This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on March 6, 2014 at the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, Massachusetts, during the Boundless Way Zen meta-sangha’s three-week Ango retreat. Audio recordings of this talk and others given by BoWZ teachers are posted here.
Emperor Wu of Liang invited Mahasattva Fu to lecture on the Diamond Sutra. On the rostrum, Mhasattva Fu struck the lectern once with his stick and immediately climbed down. The emperor was astounded.
Master Zhi asked, “Your Majesty, do you understand?”
“No, I do not.”
“Mahasattva Fu has finished the lecture.”
(Blue Cliff Record, Case 67)
I began looking for a koan to use as the launchpad for this talk about a week ago.
I poked around the koan territory I’ve been wandering in recently. Not finding much inspiration there, I went back to the earliest koans in the miscellaneous collection and worked my way forward to where I’ve been wandering lately. Still nothing, so I even peeked ahead of the koan I’ll next bring to dokusan.
No single koan lept out during this exercise, declaring, “Pick me.” Hmm.
What did leap out, however, were two themes that seem to me to run through our whole koan curriculum, so I thought I’d make them the subject of my talk tonight. I mainly want to talk about the second of these themes, but I need to touch on the first to set up the second. I’ll come back to Mahasattva Fu’s lecture on the Diamond Sutra when I get there.
The first theme . . .
Surveying the koan curriculum brought home to me more than ever how it — and the Zen project writ large, I suppose — is, in part, about exploring our relationship with real and perceived constraints.
Many of our early koans seem to challenge one’s current perceptions of what’s possible, and so challenge us to take a closer look at what we experience as constraints.
Stop the sound of that distant temple bell.
Count the number of stars in the heavens.
Say something without moving your lips or tongue.
Some koans even use metaphors of physical entrapment.
You are at the bottom of a 200-foot dry well. What do you do?
Many of us, perhaps most of us, come to Zen feeling trapped somehow.
Some part of me cut off from another part of myself.
A mind or spirit trapped in a body.
A solitary being cut off from the world I inhabit.
One being among many inhabiting a realm that can’t be all there is.
Some type of dualism. Some version of heaven and earth, or heaven and hell.
We’re sure there is someplace else we must get, something more to know. There must be a secret passageway to a place beyond, and we sense that Zen might offer us a map to find it and the key to open the door once we get there.
The early part of the koan curriculum seems to meet us where we’re at in this regard, even as it begins to challenge us to see that the “something more” we’re looking for is just this. The “someplace else” we’re seeking is right here, right now.
The heat is turned up progressively, of course, as we’re challenged in increasingly direct ways. Like this zinger (from the Blue Cliff Record), for example:
A monk said to Dasui, “When the thousands of universes are altogether and utterly destroyed in the kalpa fire — I wonder whether this perishes or not.
“This perishes,” said Dasui.
“If so,” persisted the monk, “does it follow the other.”
“It follows the other,” said Dasui.
And so it goes, until we come to the end of the curriculum, where, among other things, we encounter the precepts as koans. Perhaps by then koan practice, and sitting practice, and everyday life practice have helped us let go of some perceived constraints and helped us see constraints we must accept in a new light.
The open secret, of course, is that the freedom we seek is found in the realm of constraints, not someplace else.
There is a “through the looking glass” quality to grasping this open secret, to be sure. As we desperately strain to peer through the glass, what’s on the other side appears faint and blurry. Passing through, I find myself.
Same old me.
Relatively speaking, there seems to be something to get. Absolutely, not so much.
And this brings me to the second theme that seems to run through the koans. . .
Perhaps it’s more of a conceit, or a device, than a theme.
Like the koan I ultimately chose for this talk, the set up for many koans is an exchange between a wise teacher and a seemingly less wise student.
Often there also is a supporting character who is in the know, like Master Zhi in today’s koan. Or Mahakasyapa, the student — and the only person, we’re told — who broke into a smile in the sermon where the Buddha simply twirled a flower.
We might more or less consciously identify with Master Zhi or Mahakasyapa as we pass through one of these koans. We, too, get it.
But I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the seeming stooges. The characters who are portrayed as hapless. The characters who just don’t seem to get it.
Sometimes that student is a prominent person, like Emperor Wu of Liang, who also appears in a handful of other koans. These prominent folk tend to fare especially poorly, at least on first blush.
As I surveyed our koan curriculum looking for inspiration for this talk, I found myself really appreciating these characters, the supposed stooges. Even inspired by them.
Here I was, wandering around, looking for inspiration and insight . . . and I find it in other people wandering around, looking for inspiration and insight.
This is where much of the action is in these koans — much of the insight, the invitation and potential for us — I think.
“Not knowing is most intimate,” we like to say. “Only don’t know.”
But is there still a hint of special knowledge in our not knowing?
As long as we’re identifying mainly with Mahasattva Fu or Master Zhi, perhaps there is.
As long as we think we get something Emperor Wu doesn’t, perhaps there is.
We can settle into our not knowing, and this, importantly, may make us a bit less anxious in our approach to life; perhaps relatively free of certain questions with which Emperor Wu is wrestling. Perhaps we’ve come to feel just a bit more at home with ourselves; a bit more at home in this vast universe.
Mahasattva Fu, Master Zhi and, yes, Emperor Wu — each of them, and all of them together, are presenting themselves with integrity. And each is an aspect of who we ultimately are.
I really appreciate how Emperor Wu, or that seemingly clueless student in so many other koans, helps us see how easy it is slip into a frame of mind in which there’s something more to get, something special, and, by god, perhaps we’ve got it.
That frame of mind from which we may overlook our own haplessness and ignorance, and the opportunities presented by those features of life we experience as constraints, as barriers.
If, on the other hand, you happen to be someone who identifies with poor, picked upon Emperor Wu all too easily — well, good for you.
“Emperor Wu was astounded.” What a wonderful response to this.
Not knowing is most intimate.