The Great Way Is Not Difficult, Part 2
In Part 1, I said that our koan, The Great Way Is Not Difficult, “provides a revealing emotional context” for the preceding koan, Ordinary Mind Is The Way. It also provides further insight into our earlier koan, Not Knowing Is Most Intimate.
To reveal the relation between our present koan and those earlier koans, we must ask how the former deepens our appreciation of the latter. To put that question in terms that we have discussed previously, we can ask, “When Zhaozhou tells his assembled students, ‘Your old teacher does not remain in clarity’”, was this “not remaining in clarity” the “blankness” of Ordinary Mind Is The Way, or the “intimacy” of Not Knowing Is Most Intimate?
To answer that question, we must examine the role of emotions in all three koans. Among other things, this examination will help us see that Western philosophy of mind must be reset from an enterprise preoccupied with “rationality” and “objectivity”, to one that synthesizes the “rational” and the “irrational”. “Irrational” is the classification given by Western Enlightenment philosophers to the emotions they called “passions”, and “sentiments”.
The drive to unmoor philosophy of mind from its obsession with “pure reason” in its various versions is well underway due to the perturbing influence of neuroscience. The work of Joseph Ledoux and Michael Gazzaniga in the 1970’s initiated the growing popular, quasi-scientific belief that all of our higher cognitive functions are mediated by the amygdala, popularly dubbed “our fear center”.
This “fear center” is part of the limbic system (popularly dubbed our “reptilian brain”) that underlies our later-evolving neocortex . Our currently popular notion of the amygdala regards it as a repository of past experiences that evoked great fear or trauma, creating more deeply inscribed neuronal circuits that take precedence in both speed and influence over our slower-moving functions of abstract reasoning.
Note that this emerging popular notion of fear is in potential conflict with certain philosophical notions about fear. For instance, we call fears “rational” when they arise in situations where we believe fear is “warranted”. On the other hand, fears that are “excessive” or “unwarranted” are called “irrational”.
From a Zen point of view, separating “rational” fears from “irrational” fears only obscures our true nature. That separation creates a polarity of opposites that seems substantial but is not. Both kinds of fear exercise their power through a synthesis of emotion and reason.
I can’t resist observing here that the Yogacarin model of a “Storehouse Consciousness” that mediates all our actions, whether good or bad, rational or irrational, seems on its face to provide exactly the synthesis of the rational and irrational that we are looking for.
Returning to our question about the nature of Zhaozhou’s not remaining in clarity, our past discussions should have indicated that Zhaozhou’s statement reveals his “intimacy”, rather than his “blankness”.
As we saw, these two terms have markedly different emotional content. With “blankness”, there is a paralyzing confusion (e.g.“drawing a blank”) when suddenly confronted with an event or query that demands a response there and then. Anyone who has “choked” in such a situation knows that is both painful and embarrassing. The accompanying sense of impotence makes one feel like a failure, especially when that "failure of the will" is witnessed by others.
Koan students certainly feel this kind of shame when they cannot answer the teacher’s questions about a koan, even though they realize that no one can expect to “triumph” in every such encounter. Their embarrassment is keen because they believe that Zen practice should have made them unflappable in meeting challenges. They should realize that the challenge in the interview room is merely a ritual challenge (albeit potentially transformative) meant to build their capacity to meet more substantial challenges in real life. Yet their momentary failure still stings.
It may sound flippant, but I can assure you that their embarrassment is due to the fact that they still believe in their own egos. Long-term meditation and koan practice erodes this belief. Once a certain threshold is crossed – either suddenly or gradually  – they will realize that even feeling embarrassed is just a mark of being human; it is just the Great Dao at work, and no real “failure” at all.
As Dogen kindly reminds us, all of us are overwhelmed at times, and that this is what allows us to see our true nature: “Mind overwhelms mind, words overwhelm words. Overwhelming overwhelms overwhelming and sees overwhelming. Overwhelming is nothing but overwhelming”. In other words, being overwhelmed is just part of the human condition that helps us to see (realize and come to terms with) our true nature.
Even accepting that being overwhelmed is part of the human condition will not automatically eliminate the pain of feeling overwhelmed. However, to the extent that meditation and koan training allow us to see that the ego is an illusion, we will begin to empty the ego of its sting and this source of mental suffering will diminish. 
To those who find it hard to accept that the ego is an illusion, I offer the following metaphor. The ego – that persuasive sense of a personal self, separate from every other “thing” in the universe – is simply an illusion very much like the phantom limb phenomenon in amputees.
That an amputee feels pain is not an illusion; the pain is real. But fear that the missing limb is experiencing harm is an illusion. There is no limb so there is no real cause for alarm.
Because the specific neural causes of phantom limb pain are various, so are the modalities for treating them. Interestingly, in some cases, cognitive therapy and meditation help to reduce the condition .
Likewise, there is only an imagined ego and thus there is no real harm to our true nature. The causes of “ego pain” are likewise various, including the death of a loved one, a job loss, a divorce, or the failure of an important relationship through a sense of betrayal or abandonment. Yet in most cases we are beginning to recover a year or so after the trauma even without therapy or meditation.
Indeed, I attribute this natural healing process to our subconscious awareness that we are more than than the isolated ego we think we are. For that reason, I have no doubt that meditation and therapy can accelerate this spontaneous healing process.
Now, what has all this to do with Zhaozhou declaring that he does not remain in clarity? The answer in a word is, “everything”. His declaration is not that of someone who is admitting the sense of capitulation and defeat that we have classified as “blankness”. Instead, it is the declaration of an enlightened person who remains resolute, even when events overwhelm him. The enlightened person is also perfectly comfortable with experiences of yielding to the delusions of a normal human being (i.e. attachment and aversion). When their “mastery” of the Great Dao seems to fail them, they remain at ease because they can honestly say, as other Masters have said before and since, “I am perfectly intimate with this” (i.e. “I am perfectly all right with the way that I am right now”).
Hopefully, you will take encouragement from learning that Zen Masters do not always remain in a state of perfection. Rather, Zen "mastery" consists in rapidly recovering from the experience of failure or defeat. Again, my favorite quote regarding this particular fruit of our practice is that of the anonymous twentieth-century Japanese Master who, when asked to describe his attitude in hard times, answered, “Things are difficult right now, but I am doing pretty well!” That, in one sentence, is the attitude of an enlightened person facing difficulty.
On a deeper level, however, the notion of “recovery” from failure is itself a delusion, because the notion of personal "failure" is likewise a delusion of the ego. Zen Masters of every era know that the enlightened mind is a wide open bridge over which horses and donkeys (“the more desirable” and “the less desirable”) pass freely all day long. 
In Part 3, we will turn our attention to what we can learn from the exchange between Zhaozhou and his outspoken student.
 Joseph Ledoux has publicly apologized for inadvertently contributing to the popular view that all our emotions reside in our limbic system. See, for instance, his book, Anxious, or his podcast discussion at:
Ledoux believes that our neocortex participates with our limbic system in creating what he interestingly calls, "the experience of fear". This suggests to me that fear is a a hybrid product of our minds that Zen would regard as an ego-based "illusion". LeDoux also carefully distinguishes fear from anxiety, regarding the latter as a generalized reaction to deep-seated pessimism about the future, whereas fear is an alert to a present danger triggered by a specific object or event. (Pace LeDoux, from my own experience representing veterans with PTSD, I continue to believe that some traumas are encoded solely in limbic system, making them extremely difficult to reach through cognitive therapy.)
 Benjamin Libet, a university physiology professor, set off a firestorm in philosophy when he highlighted research implying that unconscious neuronal processes ready us to act before we have made any conscious decision to act. This could mean that our notions of free will are mistaken, or in need of serious retooling. Faced with anxious queries from philosophers, Libet pointed out that reason can override our unconscious (emotional?) predilections if we pause long enough to review and ratify our wishes with our slower neocortical circuitry. Along similar lines, see also Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow.
 And because the Yogacarin model rejects the concept of a personal self, it has the added virtue of providing something like Jung’s “collective consciousness of mankind”. We would likely entertain Jung’s hypothesis of archetypes more favorably if we put it in popular-scientific terms by pointing out that much of our behavior is, after all, genetically and epigenetically “hardwired” in our brains in a way that connects us to everyone equipped with the standard mental functionality of Homo Sapiens, past, present, or future.
 For those who know their Zen history, I am not referring here to the controversies regarding sudden vs. gradual enlightenment, the early Southern vs. Northern Schools of Chan, koan zen vs. "silent illumination", or Rinzai vs. Soto. As a practitioner belonging to a Soto reform lineage that stresses the importance of koan training, I long ago decided that enlightenment can come suddenly or gradually, since I have met people who were clearly enlightened, whether or not they ever had a sudden, "cosmic wow" experience. I of course also agree with the many Rinzai teachers who insist that insights that come suddenly must be followed by years of practice in which we gradually bring our behavior in line with those sudden insights. In my own experience, this process has been a real but grudgingly gradual one.
 The quoted language comes from Uji or The Time Being, in Section 17 of Tanahashi, Moon in a Dewdrop. Here, Dogen is saying that when the complexity and ambiguity of sense data overwhelm all our defenses based on concepts and words, we must cast away those concepts and words and simply see the true nature of things directly. We can see directly precisely because all our preconceptions have been swept away, leaving us clear-eyed to see who we really are.
 This statement about diminished "sting" is based on my own experience. The idea that failure allows us to see our true nature was beautifully expressed by my fellow koan practitioner, the late Leonard Cohen, in the last lines of his song "Anthem":
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
That's how the light gets in.
 For an overview of the phantom limb phenomenon (PLP), see:
 This reference to horses and donkeys comes from the koan, "What Is The Bridge of Zhaozhou", that I will discuss in a future post.
“A Course on Koans” is the delusion-riddled work of Chris Kufu (“Wind in the Void”) Wilson, who began practicing Zen in 1967. He regards Taizan Maezumi, Robert Aitken, and David Weinstein as his root teachers. Each of them pecked at his shell until he “completed” the never-ending koan curriculum of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
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