Finding a way forward when none of your options are viable
This week we're looking at case 43 in the Gateless Barrier. Regular readers of the blog might notice a striking similarity with the key moment in case 40, and you'd be right to do so - it's very similar. Rather than repeat the points I made in my discussion of that koan, though, today we'll go in a different direction (in other words, don't feel that you have to go and read that article first!).
Koans are annoying!
Zen is famous for its use of koans - short vignettes often describing an encounter between a teacher and a student in which some pivotal question is posed, or insight is arrived at in some other way.
At first glance, koans often appear totally nonsensical, and some people will tell you that that's exactly what they are - pure nonsense, designed to confuse and frustrate your thinking mind, with no intrinsic meaning beyond that. In general, I disagree with that view - as I've attempted to show over the course of this series of articles (which is almost complete now - only five more koans to go after this one!), koans are often filled with cultural and literary references that would have been well understood by practitioners of the era but which are now totally mysterious to modern readers until they're explained to us. (Imagine a Zen teaching story made up entirely of Star Wars references, and how that would look to a 12th century Chinese Zen practitioner!)
Nevertheless, although I wouldn't say that koans are total nonsense, it absolutely is true that koans are intended to take us beyond the purview of the analytical mind. You can see this even in the basic instructions for koan practice - students are advised not to think about the koan and try to 'figure out' the answer in a logical manner. Instead, we 'throw' the koan into our minds, like a stone into a lake, and then simply observe to see what splashes up in the air in response. If we do this for long enough, we'll notice something interesting. (Extending the lake analogy, we might say that Silent Illumination practice is a different means to the same end - in Silent Illumination, we simply allow the water to become still and clear all by itself, deliberately avoiding doing anything that might stir it up, until we can finally see all the way to the bottom of the lake.)
Of course, despite the standard instructions, many people (myself included) will find themselves thinking about the koan and trying to solve it like a riddle or a logic puzzle. This is a big problem for me - I've been a problem-solver my whole life (it got me good marks at school and a decent salary in adulthood), and I'll often find myself trying to 'figure out' something that really doesn't need to be figured out at all, just because it's a familiar activity that results in a periodic burst of pleasure when whatever puzzle I'm chewing over suddenly resolves itself. (As an aside, it's interesting to note that the source of that pleasure is actually relief from the mild stress of wrestling with an unsolved problem. In other words, I'm chasing those brief hits of pleasure, but in doing so I'm actually subjecting myself to much longer stretches of discomfort. Many of our habits are like this!) So a koan like this one - in which we're offered a binary choice, and explicitly told that neither option is acceptable - is a good one for people like myself who have this tendency to overthinking; there's simply no way out using logic, so in order to progress we have to find another approach entirely.
The present koan gives us an analogy for this kind of over-reliance on the thinking mind - Shoushan compares it to 'clinging' to the bamboo stick. What happens if we try to cling to a bamboo stick in real life, holding it as tightly as we can? Sooner or later, our muscles get tired, and spontaneously relax. Working with a koan can have an equivalent effect on our thinking minds - sooner or later, they simply run out of steam, and relax all by themselves. (That's why koans are such an effective approach, particularly for people who aren't able to 'just let go' into Silent Illumination - which I wasn't when I first learnt it!)
An equal and opposite mistake
We have to be careful, though. Letting go of the thinking mind is not the same as giving up on solving the koan - but that's a tactic that people sometimes try. 'It's just semantics!', 'It's just a game', 'I don't care what the answer is any more', 'Why can't you just tell me?' (I would if I could, but it wouldn't help!)
Koan practice only works if we're able to maintain what Zen master Hakuin called Great Doubt, and what my Zen teacher Daizan prefers to call 'wanting to know' - a sense of continuing to press forward toward some kind of resolution, even when the koan has become totally meaningless and we have no idea which way is up any more.
If, instead, we give up, then it's easy to fall into the seductive trap of a stagnant kind of quietism, sometimes called 'the ghost cave on the dark side of the mountain' (eep!). We say 'Well, I can't figure it out, so there's no point. Just let it all go. Just sit quietly and don't worry about anything.' That sounds a bit like the instructions for Silent Illumination, but the attitude behind it tends to point instead to what's sometimes called 'subtle dullness' - a condition in which the mind basically shuts down and disengages from what's going on, and the practitioner just sits there with nothing much going on. It feels kinda restful, and it definitely provides an escape from the struggle of wrestling with the koan, so that must be good, right? Wrong. (Sorry.)
If over-thinking was the mistake of 'clinging', the ghost cave is the equal and opposite mistake of 'ignoring'. Training ourselves to deal with problems by turning away from them is emphatically not what Zen practice is about - it's actually a kind of 'spiritual bypassing', a way of (mis-)using practice to avoid dealing with the things we don't want to have to face. The trouble is that life is full of things that we don't want to have to deal with, but we have to deal with them nonetheless, and turning away is just putting off (and often compounding) the problem.
A more extreme version of this mistake is to give up on practice entirely, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. A version of this actually came up for me recently. For pretty much my whole life, I've admired people who are very focused on doing one thing well, whereas I've always been prone to doing too many things at once, spreading myself too thinly. On a good day, I can recognise that I love the richness of having multiple interests, but on a bad day I'm convinced that all of my problems stem from a lack of commitment. A pretty big theme over the last ten or fifteen years of my life has been gradually streamlining my commitments and trying to bring more quality time to fewer things. Then, just recently, during a particularly disastrous meditation retreat (that's a story for another time, and probably not one that I'll publish on this blog!), I realised that I've now achieved what I set out to do - I really have pretty much pared things down to the minimum set of activities needed to pursue the most important things in my life. And yet I was still surrounded by problems and sources of unsatisfactoriness, and having a generally miserable time. My grand strategy to 'sort my life out' had, basically, failed - not because it was a bad strategy, but because life isn't like that. No matter what you do, there will be sources of dissatisfaction in all directions. In short, this was a very visceral experience of the Buddha's First Noble Truth - in life, we suffer.
The next thought that occurred to me was 'So what's the point of it all? Why not just give it all up and eat cookies all day? At least I enjoy that!' In other words, I'd overshot the mark - I'd gone from clinging to an unachievable ideal about how wonderful life would be if only I could sort out x, y and z to the opposite extreme, trying to retreat into a cocoon of pleasure where I could ignore the rest of the world.
Luckily, the habit of practice is pretty ingrained at this point, so I didn't give up entirely (otherwise I'd never finish this set of articles!). And, actually, once I got past the frustration that all my efforts had not resulted in a perfect life, the arguments for keeping up with all the various facets of my work and practice became obvious. Evidently on some level I'd been holding onto the hope that all those activities would sooner or later 'fix everything' - but I also do them because I enjoy them, and I wouldn't actually want to give them all up. On the other hand, it's also now manifestly clear that, while giving up eating cookies will help my waistline, it isn't going to eliminate my existential suffering, and so it probably isn't the end of the world if I continue to eat them from time to time.
I usually don't talk about what's going on in my practice right now because it's a risky thing to do - I'm never quite sure whether there's another massive revelation just around the corner, or whether I'm even getting my point across when I'm attempting to articulate something that's very much a work in progress as opposed to something that I can look back on with plenty of perspective. But maybe there's some value in sharing something a little 'rawer' than usual - well, you can be the judge of that!
So what's the take-home message here?
The koan presents us with an impossible choice: we can't cling to our analytical minds, but we can't ignore them either. So what the heck are we supposed to do?
We can see similar 'impossible choices' in many of the great paradoxes of spirituality - the apparent contradiction between the relative and the absolute, or Shunryu Suzuki's beautiful statement regarding the simultaneous need for self-cultivation and self-acceptance: 'Each of you is perfect the way you are... and you can use a little improvement.'
The simple answer to these kinds of problems is to recognise that context matters. Sometimes, we absolutely need self-acceptance. (I'm blind in one eye - no amount of yelling at myself to 'do better' is going to give me depth perception.) Sometimes, we absolutely need self-cultivation. (I'm taking on a new project at work and I don't know anything about it yet. My colleagues will not be impressed with my Zen 'don't know mind' - I'd better do some reading!)
The drawback with that 'simple' answer is that we've just created another problem. OK, in what situations do we need self-cultivation, and in what situations do we need self-acceptance? How can we tell?
The more we dig into questions like this, the harder it gets to find a nice answer that's easily articulated. Every system, every strategy seems to have its blind spots. Every situation is different, and it's impossible to foresee all of the consequences of whatever actions we take. The worst experience of our lives may turn out to be a turning point that ultimately transforms us for the better - but there's no guarantee that this will be true, and deliberately trying to have awful things happen to us isn't a good plan either!
Fundamentally, life is mysterious. As Kierkegaard said, 'Life can only be understood by looking backward; but it must be lived looking forward.' Or as Daizan puts it, 'None of us actually know anything about anything... and yet we still live and love.' Ultimately, all we can do in any given situation is the best we can at that moment, on the basis of our experiences and skills up to that point, and the intentions that we've cultivated within ourselves to act in the world in a way that seems right to us - whatever that means in practice. And even then we won't know if we're getting it right!
Another way to put this is using an image that occurred to me one night on the difficult meditation retreat that I mentioned earlier. In the moment, I was pretty convinced that the situation was totally unworkable - I couldn't see a way to get through it, given all of the challenges that were facing me at that point. (I couldn't even get to sleep, to make the time pass quicker!) But then I realised that I was getting through it, moment by moment. OK, time felt like it was passing like treacle, but even so each moment of experience was one moment closer to the end of the ordeal. It wasn't fun, it wasn't glamorous, I wasn't feeling how I thought a big fancy experienced meditator like myself should be feeling - but, nevertheless, I was getting through it.
The image that came to mind was the difference between a maze and a labyrinth. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably (as I was reminded when I was trying to find an image of a labyrinth and all I got was mazes!), but actually there's a difference.
A maze has wrong turnings and dead ends. You can get lost in a maze. You can wander a long time without getting any closer to your destination. The question posed in the koan at the top of this article evokes a maze - you can turn left or right, but they're both wrong!
A labyrinth, on the other hand, is actually just one long twisty path. It has one destination (usually the centre), and although the path itself twists and turns, there are no 'wrong choices' - you can't get lost in a labyrinth, and even when it looks like you're walking in exactly the wrong direction, your footsteps are actually carrying you closer to the destination with complete certainty.
My sense now is that life is a labyrinth. We know where we're going to end up - all that arises passes away, and all beings who are born will die sooner or later. The path we take through life is pretty twisty and turny, and sometimes it looks like we're going in a totally different direction than we'd intended. And yet, with each passing moment, we advance one step further. From an absolute perspective, there are no wrong choices, just choices. There's just life, flowing through us moment by moment. We do our best to make good choices, and sometimes the consequences line up with what we'd hoped for, and sometimes they don't. If we really understand this, we can perhaps at least let go of some of the stress, angst and guilt that goes into second-guessing our every move - we can realise that we're doing the best we can with imperfect information, and that's all anyone is ever doing. We can, perhaps, stop holding ourselves back from the moment at hand until we're able to calculate all the possible outcomes of our choices in order to choose the absolute best - and simply get on with it, doing whatever seems to need to be done, bringing as much presence, attention and care as we're able to muster right now. Little by little, moment by moment, we discover what lies ahead on the winding, labyrinthine path of our lives.
May your journey go well.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!