I gave this talk during our Full Moon Zen sit on April 22, 2021.
This is Case 21 in The Gateless Barrier:
A monk asked Yün-men, “What is Buddha?”
Yün-men said, “Dried shitstick.”
I’ve been talking a lot about impermanence lately, and I’m going to do that again tonight—this time with advance assurances that I’ll change topics soon. Nothing is permanent, after all.
This koan about a dried shitstick might seem like a strange re-entry point into our topic.
The monk in this koan comes to Yün-men with an earnest, searching question. All spiritual seeking—indeed, much seeking we regard as secular, including some scientific quests—is animated by some variant of this monk’s question.
Who am I?
What is it all about?
What is the meaning of life?
What will happen when I die?
What is Ultimate Truth?
What is Buddha?
Needless to say, they weren’t using toilet paper in Yün-men’s day and age; not at his monastery, at least. This is still true throughout much of the world today, as we know. People clean themselves with one hand and eat with the other. Use a leaf or a stick.
Why does Yün-men respond with crude bathroom talk to this earnest seeker’s earnest question?
It’s because Yün-men knows something else is animating the question that is animating the monk’s quest: It’s a feeling of being unmoored and adrift; a belief that he lacks something solid to hold onto or stand on; and a yearning for that something solid.
The assumption underlying the monk’s question—What is Buddha?—is that there’s an esoteric answer, which, once revealed to him, will end his search and put his heart at rest once and for all.
Yün-men’s response demolishes this assumption in two ways.
First, he just brushes the monk’s deep question aside. Dismisses it. “You can put that question up your you-know-what, just as you do twice a day with a shitstick.” In other words, “You’re barking up the wrong tree with questions like that.”
Second, Yün-men is telling the monk that the answer to his question actually is right here. It’s in your hand as you wipe your you-know-what.
Zen lore is full of these stories about teachers deflecting philosophical questions emanating from a sense of lack. Time and again, the teachers in these stories direct the student back to the immanent; the mundane.
Among the responses we hear to similar questions in other koans are, “Three pounds of flax,” “The oak tree in the yard,” and “A pail of water.”
Some teachers say nothing, and instead just hold up one finger or swipe the student on the side of the head with a straw whisk used to swat away flies.
It’s not that there’s something wrong with these questions, or with the monk’s feeling of being unmoored and adrift. In fact, at some point in our journey our certainties must become unsettled. We must feel uneasy; feel some dis-ease. Many people are too comfortably certain, whatever their perspective—whether theist, atheist, or agnostic.
Yün-men is nudging this monk to let go of his search for a concept in which he can be certain; nudging him to notice, and fully embrace, the fact that he is adrift in and as the vast ocean of existence—with absolutely no risk of capsizing. There’s no place to drop anchor; so there’s no need for one.
The only thing stopping the monk from hoisting his sail, and taking off with the northwind, is his own present orientation, from which he constructs and poses the question, “What is Buddha?”—believing this question requires an answer other than his own experience.
Yün-men knows the monk is still dividing the universe into alive and dead. Tree, living; stick that has been separated from tree, dead. My body, alive; excrement, dead.
Everything is always, already alive and awake. To be awakened ourselves is simply to wake up to being awake, and to the awakened state of all being.
To say the same thing differently, we must awaken to our impermanence and the impermanence of everything and everyone else.
The monk’s question is like a hammer he is using to try to pin jello to a wall. Yün-men is trying to help him discover that the hammer, the nail, the wall, and he himself are jello, too.
And yet there’s nothing more solid, sturdy, trustable, and grounding than this awareness and embrace of our jello-ness; our impermanence.
The fixed, permanent, eternal place the monk’s question assumes to exist—that all seekers’ questions assume to exist—does not, in fact, exist. At least not in the way we expect.
Or, to put it differently, it’s here, now. In your hand as you do your business. In your very bowels.
At some point, these questions that drive our quests become dead weight. Yün-men thinks this monk is ready to drop his dead weight question, just like he’s been dropping that shitstick twice a day for his entire life.
Yün-men knows that, if and as he does, the world will come alive for him, from the depths of the latrine to the stars in the high heavens.
As Oscar Wilde said, “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Yün-men does Oscar Wilde one better. Yün-men is prodding the monk to see that he already is holding the stars in his hand. Indeed, that he, the dried shitstick, and everything, everywhere, are made of stardust.