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.
Bring Me Your Mind
This week’s koan involves Bodhidharma, the legendary Buddhist sage who came to China from South Asia and is credited with establishing the Zen school there around the year 500.
Bodhidharma criticized early Chinese Buddhist sects for writing commentaries on sutras rather than devoting themselves to meditation. For that reason, the older Chinese sects called the new school “the meditation sect”, since Chan (ch.) and Zen (jap.) mean “meditation”.
Here is a simplified form of our koan: Huike (pron. "Hway-Kuh), a promising Chinese disciple, begged Bodhidharma to help him find peace of mind. The Master replied, “Bring me your mind and I will put it to rest”. Huike said, “I have searched and searched for my mind and cannot find it”. The Master replied, “There, I have pacified it for you!” On hearing these words, Huike suddenly had an insight that liberated him from his mental suffering.
On hearing this story for the first time, Zen students have no idea why Bodhidharma’s concluding words had such a powerful impact on Huike. They cannot fail to notice that hearing those same words has no such liberating effect for them. Negative emotions arise, including feelings of inferiority (“I am not smart enough”), envy of other students who “get” this koan, and frustration (“Damn it, why don’t I get it?!”)
Such frustration is a blessing in disguise; it means that the koan has its hooks in you. As Mumon says about another koan, “A hook is lowered into the water – the greedy will be caught!” The greed here is a delusional craving to “win the contest” they believe the koan poses. Eventually, students who are honest with themselves will realize that the koan has become “existential” for them and that they must persevere until they resolve the distress caused by the koan. This distress is unpleasant, but like labor before childbirth, is necessary for the birth of awakening.
During interviews about pacifying the mind, teachers will ask the student to express the point of this koan. As I cannot say often enough, teachers will manage to make clear that they want you to express this point by showing it rather than explaining it.
Why do teachers insist on this? According to tradition, this guidance comes directly from Bodhidharma himself, in the form of a fourfold definition of Zen:
A special mind-to-mind transmission of enlightenment
Without dependence on the written word,
Directly pointing to the heart-mind,
Realizing one’s own nature and Buddhahood.
Modern scholars believe this terse summary comes from a later Chinese Master, not Bodhidharma. No matter, since this succinct definition of our practice has been cited by teachers ever since. Let’s parse this definition to see where the insistence on showing rather than telling comes from.
The first line refers to a “special mind-to-mind transmission”. This is not some spooky “paranormal” process; it simply means that awakening is an intuitive understanding between Master and disciple. This is an understanding in which both see the truth about our nature.
Despite all their efforts to define “truth” in words or symbolic logic, Western philosophers have failed to capture the "self-evident" nature of truth in which a person surveys a scene and directly sees what is. This instantaneous, wordless process can rightly be called “intuition”.
The second line says this wordless process is not only valid, it is only way to reach enlightenment. Awakening does not come from reading sutras and deducing a truth dependent on those words alone, but by seeing something directly without the mediation of words.
This second line is not to be underestimated; it is the pivot upon which the whole verse depends. (In Part 2, I will explain why – sometimes – words, including Bodhidharma’s final statement here, can trigger enlightenment. Such words are called “turning words” and I hope to clarify how such words operate in an entirely different way from our ordinary use of language, a way that accords with the admonition of the second line.)
But what do I mean by, “seeing something directly”? The third and fourth lines tell us exactly what we must do to directly (i.e. wordlessly) discover our true nature. The third line says we do this by “directly pointing to the heart-mind”.
“Pointing” is the crucial word here. Western philosophy recognizes a class of words called “indexicals”. The terms I, you, here, there, now, then, this, and that, are indexicals. That means that what they refer to is completely dependent on the context or situation – i.e. on the objects or people that are present there and then. The word “index” comes from the Latin verb “to indicate”. “Indicating” is defined as “pointing” or “pointing out”, and is why we call our first finger the index finger.
And what is it that we are to “point out”? It is our heart-mind. I hyphenate this word because Chinese and Japanese use the same character for both “heart” and “mind”. This is supported by the ancient Western use of “heart” to represent the mind as the “seat of judgment”. It is also in keeping with current neuroscience, which is showing that the supposedly “rational” mind is inextricably bound to the irrational emotions that we attribute to the heart.
And how are we to point out this heart-mind? It is not with our index finger. Yet in the realm of the heart-mind, we have something that is the full equivalent of an index finger. It is our attention, which ceaselessly points our minds towards this or that “thing”.
Thus, turning our attention to our heart-mind means watching how our minds work. Buddhism calls this mindfulness or vipassana. And what do we see when we watch our minds like a bird watcher?
1) We see that it is impossible to pin our minds down. This is impermanence.
2) We see that every object of our attention comes with an emotional reaction that teeters between pleasant and unpleasant. This is suffering in the Buddhist sense – i.e. even when the reaction is pleasant, that pleasure is impermanent, and we will suffer its loss.
3) We see that our attention ranges over the entire universe, and that everything that we can ever experience is already potentially “inside” our minds. This means that we cannot distinguish between what is “inside” or “outside” our minds. This in turn means that there is no permanent “self” apart from the universe. This is the absence or emptiness of self.
Thus, watching our heart-minds reveals impermanence, suffering, and the emptiness of self. Buddhists call these “The Three Marks of Existence”.
Now, what has all this to do with our koan about pacifying the mind? Well, it has everything to do with understanding why Bodhidharma’s “There, I have pacified it for you” liberated Huike. You must come to see for yourself why this is so. In Part 2, I will offer some suggestions that will hopefully help you in this regard.
In the meantime, I urge you to verify Buddha’s statements about the threefold nature of heart-mind. Please watch your mind at work for the next week to settle whether you can accept them, even provisionally, for now.
The historical Buddha told his listeners that they should reject his assertions if they could not verify them in their own experience. As the first empiricist, the first pragmatist, and the first psychologist, the Buddha rarely gets the credit he deserves for introducing a prototype of the scientific method for the study of mind!
In the Introduction to this series, I said that physical action is integral to Zen koan training. I chose today’s koan because it uniquely illustrates why Zen favors a physical, “embodied” response to koans rather than a response based on words. Here is a compressed version of today’s koan:
A great Chinese Master was asked to nominate an abbot for a new temple then under construction. He arranged a contest between his temple’s head monk and its head cook to see who would get the post. The Master, pointing to the water pitcher by his cushion, challenged them, “Do not call this a water pitcher. What will you call it?” The head monk answered, “It can’t be called a wooden sandal”. In his turn, the head cook walked up and kicked over the pitcher, spilling its contents. The Master laughed and said, “The head monk loses!”
In those days a head monk was often more of an administrator, while the job of head cook was usually entrusted to someone who showed spiritual promise. Why is that? In making decisions, an administrator can easily get lost in worldly concerns about the future of the temple. In contrast, head cooks make quick, intuitive decisions in handling food with their own hands. As discussed previously, cooks are more “intimate” with their own true nature because their mind and bodies are constantly united in the present moment by their actions in the kitchen.
Bearing this in mind, can you see why the head monk’s presentation was lacking? While avoiding the words “water pitcher”, the head monk merely said it was not something else. This may have been a desperate attempt to mimic the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who held that negating a proposition is more truthful than asserting it.
Nagarjuna’s position was that any positive description remains incomplete because it fails to illuminate the nature of the word “is” in the proposition. In the positive proposition, “That is a water pitcher”, we have left out any description of what constitutes its “is-ness”. We cannot describe the immediate presence of something beyond saying “it is” (here and now).
The fact that the water pitcher is impermanent is also left out; a pitcher in shards is no longer a pitcher. Provisionally, we call it a pitcher, but we can’t say of anything that “this is that” forever. If we leave aside any reference to Nagarjuna, the head monk’s answer is even more unconvincing.
Again, the head monk was attempting to say something about water and pitchers (though in a negative form) rather than showing their nature. In contrast, the head monk, without words – and with one poke of his foot – directly presented the nature of human beings, water, and containers. In the case of humans he presented our unconquerable spirit; in the case of water he presented the flowing nature of water; and in the case of containers he showed the limits of containing.
I will repeat here a paragraph from the Introduction to this series: “Think about it: if it is only your conceptual mind that is being expressed (i.e. you are only expressing propositions about life), your whole being (i.e. your truth in the present moment) is not being expressed… In Zen, mind and body are one, and the fundamental point (the true nature of life) cannot be expressed by saying with words, but only by showing the union of body and mind in this moment.”
Embodiment in physical action is Zen’s answer to the notorious “mind-body problem” of Western philosophy. That “problem” is the still unresolved question of whether physical reality and mental reality consist of fundamentally different “substances”. The idea that they are different is called “dualism”, and goes back to at least Plato and Aristotle. Dualism inevitably results in spooky metaphysics, as shown by the supposed “problem” of free will.
Dualism still survives in the currently fashionable philosophical question of “how the brain becomes the mind”. With Zen, the “problem” of dualism simply disappears. When mind and body are united in action, they are one and the question of “different substances” drops away and we are suddenly beyond mind and/or body! The question of substances doesn’t fundamentally arise during action, but only afterward. I personally believe that neuroscience will ultimately lead to a rethinking of mental causation that can include this ancient insight of Zen.
When a student becomes desperate enough to show the action in the koan with their own body, they often do so tentatively because they are afraid of making fools of themselves. This will not do. The teacher will urge the student to continue working with the koan and come back when they are “more intimate” with it. This may simply mean that their presentation was half-hearted when it needed to be whole-hearted.
I once heard a student complain to the teacher that this physical mode of presentation made her feel she was being forced to “fake it”, as in the game of charades. The teacher simply replied with a formula borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous: “Yes! You have to fake it until you make it!” There is something profoundly true about our practice in that statement. In the end, enlightenment comes down to “whole-heartedness”.
So how will you demonstrate your whole-hearted understanding of the water pitcher? Clearly, a philosophical discussion of the kind I have just offered cannot be considered “whole-hearted”, “intimate”, or “alive”! You must find a presentation that is. And don’t worry about appearing foolish – our practice consists of completely realizing human foolishness!
Mu Part 3 – My Struggle With Mu
If you feel you have made no progress with Mu, let me say something about my own long struggle with this gateway koan. I model this extra-long post on the book, The Book of Mu, edited by JamesFord and Melissa Blacker. I highly recommend this collection of commentaries on the koan Mu by Zen teachers both ancient and modern. I particularly recommend the wonderful essay written by Rachel Mansfield-Howlett. There, in very personal terms, she reports on her own experience with Mu and the moment at which she suddenly grasped its truth. It is a unique account of how this koan works its magic on a whole-hearted practitioner.
My own experience was different in important ways. In my case, before ever hearing of Mu, I had what is called a “spontaneous kensho” or sudden awakening to the true nature of life, despite having no teacher and only very limited experience with Zen meditation. As you will see, this proved to be a mixed blessing.
It happened during finals week of my senior year in college. At that time I was facing a decision that made me so anxious that I was incapable of deciding anything. The question was whether I should marry my college sweetheart despite shared awareness of problems in our relationship. This question was plaguing me as I sat in a study hall of our student union trying to write an essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses that was due the next day. Failure to complete that paper would prevent my graduation. My anxiety over whether to marry had prevented me from writing a single word up to that point.
During finals week our student union had a “chill room” where one could take a break from cramming and listen to soothing acoustic guitar music. I entered when a local guitarist was just starting his set by tuning his instrument, fretting to produce the same tone from two neighboring strings.
The third time he plucked two strings (tum-tum), the whole universe suddenly dissolved into the most beautiful light I have ever seen. The radiance was infinite, and I was that light. That is the best I can do to describe it in one sentence. After only seconds, the whole room was restored. The guitarist was already a few bars into his piece.
I walked outside into the crisp night air to consider what had just happened to me. Like many other people who experience a kensho, I was convinced that I had had the most vivid insight into reality that a person can have. It left me more certain about my own true nature than any other experience in my life. Two things were clear to me without reasoning. First, I knew that human joy and suffering would continue forever, and second, that this was as it should be.
Many people regard the first point as simple (if gloomy) common sense. Yet, at that moment, it contained a sense of eternity that brought tears of indistinguishable joy and sorrow to my eyes. Yoked as it was to the second point, I found the combination startling, sublime, and liberating. I knew then that my life had changed and there was no going back. Whatever was to come was fine – I would even say “perfect” in a sense that I had never understood before.
I returned to my desk and wrote my term paper in a blaze of clarity that I knew to be good. We were married in a quick civil ceremony a few days later. Though the marriage ultimately failed with time, we emerged in amicable relations and with a daughter, now grown, who delights us both. We named her Faith.
This may sound like a happy ending, but it was only the beginning of a long and demanding apprenticeship in Zen. Because I had no teacher, I soon transformed my experience into a philosophical view that became a barrier to further development. I thought that I had seen the Alpha and the Omega, just as the person in Plato’s myth of the cave emerges from a dimly-lit cave to see the sun directly and suddenly realizes that this was his true home.
Accordingly, I was convinced that, unless I could somehow get back to my moment of clarity, I was condemned to live in a dimly-lit world. I was so attached to my brief glimpse of emptiness that I failed to remember that the person in the cave finally realizes that he must reenter the cave and live out his days being that light for others. This is exactly what the Buddha understood when he knew he must leave the place of his enlightenment to share his light in Varanasi.
This attachment hobbled me in another way that is critical here. I soon sought out a Japanese Zen Master who listened to my story with a nodding smile. He then insisted that I needed to round out my understanding by working on the koan Mu. He said that I had learned that form is emptiness but not that emptiness is form, a formulation that I had no way of appreciating at the time.
I nodded back in agreement but internally I was incensed. No one could tell me that my realization was incomplete. (Such conceit is well known in Zen.) Koan work struck me as daubing more colors on a painting that is already perfect. I was so attached to my little kensho that I distrusted the whole koan process. I could only practice with Mu mechanically because I was so half-hearted. Sadly, I continued in this way for fifteen years! I spent repeated meditation retreats hoping for another world-swallowing “Cosmic Wow” experience. Though I experienced lesser versions of the original flash, I was not satisfied.
Luckily, repeated meditation retreats also brought repeated episodes of deep samadhi. Slowly, without noting it, I began to realize that my samadhi bore some kinship to my kensho. This became my unspoken (genjo) koan within the koan Mu.
Over those years I received verbal suggestions from teachers who clearly saw that I was handicapped by my fascination with philosophical questions. To help me, they made suggestions in the form of “turning words” – words that are suddenly seen in a different light by a student on the cusp of change. I am grateful for their compassion, which jogged me out of my "dogmatic slumbers" (Kant). If you are “stuck” in Mu as I once was, I will requite my teachers’ grandmotherly kindness by passing on these verbal suggestions to you.
The first came toward the end of a weeklong retreat when I was in such deep samadhi that the teacher’s words in the interview room sounded as if they came from another planet. In that interview he advised me to silently repeat to myself while sitting, “From the top of my head to the soles of my feet, nothing but Mu.”
This plunged me into conflict because it seemed to ask me to completely “internalize” Mu, which I then firmly believed was “also outside” in the world around me. This seeming philosophical quibble suddenly assumed vast personal importance. Samadhi has this effect, causing your subconscious to bring the source of your resistance to the fore. From a Zen point of view, any question that manifests your resistance to awakening is of paramount importance to you.
My mental turmoil with this question was a bit like having swallowed Mumon’s red-hot iron ball and being unable to puke it up. Ultimately, and without any intervening reasoning, I suddenly felt what I’ll describe as a release into certainty. At that moment, I spontaneously said to myself, “There is no inside or outside of Mu – or of me!”
I urge you to study the notion that there is no inside or outside in Zen; it is a notion that will serve you well in further koan work. Still, do not expect such a conceptual proposition to be accepted as an answer to Mu. Again, you must show this “no inside or outside” of Mu, not say it!
The breakthrough came from another set of turning words uttered by my teacher when my mind and body were completely unified in a feeling that there was no barrier between mind and body.
It was time for the afternoon lecture by Maezumi Roshi. It was a sweltering day and Roshi’s voice – always soft-spoken – was almost completely drowned out by the drone of a single electric fan. Nevertheless, I suddenly heard his concluding remarks quite clearly. They were the last four lines of Hakuin’s Song of Zazen:
Truly, is anything missing now?
Nirvana is right here before your eyes
This very place is the Pure Land,
This very body, the Buddha.
I suddenly knew how to demonstrate my understanding with my body. You must wholeheartedly reach this insight for yourself. Never give up. I remember walking to the interview room via stepping-stones set in the lawn outside. I felt like I was stepping from one mountain peak to another. And I was.
The Koan Mu: Part Two
If your meditation on the koan Mu in the past week did not result in any meaningful insight, take heart. Any energy devoted to meditation is not lost. As one of my teachers put it, “Don’t worry, it’s money in the bank!” – i.e. not only is such energy saved; it generates compound interest over time.
In Part One I said that meditation plays an important role in koan work. I must now add that long and deep meditation is absolutely necessary for koan work. People who are not meditators are welcome here, since I believe that the koan literature is one of humanity’s great cultural treasures. The fact remains, however, that without meditation any insight gained remains only hypothetical and can easily be discarded.
For koan work to be transformational, it must result in conviction, not mere opinion. As to what is required for opinion to become conviction, I offer one of the few Buddhist technical terms I have used thus far: samadhi.
Samadhi is sometimes translated as “concentration” or “one-pointedness”, implying a kind of effortful focus on one thing. That meaning is justified by the fact that the meditation needed to reach a state of samadhi typically begins by focusing attention on an image or sound. After a short period, however, an experienced meditator enters into what Westerners might call a “trance”, implying a state similar to that produced by hypnotism or drugs. This connotation wrongly delegitimizes any insights gained from the meditation process.
“Unification” might be a better translation for “samadhi” because in samadhi, the meditator experiences a dropping away of our common-sense dualism of subject and object. It is a state in which the meditator and the object of initial focus merge into a unity that is felt rather then thought. As one of my teachers colorfully put it, “I not only become the tree I am looking at, I can also feel every leaf”.
Of course, such a statement makes no sense in common sense terms. In the common sense view set by our language, “subjects” (i.e. “persons” who have private or ”inner” mental lives) perceive “objects” (i.e. sense “things” separate from or ”outside of” themselves). Because our language separates “you” and “things”, it is impossible to speak of you becoming the thing you are looking at.
Feeling at one with an “external object” is called “mystical” in our normal discourse. For hardheaded “realists”, that term means that such experiences are to be ignored. Still, it is noteworthy that even in our normal discourse “mystical” is also a term for something deeply desirable, as in “the moon was mystical last night”. When hardheaded realists dismiss mystical experiences as distractions they are denying what neuroscience is revealing: that our emotions help constitute our sense of reality. For that reason alone, we should take feelings of unification in samadhi seriously in our accounts of consciousness and “reality”.
Now, samadhi is not yet enlightenment. Rather, it is a necessary precursor to enlightenment. When one experiences samadhi in meditation many, many times over a course of years, one begins to “see” that samadhi is not an unnatural or delusional state of consciousness, but a natural and integral basis of our everyday consciousness.
With luck and the proper training, we then go on to realize that samadhi is the gateless gate between form (conceptual thought) and emptiness (our bare awareness before we categorize and judge “things”). I prefer to call this bare awareness “openness” or “readiness”. Once we realize that samadhi is the fluid connection that turns “empty” openness into the “form” of conceptual thought and language, we have achieved some measure of what Buddhists call “realization”.
The “realization” I refer to is not a philosophical understanding, which is always a rear-view mirror view of reality. Rather, it is the unification of mind and body in the present moment. That present moment cannot be captured in words except as “the remembered present” (e.g. “I am cold” summarizes my experience of the preceding moments). In particular, “being in the present moment” has qualities beyond conceptualization. (If you doubt this, just try to fully capture all the feelings of being you “right now” in words!)
Mumon admonishes us to work on Mu as if “you have swallowed a red-hot iron ball that you can not vomit up”. His admonition convinces many beginners that they will never succeed in koan practice. In fact, however, many beginners are able to “pass Mu” during their first or second long meditation retreat. What is the reason for this seeming contradiction?
At the conclusion of Part One, I said that one’s initial experience of realization can come in varying degrees depending on the amount of effort you put into it. Accordingly, those who “pass Mu” early on often have only a “tip of the tongue taste” of realization. Teachers warn us that we must work for years to enlarge this “pinhole opening” until the old habits responsible for our suffering are brought under reasonable control.
As to working with Mu in the coming week, just ask yourself again, as in the bell koan, “How can l wholeheartedly embody Joshu’s calm but steadfast No?” Having posed this question to yourself, find your answer in samadhi.
“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.
Get posts as they are published:
What We Read