Discovering yourself in stories a thousand years old
This week, we're looking at case 13 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Deshan Carrying His Bowl'. It's one of my favourites, for reasons that I'll explain later. First, a brief aside, and then we'll get into the story.
Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra
For some reason, the title of this koan always makes me think of the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'Darmok'. Captain Picard ends up stranded on a planet with Dathon, a member of an unfamiliar alien race. Picard tries to communicate with Dathon, but it appears that the Universal Translator is broken - Dathon's speech is composed entirely of cryptic statements like 'Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra' and 'Shaka, when the walls fell'.
As the episode goes on, we figure out that Dathon's people have developed a way of speaking which is almost entirely based around references to well-known past stories. Everyone knows the story of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra - which symbolises cooperation - and so by invoking the story, Dathon intends to convey that he and Picard need to cooperate to get out of their situation. But, of course, Picard doesn't know the story of Darmok and Jalad, and so the reference is meaningless to him. (One might imagine the historians of the future trying to make sense of an episode of South Park or The Simpsons.)
In many ways, we have the same issue with koans. At first glance, they're meaningless - many times, even when the story is translated into English, it relies on cultural concepts and references which are totally unfamiliar to us. For example, a classic way to begin a koan is for a monk to ask 'Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?' - which would have been a well-understood way of asking for a teaching in Tang dynasty China, but is totally opaque and mysterious for a modern reader until we know Bodhidharma (the founder of the Zen tradition in China) and the significance of his coming from the West (his journey from India to China to bring a form of Buddhism based primarily around meditation as opposed to scholarly study).
So a good first step in approaching a new koan is simply to decipher its meaning at face value - to find out who Darmok and Jalad are, and what they were doing at Tanagra. We don't stop there, of course - more on that later - but it's a good place to start. So on that note, let's meet this koan's equivalents of Darmok and Jalad.
The cast of characters
Most koans are encounters between two practitioners, but this time we have three.
First, we have Zen master Deshan, who is presumably the head of the temple where this story takes place. He's explicitly established as a Zen master - someone who knows what's what. He's senior enough to have received full transmission from his own teacher, and is the leader of this practice community.
Next, we meet Xuefeng, a monk at the temple. Reading between the lines, we can infer that Xuefeng is more junior in status. He takes his responsibilities seriously, but has a way to go in terms of his practice.
The third character is Yantou, who is most likely a senior of Xuefeng, but junior to the Zen master.
The interplay between these three is quite important to getting a grip on the koan, so make sure you've got the names straight before continuing, or come back here if you lose track of who's who. (The first time I encountered this koan I lost track almost immediately and got hopelessly confused, so don't be like me!)
Right, into the story.
Zen master Deshan makes an oopsie
The story begins with the Zen master screwing up - which may be shocking if you have the idea that Zen master should be fully enlightened, and that being fully enlightened means never doing anything wrong ever again. Sadly, the available evidence seems to point to the contrary. It's certainly possible for people to go so far in the practice to transform themselves in radical ways, but becoming totally perfect? I'm not convinced. Even the historical Buddha is recorded as having made mistakes. In modern times we have ample evidence of senior practitioners who are still evidently capable of serious errors of judgement, and in some cases of ethics - it's easy to say 'Ah well, they weren't really enlightened then,' but I think it's more realistic to acknowledge that, while enlightenment is unquestionably a good and helpful thing, it doesn't magically make you invulnerable to error.
In any case, here we have a portrait of a Zen master who is flawed in a very human way. He mistakes the time of day, and leaves the hall carrying his food bowl. But he's stopped in the corridor by the young monk Xuefeng, who points out his mistake quite directly - 'This is the wrong time, where do you think you're going?'
Personally, I think Deshan's response is telling here. Often a Zen master will respond to a question with an action rather than words, and in this case Deshan simply returns to his room right away. It's the wrong time - there's nothing to be gained by continuing to stand there. But when I think about how I might respond in that situation, it's quite different - I'd feel embarrassed for having made the mistake, maybe a little ashamed for having been caught in the act of being mistaken, and I might feel the need to defend myself. 'Oh really? I'm sure I heard the bell go a little while ago. I wonder what it could have been? Perhaps a bird has gotten into the bell tower again - someone should check that out.'
Honestly, if the koan stopped here, I'd be satisfied with it. I've found it very useful to reflect on when I've been in situations like this - when I should simply return to my room, but instead I feel the need to stand in a corridor trying to cover my embarrassment. Or, more generally, times when there's nothing going on, but rather than simply returning to rest peacefully, I've felt the need to make something interesting happen - reaching for my phone, turning on a computer, whatever it might be.
Nevertheless, the classical koan is far from done at this point. Let's see what happens next.
Xuefeng tells Yantou that the teacher screwed up
So now Xuefeng is feeling pretty good. He's wrong-footed the Zen master - caught him out in a mistake, and called him on it. The teacher didn't even have a reply! He just ran away. So Xuefeng runs to his senior Yantou and says 'Hey, guess what happened? Our crazy old teacher was wandering the halls with his food bowl in the middle of the morning! The old coot has totally lost it!'
There's a great temptation in poking holes in those above us in the social hierarchy, especially nowadays - we just love to tear people down and expose them as 'only human after all'. I remember with great embarrassment the first time I asked one of my teachers a question that he didn't have an answer for right away, and I felt a nasty little surge of pride - 'I've caught him out!' I even told some of my friends about it, just like Xuefeng is doing here.
This is a tricky moment. Xuefeng is in danger of losing respect for his teacher. That's a problem, because often a Zen teacher will ask a student to do something they don't want to do - persist with a difficult practice, explore a painful topic - and it really helps if the student is able to say 'Well, I don't want to, but my teacher says I should, so I'd better do it.' Now, even as I'm writing these words I'm thinking of the ways that that kind of relationship could be abused, and for the avoidance of doubt I'm not talking about the kind of warped power dynamic where students are abused or forced to do unhealthy things against their will. Rather, what I'm pointing to is the kind of Solomon Effect I mentioned in last week's article - a third party, such as a teacher, can often see much more clearly what's going on with you than you can, and a good teacher will sometimes encourage you to keep going when the going gets tough, because it'll be for your great benefit in the long run.
So Yantou could simply say something like 'Don't talk about our teacher that way! Have some respect.' And maybe that would work, but maybe not - maybe that would just cement Xuefeng's arrogance, because now he can think 'Not only have I caught out the teacher, but even my senior doesn't see it!'
So instead Yantou comes up with a scheme. He says 'Yep, the old man's losing it, all right. Calls himself a Zen master, but even he doesn't know what's what. He's missing something - if he were really fully enlightened he wouldn't make such a silly mistake!'
The master calls
Well, Zen master Deshan isn't going to take that lying down. He gets word that Yantou has been talking about him behind his back, and not in complimentary terms. This is probably pretty out of character for Yantou, so Deshan summons him and asks him what's going on.
The koan is a bit coy here, and simply says 'Yantou secretly revealed his intention, and Deshan dropped the subject.' As a result of this coyness, it's possible to overlook what's going on in the story - but we'll come back to that later.
Either way, Yantou and Deshan have a conversation, and we aren't let in on the details. (We could perhaps see this as Xuefeng's perspective - the arrogant young monk knows that a conversation has taken place, but not what exactly what discussed.)
But clearly something important happens in that conversation, because the next day, everything is different...
Deshan gets the last word
Whatever was discussed in that private audience, it seems to have had a significant effect on Deshan. The next lecture he gives is totally different - and it appears to impress Yantou, who previously agreed with Xuefeng's criticism of him. After this new lecture, Yantou makes a point of telling everyone that Deshan now seems to have 'got it' at last - he finally understands the 'last word', whatever that might be, and after this nobody will be able to touch him. Whatever Deshan does from now on is clearly an expression of enlightened wisdom, no matter how mysterious it might seem at the time.
And here the koan ends.
Wait, what just happened?
As I mentioned at the beginning, this koan is one of my favourites, at least partly because when I first read it, I made the exact same mistake as Xuefeng.
From Xuefeng's perspective, he finds a flaw in his teacher Deshan, and his senior confirms that Deshan hasn't gone all the way yet. Then a mysterious conversation takes place behind closed doors, after which Deshan's teaching is totally different. What final secret did Deshan realise? What's the secret teaching? What's the difference between 'nearly fully enlightened' and 'fully enlightened'? And how do we get the magic beans ourselves?
If we take a step back, however, the whole thing was one giant ruse, designed to have exactly this effect on Xuefeng (and, as it turns out, on me!). When Xuefeng goes to speak to Yantou, rather than simply telling him off for being disrespectful, Yantou decides to redirect Xuefeng's arrogance in a way that will ultimately benefit him, a kind of psychological aikido move. Yantou appears to agree with Xuefeng's criticism, then, when summoned to see the master, Yantou secretly tells him what's up. 'Master, I meant no disrespect. But Xuefeng is starting to get too big for his straw sandals - he thinks you're a daft old man who doesn't know what's going on. Maybe you could do something differently tomorrow, and then we can tell him that you're now fully enlightened - so he won't be able to criticise you any more!' And so the next day Deshan gives a teaching in a totally different style, and Yantou seizes the moment to say 'Look! From this point on, everything Deshan does is a deep and secret teaching, no matter how it seems on the surface!'
This is doubly clever, because it both capitalises on Xuefeng's fondness for secrets - he enjoyed one-upping the Zen master, and so will presumably be attracted to the idea of a secret, closed-door teaching that finally elevates Deshan to full enlightenment - and also reframes all of Deshan's future actions as sources of profound esoteric wisdom as opposed to the kind of simple mistakes that we make every day. Xuefeng will now be watching like a hawk, hoping to learn from Deshan rather than continue to undermine him.
Finding meaning in koans
As I said at the beginning of the article, we usually need to start our work with any new koan by simply deciphering the names and references involved - but if we stop there, we're making a mistake. Really, the worst outcome from any kind of koan study is to come away feeling that we now 'understand the koan' because the story makes sense on a superficial level: 'Oh, this story is about a monk who asked too many questions, so Zhaozhou is cutting him off to get him to go and meditate instead of thinking all the time.' That kind of understanding may be intellectually satisfying, but is of no practical value.
Instead, as we spend more time with a koan, we gradually find that layers of meaning will start to emerge - sometimes, these layers can even give rise to totally different interpretations of the story, as is readily apparent comparing any two commentaries on a given koan. We can see this for ourselves very clearly when coming back after some period of time to a koan that we previously felt we 'understood'. As we bring different eyes to it, we notice details we hadn't seen before, or find a new allegory buried in the story.
For my money, koans become most useful when we 'find ourselves in the story'. Perhaps we have the same question or issue as the koan's protagonist; perhaps we see how the teacher's reply can be applied to our own situation; perhaps we remember an incident from our own lives that played out exactly like part of the koan - or that perhaps could have played out that way, if we'd had more presence of mind.
In the present case, the koan made a profound impact on me when I found myself in Xuefeng - the same attitude, the same mistakes, the same arrogance. Once I began to see myself as Xuefeng, I could reflect on the times when I've treated my own teachers poorly, and began to imagine some of the work they've put in on my behalf to try to help me move forward in my own practice - work that, just like the closed-door meeting between Yantou and Deshan, I haven't been privy to, and in some cases might not even have been aware of. Reflecting on this, I was struck by the profound kindness that my own teachers have shown me, patiently taking the time to answer my questions and objections over and over, repeatedly having to watch me ignore their instructions and do my own thing because of course I know better. And at the end of it all, what is the 'secret' that I'm looking for? It was right there at the start of the story - Deshan immediately returned to his room. Perfect ordinariness, in a sense - but an extraordinary ordinariness that I'm certainly not capable of most of the time.
However, that's what I take from his koan. Someone else might get a totally different read from it. A student contacted me recently with a different take on case 8, The Wheelmaker, pointing out an aspect of the story that my own analysis totally overlooked. His own interpretation was very good, seeing the overly-fancy hundred-spoked wheels as a symbol of our greed for unnecessary things, cutting right to the heart of the Three Poisons of Buddhism (greed, hatred and delusion). But does that mean that his interpretation is what the koan is really about, and that my emptiness-based explanation was wrong? Or vice versa? I would say no - both interpretations are valid and useful.
Ultimately, koan study is 'just' another insight practice - another way of examining our experience carefully, looking to see how we deceive ourselves, how we fall into patterns of reactivity and suffering again and again, and how we might become free. Reading a koan on the intellectual level, as a story about something that happened in China a thousand years ago, perhaps interesting as a historical artefact but not particularly relevant to our lives today, is ultimately a missed opportunity. Finding ourselves in the stories, though - wherever and however we do that - is when this practice really comes alive, and really shines a light onto our own situation in a way that can be transformative.
So I suggest you now go back and spend some time with this koan - in meditation, as a contemplation, talking about it with a friend, whatever you'd like to do. And then come back tomorrow, and the next day, and keep going, until it starts to connect with you on a more direct, visceral level - until you find yourself in it. And when that does happen, really explore its implications. What can you learn? What can you apply in your own life?
Maybe what you'll ultimately take from this koan has nothing whatsoever to do with any of my commentary above - and that's fine! Whatever you find, may it be of true and lasting value for you.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.