This week, we're taking a look at case 42 in the Gateless Barrier, 'A Woman Comes Out of Absorption'. It's a pretty mysterious one - despite its considerable length, at least compared to most of the other koans in the collection, it doesn't give us a lot to go on. Let's make a start by decoding the cast of characters, then see what we can make of it.
Dramatis personae: the characters of the koan
First up, we have Manjushri (sometimes written Manjusri or Manjuśri). Manjushri is one of the Bodhisattvas of Wisdom in the Mahayana tradition, and is typically depicted holding a sword which is used to cut the bonds of ignorance. (Manjushri can be contrasted with Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, who represents a gentler aspect of wisdom.) According to the legends, Manjushri is so wise that he's served as the teacher of seven previous Buddhas - that's a big deal!
The story begins with Manjushri visiting 'an assembly of Buddhas'. Usually, when we talk about Buddha, we mean the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived and died 2,500 years ago in what's now modern-day India. However, Buddhist mythology features many other Buddhas - early Buddhism recognised six historical Buddhas before Gautama, and in the more elaborate Mahayana mythologies it's often said that each of the infinitely many other worlds has its own Buddha too. In any case, the general image here is of a kind of 'conference of Buddhas', where the Buddhas of many worlds have come to hang out and talk about whatever it is that Buddhas discuss at such gatherings. (Sadly, the koan doesn't tell us!)
Our next character is a nameless woman who remains after the gathering has broken up, quietly meditating near Gautama himself. She's pretty central to the koan, so let's come back to her later.
Finally, we have another Bodhisattva with the curious name of Ensnared Light. (As usual, I'm following Thomas Cleary's translation - Guo Gu has a substantially different translation which leaves this Bodhisattva's name untranslated in Sanskrit, and Katsuki Sekida gives the name in Japanese.) The koan itself doesn't say so directly, but Wumen's commentary on this koan indicates that Ensnared Light is a rather lowly Bodhisattva, only having attained to the first of ten stages of Bodhisattvahood.
So the mystery of this koan is how a comparatively lowly figure like Ensnared Light is able to persuade the nameless woman to come out of her profoundly deep samadhi, while Manjushri, with all his incredible spiritual powers, can't. What's going on?
Trying to make sense of this koan
I'll admit, this koan has always been a bit of a head-scratcher for me. In preparation for writing this article, I consulted all three of the commentaries I have on hand, Googled a couple more, and even asked the Bing AI what it thought. The commentaries all had wildly different interpretations, none of which were terribly convincing to me, and poor old Bing - which has actually done a really good job when I've asked it about some of the other koans - basically said 'Uhh... yeah, this koan has a lot of different interpretations. I dunno.'
Of course, one of the beautiful things about koans is that they don't have just a single interpretation. Their very mystery provokes our own inquiry to go deeper, resisting a simple surface understanding. It's very common for a koan to reveal new layers of depth when we return to it after some time away - which I used to believe was a property of the koan, but these days I tend to think that it says more about how own own practice has deepened in the meantime.
Still, as tempting as it is to write a clever article about the multiple meanings of koans, in my heart I know I'd be dodging the question by doing so. So I'll take a stab at giving my own interpretation, as the koan lands with me right now. (It'll probably mean something else entirely a year from now!) In order to lay the groundwork, though, let's take a sidestep into one of my favourite Zen texts, master Keizan's Zazen Yojinki ('Notes on what to be aware of in meditation').
Keizan's portrait of the Zen life
The full text of Zazen Yojinki can be found here, and at some point in the future I'm planning to do a whole series of articles on the text. For today, though, we'll jump right to the end, to my favourite passage in all of Zen literature.
Arising from stillness, carry out activities without hesitation. This moment is the koan. When practice and realization are without complexity then the koan is this present moment. That which is before any trace arises, the scenery on the other side of time's destruction, the activity of all Buddhas and Awakened Ancestors, is just this one thing.
You should just rest and cease. Be cooled, pass numberless years as this moment. Be cold ashes, a withered tree, an incense burner in an abandoned temple, a piece of unstained silk.
This is my earnest wish.
Zazen Yojinki is talking about the Silent Illumination style of practice, which involves 'just sitting' and allowing reality to reveal itself, as opposed to the more 'forceful' Zen practice method of using a koan in meditation. The core of Silent Illumination is to settle deeply enough into stillness (the 'silence' part of the equation) that the habitual activities of the mind gradually run out of steam and quieten down of their own accord, allowing a deeper clarity (the 'illumination' part) to emerge. And so we have the imagery in the second paragraph above, which strongly depicts the equanimity of the Silent Illumination practitioner - resting, ceasing all activities, becoming 'cooled', willing to sit for 'numberless years' in the timeless present moment of meditation. Going further, Keizan gives us the images of cold ashes (the fire long extinguished), a withered tree (still, quiet, having long left behind the excitement of seasonal blossoms), an incense burner in an abandoned temple (once part of daily ceremonies, now simply at rest), a piece of unstained silk (pure, simple, no colour at all). All the excitement of the world can come and go outside, while we simply remain at rest, letting it all flow by without getting involved.
And yet, though this quietude is the path of practice of Silent Illumination, it isn't the end of the story - as the preceding paragraph makes clear. We sit in silence and stillness not to give up our lives altogether, but to free ourselves from the mental habits which obstruct our clear seeing of what's going on. The more fully aware we are of what's actually going on in any given moment, the more fully and appropriately we can respond to it, if the time is right to do so. And so we have this very dynamic imagery - we arise from our stillness, and carry out our activities without hesitation - no trace of clinging to stillness or silence, no regret to be leaving our peaceful time of meditation, simply and completely absorbed in the activity in front of us. In its own way, the activities of our lives - work, relationships, leisure - become another kind of meditation, another mode of practice inviting us to be fully present for what's going on. Rather than keeping one eye on the clock, waiting for the current tedious task to be over so that we can return to our nice peaceful meditation, we step fully into the here and now, the endless present on the other side of 'time's destruction'. This moment itself becomes a 'koan', the focus of our practice right now.
Coming back to the koan
So how does all this relate to the other koan, the one from the top of this article? Here's one way to look at it.
At the start of the story, the woman is deep in a state of absorption - thoroughly rooted in her meditation. I get the feeling that she probably meditated through the entire assembly of Buddhas! She's profoundly committed to her practice, and so that's what she's doing, absolutely 100%. Who wouldn't want to get up off the cushion and check out what's going on in an assembly of Buddhas?! But she's unmoved, just sitting, deeply absorbed in her own practice.
Then along comes Manjushri. Despite being the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, he seems a little envious in this story! He wants to know her big secret - but Buddha won't tell him. Instead, Manjushri has to get the woman to come out of her practice so he can ask her himself. And so he puts on his miraculous display of spiritual powers, which we might interpret as the coming and going of all kinds of wonderful spiritual experiences, altered states of consciousness and so forth - the kinds of things that most of us would get pretty excited about! Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking those experiences - after all, I teach the jhanas and the Brahmaviharas, and those practices lead to some pretty wonderful states - but Silent Illumination is a very 'pure' kind of practice that isn't terribly interested in any of that stuff. From the standpoint of a Silent Illumination practitioner, those states may come and go, and that's fine, but they aren't really the point of the practice - so there's no need to try to hang on to them, and no need to get too excited when they come along. Thus, Manjushri's display of power doesn't sway the woman, who simply continues to meditate.
Indeed, Buddha makes clear that Manjushri has the wrong approach ('even a hundred thousand Manjushris couldn't bring this woman out of absorption' - ooh, burn!). Instead, Buddha enlists the help of Ensnared Light, who is a comparative newbie, still finding his footing on the spiritual path. (Even his name implies that he's still entangled with the world and needs a bit of help from someone wiser.) Ensnared Light approaches the woman and snaps his fingers, symbolically asking for help - and immediately, the woman responds. A suffering being is asking for help, and the movement of her compassion is immediate - she arises from the stillness of her meditation to help Ensnared Light without hesitation, fully and completely engaged in the needs of the moment.
At this point, we might wonder if it isn't a little risky to respond immediately to whatever comes along, if we're also supposed to be overcoming our mental habits. Isn't meditation practice all about giving us some space and time to choose how we want to respond, rather than simply going along with whatever habitual reaction is triggered? This is a great question - and one we'll explore at length over the next four koans in the Gateless Barrier, as we explore Hakuin's Four Ways of Knowing.
For today, though, this article is long enough already! So, in the meantime, please keep up your practice - maybe your questions will answer themselves through your practice before I even get around to writing the articles. That would be pretty wonderful, wouldn't it?
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!