From the sublime to the ridiculous
This week we've arrived at the final koan in the Gateless Barrier, case 48, 'One Road'. The road metaphor feels particularly appropriate this week, since we've been journeying through this classic Zen text for almost two years now. If you've read the whole set of articles, well done for hanging in there! If not, you can find a complete list of Gateless Barrier articles on the articles index page.
So today's article focuses on the final case in the collection - and, like last week's, it has a nice 'summarising' feel to it, showcasing the full range of Zen practice - from the mundane to the transcendent.
Decoding the imagery
First, let's walk through the koan itself and take a look at the cast of characters, the literary references and the cultural allusions. Koans are often intended to be puzzling, but not incomprehensible!
We start with a nameless monk asking Zen master Qianfeng about a line that he's read somewhere: 'The blessed ones of the ten directions have one road of Nirvana.' According to Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida, this quotation comes from the Surangama Sutra. 'Blessed one' is a respectful way to refer to a Buddha, and 'ten directions' just means 'everywhere' (the 'ten directions' are the cardinal points on a compass (north, south etc.), plus the in-between directions (north-east and so on), plus 'up' and 'down' to make ten). So the sutra is saying that all Buddhas everywhere have 'one road of Nirvana' - one path leading to enlightenment. And evidently this sounds pretty good to the monk, so he's asking his teacher Qianfeng 'So, uh, where exactly is this road? Because that's where I want to be.'
In a previous case we talked about the Zen teacher's staff as a symbol, but here Qianfeng is using it as a simple implement - a stick, with which he draws a line. This is Qianfeng's simple, direct answer to the question. The monk is asking where this mysterious 'road to Nirvana' might be, and the teacher is saying 'Right here in front of you.' A common trope in Zen teaching is for the teacher to answer in a way which is somehow opposite to the nature of the question - so if a student brings a fancy, high-falutin' question, they'll get a very simple, earthy answer back. (See, for example, the toilet humour of case 21.)
But the monk evidently doesn't get it, and later on he goes to ask Zen master Yunmen to explain further. Perhaps he's expecting another very simple, straightforward answer, because Yunmen takes the opposite approach and gives an answer filled with elaborate imagery. He speaks of a fan leaping up to the 'thirty-third heaven' - in Buddhist cosmology, this is a reference to the Trayastrimsa heaven, home of Indra, king of the gods (or, in Thomas Cleary's translation above, the 'chief of the celestial rulers'). How can something as simple as Yunmen's fan leap all the way to heaven to whack Indra on the nose?
And Yunmen's not done - when Indra's nose encounters Yunmen's fan, 'the carp of the eastern sea are given a blow'. In Chinese legend, the carp of the eastern sea can transform into mighty dragons when the time is right - a transformation which in Zen often symbolises attaining enlightenment - and dragons of Chinese legend are renowned for their ability to make it rain. And all of this from a little fan!
So maybe that's a little clearer now... or maybe it's still clear as mud. Let's take a look at this from another angle.
How to keep your eye on the ball when there's no ball
Zen practice seems to be riddled with contradictions. It can seem like, no matter what you do, there's a Zen teacher somewhere telling you to do the opposite. It's frustrating sometimes!
For example, in last week's article we looked a bit at the differences in approach between the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen. In Rinzai Zen there's a strong emphasis on kensho - seeing your true nature, experiencing a clear shift in perspective, having an 'awakening experience'. By comparison, the Soto school downplays kensho, focusing instead on practising right here, right now, manifesting your inherent Buddha Nature from moment to moment. So which is it? Should we focus on the here and now, or do we need to wake up and become enlightened?
Whether we think of ourselves as Zen practitioners or not, what actually matters most is what's happening right now. You might have had some lofty spiritual experience last month, or last year, or in 1970 when you dropped acid for the first time, but if whatever realisation came from that spiritual experience is not manifest in this moment right now then it's no use to you. There's a saying in Zen circles that 'last year's insight is last year's insight'. Who you were last year is of course related to who you are right now, but who you are right now is what actually matters in terms of your behaviour and relationships.
So in Zen we have this strong focus on the present moment. (Qianfeng draws a line right in front of the monk - the one road to Nirvana is right in front of you.) My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, liked to emphasise what he called 'nari kiru' - a 'total cutting off' of everything except this, here, now. Other teachers talk about 'becoming one with' whatever activity we find ourselves engaged in - by bringing ourselves so completely and wholeheartedly into that activity that there's no 'gap' remaining, nothing left over, no part of ourselves which is off in a corner somewhere else thinking about what we're doing later or worrying about what happened yesterday. The state of 'nari kiru' is similar to the Flow state talked about in popular psychology, but with one key difference - Flow is typically associated with being 'in the zone' in some particular, skilled activity (like sports or performance), whereas Zen invites us to bring the same level of presence to every aspect of our lives, not just the 'peak experiences'.
This means that, from a Zen perspective, nothing in particular is 'it' - there's no real difference between our sitting meditation practice and the rest of our lives. The challenge of really living Zen is finding a way to make every moment of our lives a part of our practice - or, alternatively, realising that every moment of our lives provides an opportunity to continue our practice and be supported by it.
The drawback of this approach is that, when we treat every moment as special, that's indistinguishable from no moment being special. And while mature Zen masters will often talk about the sense of 'nothing special' as the highest ideal in practice, that can be discouraging for those of us who aren't so far along the path. All this talk of 'nothing to find, nothing to get, nothing special at all' can make it sound like there's 'no point to Zen' - so why bother with the practice at all? Why not just crack open a beer and see what's on Netflix instead of 'wasting' all that time meditating?
And this is why it's helpful to emphasise the other side of Zen practice sometimes - the transcendent moments of kensho, the carp that transforms into a dragon, the fan that bumps into Indra's nose and causes reverberations throughout the entire universe. Practice really does transform who we are and how we see and relate to the world. We really can 'wake up' - there really is a 'one road to Nirvana' that we can find and walk for ourselves. Where is that road found? Right here, in this moment. And so we come full circle.
Approaches to continuous practice
Extending practice beyond your meditation cushion is easier said than done, but here are some suggestions - some of which I've used myself, others come recommended from teachers I respect.
If your practice is Silent Illumination, it's actually relatively straightforward to translate the sitting practice into other activities. When you sit in Silent Illumination, you're 'just sitting' - that is, you aren't 'sitting and thinking about xyz' or 'sitting and listening to music'. When practising Silent Illumination, your total focus is on the experience of sitting, however that is unfolding for you right now. We can take that same attitude into walking meditation - when walking, we're now 'just walking', not 'walking and ...'. Then, when the formal meditation period is over and we make a cup of tea, we're 'just boiling the water', 'just getting the teabag or tea leaves ready', 'just pouring the water', and so on. The key point is that, whatever you're doing, you're 100% doing it - nari kiru. In particular, it's important to focus on the process of what you're doing rather than the outcome - to the extent that you're thinking about how your current activity is going to turn out, you aren't giving your whole attention to what you're doing right now. It can be pretty difficult to let go of the outcome entirely! But give it a try - the more you're able to let go and focus on the task at hand, the more satisfying the work tends to be, and usually the better the outcome is too.
If you like to work with a koan, things are a bit different. You can't necessarily bring the same level of total inward focus on the questioning process and the ball of doubt in the tanden when you're trying to make dinner or navigate a difficult conversation. Nevertheless, if we have the attitude of continuous practice, we can still make it work. My teacher Daizan likens the process of working with a koan to being in love. When you're in love, the person you love isn't always at the forefront of your mind. When you're with them, of course, there they are, but when you're both off doing different things, your awareness of the person you love can recede into the background. But because of the strength of the bond between you, it doesn't drop away entirely, and they'll often surface in your mind when there's a quiet moment. And in fact that's what Daizan recommends with the koan - when you have something else to do, just do that task completely (nari kiru again), but when you have a quiet moment with nothing going on - stuck in a queue, waiting for the printer at work - you can bring up the koan again and ask your question a few more times and see what comes up.
Certain koans can also translate to everyday activities, affording additional opportunities for practice. Let's say you're working with 'Who am I?' In your formal meditation, 'Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?' Then, in daily life, 'Who is typing on this keyboard? Who hears this jazz music? Who feels hungry right now?' Give this one a try - you'll find that, with practice, you're able to incorporate the attitude of exploring, questioning, investigating the 'centre point' of experience into a wide range of activities.
What about if your primary meditation technique is neither Silent Illumination nor koan practice? Perhaps your practice is primarily based in mindfulness of the breath, or awareness of the body. I've heard it said that it's possible to train yourself to maintain some level of awareness on the breath or body all day long, and that this is a powerful way to practise, with very beneficial results in terms of presence of mind, emotional stability, equanimity and so forth. That approach doesn't work well for me personally, for a number of reasons, but if you have a strong affinity for that kind of practice, it's definitely worth exploring. Alternatively, what if you primary practice is heart-opening? Well, how would it be to go through your day approaching each interaction with another person with the intention to send them some loving kindness or compassion? If you spend a lot of time with other people each day, this could be a very effective way to practise.
A closing word about the Gateless Barrier
As noted above, this is the final article in my series on the koans of the Gateless Barrier - but it's by no means the last word on this fascinating collection. Throughout the series I've used three texts as my primary references - 'Unlocking the Zen Koan' by Thomas Cleary, 'Two Zen Classics' by Katsuki Sekida, and 'Passing through the Gateless Barrier' by Guo Gu. All three provide discussions of each case, along with the prose and verse comments by Zen master Wumen who compiled the collection (which I've mostly omitted due to time and space constraints). Cleary's translation often includes verse comments from other Zen masters too.
As I've spent time with these koans - learning them, examining them, practising with them, attempting to unpack and explain them in these articles - I've had many surprises and discoveries along the way. A koan that I thought I understood might suddenly reveal a new layer of meaning, turning on its head everything I thought I understood about it. (It's been a bit inconvenient when that's happened a day before giving a talk on the koan in my Wednesday night Zen class!) And I have no doubt that they'll continue to reveal new meanings as I continue to study them - a koan is never really 'solved', it only provides us with a way to unlock the next step in our own practice, and it can serve that role many times over.
If you're interested in koans, the Gateless Barrier is a great place to start. The koans in this collection are much more accessible than many others, and with so many good translations and commentaries available, it's possible to get something out of them no matter where you are on your spiritual journey.
May your journey go well, and may you too find the one road of Nirvana walked by the blessed ones of the ten directions.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!