Sometimes doing nothing at all is the right response
This week we're looking at case 17 in the Gateless Barrier, a classic collection of Zen koans. This story, titled 'The National Teacher's Three Calls', simultaneously holds up an ideal of Zen practice, and poses some interesting practical questions. So without further ado, let's get into it!
Who is the National Teacher, and what is he up to here?
Nanyang Huizhong was a Zen teacher who lived in the Tang dynasty in China, and became known as the 'National Teacher' because he served as teacher to two Tang dynasty emperors, Suzong and Daizong. Needless to say, this is a high office, and the Tang dynasty is regarded as the golden age of Zen in China, so we're either dealing with the best of the best, or at the very least an individual in a very influential place at just the right time. So we should probably take him seriously!
Nevertheless, he isn't going out of his way to endear himself to his attendant. The role of attendant typically involves looking after the teacher - fetching water and tea, packing the luggage when going on a trip, basically seeing to their every need. Attendants are typically expected to be at the beck and call of their teacher most or all of the time; as a result, they have an opportunity to spend perhaps more time with that teacher than anyone else, and see them in a wider range of circumstances. This can be both good and bad! The present-day Chan (Chinese Zen) teacher Guo Gu has written and spoken at length of his time serving as attendant to his teacher Sheng-Yen - for example, in this Guru Viking interview. It's fascinating stuff!
In the case of today's koan, the National Teacher appears, for want of a better term, to be trolling his poor attendant. Perhaps it unfolded something like this:
National Teacher: Attendant! Come quickly!
Attendant: *arrives* What do you need, sir?
NT: Oh, nothing. You can go.
NT: Wait, wait, come back!
Attendant: *arrives* What do you need, sir?
NT: Ah, nothing. Never mind. Please leave.
NT: Where have you gone?! I need you! Come here at once, it's urgent!
Attendant: *arrives* What do you need, sir?
NT: You know what, never mind.
What an annoying thing to do!
Haven't we seen something like this before?
Yes! Those of you who've been following this series of articles on the Gateless Barrier may recognise the call-and-response format that's implied here - we've seen it most explicitly in case 10, and also alluded to in cases 2 and 12. I won't repeat the material from my article on case 10 - check out that article if you're interested - but in a nutshell, the call-and-response format is designed to evoke a natural, spontaneous response, just as you naturally turn your head when you hear your name being called.
In this case, however, the National Teacher is turning up the heat. He expects his attendant to respond promptly with compassion and equanimity - both qualities of a flourishing Buddha Nature - but today he's putting his attendant under some pressure to see what happens.
How would you react to this situation? If it were me, I know I'd fail the test! The first time the teacher called and then decided he didn't want anything after all, I'd probably be puzzled, perhaps a bit irritated if I'd been interrupted in the middle of doing something important. The second time, I'd definitely be annoyed. And the third time? As I was sitting with this koan, I was amused to realise that three repetitions of an annoyance is my personal internal threshold for 'OK, that's enough, something has to be done about this.' So after that third call, I'd be looking to start some kind of conversation along the lines of 'Teacher, could you perhaps think for a moment whether you really need me before calling me like that? It's hard for me to get my other work done when I'm being interrupted. It's fine if you need me, but these three times you didn't need anything, so it's just a waste!' (At least, that's how the conversation would go on a good day. On a bad day, the language might be a little different...)
Fortunately, the attendant is a much stronger practitioner than I am, as is reflected in the National Teacher's admission of defeat. 'I had thought I was disappointing you,' he says - in other words, I was doing my best to bait you into getting annoyed with me. 'Actually, it is you who are disappointing me,' he continues - in other words, despite my best efforts to get a rise out of you, I failed!
Why the National Teacher gotta be like that, though?
But why would the National Teacher want to treat his attendant in this seemingly rather unkind, perhaps even cruel, manner? As strange as it might sound, the root answer is actually 'compassion'.
At a certain point in practice, we can get to a point where life is pretty good. We've developed our equanimity to the point that a whole range of things that used to bother us don't really get to us any more. If we've also had some insights into topics like emptiness, we can start to feel like we're pretty good at this Zen thing - we can take our foot off the pedal of our practice, and start coasting along, telling ourselves (and perhaps everyone else) how enlightened we are.
The role of the teacher at this point is to expose the areas where we haven't yet woken up - to find those places where we can still get caught, where we still need to practise. At this stage, the most annoying people in our lives become our best teachers, because they effortlessly push the very buttons that we most urgently need to find and explore for ourselves. And if there isn't an annoying person handy to do that organically for you, the teacher's job is to step up and take on that role. (Again, check out that interview with Guo Gu for multiple examples of Sheng-Yen's efforts to press Guo Gu's buttons.)
So, ultimately, the National Teacher is being cruel to be kind - or at least attempting to! But the attendant has perhaps played this game many times in the past, and they're wise to the National Teacher's tricks. And so they don't take the bait.
Skilful responses to suffering
There's a broader question here. Does this story suggest that, no matter what happens to us, we're simply supposed to grin and bear it? Is Zen promoting a blind, quasi-militaristic obedience to hierarchy, where we're obliged to do whatever our superiors demand without ever questioning it?
Well, no. What we're seeing here is a teaching device which is being employed in a specific relationship for the purpose of helping the attendant to cultivate their practice. The National Teacher isn't simply being an abusive boss - he's employing a strategy for a particular effect. Once the attendant has become truly immune to these tricks, they'll stop. (Perhaps this is even the turning point in their relationship, where the National Teacher concludes that the game is finally played out.)
However, there's a broader and subtler question here, and one which is perhaps more relevant to those of us who don't live in a training monastery. When should we simply accept sources of discomfort in our lives, using them as grist for the mill of practice, and when should we do something about them?
(All of these are questions which have come up for me personally; the latter is a live situation for me right now.)
Much as I'd like to have figured this out and be able to give you a neat flow chart for deciding when and how to take action, I don't think there's ultimately any one strategy which will fit all situations. (Indeed, this 'no size fits all' is a recurring theme in Zen koans which we'll see later on in the Gateless Barrier.) The skilful response in a given situation will depend on many factors - what else is happening in our lives at the time, our own capacity to withstand suffering versus act on it, the tractability of the problem (scratching an itch is easier than changing someone's opinion!), and no doubt all sorts of other considerations too. (An interesting insight exercise might be to explore what other factors play into a decision like that - give it a try sometime!)
Another important question to consider is whether what we're about to do in the face of suffering is an intentional response, coming from a place of spaciousness and choice, or whether it's a knee-jerk reaction to a source of discomfort. Generally speaking, the former tend to be better than the latter in the long run - but, depending on the circumstance, we won't always have the choice! Nevertheless, it's useful to have a sense of a helpful direction of travel as we grow in our practice, even if the ideal standard isn't necessarily achievable.
Working with suffering
Let's say that we've decided to allow a particular source of discomfort to remain so that we can work with the attendant suffering, rather than taking action to resolve it. How do we do that?
One approach, very common in early Buddhism, is what my teacher's teacher Ayya Khema called 'substitution' - the deliberate application of an antidote to replace the experience of suffering with a wholesome experience. For example, if experiencing anger toward someone, we might deliberately bring up loving kindness toward them instead, replacing an unskilful mental factor with a skilful one.
Another approach, typified by Zen master Huangbo, is to use awareness itself. Huangbo's observation is 'that which sees suffering is not itself suffering', and this is something we can check out directly for ourselves. If you find yourself experiencing something unpleasant - a mild physical pain, a difficult emotion - see if you can redirect your attention to the awareness of the unpleasant sensation. Notice that the unpleasant sensation arises within awareness, but the awareness itself is not unpleasant. The awareness just is - it's like a mirror, effortlessly reflecting what's in front of it, without taking sides or rendering judgements. Furthermore, awareness is always a little 'bigger' than whatever it's holding - the space of awareness is large enough to hold whatever is arising for you, and then some.
If we can tune in to this quality of spaciousness around the difficult experience, and notice that the spaciousness itself is not difficult at all, then we can allow ourselves to hold all manner of suffering in our awareness without immediately needing to take action to 'fix' it or make it go away. We aren't ignoring or suppressing what's going on - we're actively allowing it to remain in our awareness - but we're holding it in such a way that we don't slip into resisting the experience. Perhaps paradoxically, resisting an unpleasant experience actually supplies it with energy which tends to perpetuate it - or, more pithily, 'whatever you resist persists'. Simply through holding it in our awareness, openly and non-judgementally, we can give space for our suffering to unwind itself, be fully felt and processed, and then to release itself.
As strange as it may sound, sometimes doing nothing at all with our suffering, but simply holding it in the light of our awareness, can be the most transformative thing we can do.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!