The Great Way Is Not Difficult Part 3
This post is devoted to the exchange Zhaozhou had with a spirited member of his assembly. Here, I will use an expanded version of the dialogue based on elements from other translations of this koan (i.e. this version simply removes the square brackets I inserted in Part 1).
Part of that expanded version includes two intriguing sentences that precede the exchange itself: “As soon as words are present there is choosing – there is understanding. This understanding can take the delusive form of attraction and aversion, or can manifest in one’s clarity about our true nature.”
We have discussed the point of the first sentence many times before. For Zen, words can never completely express the complexity of something we experience. Nor can it say anything about the bare “presence” or “being” of a thing, event, or thought, other than to say that “it is”. The word “is”, in my view, is what philosophers call “a primitive”; it cannot be unpacked further except perhaps by adding, “it exists”, or “it is here and now”. These attempted expansions only compound the inscrutability of “is”, by adding the additional primitives “exists”, and “being here and “now”. From a Zen point of view, we could say that the meanings of “is”, “exists”, “here”, and “now” are cached in our bodies .
Next, let’s parse the second sentence. It says that understanding can either result in attraction or aversion – a superficial, delusive understanding, or in clarity about our true nature – a deeper, direct seeing into human nature.
The latter kind of understanding (“clarity”), seems at odds with the sentence that follows: “The Way is not to be found in understanding”.
The second sentence is also at variance with the equivalence implied in the preceding sentence: “As soon as words are present there is choosing – there is understanding”.
Taken together, these two surrounding statements seem to say that “understanding” is not to be trusted because it is equivalent to the prohibited “choosing”. So, how can understanding sometimes lead to “clarity” which I interpret as the clarity produced by the sudden insight that Zen calls kensho?
A quick answer is that anything can trigger kensho if the conditions are right. It can happen on suddenly seeing a scarlet blossom, and it can happen on suddenly seeing a deeper meaning in someone else’s words. The latter is what we have previously called “turning words”.
Whether it is a blossom or words, however, experiencing clarity is a rare occurrence relative to our everyday words and thoughts. The latter normally express explicit or implicit value judgments of the “things” we encounter. As such, they pre-consciously limit our thinking to a particular human use or purpose of the thing in question .
Thus, in encountering the things of this world, we can either see one or more human use-values, or we can see in them a revelation of the fundamental nature of all things, including ourselves.
We are now in position to discuss the exchange between Zhaozhou and his outspoken student. It begins with Zhaozhou saying, “This old monk does not remain in a state of clarity”. Is understanding the thing you uphold and sustain?”  A monk in the assembly then stepped forward and asked, “If you do not remain in clarity, what is it that you sustain and uphold?” Zhaozhou replied, “I don’t know that, either!’ The monk said, ‘If you don’t know that, how can you be sure you don’t remain in clarity?’ Zhaozhou said, ‘It’s fine to inquire into this matter, but now you should return to your seat’.
Zhaozhou’s final statement was that the student’s questioning was fine, but that it was time for him to sit down. Given that others may have perceived their fellow student as disrespectful, Zhaozhou’s rebuff seems mild, even sympathetic .
Be that as it may, let’s examine Zhaozhou’s question to his assembly, “Is understanding the thing you uphold and sustain?” I suggest that we read this as, “Are you attached to understanding things? Here, “understanding” refers to something that becomes a permanent part of our “knowledge” in the form of “facts”. In other words, Zhaozhou’s implication is, “if you believe you can reach a final understanding of things, you are mistaken".
Just before putting his question, Zhaozhou admitted that he himself did not remain in clarity. This was not an admission of personal failure. He was not confessing that he was not enlightened. Rather, given his recognized status as an enlightened teacher, he was saying that no enlightened person enjoys permanent clarity in daily life. Enlightened people are not faultless; they make mistakes.
Zhaozhou’s admission was meant to fundamentally shift his followers’ conceptions of enlightenment so as to free them from illusions of perfectibility. He is telling us that enlightenment does not guarantee the purity of our actions, and that attachment and aversion remain part of the terrain that an enlightened practitioner must navigate daily. This is our practice.
There is another important lesson here about not remaining in clarity. What we should take away from his “admission” is not simply that we often fall short of our ideals. Rather, he is saying we should not remain in clarity. This is because efforts to remain in permanent clarity miss the point of our practice entirely .
Let me explain. The part of Zhaozhou’s talk that disparages striving for understanding in the form of fixed “knowledge” was meant to address the most common form of delusion among Zen students. That delusion is the belief that enlightenment will bring absolute perfection of our behavior at all times. As we have seen, that is a trap for the unwary, who can end up convinced by their subsequent mistakes that they are somehow “not worthy” of enlightenment.
But there is a second, even more insidious kind of delusion that sometimes afflicts Zen students. It is what Zen Masters call the “Zen sickness” of students who have had a glimpse of their true nature and believe they are now fully enlightened and therefore incapable of making mistakes.
Such delusions of grandeur are common in the wake of a kensho experience. Fortunately, in less than a month the tribulations of life teach most students that they still have a long way to go in aligning their behavior with whatever wisdom they gained from their insight.
Unfortunately, some such students become hoarders of their kensho experience. In order to protect their treasured memory, they end up “hiding on their cushions” in a quietism that disappears as soon as they rise from their cushions to resume daily life. This part-time quietism is meant to shut out all the doubts that would naturally occur to any practitioner who lives a normal life. This is called being “trapped in the Cave of Mara” , and reminds me of Tolkien’s Gollum, who hides in sunless caves in order to protect his “precious” ring of power.
In saying that he does not remain in clarity, Zhaozhou is warning his students that they should not take permanent clarity as their goal, any more than they should make a goal of reaching some form of fixed “understanding”.
In Zen terms, a fixed understanding is a rigid attachment to the forms (ideas or concepts) generated by the mind, while permanent clarity is a mistaken attachment to the emptiness (i.e. the utter openness) that allows the mind to generate those forms as human needs require.
What Zhaozhou is saying, then, is that his students should somehow go beyond understanding and clarity. How does one do this? It is by not worrying about using either perspective to get a job done, as long as one remains fully aware that neither perspective represents the whole picture .
The gateless gate between the two perspectives is the realm of true freedom, according to Zen. Anxiety is fatally undermined when one has avoided picking and choosing by following one’s intuitions as we have described previously. This carefree passage back and forth between the two perspectives is the means by which Zen transcends (goes beyond) dualism.
We are now in a position to address two remaining questions. The first is to ask why Zhaozhou responds to the student’s first question by saying “I don’t know that either!” That first question was how Zhaozhou can “uphold and sustain” anything if he goes in and out of clarity.
What is the significance of the word “either” here? This “either” refers to the student himself and in effect says, “I, a Zen Master, am as much in the dark about how it works as you are!”
The point is that Zhaozhou doesn’t trouble himself about how this wisdom of not knowing works; it is enough to have learned through experience that it does. He does not know the precise source of this freedom – he just knows freedom is the fruit of practicing The Way. This wisdom is the only difference between him and the student . With this answer, his teaching is complete. There is nothing to be added. Attentive readers of this blog should recognize that with this comment, Zhaozhou has given us a perfect demonstration of the intimacy of not knowing .
And so, when the student asks his second question (about why Zhaozhou refuses to describe what he upholds and sustains as “understanding”), Zhaozhou terminates the exchange by saying that the first question was a natural one, given the student’s limited awareness, but that he has already been given the only answer he will ever find on his own. Sending him back to his seat at that point is saying, “Just ponder my first answer to confirm its truth for yourself”.
The remaining unaddressed question is how a koan student should present their understanding of this koan. Here, as elsewhere, I will only suggest a way to approach this question.
Imagine that it is time to order dessert in a restaurant. You ask what flavors of ice cream they have and the waiter says they only offer chocolate and vanilla. Given that choice, I would order chocolate without hesitation. Why? I don’t know, it is just that I “like” chocolate. Is there any picking and choosing involved? No, because I don’t need to “understand” why I like chocolate, I just do.
Now, what will you order?
 The expression “cached in the body” is my way of describing the sources of linguistic “meaning”. The philosopher Wittgenstein roused the philosophy of language from its slumbers by holding that words do not name “things” but refer to human “uses” that he called “forms of life”. These “forms” are whole networks of meaning that extend into the physical movements necessary to achieve the human purpose being addressed by a particular act of will. As such, we can say these meanings are “hidden” in the body to the extent they involve “muscle memory” at a pre-conscious level. In this sense, all meanings ultimately “disappear into the body”, i.e. become lost in the complexity of our nervous system. We can’t further specify any particular meaning because at that point we “lose its tracks”.
 All of our ideas and meanings of “things” are based on the use-values or purposes of those things for a particular person or group at a particular time. For example, landowners might see the trees on their property in terms of their commercial value for lumber. Other owners might see the value of their trees in the beauty they lend to their estates. Even when they cursorily happen to notice their trees, they pre-consciously activate a network of alternative (i.e. conflicting) values. Though philosophers starting with Hume tried to distinguish between facts and values, Many philosophers of science today argue that all “facts” are pre-consciously “value-laden” because they are derived from an individual or group perspective regarding human needs. Such facts are “empty” in Zen terms because they are relative only (i.e. they are not “total” or all-encompassing). As such, any decision about what to do with particular things is “self-ish”, and though necessary to carry on with our communal lives, effectively restricts our ability to see that thing in its totality (i.e. as representing the universe in all its relations). That latter ability, from the Zen perspective, is what we must experience at least once in order to ever truly understand who we are.
 I believe “uphold and sustain” was Andy Ferguson’s best effort to translate a polysemous pair of Chinese characters. Thomas Cleary translates Zhaozhou’s question as, “do you still preserve anything or not” [from what I said about not remaining in clarity]. Katsuki Sekida, to whom I generally defer, translates the question as, “Do you appreciate the meaning of this or not”, where this again refers to the preceding statement about clarity. Sekida then (correctly, in my opinion), adds by way of clarification: “Do you value the attitude of mind that does not stick to anything”. Ferguson’s translation may have been an attempt to get close to the literal meanings of the characters, which are [Do you] protect/defend | a favorite side [on this issue?]
 I have called the student “spirited” and “outspoken”. As a teacher, Zhaozhou was treated with customary reverence by his disciples. The way this monk stepped forward to cross-examine Zhaozhou may have struck the other students as disrespectful. Still, this bold student is asking Zhaozhou a question that most students would like to ask their teacher but for lack of courage: “What is it that you understand about The Way that I do not yet understand?” His questioning is therefore both brave and compassionate. It is compassionate because he risks being rebuked for impertinence in order that they all might learn more through his effort.
 The point of our practice is illuminated by Dogen Zenji in Actualizing the Fundamental Point (Genjo Koan): “Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are [ordinary] sentient beings.” Buddhas greatly realize delusion when they stop trying escape it.
 Mara, whose name means “death” or “murder” is the Buddhist Satan who tried unsuccessfully to thwart Buddha’s enlightenment, and continues to tempt Buddhists to abandon their vows.
 This is why Zen should be considered a variety of pragmatism.
 Those with a background in philosophy will see this that this Zen view of wisdom coincides perfectly with that of Socrates.
 See the earlier posts: “Not Knowing Is Most Intimate” Parts 1-3.
“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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