easy to identify with him. We have all been angry and we have all been resentful. We are sometimes overwhelmed by negative emotions to the extent that we later admit we momentarily “lost it” when dealing with a perceived adversary (including loved ones!) In short, it is easy to identify with Myo, because he is you.
When Huineng reminds Myo of the meaning of the bowl and robe, he suddenly realizes his murderous rage was a violation of his vows. In remorse, he pivots to asking for help, even though Huineng is only an illiterate layman.
Third, the most important reason that the dramatic tale in Case 23 adds a deeper dimension to the koan is that it raises an even more fundamental point that might otherwise be missed. The novel element introduced by Case 23 (and accentuated, if one knows why Myo set out in pursuit of Huineng) is passion.
In contrast, the one sentence version is comparatively drama-free and invites the kind of conceptual interpretation that both women in Part 1 initially articulated in words, each in her own way. Nevertheless, each woman was ultimately able to embody their words in physical gestures that included their facial expressions and, in the case of the terminally ill woman, an utterance that in Western philosophy of language is called “a speech act”.
And how does the passion or “drama” in Case 23 lead us to a new dimension of understanding of our own true nature? Put another way, why did Huineng’s pivotal phrase constitute “turning words” that triggered Myo’s deep enlightenment? Once again, we may feel left behind, just as we did if we didn’t initially understand, “There, I have pacified your mind for you!” in the Bring Me Your Mind koan.
The key to Case 23 is in the very first sentence: “Do not think of good, do not think of evil.” You should consider what impact this admonition has on our answer to the question, “At this very moment, what is the original face of Monk Myo?”
By telling Myo to look at himself before asking himself whether he was being good or bad, Huineng was telling him (and us) that our original “face” or nature contains both good and bad. The word “original” here has some distant kinship with “original sin”, except that in Buddhism, our "original sin" is our primordial ignorance, not our disobedience. In case 23, “original” implies that we will always (i.e. forever) be the source of both good and evil because that range of behaviors is just the way human beings are! From a Zen point of view, only when we accept this fact are we truly free to choose our path.
So what did Myo see about himself when Huineng uttered his turning words? When he tried to lift the robe and bowl, he saw that something mysterious would not allow it. When he felt remorse, he humbled himself and sincerely asked for help. These were both positive emotions from a Buddhist point of view because they opened his eyes to see his original face. And what did he see when he dropped all pretensions about right and wrong? He saw that he contained multitudes, including a person easily tempted into a murderous rage born of ignorance in the form of self-righteousness.
In demonstrating your understanding of this koan, you must play the part of Myo. Truly, you must demonstrate that you are Myo climbing that mountain right now. Otherwise, how will you “entangle your eyebrows” with both Myo and Huineng? How can you say you have truly “met them” unless you bring them into the interview room here and now?
To be other than Myo runs the risk of thinking yourself better than he was. In order to “not be better than Myo” you must show Myo, not at his best, as when remembering his vows and seeking help. No, you must show him failing his vows and yielding to jealousy and resentment. How else will you embody your understanding that all human beings are fallible? As another koan asks, “Why does the perfectly enlightened person fall into a well?” Surprise! Even enlightened persons make stupid mistakes that expose them to censure or ridicule. (This tragicomic wisdom is what endears Zen to me.)
Returning to our two women, I would comment that in the end the woman with ovarian cancer demonstrated that her vision of God was not all sweetness and light, but also included her own sorrow and anger. I can't possibly convey how convincing her presentation was at that moment.
The younger woman had a much sunnier view of life, doubtless due in part to her youth and health, and was able to express it in her demeanor. This was a good demonstration of what Zen calls, “Sun-faced Buddha”. A caring teacher would nevertheless have asked her how she would feel on the day her mother died. The teacher would ask this in order to be sure she knew that there is also a “Moon-faced Buddha” within each of us. The ultimate truth lies in realizing that both of these Buddhas emit light.
“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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