I gave this talk during our Full Moon Zen sit on September 23, 2021.
These are the first four lines from Hsüeh-tou’s verse for Case 2 of the Blue Cliff Record:
The supreme way is not difficult:
The speech is to the point, the words are to the point.
In one there are many kinds;
In two there’s no duality.
If Catholics can’t sing, as they say, then Zen types can’t count.
You’ve heard the phrase “not one, not two” in Zen circles. This seemingly paradoxical notion also is expressed in the last couple of lines of the verse I just read:
“In one there are many kinds; in two there’s no duality.”
Not one, not two.
Look around. The world consists of 10,000 things. Countless things.
This realm of 10,000 things is where we tend to live and know ourselves—physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually.
There is me and there is you. My left hand and right hand; your left and right hands. There is day and there is night. Thursday and Friday. This year and next. Up and down. And so on.
It’s a dazzling realm, this land of 10,000 things, and yet one in which, paradoxically, we can find ourselves feeling alone amidst so much company. It’s a house divided, so to speak, and our hearts tend to feel divided if this is the only way we see and know and experience it.
But let’s borrow a little thought exercise from both Indian and Western philosophy and examine one of the 10,000 things closely. I can’t remember what object my intro to philosophy professor used; that was so long ago. I think it was a chair or a ship.
Let’s keep it simple and dismantle a chair. Break it apart into four legs, a seat, and a back. Not only do we now have 10,006 things; it gets harder to call those six pieces lying on the floor a chair. It turns out a “chair” is a contingent, transitory thing.
Zoom in on one of those four legs. We could break it up lengthwise with an axe. What is it now? Kindling, I suppose.
Start a fire with those bits of wood, and we have warmth for a while, then ashes. The ashes feed the soil from which flowers emerge.
And so on.
And it’s not just chairs. Everything is like this, including you and me.
Chairs are real, of course. Just pull up one and sit in it. But we tend to walk through the world projecting more solidity and permanence onto everything than we should.
We don’t need a hatchet to expose this reality, as anyone who also has taken a physic course knows. When we look closely enough at anything, it disappears. Everything is contingent; everything is decaying and morphing all the time. That decay is life.
I recently listened to a podcast in which a Harvard Medical School professor I know, Vamsi Mootha, was interviewed. He studies mitochondria: little organelle that inhabit our cells and those of almost all other life forms. They’re invaders into our animal kingdom; they’re not animal in origin.
Anyway, the host of this podcast asked Vamsi a seemingly simple question: How many mitochondria are there in each human cell? “They’re hard to count,” Vamsi said. “The number is changing all the time, and sometimes they’re in a state that’s not really one, and not really two.”
If the 10,000 things are in a constant state of flux, what are we left with?
One then? Show me this one.
The one exists as the 10,000 things.
Our practice, everything we do—sitting, chanting, bowing, and so on—is an expression of the one in the many; the many as one.
Not one, not two. Fathomless, and as straightforward as our hands in gassho.