The power of story-telling
(This is the second time I've written this article. The first time around, the article was 90% complete, then the whole thing vanished when I tried to save the post - ironically so that it would be backed up in case I accidentally closed the page in my browser. I'd like to say 'a lesson in impermanence!' but honestly it's just a bit annoying... Anyway, here we go for the second time.)
This week we're looking at case 8 in the Gateless Barrier, titled 'The Wheelmaker'. This particular koan is another case where I find the translation I've been using so far - that of Thomas Cleary - actually not to be as helpful as it could be. So let's take a look at Guo Gu's translation, which provides a bit more detail that Cleary omits:
Xizhong Makes a Carriage
Master Yue'an asked a monk, 'Xizhong makes carriages with wheels of a hundred spokes. Yet, dismantle the two parts, the front and the back of the carriage, and remove the axle, then what will the carriage be?'
OK, that gives us more to work with. We have an image of an evidently very fine carriage made by the master artisan Xizhong, who makes very elaborate hundred-spoked wheels. The carriage is composed of front and back parts (presumably where the driver and the passenger sit respectively?), two of these fancy wheels, and an axle holding the whole thing together. And the questioner is asking: if we take away everything except the two wheels, at that point, what use are the wheels, no matter how fancy they are?
To put it in modern language: Rolls Royce make beautiful engines, but if you take a Rolls Royce car and remove the wheels, the seats, the chassis and the transmission, what good does that beautiful engine do now?
This question by itself is well worth contemplating in the koan style. A related question which is also very worthy of exploration is this: 'In the absence of any thoughts about who I am, who am I?' In other words, if we remove all of our usual ego supports, all the usual patterns of thought and behaviour which we use to remind ourselves of our identity from moment to moment, what's left? In a moment with no thought at all, who are you then?
However, I'm going to go in a different direction this week. I spent the last two weeks on a retreat in the early Buddhist style, and I've come away with a reinvigorated appreciation for the techniques in that tradition. Maybe you're a Zen person through and through, in which case the first part of this article may well be enough for you. But I think it's interesting to explore other approaches, and different methods work for different people, so over the next few weeks I'm going to bring a few perspectives from early Buddhism into these articles as well, even as we keep working through the Zen stories in the Gateless Barrier. I hope you'll enjoy the journey!
Direct experience and the stories we weave to explain it
Buddhism sometimes describes our experience as fabricated - that is, 'constructed' by the mind. When we look around, we see a world of 'things' - computer screen, keyboard, door, wall, tree, antelope and so on. But what our eyes actually 'receive' is light at particular frequencies impacting the retina at the back of the eyeball. Similarly, our ears receive vibrations in the air through our eardrum, and so on. Our brain then takes that sensory input and makes sense of it, first understanding those light frequencies as colours and shapes, then recognising patterns and providing labels like 'car', 'cat', 'banana', and finally deciding how we feel about cars, cats or bananas and what we want to do as a result. By the time our conscious experience arises, all of that processing has taken place, and so our conscious experience is presented to us in finished form - a world of things, about which we have a variety of feelings, and toward which we may have various impulses (eat the banana, chase the cat out of the back garden so it doesn't kill the birds).
Notice that, in that last example, we were already moving well beyond the simple perception of 'cat'. We've now recognised that there's a cat, it's in the back garden, we remember that it likes to kill birds and we don't want it to do that, and so we feel motivated to take action. There's a level of interpretation taking place now - we're starting to develop a narrative to explain what's taking place, rather than simply noticing a bunch of objects and going no further than that.
In general, our minds like to have an explanation for what's going on. We feel much more at ease when we feel we know what's happening - even if the explanation we have is actually not very good! (I could cite scientific research to justify this claim, but for our purposes it's much better if you check it out for yourself. Look at the stories you tell yourself. How do you know they're true? Are there other stories which fit the same events?)
So what tends to happen is that an initial perception ('cat') will trigger a subsequent thought (memory of cat chasing birds), which triggers something else (a memory of sadness the last time the cat killed some birds), ... and on and on. The Buddha had a term for this, panañca, usually translated as 'mental proliferation', and it's here that the bulk of our avoidable suffering arises. Our minds come up with negative stories (I'm not good enough, so-and-so doesn't like me), and then latch onto them, newly alert for more 'evidence' which can be used to support the story (look, it happened again, I knew I was no good at this), until eventually we become trapped, unable to step out of the story to see ourselves differently. (Or, of course, it goes the other way - we start to buy into our own publicity and become so enamoured in our stories about how great we are that we overlook our shortcomings.)
So what can we do about this?
Change the label, change the story, change the experience
The key point here is that there's a vicious circle going on. We perceive something negative, we generate a negative story, the negative story conditions us to perceive more negative things, which feeds the negative story, and on and on. Sometimes we can escape this cycle through a simple bare awareness practice, where we just sit with our experience and allow it to quieten down naturally - it can be, especially if we've seen the fabricated nature of our minds experientially, that just sitting in this way can be enough to see through the stories and rediscover our original freedom. At times, though, that can be really difficult! And it can help to have another approach.
A technique that we find in early Buddhism comes from the Satipatthana Sutta, the discourse on establishing mindfulness. This discourse has a wide range of different mindfulness practices, grouped into four categories - the body, the vedana of experience (our sense that this or that is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), the state of our mind, and mental phenomena - and this week we'll take a brief look at one of the body-based practices, that of the Four Elements.
First, what are the Four Elements? Classically, we have:
If those don't make any sense to you, my teacher Leigh Brasington prefers to interpret them in scientific terms:
So pick a definition that you like (either will do, it really doesn't matter), and then set yourself up in meditation. Bring your attention to your body, and notice what sensations arise. When you notice a sensation, give it one of four labels - Earth, Fire, Air or Water. Then let it go, and see what sensation you notice next. If you notice anything other than the body, such as sounds or thoughts, that's fine, but just let them go without labelling them. Right now, your attention is on the body, labelling and classifying the sensations into these four buckets. And that's it - just keep doing that.
Why does this work? Well, let's suppose you're having a common meditation experience: you've been sitting for a while, and your body is starting to ache. Now you're feeling uncomfortable, and you want to move. You start to wonder if the sitting is nearly over - oh, but there's that pain again, and although you know you aren't actually hurting yourself, it's still really unpleasant, and you'd like it to stop, and ...
Now let's bring the Elements to it. So you've been sitting for a while, and now Earth, Earth, some Fire, Earth, Air, Fire, Fire, Earth, Water, and ...
Notice how much less interesting the second story is! The first one is a tale of pain, sadness and frustration. The second one is just a list of elements. It's hard to get too excited - or dismayed - about the second story, whereas the first one is pretty captivating.
Two valuable things are happening here. First, in a pinch, we're avoiding mental suffering due to the discomfort of sitting by consciously, deliberately working with our experience in such a way that we're telling a simple, boring story rather than a rich, distressing one. We should never do this to get out of a situation where we're actually damaging ourselves, but as a way of dealing with the usual everyday discomforts of sitting, it can be very helpful. Second, and much more importantly in the long run, we're also seeing directly, in real time, how the labels that we bring to our experience actually contribute to creating that experience. When we start to take that on board at the deepest level, the fabricated nature of our experience becomes much more evident, and we naturally take our mentally constructed vexations less seriously than we did before.
Coming back to the koan
Now that we know the Four Elements practice, we can see the koan in a new way. Like carriages, stories are useful. If all we have is a pile of disconnected parts, it's difficult to get anywhere. It's helpful to have a sense of who we are and how we're moving through the world.
At the same time, though, it's invaluable to remember that it's just a collection of parts which have been assembled in a certain way. And if one of the wheels of our carriage starts sticking instead of turning properly, we're going to have a bumpy ride - unless we're able to take the carriage apart, clean the various bits, replace anything that's totally bent out of shape, and then put the whole thing back together again.
May your ride be smooth!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!