I care for you, but I cannot guarantee your happiness
This week we're continuing our series of articles on heart-opening practices ('Brahmaviharas') by taking another look at equanimity, a quality which is vitally important and yet easily misunderstood. Along the way, we'll take a look at how these heart-opening practices actually make a real difference in our lives, both for ourselves and for others.
So let's get into it!
What the heck is equanimity, and how does it fit with the other heart-opening practices?
I've previously written about equanimity in some detail, so for today's purposes I'll keep things brief - do check out that previous article if you want a deeper dive.
In short, equanimity is the quality of emotional stability - balance, peace of mind. In modern terms, we might say that someone who is equanimous doesn't get 'triggered'.
At first sight, this is perhaps a bit of a strange quality to find in the category of 'heart-opening practices'. We may find it easier to see how cultivating qualities like love, compassion and appreciation can open the heart, but equanimity? Maybe equanimity even sounds like the opposite of those things - an absence of emotion. If we see it this way, we might find equanimity not particularly appealing - who wants to live an emotionless, robotic life, without joy or laughter?
Actually, though, this is a critical misunderstanding of equanimity. What we find when we do the practice is actually the opposite - that equanimity allows us to experience our emotions more deeply, not less.
Equanimity as a stable foundation for a rich emotional life
In some of our recent articles, we've looked at practices like the cultivation of loving kindness ('may you be happy'), compassion ('may you be free from suffering') and appreciative joy ('may your good fortune continue'). These are beautiful qualities when we truly connect with them - but they also have a lurking shadow. I've talked about some of the more obvious manifestations of heart-opening practices going slightly off-piste before - loving kindness can turn into a sickly sweet, ostentatious 'kindness', compassion can turn into pity, and appreciative joy can become insincere or a way to gain an advantage through praise and flattery.
A subtler issue, though, is when we start trying to use the practice as a way of saying 'This is how things should be.' This can show up as a kind of 'corrective' version of the practice - so we send 'loving kindness' to someone who cuts us up on the road by saying 'May you learn to drive!' It's phrased a little like a Brahmavihara meditation, but in practice it's more of a passive-aggressive way of saying 'Your driving sucks!' Or maybe you find yourself wishing 'May you be free from suffering... and stop hanging out with that no-good partner of yours, they're a bad influence!' The implication here is that we know best, and if the universe would only bend to our will, everything would be better.
Equanimity stands in contrast to this 'Can we fix it? Yes we can!' attitude of the mind. In equanimity practice, we attempt to take the stance that everything is fine just the way it is - that nothing needs to be changed, or improved, or fixed. No matter what arises, we choose not to act on any impulse that arises, no matter how obvious it is to us that the situation would be better if only xyz would happen. Instead, we simply let it all come and go.
(If you're thinking that this sounds a lot like Silent Illumination practice, you'd be absolutely right! Silent Illumination is indeed one way to cultivate equanimity. The version of equanimity we find the heart-opening practices of early Buddhism is rather different, but we'll get to that later.)
Equanimity, then, actually helps us to connect more directly with the 'pure', no-strings-attached version of the other Brahmavihara qualities. Equanimity allows us to say 'May you be happy!', without tacking '...and you'd be happier if...' onto the end. It allows us to recognise and wish for the relief of someone else's suffering without a subtle judgement of the choices they may have made which landed them in that situation. And it allows us to recognise and celebrate others' good fortune without secretly wondering why they get it so good when we don't have such nice things happening to us.
More generally, equanimity allows everything to be just the way it is - and that includes the full range of our other emotions too. For all sorts of reasons, there may be emotions that we won't allow ourselves to feel. Perhaps you were told off as a child for 'getting too excited' when something good happened - and since then you've been careful never to let yourself feel too much happiness all at once. Or perhaps you were punished for getting angry when things didn't go your way, and so now you bury your anger deep in your heart, never allowing it to be felt directly, instead leaking out in unexpected moments of resentment or bitterness.
Taking the brakes off our emotions can be a pretty scary thing to do. After all, we locked them down in the first place for good reasons! But in the context of a meditation session with a solid foundation of equanimity, it turns out that we very often can allow ourselves to feel more than we usually do, and gradually reclaim the full breadth and depth of our emotional lives.
Recognising the limits of our influence, and understanding how the Brahmavihara practice actually helps others
I mentioned above that, while Silent Illumination is one way of cultivating equanimity, the practice that we find in the Brahmaviharas of the early Buddhist tradition is quite different - and it may, at first, strike us as rather cold.
The emphasis in the Brahmavihara equanimity practice is on recognising the limits of our own influence. Whereas loving kindness says 'may you be happy', equanimity says 'I care for you, but I cannot guarantee your happiness'. It's an acknowledgement that, while we may wish for people to be happy, fortunate and free from suffering, we can't make that happen. Most of the time we can't even manage it for ourselves, let alone others!
Actually, the phrases I recommend on my Brahmavihara page are pretty mild compared to the contemplation you find in the Visuddhimagga, which offers this: 'Beings are owners of their deeds. Whose, if not theirs, is the choice by which they will become happy, or will get free from suffering, or will not fall away from the success they have reached?' There's a very strong emphasis here on recognising that other people are autonomous individuals in their own right - while we can wish the best for them, we can't ultimately make their decisions for them, nor should we try to.
It's important to realise that nobody is going to become happy simply because we sit on a cushion and wish that it were so. Meditators coming off retreat often have a rude awakening in this respect - they've just spent a week cultivating boundless love for all beings everywhere, but as soon as they get to the train station to head home, it turns out that all beings everywhere didn't get the memo, and are just as awkward, rude and unruly as they ever were.
That doesn't mean that Brahmavihara practice is a waste of time, however - far from it. Heart-opening practices help in two ways.
First, heart-opening practice benefits the person doing it, in several ways. By cultivating one of these qualities, we tend to move towards more positive, enjoyable mind states - we feel calmer, happier, more joyful. And by doing that over and over, we condition ourselves to feel that way more often. Over time, our default reaction to a minor upset may shift from irritation to self-compassion, for example. As we practise generating kindness, we gradually become kinder people. We also come to see the world differently. Maybe you've noticed that when you're in a rush, obstacles and hold-ups seem to be everywhere - every traffic light turns red, people have chosen today of all days to drive especially slowly, and so on. By comparison, when we're feeling relaxed and peaceful, the world is a much calmer place. If we do meet someone who is giving off a frenetic vibe, we're more likely to experience compassion for them than for their frazzled energy to infect us and get us feeling stressed too. And so, by doing these Brahmavihara practices, we are essentially training ourselves to see the world as kinder, more compassionate, better, than we previously did.
(It's important to say at this point that I'm not describing a kind of brainwashing, or a process of pretending that things are better than they are. We're simply placing a different emphasis on what's going on - highlighting the good points rather than focusing on the bad ones. An understanding of emptiness can really help here, as we learn that there really isn't any one way that things 'really' are, just an infinite variety of ways of looking at what's going on.)
The second benefit of heart-opening practices is in how they affect others. But wait, didn't I already say that doing these practices doesn't help others? Bear with me as I explain.
I tend to believe that the simple act of my wishing that someone else be happy does not automatically make them happier. Maybe it does, but if so, the effect must be pretty small, because I've never noticed it! I don't think that loving kindness practice has a 'spooky action at a distance'-type effect where the universe instantaneously realigns itself just because I want it to. Remember equanimity - part of the point of this practice is to reflect on the limits of our personal power, not to suggest that we can mould the universe however we choose to.
However, as I noted above, doing the practice most certainly does have an effect on me. And that means that, after I've done my loving kindness (or equanimity) practice, I'm in a better place than when I started. Now, I don't live in a cave - I go out into the world, go to work, hang out with my friends, meet people in public places, the whole bit. And when I meet other people, we interact. The way I am in that interaction leaves a bit of an imprint on the other person, and conversely how they are leaves a mark on me. Most of the time it's a very small effect, to be sure. (Although not always!)
So let's say I meet Person A, and I'm in a good mood when I do it - and a little bit of that good mood rubs off on Person A. Person A then goes on to meet Person B - and Person A is now bringing a slightly more positive mood to that interaction than they would have done otherwise, and so maybe a little bit of that rubs off on Person B, and so on. And as we know, it only takes seven people (that's Person G) to reach Kevin Bacon.
To put it another way, my presence in the world sends ripples out in all directions. Those ripples might only go a short distance, or they might travel much further than we expect. For all I know, a chance negative encounter with Person A, insignificant to me, could be the straw that breaks the camel's back, kicking off a chain of negativity that ends up touching hundreds of lives, or even more. Each of my actions has an unlimited number of consequences, both seen and unseen, most of which I will probably never know. It could even be the case that the loving kindness practice I did in the morning genuinely does end up having a positive impact on the very person I brought to mind when I was doing it - through a long chain of secondary interactions, slowly working its way through the world until finally arriving at the person in question.
Personally, I think this is a pretty beautiful way to look at the world. Seeing the rich, vast web of interconnections that joins us all together can be a very effective way to step out of those self-centric patterns of thought which are often characteristic of our darker moments, giving us a fresh perspective and some distance from our problems, so that they don't seem so all-consuming. In order to get to the point where we can take that expanded perspective, though, we need to be coming from a fairly stable, grounded place - in other words, we need a basis of equanimity. So whether you're more of a Silent Illumination person, or whether you prefer the Brahmavihara approach, I hope that you find your way to the peaceful quiet stillness of equanimity, and the emotional riches that lie beyond it.
To arrive where we started and know the place for the first time
This week, we're taking a look at case 33 in the Gateless Barrier. For those of you who like cross-references to other koans, you'll want to compare this one with case 30, and also case 27. (We'll also see a striking similarity next time, with case 34.)
There's quite a lot packed into a pretty terse koan, so without further ado let's jump in and start unpacking it.
First, we should compare this koan with case 30. In that story, Damei asks the same question ('What is Buddha?'), but there Mazu gives the answer 'The very mind itself is Buddha.' Here, however, Mazu pulls a switcheroo, and says 'Not mind, not Buddha.' What the heck? Are these Zen teachers inconsistent, or what?
First, it's worth saying that Zen, and spirituality in general, is positively overflowing with seemingly contradictory statements. This can be for (at least) two reasons.
On one level, if a teacher is tailoring the instruction to the audience (as a good teacher should), sometimes the advice will vary wildly. Thai Forest teacher Ajahn Chah once commented that a student is like a person walking blindfolded through a forest, and the teacher is trying to keep them on the narrow forest path. If the student strays too far to the left, the teacher will say 'Go right, go right.' If the student veers off too far to the right, the teacher will say 'Go left, go left.' So sometimes an apparent 'contradiction' can be for a quite mundane reason - it's just what that person needs to hear then and there, as opposed to an absolute commandment to be followed at all times.
At a deeper level, my teacher Leigh likes to say that the opposite of a conventional truth is a falsehood, but the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth. Try to wrap your head around that one! And, actually, that's what's going on in this koan, at least on one level.
Damei gains independence in the Dharma
The last couple of koans we've looked at (case 31 and case 32) have been developing a bit of a theme of 'independence in the Dharma'. In case 31, an otherwise obedient monk is scolded for following instructions mindlessly rather than exploring for him; in case 32, students who think for themselves are regarded as 'excellent horses', while those who need to be spoon-fed are at best 'good horses', if not mediocre or worse.
I talked a lot about the process of becoming 'independent' (and what it does and doesn't mean) in the article on case 31, so I'm not going to repeat all that. In brief, though, the idea is that, while it's immensely helpful to have a strong relationship with a teacher at all stages in practice, we also want to own our practice - to take responsibility for exploring spiritual questions for ourselves, rather than relying on someone else to solve all our problems.
Sometimes, a Zen teacher will test a student to see if the student is still dependent on the teacher's approval. (This can be a painful process for the student if they're still attached!) And, in fact, we have an example of this kind of test in the Zen literature.
In case 30, a monk named Damei goes to Mazu to ask for instruction - 'What is Buddha?' Mazu answers 'The very mind itself is Buddha.' Damei takes that away, practises deeply, and comes to a profound realisation. Eventually, he moves away from Mazu's temple to set up his own practice place.
Later, around the time of case 33, Mazu changes his teaching method, and starts to say 'Not mind, not Buddha' - contradicting his previous teaching, which had perhaps become a bit of a cliche by that point.
Hearing of this, a monk goes to find Damei, and says 'Hey, I heard you trained with Mazu. What did he teach you?' Damei says 'The very mind itself is Buddha.' The monk smirks, and says 'Oh yeah? Well, these days it's different!' Damei politely says 'Oh, what does he say now?' The monk says 'Not mind, not Buddha!' Perhaps he's feeling pleased with himself, for having heard the advanced teaching, whereas Damei still has the beginner's stuff. But Damei isn't impressed - he says 'Well, the old fool can keep it. As far as I'm concerned, the very mind itself is Buddha!'
That's independence in the Dharma - a realisation that you know for yourself beyond any doubt, that nobody gave you and nobody can take away from you. When you arrive at this place, it doesn't matter what anyone says, they won't convince you that you've misunderstood, any more than someone can persuade you that you don't actually like your favourite food, or your favourite music. It's just totally obvious to you - not as a matter of blind faith, but as a matter of fact.
OK, but why 'Not mind, not Buddha'?
There's more to Mazu's new slogan than an elaborate way of trolling his former students, however - and we can see this in another story about Mazu.
A monk asked, 'Master, why do you say that mind is Buddha?'
Mazu said, 'To stop babies from crying.'
The monk said, 'What do you say when they stop crying?'
Mazu said, 'Not mind, not Buddha.'
The monk asked, 'Without using either of these teachings, how would you instruct someone?'
Mazu said, 'I would say to them that it's not a thing.'
The monk asked, 'How about when someone comes who has finished all of these?'
Mazu said, 'I would teach them to experience the Great Way.'
And what is the Great Way?
'The very mind itself is Buddha.'
Practising with all this craziness
Believe it or not, we can actually turn the story above into a concrete practice exercise. It's in several parts, and you may find that you need to spend a long time at a particular stage before moving on to the next part. That's fine - as you've already seen, it's ultimately a circular investigation, so wherever you are right now is fine.
(Actually, it might be better to think of it as a spiral - each time around, you go a little deeper. Or, if you're mathematically inclined, you might prefer the image of a fractal, like the one shown above. As you zoom in to any part of a fractal, sooner or later you find yourself back where you started - a fractal contains infinitely many 'copies' of itself at deeper and deeper levels of 'zoom', just like Zen practice.)
So here's one suggestion for how to work with this second story in a practice. Set yourself up in a meditation position, maybe take some time to get settled and focused, and then turn your attention to the practice themes given below.
1. Mind is Buddha
Notice the sensations in your body, coming and going. Notice the sounds around you, coming and going. Notice the thoughts moving through your consciousness, coming and going. Notice the visual impressions - either what you see through open eyes, or the flickering behind closed eyelids, both are equally fine - coming and going.
Now, notice that you are aware of each of these phenomena arising and passing. By definition, you must be - if you weren't aware of a sound, it wouldn't be there for you to notice it. By the time you notice it, you're already aware of it.
So now ask yourself: what is it that is aware? What is it that 'knows' these impermanent phenomena? Who or what is 'witnessing' these momentary experiences? What is this 'awareness', which seems to be always present?
Notice further that, while a particular experience may be disturbing or unpleasant on some level, the awareness itself is not disturbed - the disturbance is another, separate, arising within awareness. Awareness itself accepts whatever arises, calmly and freely letting it pass through. Our awareness actually already possesses the very qualities we might associate with awakening - clarity, equanimity, acceptance, even love.
As we become more familiar with this awareness, we may find that we can come to 'rest in awareness' - panoramically aware of whatever comes and goes, but not pulled into the details of what's going on, not disturbed by whatever arises in your experience. You can simply abide as awareness, at peace.
This is one meaning of 'mind is Buddha'. You have it already - all you have to do is to learn to rest in it.
2. Not mind, not Buddha
However, we don't stop there. There's a subtle trap - we can turn 'awareness' into something special, something 'apart' from reality, something transcendent or other-worldly. Our practice can become an escape from the world, rather than a way of being in the world more freely and effectively.
So, once you've established a clear sense of 'mind is Buddha', we then turn our attention to investigating what this 'awareness' actually is. Where is it? Is it a physical thing, and if so, does it have a shape, or a colour, or a size? How much does it weigh? Or is it something more like a thought, and if so, which thought is it, out of the multitude of thoughts arising and passing every minute? Can we, in fact, find anything which is truly separate from the phenomena of our experience - the sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings?
This is a strange investigation, because ultimately there's nothing to find - and yet that's an unsatisfying answer, and one which must be seen many times before it really sinks in. Seek and don't find, seek and don't find, over and over, until ultimately we are forced to acknowledge that the 'mind' in which we were taking refuge in step 1 doesn't really seem to exist.
3. It is not a thing
Once we have a sense of the unfindability of the mind, we can then go even further, and extend the same kind of investigation to everything else. We tend to regard ourselves as inhabiting a world of things - solid, fixed objects with dependable properties. But what do we actually experience? A momentary stream of sights, sounds, tactile sensations and thoughts, here today and gone tomorrow. From those experiences we form a kind of belief in the 'things in themselves' - but is this something we actually experience, or just an inference?
The purpose of this stage of practice is not to refute the material existence of the world, but to explore more deeply how we experience the world, to see how we create something that isn't actually there by weaving together the information from our senses into something which is more than the sum of its parts. We come to see how the mind creates the sense of separation that leads us to believe that we are individual, disconnected things in a world of things - and we find that we can let that sense of separation soften and dissolve, until we arrive at a new way of seeing in which we're not separate at all.
4. Entering the Great Way - mind is Buddha
Where do we go from here? The third step can be a bit unnerving, as the seeming solidity of the world we've inhabited for our whole lives starts to dissolve in front of our very eyes. At this point it's possible to miss the mark, and go down a rather nihilistic path - 'nothing really exists, everything is illusion, there's no point to anything.'
At this point, one of the old Zen teachers might well whack you with a stick - does that sudden sharp pain exist, or not? If not, why are you glaring at me and rubbing your arm? But if so, then what happened to 'nothing really exists'?
In fact, the aim of Zen is far from nihilistic. I'm not trying to convince you that nothing exists - I'm trying to show you how it really exists. Our experience of the world isn't nothing - it's this, here, happening right now. It's spring flowers, warm summer days, the chill of autumn, the frost of winter. It's the countless joys and sorrows of a human life, making our way through the world moment by moment, dealing with whatever life is throwing at us right now. It's what it always was - the only difference is how we relate to it. Do we spend our days fighting against a cold, hard, inflexible world of things which are never quite arranged to our liking, or can we flow with the unfolding of the universe, playing our own unique melody amidst a vast orchestra of sound all around us?
The point is not that the world doesn't exist - the point is that our experience of the world is inseparable from the world itself. The way we relate to the world is the world, from our own subjective standpoint. To see this clearly - in effect, to recognise that the very mind itself is Buddha - is to be awake, to enter the Great Way.
May you enter the Great Way soon - the world needs more people who see it through the eyes of a Buddha.
The hidden gem among the Brahmaviharas
Image courtesy of ReijiYamashina, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
An interesting occurrence
A friend of mine once told me about a meditation experience he'd had one evening.
He sat down to do his usual practice, and then a spontaneous memory came to mind of his two daughters playing together. Like any sisters, their relationship is turbulent at times, but they get on pretty well, and sometimes they'll get into a groove and have a really good time together.
Remembering one such occasion that had happened recently, my friend found that the memory brought up a very sweet, enjoyable feeling - a kind of combination of relaxation, enjoyment and peace of mind. And as he stayed with that feeling, it gradually built up, taking him into an experience of great joy and tranquillity.
The emotion my friend was tapping into is called mudita in Pali - it's a word that doesn't translate directly into English, but something like 'appreciative joy' captures it pretty well. It's the feeling we get when something good happens, either for ourselves or someone else, and we take a moment to appreciate the good thing that's happened - to celebrate a moment of good fortune. If you've ever seen something and thought 'Ahh, that's nice', that's mudita.
Mudita is one of the Brahmaviharas - the heart-opening practices found in early Buddhism. Of the four, mudita is probably the least well known, which is a bit of a shame - it's a really nice quality, and it's a powerful antidote to the rather cynical modern culture in the West, which would typically rather cut down people who are doing well than celebrate their good fortune.
For many people, mudita is an easier 'way in' to the Brahmaviharas than any of the others. Loving kindness is the most popular, but it can seem fake, cheesy or a bit wet to some people. Compassion, on the other hand, may have the issue that it invites us to recognise the suffering all around us - that isn't always the most appealing thing to do! And equanimity is a bit of an odd one - we typically associate the idea of an open heart with feeling good, whereas equanimity has a neutral sound to it. But we all feel happy when something good happens to us, and so we have the raw material of mudita readily available, if only we know what we're looking for.
My friend's experience also illustrates one of the less well-known aspects of the Brahmaviharas - if one of the four emotions can be generated, stabilised and focused on, it can lead us into jhana, the deep concentration states taught by the Buddha throughout the early discourses. Mudita is a particularly good way in to jhana, because the jhanas are essentially states of enhanced well-being - so if we start out with a practice that makes us feel good, we're halfway there already. This can be a much easier road into jhana than trying to find our way there with a more neutral object like the breath.
Appreciative joy in Zen
The Brahmaviharas are typically not taught directly in the Zen tradition (my Zen sangha, Zenways, being a notable exception). However, I would argue that the quality of appreciating what's present finds other expressions in east Asian culture, including Zen.
The image at the top of this article is one of the sculptures of the wandering mountain ascetic Enku. After being orphaned when his mother was washed away in a flood when Enku was just seven years old, he took up spiritual practice, becoming a yamabushi, a term which literally means a 'mountain warrior'. Enku's practice blended Buddhism (of the Tendai school, rather than Zen), Daoism and Shinto. Amongst other things, Enku made a vow to carve 120,000 Buddha statues in his lifetime, and was thus almost always at work, giving freshly carved Buddhas to whoever he met. Many of his carvings survive to the present day, including the one pictured above. They can often be identified by their beautiful smile.
Enku was also a poet - the poem at the beginning of the article is one of his. My Zen teacher has translated a collection of Enku's poems (which you can find here if you're interested). One might imagine that a spiritual practitioner's poems would all be concerned with lofty matters of enlightenment and meditation, but actually we find a wide (and very human) range of emotions on display. It's hard not to read a sense of longing into one of the poems written later in Enku's life:
Maybe I could still mount the path
And there's a definite chill in the air reading these words:
Monk's Robe Mountain peak
The stormy clouds;
I think on
But in a great many of Enku's works, his love and appreciation for the natural world shines through.
As I heard
Greenfresh sacred sakaki trees
Wherever you look-
Beautiful as flowers.
Monk's Robe Mountain
Covered with mist.
Spring is far
But the wind carries the fragrance
Sometimes, we may choose to practise and cultivate a quality like mudita explicitly. At other times, our practice may be more open and unstructured - and yet, as the heart opens naturally, the same qualities shine through, expressing themselves through our thoughts, words and deeds.
I'll give the last word to Enku.
Made for posterity,
This Benzaiten goddess.
Over long years and countless generations,
Please celebrate happiness,
Protect the people.
Which kind of horse are you?
This week we're looking at case 32 in the Gateless Barrier, 'An Outsider Questions Buddha'. At first reading, we might well relate to Ananda's confusion regarding the encounter between the Buddha and the unnamed outsider! But let's dig into the story and see what we can make of it.
Who is the mysterious stranger?
In the context of Chinese Buddhism (where Zen originated), an 'outsider' refers to someone following a non-Buddhist path. Sometimes, outsiders are looked down upon - people like to come up with schemes which 'rank' different spiritual paths against each other (mysteriously, the author's own path always comes out on top), and even Zen has one of these, the 'five kinds of Zen'. The paths are ranked as follows, from lowest to highest:
Note that the poor old outsider only scores two Zens out of five on this list, whereas of course I, being a big fan of Silent Illumination, score a perfect five Zens out of five. Good for me!
As you can probably tell, I don't take this kind of ranking terribly seriously. Multiple paths have evolved because different people respond to different teachings and practices. In my view (and the view of the Lotus Sutra, if you want scriptural authority), they're all valid approaches, none 'better' or 'worse' than any other.
Nevertheless, in this koan, the 'outsider' - who we might reasonably assume doesn't know the first thing about Buddhism - is seen to have a profound awakening, while Ananda, the Buddha's lifelong attendant and enough of an expert on the Buddha's teachings that he was able to recite them all after the Buddha's death, doesn't have a clue what just happened. So this koan performs a similarly subversive function to case 31, where the unnamed woman at the side of the road is revealed to have a profound understanding surpassing that of an obedient Zen monk.
The bottom line is the same - wisdom can show up anywhere. So be alert!
The spoken and the unspoken
OK, so we realise that the koan is telling us to take the outsider seriously - but when we try to do so, we hit another barrier. What the heck does the outsider's question mean?
As is fairly common with these things, the three commentaries I consulted all explain this line differently, so I'll give you my take on it, for whatever it's worth.
In the realm of Zen (and contemplative practice more generally), there are certain matters which can usefully be discussed - 'the spoken'. If you want to practise meditation, it's helpful to have a technique, and it's useful to discuss your practice with a teacher to confirm that you're doing it right. (You probably are, but it's still good to check.) A good meditation teacher should be able to offer one or more methods of practice clearly enough that you can figure out what you're meant to be doing, and should be willing to discuss your practice with you. Beyond the nuts and bolts of practice, there's also quite a bit more to Buddhism which can usefully be discussed - core teachings like the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the ethical precepts and so on. All of this is amenable to description and discussion, and it's worthwhile to learn about it.
At the same time, however, there's a limit to what can be reached through words. Words originate from, and relate to, the world of concepts - thoughts, descriptions, ideas, theories. No matter how nifty it is, a concept can never exactly replicate an experience - it can only point to it. If I say 'this tea I'm drinking is warm and minty', that description does not give you the experience of drinking my tea - it only allows you to imagine how my tea might taste, based on tea you may have tasted yourself at some point in the past. To put it in more Zen terms, a painting of a rice cake cannot satisfy hunger. In Zen practice, we're interested in exploring reality in an experiential way, not just a conceptual one - and so, at some point, we have to accept that what we're looking for can't be found in words. And so there's a dimension of practice which cannot be discussed - 'the unspoken'.
Now, the outsider is no dummy. He clearly gets both of these points - and yet he hasn't broken through to awakening yet. This is a frustrating time! Your teacher says you're doing the right thing, everything seems to be lined up properly... and yet nothing happens in your practice. What gives? This is the outsider's question: he isn't asking about either the spoken or the unspoken, and yet he's reached an impasse. Help!
Four kinds of student, or four attitudes in practice
After the outsider has gone, Ananda goes to the Buddha and essentially says 'What the heck just happened?' Poor old Ananda - he's always the butt of the joke in these stories, despite being a wonderfully diligent attendant to the Buddha for his whole life, and a famously nice guy to boot. Honestly, I think we could all do with a bit more Ananda in our lives. But I digress.
The Buddha's answer is one of those references where you just have to know the context for it to make any sense. The business with the horse and the whip is a reference to a story from early Buddhism about 'four kinds of horses', a metaphor for four kinds of students. (The full story can be found in AN4.113.)
The 'best' horse is the one from the koan - it goes as soon as it sees the mere shadow of the whip. It's well trained, it understands what it needs to do, and so the slightest suggestion is enough to get it moving. This represents the committed, intuitive, inquisitive meditation student, who only needs a hint from a teacher in order to go off and explore for themselves. The Buddha is saying that the outsider is someone like this - even the subtlest of responses was enough to open things up for him.
The second-best horse is one which needs to feel the brush of the whip against its mane before it'll get moving. This represents a student who is diligent enough but rather unimaginative, and needs to be given step-by-step instructions. If they encounter something new, they're likely to come back for further instructions rather than explore themselves, or say something like 'Well you didn't tell me to do that!'
The third-best horse is one which needs to feel the whip against its body. This represents a student who needs to be reminded over and over what to do, and will very easily wander off and start doing something else entirely if the teacher isn't careful. This type of student will often ask basically the same question over and over - perhaps because they're unwilling to accept the answer.
The fourth-best horse is one which, rather grimly, needs to be whipped to the bone in order to get a response. (Caveat: this is not an article about how to work with actual horses. Nor do I recommend whipping actual meditation students to the bone.) This represents someone who is holding so tightly to their current world view that it's almost impossible to get through to them - whatever the teacher says is filtered through their existing set of ideas about how the world works, and most of it ends up on the floor.
(Chan teacher Guo Gu has joked that there's also a fifth kind of student, the 'dead horse', who doesn't respond at all no matter how much you flog them.)
Now, the trouble with a list like this is that we immediately start wondering which kind of horse we are. 'Oh, I'm no good, I'm clearly the rubbish horse.' 'I've always been the top horse, don't you know.' 'Well, I think I'm a reasonable horse, but maybe I'm actually the bad one after all?'
Personally, I find it more helpful to approach this teaching in terms of four attitudes, any of which we might be holding at any given moment. One of the things we discover through practice is that we aren't fixed entities, which means that it simply can't ever be true to say 'Oh, I'm this kind of horse, and that's just how it is - I'll never change.'
On the other hand, when I look at my own practice, I can definitely see times when I've been able to take a fragment of a clue from one of my teachers and pull on that thread until something interesting happens. On the other hand, as I was writing the paragraph above about the student who says 'Well you didn't tell me to do that!', I could imagine it in my own voice - so, yeah, I find myself in that position a lot of the time, being rather literal-minded and prone to a lack of imagination at times. The third category is a bit more embarrassing, but I've had plenty of those moments as well - I'll have some kind of insight into my conditioning, then briefly wonder why nobody has ever pointed it out to me before, and then turn bright red as I remember the hundreds of times over the years that my friends have done exactly that. I can even see aspects of the fourth horse in myself, usually showing up as beliefs I didn't even realise I was holding until something challenges them strongly enough to shatter them outright. Very often, when I've been 'stuck' in practice - in that same holding pattern described by the outsider in the koan, seemingly doing all the right things but not going anywhere - it's been because I'm subtly holding onto something, and change is impossible until I'm willing and able to let go of it.
Perhaps, then, rather than looking at this as a kind of personality test with a fixed answer, we can instead turn it into a question. What's going on in your practice right now? Are you exploring, are you snug in your comfort zone, or are you stuck in the desert of 'nothing happening at all'? Is there anything your teacher says on a regular basis that gets a 'yeah, yeah, I know all that' reaction from you - and, if so, what would happen if, purely as an experiment, you supposed that actually you don't already know 'all that', and instead approached it with fresh eyes? How would it be to bring a genuine question mark into your practice, right now? What might you find if you could let it all go, even for a moment?
I hope you find out!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!