The primacy of direct experience in Buddhist practice
This week we're looking at case 31 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Zhaozhou investigates a woman.' (For those of you who like details, I've slightly tweaked Thomas Cleary's translation to sound better to modern ears, at least in my opinion. Sorry, Dr Cleary.)
This koan makes me chuckle every time I read it. The trolling game is strong here, both from the unnamed old woman, and from Zen master Zhaozhou, who we've previously seen in quite a few koans now (case 1, case 7, case 11, case 14 and case 19). As usual, though, there's more going on here than meets the eye - both teachers are making the same point, in slightly different ways, and even the title of the koan itself is a similar tactic. So let's take a look at the koan and see what's going on.
Encounter 1: A monk meets a woman
We start with a monk on a pilgrimage, heading to the sacred mountain Taishan. Mount Tai is a real mountain in China (the highest point in Shandong province according to Wikipedia), but in a Zen context it also represents enlightenment, or certain transformational peak experiences along the spiritual path. Koans are usually more symbolic than literal, so we can interpret this as a monk who is figuratively searching for enlightenment and asking for someone to point him in the right direction.
The nameless woman is an interesting character. In Zen koans, women often represent intuitive wisdom, as contrasted with the more scholarly, intellectual learning of men, and the woman generally 'wins' the exchange - the man's head is too clouded with received ideas about what's 'supposed' to be going on, whereas the woman is unburdened and thus freer to see clearly what's actually there. (You find a similar dynamic between 'northerners' and 'southerners' - again, the north of China was associated with a scholarly approach to the Dharma, whereas the south was considered rough and uneducated - and as a result southerners often have an easier time with Zen. See, for example, the story of the sixth ancestral master of Zen, Huineng.)
In any case, here we have a chance encounter with someone who remains nameless, but who is in touch with some kind of deep, intuitive wisdom. If we look at our own lives, we may start to notice that we have these kinds of experiences too - little interactions which disclose wisdom from unexpected sources. If we limit ourselves to learning only from 'my teacher', and look down on everyone else, we close ourselves off to a powerful source of insight in the midst of daily life. So one implication of this koan is that we should stay alert - who knows when we'll meet a Buddha in disguise?
Getting back to the story, the monk asks the woman which is the way to the mountain. Her answer is also pretty interesting - 'go straight ahead'. There's no funny business here, no seventeen-stage process to enlightenment - just go straight. Some of the Buddhist traditions offer complex systems with many levels, stages and moving parts, but Zen tends to offer a simpler approach. Just sit; or just ask one question, over and over. Ultimately, all of spiritual practice is about letting go, not accumulating more and more, and although Zen's stark simplicity can sometimes come across as austere, it's all in the service of reminding us of this basic truth. Just go straight ahead. Keep it simple.
So the monk carries on down the path, following the woman's instructions - so far, so good. But here's where the koan has a sudden plot twist. As the monk walks away, suddenly the woman says - in what we can imagine to be a pretty disdainful tone of voice - 'A fine monk - and so he goes!' In other words, 'There he goes, just like all the rest - hopeless!'
Clearly this dismissive statement had an impact on the monk, because it would appear that he repeated the story to one of the other monks at the temple, who felt strongly enough about it to take the matter to his teacher, in the second 'chapter' of the koan.
Encounter 2: Another monk goes to Zhaozhou
I can relate to this (presumably) second monk's confusion. What did the first guy do wrong? He asked for advice, he took it - and then the advice-giver had a go at him! What's up with that? As a person who tends to be very keen on following rules, I can easily imagine myself in the position of either of these two monks, confused and a bit distressed to see someone criticised for doing what they were told to do. Surely doing what you're told (provided what you're told is ethical, of course!) is the one guaranteed strategy to avoid blame?
So the second monk goes to his teacher, and asks him what's going on here. Zhaozhou says 'OK, leave it with me, I'll go and check it out.' And he's true to his word - he goes and meets the woman, and has the same interaction with her that the monk did.
But then we get our next and final plot twist. Zhaozhou comes back to his group, who have been waiting expectantly to hear what happened when he met the woman - and he merely says 'Yep, I've investigated that for you.' Mic drop, end of koan.
The importance of direct personal experience
Changing the subject for a moment, I don't have a driver's licence. I had maybe two driving lessons with my Dad about 25 years ago, which didn't go enormously well - Dad's knowledge of driving was sufficiently intuitive to him that he didn't really know how to explain what he was doing, and so his advice for how to operate the clutch wasn't actually particularly accurate, and I kept stalling. Eventually a couple of local lads came and stood outside the car, making fun of me for not being able to drive off. Good times.
Anyway, the point is that I have not undergone any particular training to drive a car, nor spent very much time doing so - roughly an hour of practice across two sessions two and a half decades ago.
But how important is that, actually? I mean, I've seen people drive cars. I've sat in the passenger seat many times, in all kinds of different weather conditions. I know the rules of the road, I know what the pedals do, and my granddad taught me quite a bit about how the engine works, so I probably know more about cars than many drivers. I have tons of knowledge about driving, really. That should be good enough, right? So you'd be happy to jump in a car with me and let me drive you down the motorway, at night, in the rain?
(This is not a real offer of transportation.)
Hopefully this example makes clear that there's a huge difference between first-hand practical experience and second-hand knowledge. I might know a great deal about pistons and whatnot, but that doesn't translate into the practical skill of being able to change lanes on a motorway in a blizzard.
In the same way, meditation is, first and foremost, something that you do. Reading books and articles, listening to talks, absorbing and debating Buddhist theory and so on can be a very enjoyable and interesting way to spend one's time if you're so inclined (which I am) - but it's not the same thing as practice. Indeed, this distinction is so important that you'll often find Zen teachers (who are prone to taking things to extremes to make a point) saying that if you actually do Zen practice, you'll gain all the understanding of the sutras without having to read them, and if you don't do Zen practice, the sutras are totally worthless. Personally I wouldn't go quite that far, but there's definitely a valid point behind the hyperbole.
Coming back to the koan
In the koan, then, we see two different attempts to point this out. First, we have a monk who wants to know the way to enlightenment, and asks a random stranger for advice, then blindly does what she says. That isn't always a good plan - and so the woman decides to needle him a bit, criticising him for his blind willingness to follow the lead of someone he doesn't even know. Just like all the other monks - following what someone else says, like a herd of sheep!
Again, here's that Zen tendency toward exaggeration to make a point. Of course we need to take advice from other people, ideally those who are wiser than us. It's important to have access to a teacher when we're getting started, so that we learn good, time-tested practices and don't fall into bad habits that will only get harder to train ourselves out of as time goes on. After a while, we find that we start to develop a kind of 'spiritual intuition' about how our practice is unfolding and what we might need at any given point in time, and so we can become a bit more independent. (One of the criteria that the Buddha sometimes gave for a stream enterer, someone who had reached the first stage of awakening, was that they had become 'independent in the Dharma'.) However, it's still really important to have a relationship with a teacher! Our capacity for self-deception is vast, and it's very often the case that someone else can see things in us that we're totally blind to ourselves. Our teachers won't always get it right, won't always understand where we're coming from and won't always give us the right advice, but it's still much, much better than not having that input at all. We've seen many spiritual 'guru' figures who've gone completely off the rails, and they're almost always operating in a context without any challenging feedback, either from their own teacher or from a peer. Not a great idea.
So we have this first encounter, where the woman is essentially teasing the monk for being too willing to follow someone else's lead blindly, rather than working things out for himself. But the koan isn't done yet - we have a second part.
What happens next is that another monk becomes concerned. 'This weird, unpleasant thing happened - what's up with that? I'd better ask my teacher.' And so he goes to Zhaozhou and asks him to check it out. And Zhaozhou does - but when he comes back, his report is spectacularly unhelpful. How come?
Actually, this second monk is making a variation of the same mistake. Something has come up which has troubled the monk - but, rather than figure it out for himself, his first instinct is to run to the teacher. That's an instinct which runs directly counter to developing that 'independence in the Dharma' that the Buddha spoke about, a self-reliance based on personal experience. To make matters worse, the monk is trading a first-hand, personal exploration of the issue for a second-hand report of what's going on. Rather than learning to drive for himself, he's reading a book about cars.
Zhaozhou's deliberately minimalist reply underscores the point that personal experience is, ultimately, a private affair. Zhaozhou went and had his own encounter with the woman at the side of the road - and that was his experience. No amount of description can give someone else that experience. If you want to meet the woman at the side of the road, you have to go there yourself, not look at someone else's Instagram photos.
Go and have your own adventures
The final sting in the tail is the title of the koan itself: 'Zhaozhou investigates a woman'. This title prepares us to hear a story about Zhaozhou's latest wacky adventure - who's he going to meet this time, what crazy Zen thing is he going to say? We know Zhaozhou by now, so we're sure it's going to be good. Let's grab some popcorn and see what happens!
But that very instinct that arises within us at the sight of the title is basically the same 'mistake' made by both monks in the koan. Rather than doing our own practice - having our own adventures - we instead sit back and consume someone else's experiences second-hand.
Like I said before, I do believe there's value in this kind of second-hand Zen. (If I didn't, I wouldn't be writing these articles. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't, actually!) Personally, I love reading about this stuff - it's interesting, it's inspiring, and when I'm actually doing my practice I'll often find that something I read will slot into place and become clear. My teacher's teacher on the Theravada side, the venerable Ayya Khema, used to say that insight is an 'understood experience' - there's no point having an experience if you don't understand it sufficiently for it to impact the way you see the world, and learning some of the 'theory' stuff can help with that understanding. The point is rather that intellectual understanding is no substitute for practical experience - and, actually, without the practical experience, we may think that we've understood something when really we haven't. I can't tell you how many times I had some kind of insight or experience which I only realised many days later was actually pointing to something that I thought I'd understood previously. (Actually, that's happened often enough that these days I reserve a healthy scepticism toward everything I think I really have now understood! For all I know, another insight is just around the corner, waiting to turn the whole thing on its head all over again.)
So how do we do this - how do we explore these things for ourselves? It's actually pretty simple.
1. Get a teacher. You don't have to like everything about them, but it helps if you can tolerate them and they don't appear to be totally crazy.
2. Get one or more practice methods. Maybe that's Silent Illumination, or working with a koan. Or maybe you prefer early Buddhism, with their concentration, insight and heart-opening methods. It doesn't really matter, but you'll need something that you can tolerate well enough that you're willing to keep doing it.
3. Do the practice. Use your methods. Keep going, day after day, week after week, year after year. The methods might appear to do nothing at first. Give them time to work. Check in with a teacher if you're not sure, but don't be surprised if the teacher says 'Yep, sounds fine, just keep going.'
4. Keep a question mark in mind. Buddhist practice is designed to change the way we see the world - and that means letting go of the way we currently see it. We have to be willing to question our experience. Different methods will approach this in different ways - the question mark may be quite subtle in Silent Illumination, whereas it's right there in a koan like 'Who am I?' Either way, though, it's important to maintain a sense of investigation in your practice - looking to see what's really going on, rather than allowing yourself to assume that you already know.
That's it - like I said, simple. Of course, 'simple' and 'easy' are not the same thing, and this path can be pretty challenging at times. Again, teachers can be a great support when we're going through a rough patch. And despite what the koan says, don't be afraid to ask for help. A good teacher will ultimately help you to become independent in the Dharma, rather than making you dependent on them - but we all have to start somewhere.
May you have many wonderful Dharma adventures of your own!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!