Ordinary Mind Is The Way, Part 3
There is one more section of the koan that deserves special attention. It is: ““Dao does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is confusion and indecision.”
You should know that Shibayama, whom I regard as the gold standard, translates this line as, “Dao does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is blankness” (emphasis added).
Let’s parse this section carefully, since it launches the part of the koan that led to the youthful Zhaozhou’s first enlightenment experience under Nanchuan.
“Dao does not belong to knowing or not-knowing” is a validation by the great teacher Nanchuan of a point that I have been trying to make in every post before this one. That is, that Zen views words as inadequate to express the whole of our human experience, which includes feelings and intuitions that are subjectively “real” to us but cannot be fully expressed in words.
For that reason, I have argued that such “states of mind” are most fully expressed by the actions we perform when we are experiencing a specific feeling in that very moment. I have also argued that our response to a given koan must therefore be conveyed in a “bodily” fashion including movements, gestures and utterances of the kind philosophers call “speech acts”
In the case of koans, I have said that any verbal utterance is not important for its semantic content but only for what it directly conveys about your view of reality.
Now, why is it that this kind of “embodied” communication does not belong to knowing or not-knowing?
It is because knowledge is conventionally regarded as being expressible in words in the form of “facts”, such as “Charlemagne was King of the Franks”. Facts are typically in the form of propositions that, if fully expanded, would say, “x is true”, where x is the fact being stated.
In recent Western philosophy such statements are called “knowing that x”, and are to be distinguished from “knowing how knowledge”. The latter concerns how we do something – what we commonly call “know-how”. Riding a bicycle, for instance, requires knowing how to keep your balance, something that cannot be described in words, but must be learned in the body. This relatively recent distinction shows that Western philosophy is now edging toward a conclusion that Chinese Zen Masters made more than a thousand years ago: that a verb is more revelatory than a noun, and that a verb’s fuller content cannot be captured in a series of nouns or categories.
As I have said many times, Dao does not belong to knowing and not-knowing because it shows itself via actions, rather than says what it is via words. How our united body-mind acts moment to moment cannot be represented in words, which only speak indirectly about this living flow of action. As Dizang told Fayan, “from the point of view of Buddhism, everything directly presents itself”. This means that the only way you can present the “how” (or Dao) of action is to re-enact that action whole-heartedly with your own body-mind right now.
The mature Zhaozhou, when asked to say something about Dao, simply said, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” Such skillful means (upaya)! This says everything that has been said in this blog about our Way not being a “thing”, but rather a dynamic “working” or flow of action that cannot be exhaustively explained in words.
That is enough of our review. We must now to return to parsing the next challenging sentence, “Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is blankness.”
First, why is knowing “delusion”? We have just said that knowledge consists of “facts” stated in words (or in the mathematics of physics). Aren’t facts valid knowledge proven by the scientific method? Are we saying that even these proven scientific truths are delusions?
In the first centuries of “our common era” (i.e. the years A.D) Buddhism rendered this apparent denial of our common sense benign by declaring that there are two kinds of truth, each valid in its sphere: conventional truth and ultimate truth.
“Conventional truth” is the truth of “objective reality” as required by our linguistic and mathematical conventions. Such conventions are needed for human survival, human communication and society itself. This “two-truth theory” says that we may rely on conventional truth for all of our social objectives, including science and technology.
On the other hand, “ultimate truth” goes beyond objective reality to cover the reality of our subjective lives, including our feelings, desires, hopes, and fears. The ultimate truth of Zen is that all these subjective states are figments of our imagination insofar as they are based on belief in a “self”. Thus, the idea of an independent self that needs hypervigilance to protect itself from the rest of the universe is a delusion because it springs from ignorance of our true nature.
Realizing that our common sense view of self is an empty construct (a delusion) devoid of any real substance, is a seismic event that ultimately sweeps like a tsunami through our common sense views of objective reality as well. We see that all of our concepts of “things” are limited by the self-ish  purposes for which we want to use them. As such, they are suspect of being incomplete at best, and deceptive at worst.
This brings us to the second clause, “not-knowing is blankness.” Here you may have detected a dissonance between Shibayama’s “not-knowing is blankness” and the preceding three-part blog on “Not knowing is most intimate”. In those posts, not-knowing was described as a positive step on the path to enlightenment by leading to a nondual union of subject and object. Here in contrast, the word “blankness” seems to hint at a paralyzing inability to unite with anything whatsoever. Thus, both knowing and not knowing are incapable of leading us to enlightenment.
Is there a way to reconcile the “intimacy of not-knowing” with the “blankness of not-knowing” so that we can affirm them both? Yes, I see two ways, one obvious and one subtle.
The obvious way to reconcile intimacy and blankness is to assign them to two different states of mind. The intimacy of not-knowing, as we said in those earlier posts, consists of absolute acceptance of, and union with, what is before us, leading to a spontaneous and appropriate response.
On the other hand, the blankness of not-knowing is what happens when we have absolutely no idea of what to do in response to a question. It is the same as being “flummoxed”, “baffled” or “bewildered”. I believe this is why Sekida chooses to translate “blankness” as “confusion”.
This kind of blankness or confusion is familiar to koan students, who often don’t know what to say or do to answer the teacher’s questions during interviews. The student’s glum silence can be quite embarrassing to the student, but not to the teacher. The teacher responds by calmly ringing for the next student, but may also exhort the student to try harder, or briefly suggest a new way of looking at the problem. In any case, the student becomes increasingly motivated to say or do something – anything – in the next interview. This is as it should be.
Thus, the not-knowing that is intimate and the not-knowing that is blankness each have their own proper sphere. These two spheres can be described quite simply: “blankness” applies to people who have not yet had an insight into their true nature (kensho), while “intimacy” applies to people who have had at least an initial insight into that nature.
In Case 19, the youthful Zhaozhou still believes it is possible to “know” Dao. It is only when he is told that Dao is like an immaculate void, in which right and wrong serve no purpose and drop away, that he had an insight. Before those turning words, he was in a state of blankness as shown by his need to ask, “What is Dao?”
At that point, Zhoazhou’s blankness is that of someone who doesn’t have the insight needed to answer his own question. He is still confused and poses question after question based on that lack of insight until Nanchuan “shuts his yap for him”, as Zhaozhou himself said much later about his own technique with students.
In contrast, Fayan achieved an initial insight into, and intimacy with, his own true nature when he heard Dizang say, “Not knowing is most intimate”. As an expert in Buddhist philosophy, he was in a perfect position to suddenly see that his many writings could never fully exhaust human reality, and that the reality of being human could only be fully experienced by a person who puts no preconceptions in the way of that experience.
So what kind of presentation should a koan student make to demonstrate their understanding of “Ordinary Mind Is The Way”? I will only say that almost anything that shows you living your daily life will do. There is no need to for that demonstration to show that you have attained “true ordinary mind”; your presentation of your daily machinations will show the teacher that you understand that your true ordinary mind shines through everything you do.
Finally, I will add an extended comment that Buddhists with an interest in Buddhist thought might want to consider. This is the second, “subtle” way to reconcile opposites that I mentioned earlier.
In researching the two Chinese characters that were translated either as “blankness” or “confusion”, I found that they are a rare combination that was used to translate a Sanskrit epistemological term inherited from early Indian Buddhism. That term means “indeterminate”, or “unascertainable”, and it was applied to the series of thorny metaphysical questions that an Indian philosopher asked the Buddha and that he chose to answer by remaining silent.
Clearly, the Buddha’s silence was “thundering”, as they say of Vimalakirti’s silence in answer to similar questions. Their silence meant that there was no need to ask such questions, and that they have already automatically "dropped away" because they never actually arise in our true nature. After all, once we understand the emptiness of our true nature, such questions will be seen as delusions resulting from our ignorance that should be cast away before they become impediments to our Buddhist Way.
For me, this stance indicates that we should see that any polarity, such as between blankness and intimacy or knowing and not knowing, is a form of dualism that must ultimately be cast away, no matter how helpful it is for pointing a student in the right direction (upaya).
Even more significantly, it means that all polarities of opposites and all resulting dualisms are already eliminated, even for those without insight! For Buddhists, it is settled that we are already enlightened, even when we don’t realize it. As I said above, your true ordinary mind underlies everything you do and shines through those actions even if you don’t notice it!
But how is that possible? It is possible in the same way that “form is already emptiness and emptiness is already form” is possible. It is possible in the same way as “samsara is already nirvana and nirvana is already samsara” is possible. Fundamentally, every polarity vaporizes because the two poles regarded as “opposites” by common sense are ultimately seen as being totally interdependent and interpenetrating. This applies to our notions of good and bad as well, meaning that our true ordinary mind spans both like a bridge.
This may strike the reader as “a bridge too far” to cross. Don’t worry about this addendum; just keep an open mind about its possible implications. Does this addendum mean that you must alter your presentation of “Ordinary Mind Is The Way”? No. If you have understood these added comments at all, you will see that no change is needed. The same true ordinary mind will shine through your actions.
 Many translators use the words, “the Dao”, in contexts like this. I follow Shibayama who I believe drops the “the” because it encourages the unschooled reader to think Dao is a “thing” or some separate realm.
 As I admitted in the endnotes to Part 1, this was my own preferred reading for pedagogical reasons. I took the word “confusion” from the translation of Katsuki Sekida. I then added the word “indecision” to describe the effect confusion has on someone facing a tough question.
 Throughout this Part 3, I have used Shibayama’s hyphenated version of “not knowing”. I believe he intended thereby to put our conventional term “not knowing” into the same category as “not-self” and “not-mind”, Zen terms that connote that, for those who have directly seen their true nature, self and mind are identical with the “not-self” and “not-mind”. This may be significant for reasons set out at the very end of this post. There, I believe that Shibayama would agree that all dualisms are already eliminated as implied by the identity of mind and not-mind.
 They are considered “acts” because they produce an intended effect on all listeners rather than conveying information. The classic example of a speech act is the utterance “I do” in a marriage ceremony; this utterance has major social effects beyond letting others know that the bride and groom are glad.
 This is why some koans consist of Masters answering a student’s question about Dharma by quoting from an ancient poem describing the flora of a beautiful locale that seemingly has nothing to do with the subject of the student’s question. The poem is the Master’s effort to get the student to drop their logic-chopping question and directly experience the sublime wholeness of reality.
 Readers with some knowledge of twentieth-century philosophy will be reminded of the show vs. say distinction made by the early Wittgenstein, who said that the words of a sentence are a “picture” of a logical reality. But he allowed for “mystical” statements that attempt to show rather than say the reality of the unsayable. The later Wittgenstein changed his view of linguistic meaning from one of “logical pictures” corresponding to “states of affairs” in the world, to a view in which meanings were the manifold human uses that human beings put to combinations of words. Thus in both the early and the late Wittgenstein, he gestured toward the unsayability of human actions that can only be shown in human actions. This similarity to Buddhism and Zen has been noted by several Western philosophers.
 The word “selfish” will not do here because it means being greedy or covetous to a morally unacceptable degree. I use the word “self-ish”, not to make any moral judgment, but to describe any action that springs from our egocentric belief in a self, whether or not it is selfish in the moral sense.
 Surprisingly (or not!), those questions were the same as Kant’s “antinomies” about whether space, time, and the universe, were finite or infinite or had a beginning or end. In Kant’s view, we need to postulate answers based on an intrinsic religious faith. In contrast, the Buddha’s silence covered all four possible answers to any question as recognized in Indian logic. These were: the answer is “yes”, the answer is “no”, the answer is “both”, the answer is “neither”. A seasoned Buddhist might be tempted to answer, “both” or “neither” – or even, “all of the above”! Buddha’s silence denies us such philosophical satisfaction, and forces us to discover our unsayable true nature.
 In the first century A.D. Vimalakirti Sutra, a prosperous and virtuous Buddhist layman is asked by the primordial Bodhisattva of Wisdom (Manjushri) to give his views on dualism and nondualism after first giving Vimalakirti his own view, which was that we fall immediately into dualism when we try to explain something in words. When it came time for Vimalakirti to give his view, he remained silent with a fierce expression. Manjushri conceded this was the better answer. Like the Buddha’s silence, even if we can argue that Manjushri’s view was true in some sense, it is still not as complete as Vimalakirti’s action.
 Zhaozhou took his name from his temple’s location in a town with a famous bridge. He was once asked by a monk, “What is the bridge of Zhaozhou?” This was a clever way of asking, “What is the mind of Zhaozhou?” or, “What is enlightenment?” He replied, “Horses and donkeys cross over it”. He meant that better and worse qualities cross though our minds freely. This was a consummately skillful metaphor for our true ordinary mind.
Ordinary Mind Is The Way, Part 2
After our brief attempt to sound the depth of the word “Dao”, let’s turn our attention to another key term of this koan: “Ordinary Mind”. In Part 1, I called this a “seemingly ambiguous phrase”. By this, I meant that this term might strike the reader as having two potential meanings.
The first refers to the common sense mind we employ in our daily affairs, including our ego-driven calculations of our own personal advantage. This meaning seems to violate our sense of what is proper for a Buddhist. This is why Zenkei Shibayama comments, “But who can simply and immediately accept this instruction (i.e. that using your common sense is Dao)?”
For that very reason, we might be tempted to take “Ordinary Mind” to refer to a mind that is somehow purged of the “three poisons” of greed, hatred, and ignorance. And so it seems we can only choose between these two possible meanings. But are these the only two meanings “ordinary mind” can have?
Zenkei Shibayama seems to invoke this “purified” sense of ordinary mind by expanding the term to mean, “Everyday mind as it is without any discrimination is Dao”. He says that if ordinary mind were “just our common sense mind which discriminates, no one would need meditation or koan training”. He adds that this koan “means we have to transcend our ordinary mind to attain our true ordinary mind, and in order actually to transcend our dualistic ordinary mind, sincere searching and hard discipline are required.”
But we must ask what he means by “transcend our dualistic ordinary mind to attain our true ordinary mind”? Is he saying we must purge all discriminating thoughts from our minds?
No, he is not saying that. Instead, we must study what Shibayama meant by “transcending” our dualistic mind. To a newcomer, “transcend” might seem to say we must “rise above” and “leave behind” all “bad” thoughts.
But can we live without discriminating thoughts? As I hope to show, the answer is both no and yes. First I will argue that the answer is no, and only afterward argue that there is also an exquisite sense in which we must answer yes. The latter argument is lengthy, but bear with me. For me, the everlasting beauty of Zen lies precisely in understanding how Zen allows us to transcend our discriminating mind.
The case for “no” is simple: we must all obtain the necessities of life, where considerations of self, family, community, country, and planet trigger the use of discriminating mind. Certainly, every decision involving the future or the past brings these factors into play. Even while shopping for food, we discriminate between good, better, and best, according to our tastes. And we are happy to justify our choices in words to anyone who questions them. I hope you will agree that the thought of forcefully banning any such thoughts from our minds is simply not something humans can do and still live our everyday lives. (You might be surprised to learn that Zen Masters cannot ban such thoughts either! Instead, they learn to ignore them in a way described in the last parts of this post.)
On the other hand, we all seem to recognize that human beings sometimes perform selfless acts for the sake of others without any moral deliberation. Such are the acts of those who leap to rescue a person on the subway tracks and later say they never even paused to consider the wisdom of doing so. Of course these are the most dramatic examples of selflessness, but their purpose here is to prove that this capacity is hard-wired into our brains; selfless actions are possible, so we must possess a selfless mind, along with our selfish mind.
What we fail to notice is that there are countless times in our daily lives when we “flow” through choices without conscious deliberation, without caring how they make us look, and without a single word passing through our heads. For Zen, this way of picking and choosing is selfless because concern about one’s “self” never rears its ugly head in the process.
In short, it seems that being fully human requires having two minds, one selfish and one selfless.
A philosophical question might occur to the reader at this point: “Does Buddhism have a “theory of mind” that allows both selfish and selfless minds to coexist in such a way that we can use one or the other as appropriate? The answer is yes.
What is this mind that allows us to switch from selfish to selfless as needed? I will spare you the details of the Yogacara Buddhist theory of mind, which was the last philosophical view to be incorporated into the emerging Daoist-oriented Chinese Zen of the fifth or sixth century.
For our purposes, it suffices to say that the Yogacarins posited a selfish mind that was ego-driven, but also a mind that incorporated that mind into a selfless mind. You could imagine this “overall” mind as “underlying” our selfish mind as its fundamental “basis”, or “above” it as the final arbiter of our actions. For our purposes, declaring it “above” or “below” simply doesn’t matter.
What matters is that this all-inclusive mind accepts all thoughts, whether we might later judge them as good or bad, positive or negative. Because it accepts all thoughts without discrimination as to good or bad, this is the mind Shibayama Roshi was referring to when he said, “Everyday mind as it is without any discrimination is Tao”.
Instead, Shibayama was pointing us to a mind that includes both selfish and selfless aspects of mind without discriminating between them. Now how does such a mind allow us to “transcend our dualistic ordinary mind to attain our true ordinary mind”?
Now we come face to face with the “everlasting beauty” I referred to earlier.
First, consider whether you can agree with the following. One essential characteristic of human beings is that we often feel obligated to make moral judgments (that is, unless we are narcissists or sociopaths). And it seems we spend a great deal of our mental lives vacillating between the selfish devil on one shoulder and the selfless angel on the other. To make matters worse, we often complicate things by asking how our choice will make us appear to others! The constant self-judgment required by moral deliberation can be a form of suffering, yet we regard it as a noble aspect of being human that (I hope) we would never choose to eliminate.
I think you will agree that all these complications amount to what Dogen called “just a mess of tangled vines”. The question is therefore, “How does Zen allow us to cut through these tangled vines and clear our path forward?”
Zen does this by simply asking us to proceed to the next thing that we feel is appropriate according to our mind at that very moment. It may be selfish or selfless, just as long as we do not stop the process to make judgments of ourselves as good or bad persons. In slang terms, we “transcend our dualistic ordinary mind to attain our true ordinary mind” by “following our gut” in the moment as much as possible.
It remains true, however, that making decisions about the future inevitably involves discriminating mind because you have to predict future conditions in order to achieve what you desire. Even here, though, there is a weighting of factors that is largely subjective, and ultimately decided by intuitions and instincts that don’t come from any book. Even here, then, there is a way of judging things that minimizes our vacillation and mental suffering by trusting our intuitions and making our best guess. This, too, is “true ordinary mind” in Shibayama’s sense.
In either case, any idea of “self” is minimized in the process. Meditation and Samadhi work naturally over time to take "self" out of even our most difficult deliberations. This is because meditation makes us aware of our stream of consciousness by watching thoughts come and go. We see just how wild and variable our thoughts are. With time, we realize that our thoughts are “just thoughts”, i.e. are just flashes from our subconscious that run the full range of human thoughts from beautiful to ugly. We see that they don’t pin down our character, but just reveal our full human potential for both good and for evil
It’s at this point that even the most selfish predatory thought loses its sting. It is just part of being human and we can let it pass through to oblivion. We then realize that we don’t have to constantly label our choices as good or bad in a neurotic way that only triggers redundant pain. Nor need we constantly judge ourselves as good or bad persons, something even more crippling.
It is the dropping out of this layer of redundant self-judgment that constitutes the “beauty” I referred to. This is what allows all of us, including Zen Masters, to be “human, all too human” at times. If you have studied with Zen Masters for any length of time, you will discover that they are fallible. As another koan asks, “Why does the perfectly enlightened person fall into the well?” Well, this is why, and it liberates you to understand this.
Thus a special alchemy occurs when you don’t judge your own thoughts as good or bad, but simply accept them as your reality of the moment. This may seem an anticlimax if you were hoping that enlightenment guaranteed ideal Buddhist behavior ever after. Still, this view of ordinary mind has invaluable rewards. For instance, this view implies we can do something completely opposite in the future. That is the freedom promised by Zen.
Western philosophers who have written about “free will” often question whether our feeling that we were free to choose differently than we did is just an illusion. It is not; it is true. Once we realize the truth that the self is an empty construct of our common sense minds, we realize that our true ordinary mind is completely open at all times to doing things differently. This is the deepest possible version of free will. It is absolute. We are not condemned to be trapped in a character we loathe. Addictions and compulsive behaviors are finally seen as habits that we can train ourselves to eliminate over time. In this way, we are free to overwrite any past decision, and any past characterization of ourselves.
 Zenkei Shibayama, Zen Comments on the Mumonkan (1974), a book I have praised before. Zen practitioners closely following this blog should own this book in order to get the best translations and comments regarding the koans I discuss.
 In this paragraph, I italicize seems because I will later argue that Shibayama means something quite different from a “purified mind”. Stay tuned.
 For instance, Fayan Wenyi, who was featured in the posts on “Not Knowing Is Most Intimate”, was influenced by the Yogacara (pron. yoga-chara) philosophy.
 The Yogacarins actually proposed a model with eight (!) “minds”, including the five senses, bare consciousness, an ego-driven mind to filter bare consciousness, and finally, a mind called “Storehouse Consciousness” that contains all the karma of humanity, both good and bad. It is from this mind, containing all human potentials, both good and bad, that all our actions flow.
 And this is why, when I first quoted this line, I said that it might seem that Shibayama was pointing us toward a mind that was “somehow purged of the ‘three poisons’” We now see that it includes them.
Ordinary Mind Is The Way Part 1
Case 19 of the Gateless Barrier (Jap. Mumonkan) is a treasure trove. Given the many connotations of its key words, the commentary on it by various Masters reveals a dazzling array of implications.
Here is a version of Case 19 that blends the translations of the original Chinese by Masters that I respect most.
Because the koan relies heavily on the word Dao, it assumes a familiarity with Chinese Daoism that most Americans lack. For our purposes it is adequate to translate Dao as, “The Way”, or “The Path”, taken in the sense of, “The way we should live”. It is equivalent, in this sense, to “The Zen Way”.
A young Zhaozhou crossed China on foot from north to south to study under Nanchuan. One day, he rolled all his questions into one ball and asked, “What is Dao?” Nanchuan replied “Ordinary Mind is Dao”. Zhaozhou asked, “Do I then need to search for this ‘ordinary’ mind?” Nanchuan replied, “The more you try to pin it down, the more you will veer away from its true nature.” Zhaozhou responded, “How can I ever know the Dao if I can’t pin it down?” Nanchuan answered, “Dao does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is confusion and indecision. If you truly break through to the Dao of no-doubt, it is like a great void; it is so vast and boundless. How can it be talked about in terms of right and wrong?” With these turning words, Zhaozhou had a sudden insight.
There is a reason I chose this koan to directly follow the three-part series on “Not knowing is most intimate”. I chose it because I believe this koan can deepen our insight into the role of not-knowing in our mental and physical lives.
How so? For one thing, using the word Dao brings into play a large repertoire of notions with deep roots in ancient Chinese culture. An early Indian Buddhist translator chose to translate the ubiquitous Buddhist terms Bodhi (enlightenment), Prajna (wisdom), and Dharma (truth), with the Chinese word Dao that had the depth needed to carry the freight of these loaded Sanskrit terms. That is why, when Zhaozhou asked, “What is Dao?” I commented, “ he rolled all his questions into one”. In other words, answering that question is answering all other questions about the Zen Way at one time.
So what is Dao?“ In mercifully brief summary, “The Way” means living in harmony with the powers of the universe. How are we to learn about what the universe wants from us? It is definitely not through words, as is made clear by the Daode Jing (The Book of the Way and its Power) by the legendary Laozi (pron. “Lao-dzeh”). Its first verse declares that names and words can never reveal our true nature:
The tao that can be told
Is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name
The unnamable is the eternally real
Naming is the origin of all particular things.
The method and fruits of learning the Way are described in Verse 16:
Empty your mind of all thoughts
Let your heart be at peace
Watch the turmoil of beings but contemplate their return
Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source
Returning to the source is serenity
If you don’t realize the source
You stumble in confusion and sorrow
When you realize where you come from
You naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused
Kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao
You can deal with whatever life brings you,
And when death comes, you are ready.
I hope the discerning reader will see that everything that we have discussed in this blog is completely consistent with these two verses. That is no accident. Aitken Roshi quotes his mentor Nyogen Senzaki as saying, “Taoism is the mother of Zen, and Dhyana Buddhism is the father”. Dhyana Buddhism is the Indian meditation school that Bodhidharma brought to China. As I have said, we can regard the conversion of this Indian Buddhism into Chan as having been completed by the Sixth Patriarch.
This incorporation of Daoism into Chan is what makes Zen different from other forms of Buddhism. The power of pre-Buddhist Daoism is manifested by many cultural forms in China, such as Tai-chi and Feng Shui. It manifests as well in the many “Do’s”(“Do” is the Japanese transliteration of Dao) of Japanese culture. These include Chado (the way of tea), Kendo (the way of the sword) and Kado (the way of flowers).
What all these cultural manifestations share with Daoism is the requirement that learning a “Way” involves learning by doing, not by naming or telling. It involves proceeding by intuition rather than by following rules. It means, “feeling your way along the wall” as described in our treatment of “Not knowing is most intimate.
In other words, the true nature of life (Dharma or Dao) cannot be captured in words, but must be learned in an embodied form. This is realizing the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom can and must be extracted from life without being “essentialized” in words or theories.
In Part 2, we will continue to parse the meanings of other key terms in this koan, including the seemingly ambiguous phrase, “Ordinary Mind”.
For the record, these are Masters associated with my own lineage such as Nyogen Senzaki, Katsuki Sekida, Koun Yamada, and Robert Aitken. The first two are from Rinzai lineages, while the last two are from the hybrid Harada-Yasutani Soto lineage in which I was trained. The list also includes Zenkei Shibayama, who had no association with my lineage, but whom both Yamada and Aitken regarded as (in the latter’s words), “the real deal”.
 For the most part, translators now follow the Chinese Government’s pinyin romanization of Chinese characters, so that Dao (pronounced “Dow”) has now replaced the older Wade-Giles system’s “Tao”.
 Readers familiar with the standard sources I’ve used will see that my version has my thumbprints all over it. I have put things in a way that I think will be most helpful to newcomers to Zen. I’ll attempt to justify these editorial interventions as we examine the key terms of the koan more closely.
 Kumarajiva (344-413 AD). His father was from Kashmir, his mother was from Kucha on the Silk Road.
I take the following verses from the translation by Stephen Mitchell in Tao Te Ching, A New English Version.
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.
What is your Original Face?
One version of this week’s koan is worded, “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?” Of course, in our common sense understanding, you had no face before your parents were born. (This koan is often used in popular accounts of Zen to show how “irrational” Zen is.) How should you respond?
Some Zen Masters have preferred to use this koan, rather than Mu, as the first or “barrier koan” for beginning students. Whereas Mu begins with an obscure point of Buddhist doctrine, this one brings you more quickly to your wit’s end. This is important. Being at your wit’s end is the best place to be if you want to reach a radically new understanding of who you are.
The expression “original face” has been used since the earliest days of Chinese Zen to refer to the ultimate reality you can perceive only when you have removed all the delusions you harbor about “reality”.
The phrase, “original face”, is pivotal in a famous koan about a confrontation between a early patriarch of Zen and a jealous monk afflicted with a murderous anger towards him (Mumonkan Case 23).
I will discuss Case 23 in the next post. In Case 23, the patriarch asked the monk, “Do not think of good, do not think of evil. At this very moment, what is your original face?” – that is, a question without the clause about the time before your parents were born.
In what follows, I take an approach that differs from our previous koan discussions. Here, I report on the responses of two unnamed women, both newcomers to Zen, with whom I discussed this koan in the form, “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?”
The first woman was a generous, loving person with a keen artistic sense and a devotion to social justice. Friends had referred her to me for counseling as she coped with late stage ovarian cancer. She has since died. At the time of our conversations, she was struggling with her terminal diagnosis, torn between an admirable spiritual acceptance of her situation and an understandable anger about the unfairness of her fate.
She expressed this anger largely in political terms. She bitterly resented the gender inequality manifested in the fact that research on ovarian cancer has historically been underfunded when compared to prostatic cancer.
She was aware that this political anger was also acting as a channel for her personal grief. I found her self-awareness remarkable; she was a truly wonderful person. Proceeding with the great caution, I suggested she consider this koan.
As homework between meetings, I asked her to meditate on what her original face might be. In our next meeting, she declared that her original face was “the face of God”. I congratulated her for this lovely summary of her hopes. We spent the balance of that conversation specifying what “the face of God” meant for her. She said her statement did not represent a faith in God so much as it did an appreciation of the beauty of the universe just as it was.
As I have said previously, beginning students will often begin koan work with a response based on their favorite linguistic concepts and metaphors. This is to be expected, and in traditional Zen, the teacher will often end the interview at this point by exhorting the student to redouble their efforts and ringing a hand bell to summon the next student.
Given her situation, I felt that encouraging her to expand on the implications of her metaphor was the most productive and compassionate way to proceed. I therefore told her that her appreciation of the universe just as it is constituted a wonderful step in the right direction. Still, I told her that in Zen we must show our attitude rather than describe it in words.
In our final discussions, she said she had come to see that her internal conflict between anger and acceptance was also part of the universe just-as-it-is, part of being human, and therefore part of the face of “God”. When I asked her to express this with her body, she simply lifted her shoulders and dropped them in a shrug of ultimate acceptance, adding “I’m OK with it”. I thanked her for this presentation.
I met the second woman only once. She was a medical technician who was performing an electronic “device check” on my recently installed pacemaker. I noticed her cheerful and benevolent expression as she readied her equipment. While I waited, I quietly read a book I had brought with me. She glanced over and asked me what my book was about. I told her it was a book about Zen koans. She asked what koans were and I gave her the example of the original face koan, including the words, “before your parents were born”.
She answered instantly, “Why, that would be my face right now!” Impressed by her assurance in saying this, I asked her how she came to that answer. She said that she had been deeply influenced by an undergraduate physics teacher who argued that time was an illusion and that everything that had ever happened or would happen in the future was actually occurring simultaneously in the present moment. On hearing this, she had an immediate intuition that this was true. She added that she has held that view ever since because it allows her “to be more carefree”.
I was delighted by her answer, since it was in complete accord with my own view of Dogen Zenji’s “Being Time” (Uji). Rather than mention that, I told her that I admired her explanation very much, but that with koans, one should show your original face rather than describe it in words. At this, she stopped calibrating her equipment and turned her gaze to me with the warmest, most serene smile on her face. Her smile held a hint of Mona Lisa’s amusement at the seriousness of the person painting her – or in this case, the person questioning her. I thanked her for her presentation.
There is a noteworthy difference between the responses of the two women that I will discuss in the next post on Case 23 of the Gateless Barrier.
A Belated Preface
Now that we have discussed a few koans, I feel I should be clearer about the intentions shaping this blog. If this were a book, my objectives for the book would customarily be outlined in a preface that preceded the Introduction. The reason there was no such preface is that the issues I want to raise now would have made little sense until we had worked through several koans with the approach I am using.
To my knowledge, no other published introduction to koan practice takes the approach I take here. What I want to disclose in this belated preface are the ways in which my treatment of koans may transgress some longstanding taboos of the Zen tradition. What follows is a technical discussion directed to Zen practitioners who understand the Buddhist scruples involved.
Do I Transgress?
The word “transgress” may seem a little overblown but it is part of Zen rhetoric in dialogues between Zen Masters in which one Master will take a position and then ask, “Do I transgress?” This means, “Is the position I just took in accord with the Dharma or not?” Unless the other Master can then expose an error by “one-upping” the first Master’s position, the first Master wins the playful “Dharma combat” by which Masters hone their skill in expressing the Dharma in words or actions.
Here are some ways in which my approach may transgress Zen Buddhist norms. Again, this discussion is meant for my sisters and brothers in the Dharma familiar with those norms.
First of all, my blog provides an overview of how koan training proceeds over time. I have said that teachers will, over a series of interviews, tell the student to “become one” or “become more intimate” with the koan in question. The teacher provides no explanation of why these admonitions are critical, leaving students to decide how to understand these phrases. This is a process that can take the student weeks, months, or years to resolve.
By saying in my Introduction that the teacher wants the student to “show rather say” the point of a koan, I am providing an overview that short-circuits the traditional Zen learning process. Others have commented that Japanese koan training resembles the apprenticeship process in Japanese arts and crafts, including the martial arts. There, the Master demonstrates silently and the apprentice imitates. Whatever explanations the Master provides come in pithy comments on the apprentice’s performance. The process is not designed to bolster self-esteem. Rather, it is intended to get the apprentice to try even harder to master the ineffable aspects of the art or craft.
In contrast, by providing an overview of koan training, I have provided a conceptual description that Zen teachers in both Asia and the West never provide to their students. Instead, they expect students to piece together the dynamics of koan work for themselves over time.
Secondly, I risk transgressing traditional norms by flatly stating that the appropriate way to demonstrate the point of a koan is not through conceptual explanations, but through action or words that are gestures demonstrating awareness of that point. Again, this clue on how to proceed short-circuits the traditional learning process in which students must discover this stratagem for themselves by trial and error.
Even worse, with each koan I discuss, I point toward a range of actions that might embody the point of the koan. My goal in doing this, figuratively speaking, is to lead my readers to water hoping they will drink. By this I mean that I don’t want to give them “the answer” to any given koan. Instead, I try to point them in the right direction by leading them to the water’s edge.
Zen absolutely prohibits sharing the traditional “answer” to a koan with a student who has not yet completed their work on it. This restriction is amply justified by the fear that a black-market trade in koan “answers” will thwart their effectiveness in Zen training, where koans are used to create an uncomfortable but desirable existential crisis that can push students to reach a new understanding of their lives. I risk transgressing because, in pointing readers in the right direction, I may be depriving them of the frustration necessary for a crisis powerful enough to trigger a deep awakening.
Finally, I should disclose another motivation that shapes this blog. I retain a keen interest in Western philosophy, which I believe is undergoing a major tectonic shift. I also take a keen interest in neuroscience, which is increasingly resetting the agenda for Western philosophy. I further believe that koan practice has revolutionary implications for philosophy that will be validated by future neuroscientific research.
These interests also appear to transgress the norms of Zen Buddhism. After all, the koan literature is replete with stories of Buddhist scholars who abandoned their philosophical debates in favor of Zen’s tacit path to awakening. Indeed, many modern commentators have framed Zen as anti-philosophy, or perhaps more accurately as “un-philosophy”. My own view is that Western philosophy has always offered the un-philosophy of skepticism. I believe a proper understanding of Zen can lead to a shakeup of philosophy even more profound than those made by Hume or Wittgenstein.
So Why Do I Risk Transgressing?
The main reason I take the risks just described is because I regard the koan literature as one of the great cultural treasures of the world. I regard it as fully equivalent in value to our classical Greek and Roman cultural legacy. The koan literature is not just a cultural treasure of East Asia, it is the rightful inheritance of all peoples.
I take the unorthodox view that broad access to the koan literature has been overly restricted because of its use in the formal training of Zen Buddhist monks, nuns, and lay people. I therefore try to make this cultural gem accessible to everyone, whether or not they will ever practice Buddhism.
This puts me in a position similar to proponents of secular Mindfulness, who critics accuse of peddling mere stress reduction without spiritual implications. In contrast, I believe that secular Mindfulness leads a small percentage of practitioners to want to go deeper. This is how some people find their way to Buddhism.
It is my hope that the access I provide to people curious about Zen koans will lead some percentage of them to embark on the koan path by finding a sangha and a teacher who can help them.
Finally, I believe the approach I take in this blog is in furtherance of my vows to save all beings and my vow to “not spare the Dharma assets”, that is, to generously share the treasures of the Zen koan way.
My brother and sisters in Dharma will have to judge whether my efforts transgress, and if so, whether they can be forgiven.
Bring Me Your Mind – Part 2
In Part 1 I described this koan as asking us why Huike was enlightened by Bodhidharma’s comment, “There, I have pacified it for you”. I said this koan arouses negative feelings in us because those same words do not have any life-changing effect on us. I framed the koan in this way because I thought it was helpful to spell out how we find the motivation to struggle with this (or with any other) koan.
Now, however, I need to make clear that the question of motivation is secondary to the student’s primary task, which is to find a way of demonstrating to the teacher that they understand the deep meaning of the exchange between Bodhidharma and Huike. Again, such a demonstration must take the form of showing rather than saying what was understood by Huike.
In Part 1, I added that I would explain how showing rather than saying applied to this koan, despite the fact that Huike was awakened by something Bodhidharma said, not something he did.
I said there that sometimes the words Masters employ are called “turning words”. These are words that are more like an action than a transfer of information. They are like a rough shaking to awaken someone from deep sleep. The mark of a great Master is the ability to see when a student only needs a little bonk on the head to awaken. In Huike’s case, the bonk came when Bodhidharma affirmed that Huike would never find his mind, and so there was nothing to pacify, and all such efforts were a waste of energy. With that sudden understanding, Huike set down his heavy mental baggage, removing the burden he had carried for so long.
In Part 1, I also said I would provide some suggestions to help you find an acceptable response. One such clue comes from a scroll discovered at the start of the twentieth century in the Dunhuang caves on the Silk Road that carried trade from China to the West. These caves housed a complex of Buddhist temples from the fourth through the fourteenth centuries. These were a repository for Buddhist scrolls and art, some of which survived untouched in walled-off niches.
One of the texts recovered from the caves is called ATreatise on the Ceasing of Notions. It is made up of conversations between a Chan Master and a disciple. One of their exchanges was probably meant to help the student understand our present koan:
[The student] suddenly rose and asked, “What is called the heart? And how is the heart pacified?
The Master answered, “You should not assume a heart, then there is no need to pacify it. That is called pacifying the heart.”
If you truly understand this Master’s answer, you will see why Huike was liberated. If not, let me expand a little on that answer. First of all, the heart referred to here is the heart-mind represented by a single character as discussed in Part 1. By saying, “You should not assume a heart-mind”, the Master is saying that though we usually assume that the heart or mind is a “thing”, it is not. A “thing” is an object, something that people can “oversee”, “handle”, or manipulate. The heart-mind is not something that can be overseen and handled because it is unlimited. For instance, we cannot exhaustively list all of its elements.
This view of the heart-mind is supported by a story with which most experienced Zen students are familiar. It is the story of the first meeting between Hui Neng and Nanyue, a student who traveled a long way to study under him. Hui Neng is credited with completing the establishment of Zen in China five generations after Bodhidharma.
As the story goes, Hui Neng saw Nanyue coming up the mountain to his temple. When the latter got close enough, Hui Neng called out to him, “What is it that comes thus?!” Without hesitating, Nanyue called back, “To call it 'a thing' is to miss the point!” Hui Neng immediately saw his promise and took him in.
Now, among other things, Nanyue was saying that a person is not a thing. If so, then what is a person? We conventionally identify a person as an individual heart-mind in a particular body. But what is a heart-mind? Can we truly say it is limited to a body separate from everything else, or might that one body extend to encompass the universe in every direction as Dogen Zenji proposed?
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 through vipassana meditation reveals it to be a relentless roving of attention. The nature of the heart-mind is endless searching for something, ranging over everything helpful or harmful in the world. It will never stop, and when you realize it will never stop and that this is just the way we are, you realize that there is nothing for you to do but watch its acrobatics with a certain distance and, yes, amusement. At that point you realize that your restless heart-mind is not a threat to you. That is, it is not a threat to you if you are content to let it be, and as long as you don’t believe in it’s rambling, contradictory, commentary. As the Master in the Dunhuang text said, at that point there is no need to pacify it, and that state is called pacifying the heart.
So how should you demonstrate your understanding to the teacher? You must directly “point out” your heart-mind by showing this relentless searching, as if hoping to find something you believe you have lost. Have fun coming up with your own way of directly presenting this absurd heart-mind that causes us so much trouble.
“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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