How to get free of the tangle
This week we're looking at case 39 in the Gateless Barrier. This is a rich koan offering many possible avenues of exploration; I won't have time to explore them all in today's article, even assuming I've noticed all the possibilities, which I probably haven't! But we'll dig into a few and see where they take us - and if you find another thread to pull on, please go right ahead (and let me know what you've found in the comments!).
The central question here is that of Zen master Sixin (pronounced something like see-shin) - where did the monk get trapped in words? Here are three possibilities, representing progressively deepening levels of realisation.
The monk became trapped in words when he read Zhang Zhuo's poem
Sometimes, we come across a passage in a Zen text or poem (or some other spiritual, philosophical, literary or scientific work) that stops us in our tracks. Perhaps it conjures up a picture of something that feels both deeply familiar and utterly mysterious at the same time - or perhaps it just makes no sense at all, and yet somehow we have an intuition that it isn't mere nonsense. Naturally, we want to know what it means - but we can't relate to it directly and immediately, so all we have is this mysterious set of words.
From a Zen perspective, this is actually a good place to be. What we have in moments like these is a kernel of what's usually known as 'Great Doubt' in the Zen tradition, although teachers like Martine Batchelor have argued that 'Great Questioning' might be a better translation due to the negative connotations of 'Doubt' in the English language. Essentially, what we've found is something we don't understand and would like to. That is the essence of all meditative inquiry, and is the necessary condition for insight to arise. If we 'do insight practice' but have no interest in what we might find, if we already feel that we've got it all worked out and this meditation stuff can't possibly show us anything new, then it's dramatically less likely that we'll make any meaningful progress along the wisdom dimension - and if we do somehow get a breakthrough nonetheless, it's likely to be jarring, upsetting, even distressing, as the comfortable world we were clinging to is turned upside down. By comparison, if we actively choose to undertake the quest for greater wisdom, we're more likely to hang in there when the going gets tough, because on the other side of that bumpy terrain is a place we're trying to get to. Seen from this perspective, we could make the case that the entire purpose of koans is for us to get caught in words - to find one of these strange stories that intrigues us enough that we're willing to spend hours on the cushion studying them in meditation, often getting absolutely nowhere for hours, days, weeks or months on end, until one day - boom, there it is.
So it could well be that this nameless monk has simply read a piece of poetry, been struck by the beautiful images it conjures up, and wants to ask his teacher something like 'What's it like to experience this for yourself? How do I get there?' In this reading, Yunmen's response is sharp but compassionate, directing the monk to put the books down and get back to practising - in essence, saying 'Don't ask me, ask yourself!' The word 'Zen' literally means 'meditation', and the essential principle behind the Zen school of Buddhism is to use meditation to find the answers we're looking for in our direct experience, rather than debating theories and philosophies in an intellectual way. It's possible to spend many years - even a lifetime - arguing about the fine scholarly points of non-duality and emptiness without ever having a personal experience of it, and so Yunmen is deeply concerned that the monk should not make this mistake. Words like these - the kind that describe the experience of someone who has broken through to the awakened perspective - are actually often more helpful after one's awakening than before; before awakening, they're at best a cryptic riddle that can inspire us to practise, but after we've had a glimpse of awakening, we can use them to confirm what we've experienced - or, more usually, to recognise that what we saw was only partial, and that there's further to go.
The monk became trapped in words when asking Yunmen his question
A second possible scenario is that the monk had indeed had some kind of awakening, or perhaps was right on the threshold of it, but couldn't put it into his own words. In the words of Zen master Wumen, the compiler of the Gateless Barrier, 'In a natural manner, inside and outside become one; like someone without the power of speech who has had a dream, you can know it only for yourself.'
Having this kind of 'private' experience can be beautiful and thrilling, but it's also limited. One of the strengths of the Breakthrough to Zen retreats run by Zenways, the Zen sangha I belong to, is that most of the practice happens out loud, with a partner in front of you. Whatever's going on, you must try, over and over, to put it into words. In the process of doing so, it both comes out into the world and becomes more fully your own. At the very beginning of this process, it's often clumsy, and you may find yourself resorting to lines from the old masters which you feel capture the spirit of what's going on. But in the long run, the language must become your own, the awakening fully integrated into your being, not someone else's.
And so perhaps that's what's happening here. The monk has had some kind of experience, but has no words for it. The best he can do is to say 'It's like radiant light was silently illuminating the whole world...' - and his teacher is challenging him to put down the books and find his own words for it. In part, this might be a test - anyone can quote one of the old masters, but it's usually very revealing to hear someone's first person experience in their own words rather than those of another. From the teacher's standpoint, this is a key 'diagnostic' technique - all sorts of interesting and wonderful things can happen in meditation, not all of which are due to insight or awakening, and so it's usually necessary to spend a bit of time talking back and forth to figure out what's going on.
The monk became trapped in words when Yunmen interrupted him
A third possibility is that the monk has indeed had some experience of awakening, and is now some way along the road to stabilising and integrating it.
Sometimes it's thought that enlightenment happens all at once, in a flash - bam, that's it, you're enlightened now. The stories of the historical Buddha usually imply that that's how it was for him. For most of us, however, it isn't quite so simple - and even the historical Buddha went on to teach a model with four 'stages' or 'paths' of awakening, gradually deepening over time. Likewise, one of the most important Zen masters in my lineage, Hakuin, taught at great length about the importance of 'post-satori training' - that practice does not end with a meditative breakthrough, but actually that that breakthrough is simply a transition from one phase of practice to another.
Now, this is a somewhat controversial subject, and there have been debates throughout the history of Zen. From a certain point of view - what we might call the standpoint of 'inherent awakening' or 'Buddha Nature' - what we wake up to is immediate, timeless, and has always been true. Nothing needs to be 'cultivated', nothing needs to be 'purified', it only needs to be recognised for what it is, in all its immediate, pristine, indestructible purity. This is the so-called 'sudden' school of awakening. From another point of view, however, practice is clearly necessary - although we may well possess the seed of awakening within ourselves, for most of us it isn't yet fully flourishing - if it were, there would be no need for Zen at all. And so we undertake this practice, meditating, cultivating mindfulness in our daily lives, exploring both inwardly and outwardly, and over time we come to see the truth of our Buddha Nature more and more clearly, in a wider and wider range of circumstances.
That last part is important. It's very common for people to reach a point where they can have a nice experience in meditation, reach a place of great stillness and oneness and so forth, but then it disintegrates the moment the meditation ends and they have to deal with other people again. (People, ugh.) And so the next challenge is to learn not just to visit that place but to live from that place.
And so maybe that's what's going on here. The monk has established himself to some degree in his awakening, he's doing his best to speak from that place, along the way he mentions a line from a poem because it's an authentic description of his experience - but then Yunmen abruptly interrupts, jarring the monk out of his place of awakening, throwing him straight back into the whirring machinations of his discriminating mind by asking him a challenging question. And so Yunmen's reply is not in fact a criticism of the monk's use of Zhang Zhou's words, but really more of a way of saying 'Gotcha! You fell right out of it again, didn't you?' One might imagine the poor monk sighing, rolling his eyes, muttering something like 'Ugh, not again...' and then going back to his practice.
I read a book recently where the author was describing his experience of Zen archery. He'd spent several years working to reach a point where he could shoot an arrow in perfect mental stillness and clarity, and he had come before his master to demonstrate his attainment. Halfway through, the teacher suddenly barked at him to stop, which he found rather irritating since he'd been in mid-flow at that moment. Then the teacher asked him to re-tie his bow string in a certain way that made it immensely harder to draw the bow. He felt tremendous sadness at this turn of events - this was supposed to be a crowning moment of his practice, but instead his teacher had pulled the rug out from under him and made things more difficult again. Evidently seeing his distress, his teacher gently explained that there had been no need for the demonstration - it was evident to the teacher from the moment the man picked up his bow that his training on that level was complete, and that he was ready for a fresh challenge, to take his art deeper still.
Very often, our teachers will say and do things we don't like. This can seem strange and hurtful - perhaps we've come to this practice to feel better, and mostly it does make us feel better, so how come our teachers are being mean to us? But - at least if you have a good teacher, rather than one who is genuinely abusive - your teacher is most likely pointing out a place where you're still stuck, where there's still work to do. This hurts, because nobody likes to have their flaws pointed out, but what's the alternative - that our teachers smile and nod and say 'Yup, you're super-enlightened, well done you' when it isn't true?
Don't be afraid of getting trapped in words
In this article I've outlined three ways in which we might get trapped in words. Note, however, that none of them are actually bad. It's easy to read this koan in a superficial way and say 'Oh, master Yunmen says we shouldn't get trapped in words - right, I'll throw away all my books and avoid learning anything at all, that'll fix it!' But I would argue that that's a mistake. For me, at least, most of the mysteries that have really fuelled my own practice came first from reading them in books, getting 'trapped in words' in the first sense above, and then pursuing my practice like a rabid dog, sometimes for years on end, until I found some measure of what I was looking for. Even at the second stage, when we're trying to find our own words for what's going on, I'd argue that it isn't actually a bad thing to try out the phrases of the old masters. It gives you a place to start, and as you start to feel into which phrases work for you better than others, you'll start to find your own language. And as for the third kind of trap, I'd argue that that's absolutely essential on the spiritual path - other people can see our blind spots far more easily than we can, pretty much by definition - if we could see them, they wouldn't be blind spots!
So, by all means, read, study, get confused, get in a mess, get so thoroughly trapped in words that you can't bear it any longer and have no choice but to meditate your way out of your entanglement. You'll be glad you did.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!