Making sense of a world in which nothing is as it seems
This week we're looking at case 40 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Kicking Over a Water Pitcher'. This rather peculiar story starts with Zen master Baizhang (last seen all the way back in case 2) asking a typically incomprehensible question, followed by equally bizarre answers. What's going on here?
Before we get into that in detail, let's go on a brief digression. It'll be relevant later, I promise.
How I became a recovering perfectionist
The seeds of my perfectionism were planted early. As a young'un I was academically gifted; my mum liked to see me do well, and my dad liked to needle people to wind them up ('Oh, 9 out of 10? Which one did you get wrong then?'), so I tended to set my sights pretty high (and avoid situations that would show me up to be less than perfect - not a great recipe for growth, but there you go).
Over the last decade or so of practice, that sense of perfectionism has gradually started to erode. Several factors have played into that. The lack of a clear external metric (marks out of 10) has been a big one, but somehow I still managed to hold on to an ideal of perfection for quite a while despite that. Then, in the last couple of years, as I've been confronting my tendency to apply too much effort to my meditation practice (see last week's article!), I've experimented with flipping from 'perfect' to 'good enough' as my ideal.
But that just replaces one problem with another - what's 'good enough'? This turns out to be a matter of perspective and context, rather than something that can ever be pinned down. To paraphrase a line from the Zhuangzi, if we say that something is good because it is praised by someone, then everything is good; if we say that something is bad beacuse it is criticised by someone, then everything is bad.
Let's take playing the piano as an example - this is something that I used to do (sadly I don't really have time any more). How good is 'good enough'? Well, it turns out that, no matter your level of skill, there will be some pieces of music that you can play easily (everyone can play a middle C if the right key is pointed out to them!), some which you can't play at all, and some which are right on the limit of your current level of skill. So you're 'good enough' to play the easy ones, need to get just a little better to play the ones that are right on the edge of your skill, and are not 'good enough' to play much more difficult pieces. The tricky bit is that it's easy to look at what we can't do and say 'Oh, I'm not good enough yet, I can't do xyz' - but that will always be the case. Many of the musicians who are regarded as the greatest in their field will comment in interviews that they're always practising, trying to get better, trying to reach some higher standard that feels forever beyond them.
To be clear, it isn't that it's a bad thing to want to improve! But if we're constantly beating ourselves up for not being 'good enough', then it may be helpful for us to investigate that notion to find out what it means to us. As we do that, we'll discover that it's much more of a moving target than we might have thought - and so our continual failure to achieve the satisfaction we thought we would find at the end of it all suddenly makes a lot more sense.
How does this relate to the koan?
What I've just described is one version of what's known as 'emptiness' in Zen. This slippery notion is all to do with pointing out how our concepts don't quite fit reality. We start with something simple like 'It needs to be perfect!' - that's a nice, apparently clear-cut target to aim for. Yet it turns out to be unreachable, again and again, and to the extent that we continue to cling to that idea of 'perfection', we suffer as a consequence of our failure to attain it. But then, through meditation and investigation of our experience, we realise that we've been chasing a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow - it's an optical illusion, something that doesn't really exist. And so we're able to relax and let go of the impossible goal, and the suffering that comes with it.
Seeing emptiness for ourselves (through a koan or Silent Illumination) is a major landmark on the path of Zen. It's a turning point, a point of no return - having seen the emptiness of the world, you can't ever go back to believing in a fully dependable, predictable world any more. And yet that isn't the end of the road by any means - in many ways it's more of a beginning.
As our understanding of emptiness deepens, we begin to notice more and more ways in which it applies to our experience. It turns out that all of our concepts are empty (including emptiness itself, but that's a head-scratcher for another day!). This can be very liberating, because all of a sudden the seemingly impenetrable walls keeping us trapped inside our suffering are revealed to be totally illusory. On the other hand, it can also be pretty confusing, as the seemingly dependable pillars of our life now appear to be shaky, impermanent and context-dependent. It's as if we've lived our whole lives with a road map which was beautifully clear but seriously misleading - we can no longer trust the road map any more, but then how are we going to get from A to B? How can we navigate at all in an empty world in which nothing is certain?
And that's what Zen master Baizhang is asking in this koan. He picks up a water pitcher - we know what a water pitcher is, you put water in it and you pour the water out when you want a drink. And yet we can assume that both Guishan and the leader of the assembly have done enough Zen practice to realise that the label 'water pitcher' doesn't fully capture what's going on here - it's just a limited concept, as empty as anything else. So if you can't call it a water pitcher, what do you call it?
What is a river?
Another example may help to clarify what's going on, at least at the intellectual level. (Intellectual understanding doesn't go far enough, but it's the best I can offer in an article! In time, your Zen practice will reveal emptiness to you on an experiential level, which is where it really makes a difference in your life.)
What's a river? Perhaps this seems like a daft question - everyone knows what a river is. It's when you've got a bunch of water flowing from somewhere upstream to somewhere downstream, probably ultimately ending up in the sea. What's hard about that?
OK, but what actually is the river? Is it the water? Presumably not, because the water is constantly flowing - if you stand and watch a river, you're seeing new water every moment. What else is involved? Well, there's a channel carved into the earth which makes the water flow in a particular direction, starting at a particular place and ending somewhere else. That's pretty important too - different rivers have different names, and if you're planning to go boating with friends it matters whether you're meeting on the River Severn or the River Thames. But, then again, the course of the river changes from time to time - if it's rained a lot, it might flood, or a shallower side channel might dry up entirely. And over a much longer period of time, the flowing water erodes the earth forming the river channel, causing it to change shape and direction. Sometimes a river can be diverted, either intentionally or unintentionally, so even the point where it reaches the sea can change significantly. And yet we still consider it to be 'the same river', even though pretty much every observable characteristic of it changes over time.
So why does this work? Because, in general, the changes to the river are small enough that they don't make much practical difference. Some days the brook behind my house is barely a trickle, some days it's a pretty strong flow, but either way there's usually some water down there - enough for the neighbourhood dogs to jump into and splash around in, anyway. Yes, it's much more of a process than a thing, but the process is consistent enough that it's sometimes useful to be able to label it and refer to it, even though the label doesn't refer to anything totally objectively real or dependable in any absolute sense.
Getting back to the road map analogy, perhaps we started out believing that we had access to satellite imagery which mapped out the terrain perfectly; then, when we discovered that the map wasn't perfectly accurate after all, we experienced a period of disorientation, not knowing how to move forward now that we felt we could no longer trust the map. But then, as our understanding of emptiness deepens, we realise that we're dealing with something more like the London Underground map. We can't take it too literally, but once we understand how it works, we can still use it to get around - and that's much better than not having a map at all!
The two answers
Coming back to the koan, we can perhaps now understand what's going on with the two responses to Baizhang's question.
The leader of the assembly (presumably the head monk at the temple) says 'It cannot be called a tree stump.' (As an aside, this is my own choice of terminology - one version I've seen says 'It cannot be called a wooden upright bolt', but I don't even know what a wooden upright bolt is(!), and another says 'It cannot be called a stump', which it take to mean a tree stump rather than a severed limb, hence my choice of translation.)
This seems like a pretty random answer at first sight, but what he's saying is 'Just because it's empty doesn't mean that you can use any old label to describe it! Some labels are more useful than others. It's much more useful to think of it as a water pitcher than as a tree stump, for example - neither is "ultimately true" but one fits the observed phenomenon a lot better than the other.'
This is an important point, and it's a bit of a relief for anyone who's been wondering how on earth they'll ever able to have a normal conversation with someone else after realising emptiness for themselves. It's fine - you can still use all the same words you always have. The difference is that you now know there's more to it than that - and that, if any of those words are taken too seriously and clung to, that's a setup for suffering. Instead, we simply take up the words as we need to, use them for the time being, and then put them down again when they've served their purpose.
So, actually, although the monk 'loses' the competition, he gives a pretty good answer! However, he's pipped the post by Guishan, who simply kicks over the pitcher and walks away.
Guishan is making the same point, but much more directly. Whatever you choose to call it - a pitcher, a jug, a container of water - its behaviour is the same. If you want it to hold water, it needs to be upright. If you knock it over, the water spills out and makes a big mess.
In the Zen tradition, answering a question through action is typically regarded as better than answering through words. Words can sometimes be helpful, but often can indicate that one's understanding only goes to the intellectual level. One can 'talk a good game', but if an insight hasn't yet reached the deeper levels of our being, it hasn't changed our lives. When an insight goes deeply enough, it's expressed in our actions, not just in our words - what's referred to as 'bodily attainment' in the Zen tradition. That's when it's truly useful - when it's so integrated into our being that no thought is required, no reflection, no debate - we simply act in accordance with the Great Way, without having to think about it at all. And so, by responding with an action rather than words, Guishan demonstrates the depth of his understanding - and his readiness to embody the path for others, not merely to talk about it.
May you, too, come to embody the Great Way of Zen through your practice.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!