Do you need to have a beard to do Zen practice?
This week we continue our exploration of the Zen stories in the Gateless Barrier with this blink-and-you'll-miss-it question from Master Huo'an.
(If you don’t know what the heck a koan is or have never heard of the Gateless Barrier, go back to the first article in this series and read at least the opening section, which will fill you in.)
Without a bit of background, this koan is a totally opaque slab of words, so let's start by unpacking it a little.
Deciphering the words themselves
Over the last couple of months I've undertaken a project to memorise all the koans in the Gateless Barrier, inspired in part by this Guru Viking interview. I decided to go with Thomas Cleary's translation, because it's a little simpler than the others I have, but every so often I'll hit a koan that makes me really wish I'd chosen Guo Gu's translation instead, due to the sometimes bizarre word order or choice of phrasing that Cleary uses. This week's case is positively Yoda-ish, which may well make it sound wise but doesn't necessarily trip off the tongue.
Anyway, Huo'an is asking why 'the foreigner from the West' doesn't have whiskers, by which he means facial hair - he isn't talking about a cat. In fact, 'the foreigner from the West' is a reference to Bodhidharma, the quasi-mythical first ancestor of the Zen tradition. Bodhidharma was from India, or possibly Persia, and is commonly depicted as having a huge bushy beard.
So the question is effectively asking 'Why doesn't Santa Claus have a big white beard?', when everyone knows that of course Santa has a big white beard - that's how you know it's Santa!
However, it turns out that Bodhidharma - who is an interesting character in his own right, and who we'll encounter directly in case 41 - has two functions in koans. Sometimes, a koan will relate a particular episode from Bodhidharma's own life, in which case the koan is simply talking about Bodhidharma as a historical figure. More often, however, references to Bodhidharma are actually a code for talking about our true nature, or awakening itself.
What is our true nature?
This is an excellent question in its own right - you're more than welcome to stop reading right now and go and practise with the koan 'What is my true nature?' until you see it for yourself - a moment called kensho in Zen, literally 'seeing true nature', and considered to be a pivotal point in the process of awakening, after which the Zen path really opens up. (Indeed, doing such practice is likely to be more useful than reading more of my words. However, for those of you who find something of value in the words, I'll write on nevertheless.)
So what do we discover when we see our true nature? One traditional way to describe it is as the 'ground of being' - the most fundamental level of who we are, the source of all conscious experience, what it means to be a living being at the most primal level. (My Dharma name, Togen, means 'penetrating the source', and is a reference to this quest to discover our true nature.) It's beyond all categorisations and classifications, entirely beyond the framework of language and the world of separate 'things' that language describes, and it's something that ultimately has to be experienced for oneself. It's also the same for everyone - no matter your gender, race, background, politics or preferences, we all have the same ultimate nature. Seen from the standpoint of true nature, there are no distinctions, no separate things, no this or that, no conflict and no problems. Seeing this for ourselves tends to have the immediate effect of helping us to connect with others, because no matter who the other person is, we have at least this much in common.
So, in one sense, the symbolic Bodhidharma in the koan doesn't have a beard because our true nature is not limited by specific characteristics. You don't have to have a beard to practise Zen, and it doesn't even necessarily help (which is a shame for me, because I do have a beard).
Principle and manifestation
However, there's another level to this koan, just as there's another level to Zen practice. It isn't enough to find our true nature, to connect with this place of no problems and hang out there in peace. Once we've done that, we need to find a way to bring it back into the world of separate things, and integrate the peace and unity of our true nature with the complex differentiations of the phenomenal world and all the baggage that comes along with that.
So what does that look like? The short answer is 'I don't know' - not because I'm a dummy (although...), but because the answer is different for each of us. We each come from different backgrounds, different families, different educations; we have different interests, different preferences, different hobbies, different work. We think, speak and act in different ways, so why should our enlightenment look the same when viewed from the outside? Last week we talked about authenticity and the importance of grasping the principle behind an outward manifestation of enlightenment; this week we're going the other way, and seeing how, even though we each start at the same basic principle, the same fundamental nature, we then each go on to manifest it in different ways.
So why doesn't Bodhidharma have a beard? Because Bodhidharma is in the heart of each one of us, whether bearded or not. We can easily go down the rabbit hole of looking at senior teachers and saying 'Hmm, is she really enlightened? What about him? Can't be!' because this person or that one doesn't line up with our idea of what enlightenment is 'supposed' to look like, but all we're doing there is holding on to a fixed idea of where we think our path should lead us, and ultimately any fixed conceptions will only hold us back. There are as many manifestations of enlightenment as there are enlightened people, and they can look quite different on the surface.
The Great Way can be found anywhere and expressed in any medium
For Christmas, my partner bought me a Humble Bundle of over 20 books about samurai and Japanese martial arts. They've made for fascinating reading. Martial arts and Zen practice have been interwoven in Japan for hundreds of years, and it's been eye-opening for me to see familiar Zen principles being discussed and expressed through the medium of martial arts.
For example, Yamaoka Tesshu was a famous 19th century sword master and Zen practitioner. His writings on the correct understanding of sword technique line up exactly in many places with fundamental Zen teachings, to the point that when Tesshu was asked on one occasion to give an answer to a koan, he picked up a sword to demonstrate. For Tesshu, the sword was his primary means of expression, and so the perennial truths pointed to by the Zen tradition could most easily be demonstrated with a blade.
If we look more broadly at Chinese and Japanese culture, there's a strong association between spirituality and the arts and crafts. Zen is strongly associated with both calligraphy and poetry. Daoism has many stories of enlightened sages living as wood carvers or butchers. If we read enough of these stories, we start to get a sense that the 'Great Way' that Zen points to can be found anywhere, if we're willing to look for it. For a while I was an enthusiastic amateur at the board game Go, and many of the more philosophical 'Go proverbs' - little phrases pertaining to some aspect of tactics or strategy - had equally broad application to life.
In fact, this has sometimes been a cause of some irritation for me. I've done many hours of silent meditation retreat, struggling with my practice but ultimately coming back with deep, life-changing insights - only to find a friend who has no interest in meditation at all coming to a similar conclusion by another route. It can feel unfair - 'But you don't even meditate! How come you get to have these insights too?'
Recently I was chatting to a colleague at work, who has a keen interest in golf. He mentioned some of the life lessons he has derived from the game - for example, when lining up the next shot, he said, you can't carry with you the previous bad shot, otherwise it'll throw this one off as well. All you can do is learn to let go and focus on the present shot, right now. When he said this, I laughed, and said (rather arrogantly) 'Well, you're talking to a mindfulness teacher, so I know all about that!' He stared at me like I'd made a total non-sequitur - as far as he was concerned, he was talking about golf, so why was I bringing up mindfulness?
So why meditate, then?
If we can find insights in any aspect of life, is there anything special about meditation? As a meditation teacher, I really want to say 'Yes, of course!', but after reflecting on the question for some time, I'm really not so sure. Martial arts make you fit and strong; if you're a poet or a painter, you create works of art that others can enjoy. In meditation, we're just sitting there! OK, maybe we learn to open the heart, chill out, or explore the nature of consciousness. And you're very unlikely to pull a muscle... except maybe the ones in your forehead. But I think all we can really say is 'Well, meditation does some nice stuff too', as opposed to 'meditation is clearly the best approach'.
It's certainly true that meditation develops tremendous skills of concentration power, sensory clarity and equanimity. We learn to focus the mind where we want it to go, and we become much more sensitive to the quality of our attention and much quicker to notice when the mind wanders. We develop the ability to examine our experience in much more detail, seeing a richness which was not previously there. And we learn to be present with whatever comes up in our practice, without being knocked off our perch and falling into reactivity.
Even better, those skills are transferable. For example, my partner sometimes works as an exam invigilator - one of the people who supervises the students who are taking the exams, to make sure they don't cheat or disturb the other students by messing around. She's found that it's immensely helpful to have a clear sense of when her attention is fresh and sharp and when it's starting to drift. It's also extremely useful to be able to see the students as clearly as possible, because even the subtlest movement can give away an attempt to communicate with someone else or look at a hidden crib sheet. And equanimity is a vital quality for an invigilator, because the teenage students can often be very difficult, and if she lets herself get too worked up then it's much harder both to focus on the job.
On the other hand, though... She and I both tend to understand those skills as having originally been developed in the meditation practice, and now they're being applied in the context of exam invigilation, so in a sense they 'belong' to meditation. But maybe if she'd been an invigilator before taking up meditation, we would see the arrow of cause and effect the other way around - we might instead say that those same skills which she had developed as an invigilator were now applicable to the meditation practice instead, perhaps interpreting meditation as a kind of 'invigilation of the mind'.
Maybe there's another way to look at it. Perhaps it's possible to find fulfilment, insight and wisdom through the deep cultivation of any skill, whether it's golf, karate or meditation - and all that really matters is to find a skill that we find interesting enough to be willing to pursue. We begin by learning the outward manifestation of the skill - the basic techniques. Swing the club a certain way; practise a basic front kick over and over; keep coming back to the breath each time the mind wanders. Over time, the techniques etch themselves into our muscle memory. Now the performance of the technique becomes effortless, and - if we're so inclined - we can begin to delve deeper, exploring the deeper principles behind the skill. And if that exploration goes deep enough, we can touch into transformative insights, and discover our true nature. Once we have those insights, the next step is to take those insights back into our life and apply them in different contexts - manifesting those deep principles in new, creative ways.
And maybe that's what it means to live in accordance with the Great Way - to go deep enough to find something truly of value, then bring it back to the surface and live in accordance with it. And you don't need to grow a beard to do that - unless you want to.
You can't point with someone else's finger...
Those crazy Zen folks are at it again. This week we're looking at the third koan in the Gateless Barrier, which is not actually about child abuse, despite appearances to the contrary.
(If you don’t know what the heck a koan is or have never heard of the Gateless Barrier, go back to the first article in this series and read at least the opening section, which will fill you in.)
So if it isn't about a vicious old man misusing his position of authority, what's going on here?
The question of authenticity
Sometimes, in a spiritual community, students start to imitate their teacher - copying their mannerisms, repeating their catch-phrases, that kind of thing. In some cases, the group starts to exude a certain 'vibe', a tone set by the person at the top which then permeates the whole community.
This isn't necessarily sinister. Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery. I know I've seen my teachers handle a particular situation with a grace that, to me, is unimaginable, and I've thought to myself 'Gosh, I wish I could do that!' And there's something to be said for hanging around a particular teacher because they've got something you want.
However, if the imitation is only ever at the surface level, it's rather brittle and shallow. Put someone like that under pressure and it's a different story. Generally, the quality that you might admire in your teacher is actually more like a symptom of an underlying condition - an external manifestation of an inner principle. If you're just copying the manifestations without having understood the principle, you won't have the flexibility to deal with new or unexpected situations.
For example, if we consider the Buddhist moral precepts, the underlying principle is to cause as little harm as possible; the specific precepts are examples of major categories of situations where harm can be caused (killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, abuse of intoxicants). It's possible to play all kinds of games with a kind of legalistic interpretation of the precepts - ah well, the fifth precept actually refers to 'fermented beverages', so heroin is fine! - but you can only really play that game if you either haven't yet grasped, or have chosen to ignore, that the basic principle is the avoidance of harm. Once the principle is understood, the specific precepts can actually become somewhat less important, in favour of a focus on the situation at hand and a compassionate attempt to find a wise path through it which minimises harm.
(That last paragraph is probably controversial, but I think I stand by it.)
Getting back to that severed finger, though..?
OK, so we have someone who has been hanging around his teacher for a while, and has noticed that his teacher always answers questions the same way - with a raised finger. And so the boy has started to copy his teacher, also raising a finger when people ask him about Zen.
But Judi knows that the boy hasn't got it yet - it's just an imitation. So he decides to challenge the boy. Symbolically, he cuts off the boy's finger, so that he can't answer a question by raising a finger. My Zen teacher has actually done something similar to me - when I've been attempting to answer a question with my usual well-rehearsed waffle, he'll say 'OK, so you can talk about the koan. Now, show me the koan.' Boom. It's a painful moment, I can tell you - finding yourself stopped in your tracks, utterly unable to respond even though the matter seemed so clear a moment ago.
So in the koan, the boy runs out, screaming in pain - freaking out, because he's been put on the spot and now has no answer. At that precise moment, Judi deploys his 'turning word' (see last week's article for a discussion of turning words in Zen), raising his finger - and the boy is suddenly enlightened. Pow!
Setting up the conditions for insight
Here's another nice little detail embedded in the koan. Notice that this is not the first time that the boy has seen Master Judi's raised finger - after all, he's seen the trick enough times to have started to copy it. So how come the boy never attained enlightenment before, if the finger is so powerful? What made this particular incident so pivotal?
A common source of irritation for meditators is to hear the teacher talk about how life-changingly awesome insight meditation or koan study can be, only to try the technique for themselves and experience absolutely nothing apart from boredom, frustration and discomfort. Insights and breakthroughs really do happen, but they can't be made to happen. The best we can do is set up conditions which encourage them to happen.
So how do we do that? Well, one approach is just to keep meditating. Larger doses (for example, going on a retreat) can often help, although they can also bring up larger volumes of difficult material more quickly, which isn't always a good thing depending on how much you want to deal with that stuff right now.
In Zen stories, enlightenment often comes about either when a practitioner is focused very deeply in meditation, or alternatively thrown into total confusion and bewilderment; then, in either case, the enlightenment comes when the state of either total focus or total chaos is suddenly shattered - perhaps by a turning word, by the sound of a bell or a pebble hitting bamboo, or by seeing the upraised finger of the teacher.
Insight really means 'finding a new way to see the world' - my teacher's teacher on the jhana side, Ayya Khema, used to define insight as an 'understood experience', in which something totally incompatible with your previous world view happened, and you were sufficiently present to notice it and appreciate it for what it was. So insight is particularly likely to arise when we're thrown out of our usual equilibrium - either because we become so focused and quiet (either single-pointedly, as in jhana, or openly, as in Silent Illumination), or so disoriented and bewildered, that in either case our minds stop all their usual busywork, and the clouds part enough for us to be able to see the moon. If, at that moment, something happens to direct our attention upwards, we see all that heavenly glory (to quote Bruce Lee).
Getting back to the koan - is the message 'don't copy your teacher', then?
Not quite. Notice that there's a second part to the koan, much later in Judi's life, when the teacher is on his deathbed. He tells the assembled monks that his 'one-finger Zen' technique came from his own teacher, Tianlong. The difference, however, is that Judi fully grasped the finger (so to speak), totally penetrating the depths of the principle behind it, and as a result he's been able to use it for his whole life without it going stale or losing its efficacy. Every time Judi raised a finger, it was an authentic expression of his own enlightenment.
Meditators come in all shapes and sizes, and Judi is a good example of a 'one-technique freak' - someone who has one particular thing that works really, really well for them, and is basically the only thing they do. You'll often see this in someone who themselves had a massive breakthrough as a result of a particular technique, and has become a lifelong devotee of it ever since. (In fact, you could argue that I'm training as a jhana teacher for basically this reason.)
On the other hand, some of us are more eclectic - a polite term is 'toolbox yogi', in the sense that we have a whole bunch of different techniques available to us as the need arises. As you'll see from the guided meditations on my website (try them out!), I practise, and teach, a whole range of different approaches, and I'm a big believer in offering different practices to help people find what's going to work best for them. I must admit, sometimes I'm really envious of the Soto Zen types with their total focus on Silent Illumination/shikantaza, whereas I have a quandary every single week about what practice to end my weekly meditation class with!
Which way is better? Perhaps that's best answered through another story. (I don't know the original source, unfortunately - I heard this from a friend.)
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is
This week we’re taking a look at case 2 in the Gateless Barrier koan collection, titled ‘A Wild Fox’ in the Thomas Cleary translation, but perhaps more widely known as ‘Hyakujo’s Fox’. (Hyakujo is the Japanese version of master Baizhang’s name; I’m following Cleary and using their Chinese names, because the original teachers were Chinese.)
(If you don’t know what the heck a koan is or have never heard of the Gateless Barrier, go back to last week’s article and read at least the opening section, which will fill you in.)
Compared to last week’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it koan, this one is massive - I think it’s the longest in the whole collection. There’s a lot going on, and even a couple of parts to it, so let’s go through it carefully to decipher what’s going on.
Decoding the imagery and jargon of the koan
The first point to understand is that wild foxes are considered to be ‘trickster’-type characters in both Chinese and Japanese folk tales. The implication here is that the old man gave bad information to a student, and as a result was condemned to be reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes, which is a pretty long time. The implication is that it’s a punishment, although when you read the stories of these trickster characters, they often sound like they’re having a pretty good time, albeit at the expense of others. In any case, the old man has tired of his repeated rebirth into a foxy body, and wants to be released.
So he asks the master for ‘a turning word’. This is a bit of Zen jargon which refers to a pivotal phrase or teaching which is capable of flipping a student over from their current unenlightened condition into something much better. Such moments of insight are often called kensho, which literally means ‘seeing true nature’, in the Zen tradition. One way of looking at koans is as a record of turning words which have proven effective in the past. The trick, of course, is that one person’s turning word might be totally meaningless for someone else. And so the challenge for us as practitioners is to penetrate deeply enough into the koan that we take the place of the student whose world view was flipped on its head, and thus experience our own breakthrough.
After the story with the foxy old man, there’s a kind of coda where the master re-tells the story to the monks, and there’s a weird exchange between the master and a student named Huangbo (Japanese: Obaku), who would go on to become a very great master in his own right. I’m not going to spend too much time on this, because we’ll look at the central theme here again in much more detail when we get to case 10. But what’s with the slapping, and what’s the thing about foreigners and beards?
Tang Dynasty Zen seems to have been pretty rough-and-tumble at times, with teachers often using shouts, slaps and even blows with their staff. Sometimes a slap might be used to interrupt a student who was going down a rabbit hole of intellectual thought, like the word ‘no’ in last week’s koan; sometimes it might be used to bring a student back down to earth if they were getting too impressed with themselves (‘Everything is emptiness!’ whack! ‘That emptiness seems pretty quick to anger…’) Often, the slap represents the end of a teaching. Here, Huangbo is slapping the teacher (rather than vice versa) to indicate that he’s anticipated the master’s teaching and already understands it.
And that’s why master Baizhang says the weird thing about foreigners and beards at the end. When Zen talks about bearded foreigners, they’re almost invariably referring to Bodhidharma, the semi-mythical founder of the Zen tradition. (We’ll be hearing more about him in a couple of weeks’ time.) So Baizhang is effectively saying something like ‘I thought I knew what an enlightened person looked like, but it turns out one was hiding amongst us all along!’
OK, enough of the background. Let’s get into the meat of the story.
Are greatly cultivated people still subject to causality?
First, we might wonder why this would even be a question. Surely everything is subject to causality - why should meditators be any different?
On the other hand, maybe you’ve had a moment of breakthrough yourself - kensho, stream entry, kundalini awakening - and it’s flipped your world view on its head. When we touch into the place of our Buddha Nature, we realise that we’ve seen the world a certain way our whole lives, but that particular view isn’t the only game in town. We can find totally different ways to relate to our experience in which many of the usual rules don’t seem to apply - for example, we can find the boundary between ourselves and everything else falling away, and find ourselves in a place where the usual opposites of good and bad, right and wrong, light and dark and so forth no longer apply - indeed, don’t make any sense at all. And if we have a strong experience like that, we may wonder what else isn’t as set in stone as it has previously seemed to be.
This is a dangerous time for any meditator, and it’s important to have a good teacher on hand to keep you anchored (hopefully without needing to slap you!). Many charismatic cult leaders are people who have had some kind of genuine insight, but lacked the support structure to keep them accountable and ethical, and as a result went off the deep end. A good rule of thumb is that if someone’s teaching sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t get me wrong, Zen practice is wonderful, transformative and liberating, but you won’t be able to fly or shoot laser beams, no matter how enlightened you are. If anything, in the long run the aim in Zen practice is to wash away any trace of ‘specialness’ at all, and return to utter normality.
But having said that, if the ‘ultimate point’ of the practice is to end up back where we started, why bother to do it at all? And, of course, the practice is hugely valuable, and really does change things for us. And, in particular for this koan, our understanding of causality does change significantly.
I’d like to try to give you a taste of a view that can open up through practice, so I’m going to propose a contemplation. Contemplation is like meditation, but you’re allowed to think if that’s helpful. The basic idea is to give you something to ponder and see where it leads you, and you can do that however you like - by thinking about it, by working with it like a koan, or simply by sitting with it for a while to see what happens. So I’ll give you a series of short statements or questions, separated by asterisks, and if you’d like to play along at home, simply take each one in turn and spend some time, well, contemplating! You might like to meditate for a little while first to settle your mind, or you might just want to jump straight in. Give it a go and see what happens!
Bring to mind a recent situation which was significant for you in some way. Maybe you had to make a decision, maybe something happened to you, maybe you made a mistake. Bring the situation to mind as clearly as you can, and spend some time remembering the details. What happened, how, and why?
Now, reflect on some of the causes and conditions that led you to that situation. For example, why were you in that place, rather than somewhere else? Who was present in the situation, and why those people and not others?
Going back further, consider the path you have taken through life. Could it have gone differently if you had made different choices? Could you be living in another place, doing something else, with different people?
Going back still further, consider the influences that shaped you; your family, your upbringing, your education. All of these factors contributed to make you who you are; had they been different, you could be quite different today.
Going back even further, you are the product of your parents (whether they were present or absent during your childhood); consider all the factors that led them to be who they were, and how that has shaped you.
Consider your ancestors before your parents, going back many generations through history. All of those people have contributed to who you are today, and since the circumstances of their lives contributed to who they were and the choices they made, those circumstances have ultimately contributed to who you are and the choices you’ve made as well.
Take a few minutes to extend the net wider and wider, finding more and more causes and conditions which have contributed to who you are and the situation you began with. Reflect on how that situation, which perhaps seemed so simple at first, is in fact a product of uncountably many factors stretching back throughout history, all coming together in that one moment. Notice that, if you look carefully enough, you can trace connections between yourself and anyone or anything else.
Now let’s go the other way, and look at the impact of your choices.
Returning to the original situation, reflect on what happened in that moment - the choice you made, or didn’t make; the action you took, or didn’t take.
Notice that, although the situation is now in the past, it continues to influence you now - after all, you have a memory of the event, which you are able to consider as part of this exercise. So although the moment is gone, in a sense some part of it remains in the present, and has become part of you.
Notice that, as it is now part of you, that situation continues to exert an influence, whether direct or indirect, on everything you do from now on. Even if nobody else was involved in the situation at the time, the situation indirectly affects everyone you meet.
Now consider that the people you meet will go on to meet others, and thus the influence you have had on them will be passed along to others in turn.
Continue to reflect on this, noticing that ultimately even a seemingly inconsequential moment in your life may have an effect on someone that you couldn’t possibly anticipate, and may never even know about. Is there anything at all that you can be certain will not ultimately be influenced in this way?
Finally, take some time to reflect on this web of interconnection. Past, present and future are all intimately interwoven, all part of one seamless universe, no part of it ultimately separable from anything else. In the end, to accomplish even the simplest thing requires the whole universe to participate.
(End of contemplation.)
Coming back to the koan, perhaps we can now see that even greatly cultivated people can never be free from causality. Rather, the more deeply we examine our experience, the more deeply we come to see and appreciate the intricate web of causality connecting us to all things in myriad ways.
So bear this in mind, and maybe you won’t be reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes!
The mystery at the heart of Zen
This article is the first in a new series, looking at the Zen stories, or koans, collected in the famous 'Gateless Barrier' (Chinese: Wumenguan; Japanese: Mumonkan). We'll take one each week; I don't have the whole thing planned out yet, but I'm imagining that some weeks we'll focus primarily on the story itself, while some weeks we might instead use the story as a jumping-off point to explore another practice or another aspect of Buddhism. Over the course of the year, we'll learn some of the language of Zen - how the tradition uses language and imagery to express the inexpressible. My hope is that, by the end of the process, the classical Zen texts will seem a bit more approachable. (I was going to say 'less mysterious', but I'm not sure Zen ever really becomes less mysterious!)
What the heck is a koan anyway?
The word koan (Chinese: gong'an) literally means 'public case', in the sense of a legal precedent. Koans usually take the form of encounters between two practitioners, although sometimes they're boiled down just to a question or a pithy statement. They can often be pretty difficult to understand at first, sometimes because the language is archaic or makes references to ancient Chinese cultural memes that are lost on a modern audience, and so I'm expecting to spend a fair bit of this year passing on the patient explanations of all this background material from commentators such as Thomas Cleary, Guo Gu and Katsuki Sekida, each of whom has produced a translation and commentary of the Gateless Barrier which serve as my primary sources for this article series.
Despite their difficulty, however, koans are an important part of Zen. Each has the potential to transform the way we see the world, if we can grasp the central point of the story. The objective here is not to understand 'what the koan is talking about' on an intellectual level, but rather to place ourselves in the straw sandals of the Zen practitioners in those stories, and come to experience their realisation for ourselves.
(As an aside, that's why it's OK for me to write these articles, and for much wiser and more experienced teachers than me to write their own commentaries on them as well. Quite apart from the fact that many koans support multiple interpretations, there's only so much benefit to be had from reading someone else's musings on a koan. The real power of these stories is when they come to mean something to you personally, in a very direct, experiential way.)
The two major Zen traditions, Soto and Rinzai, work with koans in different ways. In the Soto style, the main (and usually only) meditation practice is Silent Illumination, aka shikantaza or 'just sitting'. However, Soto teachers will often use koans as teaching devices, talking about the stories and exploring their themes and images. As the practitioner's Silent Illumination matures, the practitioner may come to recognise the reality described in the koans, and thus verify their own experiential understanding against the classic texts.
Koans can also be used in this way in the Rinzai tradition, but Rinzai Zen is better known for using koans directly in meditation. A beginning student will often be given a 'breakthrough' koan, such as 'Who am I?', 'What is my true nature?', or even the story at the top of this article, and sent away to work on it until they experience their first kensho, or breakthrough to awakening. I've described how to work with a koan in meditation elsewhere on this site, so I won't repeat those instructions here.
Instead, let's move on to this week's koan!
Case 1: Zhaozhou's dog, aka 'mu'
So, first things first, let's take another look at the text. It gets straight to the point!
That's it - that's the whole thing, at least as far as the story itself goes. Chan master Wumen (Jp: Mumon), who compiled the collection, adds two commentaries to each koan, one in prose and the other in verse, and in Thomas Cleary's translation of the collection he also includes verses by several other Chan and Zen masters on each case. But for our purposes we'll stick just to the koan itself, because I don't want these articles to spiral out of control and end up too huge to read.
This koan introduces a Zen master named Zhaozhou. (Cleary suggests pronouncing this 'Jow-joe'.) He's commonly known by the Japanese pronunciation of his name, Joshu, but he was Chinese originally and I've been using Thomas Cleary's translation of the Chinese text as my primary source, so I'll tend to use the Chinese names throughout and just note the Japanese equivalents. (I'm sure I'll continue to be totally inconsistent about saying Chan vs Zen though!)
Zhaozhou was an interesting guy. He lived in China's Tang dynasty, generally considered the golden age of Chinese Zen (although most of the stories we have about this period turn out to have been compiled in the later Sung dynasty, a bit like much of what we 'know' about medieval times was actually invented by the Victorians). He supposedly had his first opening aged about 18, reaching full awakening by the age of 56, but then continued travelling and testing his realisation until the age of 80. Only then did he start to teach - but he lived for about another 40 years, so plenty of students were able to benefit from his wisdom.
In this case, a monk asks Zhaozhou a simple question: does a dog have Buddha Nature? However, Zhaozhou's reply is strange. According to Buddhist theory, all living beings have Buddha Nature, whether four-legged or otherwise. So why does Zhaozhou say no?
As an aside, the 'no' is often left untranslated - so 'wu' in Chinese, or 'mu' in Japanese. Some of the stereotypes of Rinzai Zen practitioners chanting or shouting 'mu' are down to this very koan - and, indeed, those training methods are used sometimes. My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, had a great breakthrough whilst shouting 'mu!' on a mountain-top at night, and so he sent my teacher Daizan out to a mountain night after night in the hopes that it would have a similar effect for him.
However, responding to a question with what might sound to the ears of an uninitiated Westerner like the lowing of a cow risks turning this pivotal koan into a bit of a farce, and so I'll follow Cleary in translating it as 'no'. But we have to be careful in doing so, because - as is usually the case in koans - there's more to this exchange than meets the eye. If we interpret Zhaozhou's reply as 'No, a dog does not have Buddha Nature,' we miss the point entirely.
For starters, why is the monk asking about such a basic point of doctrine? If he knew enough about Buddha Nature to ask the question, there was surely no real reason to doubt that dogs had it too. Some commentators theorise that perhaps he was trying to trick Zhaozhou into making some kind of error, a common tactic in 'Dharma Combat'. Alternatively, maybe the monk was frustrated, having practised for a long time without seeing any results - 'Does even a dog have Buddha Nature? Because I'm pretty sure I don't!'
Either way, we can see Zhaozhou's reply as the verbal equivalent of a slap. 'No!' Stop this line of questioning, stop your spinning thoughts, stop your elaborate day-dreaming about Buddha Nature, and get back to your practice!
Breaking free from the prison of thoughts
Wumen's prose comment to this koan - yes, the same comment I said earlier I wasn't going to include in these articles, but hey ho - begins as follows:
'To study Zen you must pass through the barrier of the masters; for ineffable enlightenment you need to interrupt your mental circuit. If you do not pass through the barrier of the masters, and do not interrupt your mental circuit, then your consciousness will be attached to objects everywhere.'
We tend to see the world through the lens of our thoughts about it. We tell ourselves stories about the world to help ourselves make sense of what's going on, but if we take those stories too seriously then they come to dominate our experience, and we live increasingly exclusively in a fabricated world. Our minds split up the seamless, holistic universe into separate boxes - me in here, everything else out there, all just things in a world of things - and then we forget that it was ever any different. Zen practice is about reclaiming a simpler, more primordial experience - but before we can do that, we must break the stranglehold of our thoughts. And so Wumen suggests that we need to 'interrupt our mental circuit' - while Zhaozhou simply meets the monk's question with a short, sharp 'No!'
So how can we use this in practice? Well, one approach is to find your nearest mountain, go up it at night and shout 'Mu!' until enlightenment dawns or someone puts in a noise complaint. But perhaps we can do better.
One approach is to use 'no' (or 'mu', if you prefer) as a device to cut through discursive thinking. Whatever your meditation practice - whether Silent Illumination or something else - if you catch yourself spinning out into a train of thought, simply bring Zhaozhou's command to mind. It can be used either gently or firmly - sometimes it can help very much to give yourself the mental equivalent of a splash of water across the face! On the other hand, try not to get to the point where you feel like you're punishing yourself for having wandering thoughts - the mind wanders naturally, and you haven't done anything wrong when it happens. If your use of 'No!' just triggers a new train of self-critical thought then it isn't serving its purpose.
Another approach is to use 'no'/'mu' as an object of focus. 'What is mu?' is one common way to practise with this koan. The word is a negation, so whatever comes to mind in response to the question - well, it ain't that! A common problem in koan study is to have a barrage of thoughts about the question, with a subtle underlying assumption that if you could just think about it in the right way, you could come up with 'the right answer', and finally solve the whole damn business. But that isn't going to work with this koan - no matter what thought comes up, that thought is a concept pointing to some thing (even if that 'something' is 'nothing'), and 'mu' is not any 'thing' at all. Language limits and circumscribes our experience; 'mu' points to what is without any limitation or boundary at all.
So - put yourself in the monk's sandals right now. You've just asked Zhaozhou - whether sarcastically, plaintively, or trickily - whether a dog has Buddha Nature, and this wrinkly old Zen master roars 'No!'
What is this 'no'?
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.