Easier said than done!
It sounds like the setup for a joke - 'What's the difference between Buddha and three pounds of burlap?' But it's actually case 18 in the Gateless Barrier, a collection of Zen koans compiled in the early 13th century, and it's the subject of today's article. So buckle up, and let's try to make sense of this bizarre exchange.
What on earth..?
I must admit, I haven't been looking forward to this one! The koan doesn't give us much to work with - there's no sense of a back story, and Dongshan's reply seems pretty meaningless on the face of it. Sometimes these pithy phrases are references to other well-known Zen stories, but that doesn't appear to be the case here.
When I first came across this koan I had no idea what to make of it, so I spent quite a while looking up the commentaries of other teachers. I found pretty universal acknowledgement that this is one of the harder ones. In fact, quite a few of the 'commentaries' I read started with a vague attempt at an 'explanation' ('Maybe Dongshan was weighing out flax at the time?') and then go on to fill up many more paragraphs with unrelated 'Zen stuff'. By the time I'd finished reading the commentary, I'd often feel like I'd read a good Zen teaching - just not one that was particularly relevant to the actual koan!
Another common device - which seems to be the last resort of commentators who don't quite know what to say, and I'll admit to having used this trick myself at times - is to say 'Ah, well, the function of this koan is to stir up doubt.' It's certainly true - many koans are designed to present seemingly impenetrable problems, as a way of inviting the practitioner to go beyond their analytical mind and 'interrupt the circuit of thought', as Wumen (the compiler of the Gateless Barrier) put it in his prose comment to the first case in the collection. But I think that's a bit of a cop-out too - critics of the koan method will often claim that koans are meaningless gibberish, but that hasn't been my experience at all. There's something of value in each and every koan, and if I can't make sense of a particular case yet, that's a sign to me that I have a blind spot in my practice, and thus an opportunity to discover something new.
After sitting with this one for a while, I think I have an inkling of what's going on. Much like the previous case, I have a long way to go in terms of being able to embody the teaching myself, but I believe I can at least see the direction of travel, and that alone may be worth sharing. And even if it misses the mark in terms of this koan, at least I'll have produced a few paragraphs of Zen-related stuff as a result...
The medium is the message
Sometimes, a Zen master will respond to a question with an action, rather than a verbal response. We've seen this before in case 14, where Zhaozhou responded to Nanquan by putting his sandals on his head and walking out of the room. (If you don't know the story, go and read the article - it's a fun koan!) I'd argue that a similar thing happens in case 13, where the Zen teacher is caught out in a mistake, going for his food at the wrong time, and when he's challenged by the young monk Xuefeng, he doesn't stand around debating the point or making excuses, he simply returns to his room.
In this case, I believe Dongshan is responding to the monk's question with an action - it's just that the action happens to be a verbal one. But it isn't what's being said that's important in this case so much as how he's saying it.
When I was training as a meditation teacher, my teacher said something which has (ironically) stayed with me pretty much word for word ever since. He was describing the experience of teaching to a group of students, and how one's attitude and embodiment of the teachings was much more important than the specific words and phrases used to explain the mechanics of those teachings, and he recounted some advice given to him by his own Zen teacher: 'Two weeks from now, they won't remember a word you said; but they'll always remember how you were.' Certainly when I think back to some of the memories seared mostly strongly into my own mind, the specifics of the words exchanged are not always particularly clear, but the emotional tone of the encounter is crystal clear.
So perhaps in this case the 'three pounds of burlap' are not so important - what matters is where Dongshan is coming from when he says it. But where's that?
Spontaneity in Zen, and 'just breathe naturally'
In Zen (perhaps more so than some other forms of Buddhism), emphasis is placed on the importance of naturalness and spontaneity. (Perhaps this is a sign of Daoism's influence on Zen.) Within my own Zen lineage, we have practices of 'spontaneous movement' which are meant to help us get in touch with a kind of innate, intuitive wisdom, rather than living purely from the place of our rational, reflective mind. As mentioned above, we can also see koans as a tool that can be used to break us free from our deliberate thinking and connect us with something deeper.
But what does 'spontaneity' actually mean? One possible answer is 'just do what comes naturally, without worrying about it', but that doesn't seem terribly appealing. I'm sure we've all had the experience of taking the path of least resistance in a situation and subsequently regretting it - when I'm in an angry state of mind, for example, certain actions may suggest themselves to me which would be pretty dreadful if I followed through on those impulses. Another possible objection is that, if all we have to do is to do whatever comes naturally, then why do we need to meditate and do all this other stuff? What's the point of Zen if the ultimate message is 'just do what you were going to do anyway?'
I'm reminded of my Tai Chi teacher, who is endlessly annoyed by the advice in some of the classic texts on Tai Chi, which say 'Just breathe naturally.' Take a room full of people off the street who've never done Tai Chi before, and the last thing you want them to do is 'breathe naturally'. Most people have very poor breathing habits (because we as a society collectively breathe inefficiently and unhealthily, and children learn their breathing habits from the people around them), and so need to be trained out of breathing that way. When we finally do let go of the awkward habits we've had up to that point, the resulting breath feels beautifully natural, and so from that perspective it makes total sense to say 'just breathe naturally'!
Perhaps the distinction we should make, then, is between 'breathing naturally' and 'breathing habitually'. What we want is the natural breath, but what we typically get when we don't do anything special with the breath is instead the 'habitual breath'. It takes a deliberate process of training to 'unlearn' the habitual breath, until we finally arrive at the truly natural breath. There's even a period in the middle where we can consciously choose to breathe 'naturally', but as soon as we forget - as soon as our mindfulness slips - we go back to breathing 'habitually'. Eventually, though, the natural breath replaces the habitual breath (or, to put it another way, natural breathing becomes habitual), and there's nothing left to do.
The same applies to the mind in Zen. As we'll see in the next koan in the collection, the 'ordinary mind' is sometimes said to be the totality of the Way - but, in just the same way, your 'ordinary mind' is not your 'habitual mind', or at least not at first. A considerable process of training and discipline is required to unlearn the mind's old habits before the 'ordinary mind' can become our everyday state.
A method for learning to 'breathe naturally'
As I mentioned above, many of us breathe in an unhealthy, inefficient manner, taking many breaths each minute and using only a tiny portion of our lung capacity.
So how should we breathe? There are lots of breathing techniques and methods out there. Some teachers advocate breathing as slowly and deeply as possible, while some practices such as qigong and yoga pranayama breathe in very specific ways.
One approach to breathing which is well supported by science is 'coherent breathing'. In a nutshell, the idea is to take five breaths per minute, breathing in for six seconds and breathing out for six seconds. It's called 'coherent' because when we breathe at a consistent pace (and, in particular, when each in-breath is the same length and each out-breath is the same length), the variability of our heart rate decreases (becoming 'coherent'). Decreased heart-rate variability has various beneficial effects, including enhanced brain function.
Taking five breaths per minute also has the effect of balancing the parasympathetic ('rest and digest') and sympathetic ('fight or flight') branches of the nervous system. This might seem like an odd thing to want to do from a meditative point of view - don't we want to relax and de-stress? But actually the ideal condition for a meditation practice is a state which is balanced between stillness (parasympathetic) and clarity (sympathetic), where we aren't just quiet and relaxed to the point of drowsiness and dullness, but we actually also have a bright, clear awareness of what's going on in the present moment.
So give this a go. You can use one of the recordings on my Audio page (inspired by this one, credit where it's due) to time the in-breath and out-breath. As you're breathing, pay attention to where and how you feel the breath, too. When the body is relaxed, you should find that the breath starts in the abdomen, then fills up the chest, and maybe you even get some movement at the top of the chest, around the clavicle area. As you breathe out, the process reverses - the clavicle, the chest, and then the belly. There's no need to force this to happen, but if you find that your breath is only in one part of the body - perhaps just the chest, or maybe just the belly if you've previously learnt abdominal breathing - see if you can allow the body to relax until you can ultimately feel movement in all three areas.
I suggest practising this every day for a few months. If you have a daily meditation practice already, you could use the first few minutes of your meditation time to breathe in this way - I'm currently using the first 20 minutes of my hour-long morning sit, for example. Although it might feel at first like you're 'losing' meditation time, you should find that coherent breathing puts you into a good place from which to begin the meditation - in essence, you get some mindfulness and concentration 'for free', just by preparing the body in the right way. (I like to think of this as configuring the hardware correctly before starting to run the software, but then I'm a giant nerd.)
Give it a go and see what happens! If you need further persuasion, check out this Guru Viking interview with Charlie Morley, especially the section starting at 34:36 and then going into a guided coherent breathing session at 46:10.
Coming back to the koan
A monk asks Dongshan, 'What is Buddha?' In other words, what is the Way? How should I practice? What are we trying to do here? What's this Zen thing all about?
Dongshan replies not by telling him the answer, but by showing him to answer. Dongshan is resting his his ordinary mind, breathing naturally, totally alive to the moment. Rather than engage his thinking mind to find a way of describing this natural state to the monk, Dongshan reacts spontaneously - in this case, by saying the first thing that comes into his mind, 'Three pounds of burlap!' The words are unimportant - he could have said 'Rice in the pan', or 'It's sunny today', or broken into song. The point is the immediacy and freshness of the response - no tired Zen cliche, no lengthy lecture on formal practice. Just a momentary flash of activity, here and gone again in the blink of an eye. That's where Zen points us - to a place where each moment is fresh, alive and brimming with vitality.
May you find this place for yourself, and then share it with others - just like Master Dongshan.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!