Like Einstein said, it's all relative...
This week we're looking at case 26 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Two Monks Roll Up a Screen'. At face value, it's pretty straightforward - the master asks his monks to open a window, and one of them beats the other one to it. Simple! But, as usual, there's more going on than meets the eye. So let's dive in!
The Eight Worldly Winds
Gain and loss are one of four pairs which together comprise the Eight Worldly Winds - eight sets of conditions in conventional life which have the power to blow us this way and that. If we arrange the pairs so that they rhyme, the full set of eight is:
Looking at our own lives, we may well be able to see instances of these winds in operation. Our brains are hard-wired to be deeply aversive to loss, and less strongly drawn toward gain (we will, in general, work much harder to avoid a loss than to acquire a gain). Similarly, all living creatures have a natural tendency to move toward pleasure and away from pain.
Humans are social creatures, and so we're also sensitive to interpersonal forces. Some people live for the praise of those around them, while others find it vaguely uncomfortable to be put in the spotlight. For many people, blame is immensely unpleasant (particularly when the blame is unfair!), but for others, criticism can be a source of motivation, a challenge to be overcome. And on a broader level, we each have a certain reputation - perhaps positive, perhaps not so much - and we can be very sensitive to how that reputation might be affected if we make a fool of ourselves in public.
On one level, then, we can look at this koan as a straightforward example of these winds in action. The master asks for the window to be opened, and two monks respond - but one is faster than the other. Should we interpret the master's comment as a compliment to the faster monk (who thereby gains his master's praise, and potentially an enhanced reputation too, all of which will no doubt feel rather pleasant), and a criticism of the slower monk (who thereby loses out on the opportunity to impress the teacher, and perhaps develops the negative reputation of being slow off the mark - likely to be rather unpleasant, perhaps even painful)?
However, Zen masters are rarely so crass as to offer praise and blame for their own sake. Generally speaking, if you see something in a koan that looks like a competition between two monks, it's a setup of some kind - there's something deeper going on.
So perhaps, instead, the master is saying this as a test - to see if his monks have developed sufficient equanimity that his words of praise and blame don't have that effect on them. In the long run, one of the beneficial effects of this practice is to make us much less susceptible to the Eight Worldly Winds - to give us the ability to hold fast in the centre of our own experience, letting worldly conditions come and go without unnecessarily disturbing our peace of mind.
And so this koan can be a test of our own equanimity. What do we see in the words? If we were the quicker monk, would we be feeling pleased with ourselves right now? What about if we were the slower one?
Gain and loss as a matter of perspective
Albert Einstein probably didn't actually say 'it's all relative', but his monumental theory of Relativity (a profound scientific theory about the nature of space-time) is based on the fundamental insight that things look different depending on where you're standing. And while Einsteinian relativity doesn't have a whole lot of bearing on a meditation practice, it's also true for Zen practitioners that what we see depends very much on how we're looking at it.
We often look at potential gains or losses as isolated events - you lose £100 betting on the horses or you don't, you gain that new job or you don't. But if we look a bit closer, there's more going on than that.
For one, what might appear to be a 'gain' before the fact may turn out to be a mixed blessing once we have it, and likewise for a 'loss'. A couple of years ago now a friend of mine broke up with his long-time partner - the loss of a relationship which had deeply shaped his life for many years. However, this painful event served as a catalyst for many positive changes in his life, and now he's much happier than he was before. For me, I got a new job in 2011 which I thought was going to be great, but in fact turned out to be a total nightmare!
(There's a traditional story about a farmer which I mentioned in a previous article on the Eight Worldly Winds - check it out if you don't know the one I mean, it's a classic. The story, that is, not my article - although the article isn't bad either, in my humble opinion!)
Even this, though, supposes that any given event can ultimately be classed as 'a gain' or 'a loss'. Another, perhaps richer, way to look at it is simply as change - impermanence in action. Change has many consequences, some obvious, some not so much.
The shadows of our choices
I used to write music, although I haven't done it seriously for a while now (this meditation thing has expanded to fill all of my available spare time!). I would often find myself reluctant to add a melody to my tunes; when I listened to the chords and harmonies, I could imagine all the potential melodies that could exist over them, and I found that I was reluctant to cut off all of that potential by fixing on one specific, actual melody. I actually liked the music I produced, but most other people who listened to it would say 'Not bad, needs a tune though.'
Choices are like that too. When we commit to something, we exclude all of the possible alternatives. As the monk opens the window, the room gains the light, but loses the darkness. (Perhaps some of the monks in the hall were thankful for the light, but others had been enjoying the peaceful darkness.) There is no gain without loss, no choice which is simply one thing and nothing else, no change which doesn't simultaneously exclude all other possible changes in that moment.
It can be very interesting to spend some time reflecting on the web of cause and effect in our lives, to see how even innocuous choices can take us down paths very different to those we might have ended up on had we made a different choice in the beginning.
Who gains, who loses?
One final perspective shift worth exploring is the (appropriately Zen-like) question of who gains and loses. It turns out that questions of gain and loss depend a lot on where you're standing - just like Einstein said! (I promise I'll stop trolling the scientists in the audience now.)
Suppose my next-door neighbours and I decide to swap houses. From my perspective, I've gained their old house and lost mine. From their perspective, they've lost their old house and gained mine. From the perspective of the street as a whole, however, very little has changed - some of the contents of the street have moved around a bit, but there are still the same number of houses and people, still the same amount of stuff, just redistributed a little. If I take my water bottle to work with me, I don't generally think that my house has lost a water bottle, although you certainly could look at it that way.
Coming back to science again for a moment, science tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, just changed from one form to another. In the same way, from a broad enough perspective, nothing at all can really be gained or lost - it just moves around and changes form from time to time. Even life and death - some of the biggest events in our lives on the personal level - are just another day of business as usual when viewed from the perspective of the whole universe. We can choose to see death as the loss of a specific life, or as just another change in the larger matrix of universal life. Neither perspective is 'truer' than the other - both are equally true, and equally one-sided.
Coming back to the koan
This koan is an invitation to consider gain and loss deeply. What do they mean to us? What are their ramifications? What aspects of the gains and losses in our lives have we overlooked or not fully considered? How do the difficulties in our lives appear to us when viewed from another perspective, perhaps a broader one? And are we able to find wisdom, compassion or both by shifting to a different perspective?
May you find peace even in the midst of the Eight Worldly Winds.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!