Do you need to have a beard to do Zen practice?
This week we continue our exploration of the Zen stories in the Gateless Barrier with this blink-and-you'll-miss-it question from Master Huo'an.
(If you don’t know what the heck a koan is or have never heard of the Gateless Barrier, go back to the first article in this series and read at least the opening section, which will fill you in.)
Without a bit of background, this koan is a totally opaque slab of words, so let's start by unpacking it a little.
Deciphering the words themselves
Over the last couple of months I've undertaken a project to memorise all the koans in the Gateless Barrier, inspired in part by this Guru Viking interview. I decided to go with Thomas Cleary's translation, because it's a little simpler than the others I have, but every so often I'll hit a koan that makes me really wish I'd chosen Guo Gu's translation instead, due to the sometimes bizarre word order or choice of phrasing that Cleary uses. This week's case is positively Yoda-ish, which may well make it sound wise but doesn't necessarily trip off the tongue.
Anyway, Huo'an is asking why 'the foreigner from the West' doesn't have whiskers, by which he means facial hair - he isn't talking about a cat. In fact, 'the foreigner from the West' is a reference to Bodhidharma, the quasi-mythical first ancestor of the Zen tradition. Bodhidharma was from India, or possibly Persia, and is commonly depicted as having a huge bushy beard.
So the question is effectively asking 'Why doesn't Santa Claus have a big white beard?', when everyone knows that of course Santa has a big white beard - that's how you know it's Santa!
However, it turns out that Bodhidharma - who is an interesting character in his own right, and who we'll encounter directly in case 41 - has two functions in koans. Sometimes, a koan will relate a particular episode from Bodhidharma's own life, in which case the koan is simply talking about Bodhidharma as a historical figure. More often, however, references to Bodhidharma are actually a code for talking about our true nature, or awakening itself.
What is our true nature?
This is an excellent question in its own right - you're more than welcome to stop reading right now and go and practise with the koan 'What is my true nature?' until you see it for yourself - a moment called kensho in Zen, literally 'seeing true nature', and considered to be a pivotal point in the process of awakening, after which the Zen path really opens up. (Indeed, doing such practice is likely to be more useful than reading more of my words. However, for those of you who find something of value in the words, I'll write on nevertheless.)
So what do we discover when we see our true nature? One traditional way to describe it is as the 'ground of being' - the most fundamental level of who we are, the source of all conscious experience, what it means to be a living being at the most primal level. (My Dharma name, Togen, means 'penetrating the source', and is a reference to this quest to discover our true nature.) It's beyond all categorisations and classifications, entirely beyond the framework of language and the world of separate 'things' that language describes, and it's something that ultimately has to be experienced for oneself. It's also the same for everyone - no matter your gender, race, background, politics or preferences, we all have the same ultimate nature. Seen from the standpoint of true nature, there are no distinctions, no separate things, no this or that, no conflict and no problems. Seeing this for ourselves tends to have the immediate effect of helping us to connect with others, because no matter who the other person is, we have at least this much in common.
So, in one sense, the symbolic Bodhidharma in the koan doesn't have a beard because our true nature is not limited by specific characteristics. You don't have to have a beard to practise Zen, and it doesn't even necessarily help (which is a shame for me, because I do have a beard).
Principle and manifestation
However, there's another level to this koan, just as there's another level to Zen practice. It isn't enough to find our true nature, to connect with this place of no problems and hang out there in peace. Once we've done that, we need to find a way to bring it back into the world of separate things, and integrate the peace and unity of our true nature with the complex differentiations of the phenomenal world and all the baggage that comes along with that.
So what does that look like? The short answer is 'I don't know' - not because I'm a dummy (although...), but because the answer is different for each of us. We each come from different backgrounds, different families, different educations; we have different interests, different preferences, different hobbies, different work. We think, speak and act in different ways, so why should our enlightenment look the same when viewed from the outside? Last week we talked about authenticity and the importance of grasping the principle behind an outward manifestation of enlightenment; this week we're going the other way, and seeing how, even though we each start at the same basic principle, the same fundamental nature, we then each go on to manifest it in different ways.
So why doesn't Bodhidharma have a beard? Because Bodhidharma is in the heart of each one of us, whether bearded or not. We can easily go down the rabbit hole of looking at senior teachers and saying 'Hmm, is she really enlightened? What about him? Can't be!' because this person or that one doesn't line up with our idea of what enlightenment is 'supposed' to look like, but all we're doing there is holding on to a fixed idea of where we think our path should lead us, and ultimately any fixed conceptions will only hold us back. There are as many manifestations of enlightenment as there are enlightened people, and they can look quite different on the surface.
The Great Way can be found anywhere and expressed in any medium
For Christmas, my partner bought me a Humble Bundle of over 20 books about samurai and Japanese martial arts. They've made for fascinating reading. Martial arts and Zen practice have been interwoven in Japan for hundreds of years, and it's been eye-opening for me to see familiar Zen principles being discussed and expressed through the medium of martial arts.
For example, Yamaoka Tesshu was a famous 19th century sword master and Zen practitioner. His writings on the correct understanding of sword technique line up exactly in many places with fundamental Zen teachings, to the point that when Tesshu was asked on one occasion to give an answer to a koan, he picked up a sword to demonstrate. For Tesshu, the sword was his primary means of expression, and so the perennial truths pointed to by the Zen tradition could most easily be demonstrated with a blade.
If we look more broadly at Chinese and Japanese culture, there's a strong association between spirituality and the arts and crafts. Zen is strongly associated with both calligraphy and poetry. Daoism has many stories of enlightened sages living as wood carvers or butchers. If we read enough of these stories, we start to get a sense that the 'Great Way' that Zen points to can be found anywhere, if we're willing to look for it. For a while I was an enthusiastic amateur at the board game Go, and many of the more philosophical 'Go proverbs' - little phrases pertaining to some aspect of tactics or strategy - had equally broad application to life.
In fact, this has sometimes been a cause of some irritation for me. I've done many hours of silent meditation retreat, struggling with my practice but ultimately coming back with deep, life-changing insights - only to find a friend who has no interest in meditation at all coming to a similar conclusion by another route. It can feel unfair - 'But you don't even meditate! How come you get to have these insights too?'
Recently I was chatting to a colleague at work, who has a keen interest in golf. He mentioned some of the life lessons he has derived from the game - for example, when lining up the next shot, he said, you can't carry with you the previous bad shot, otherwise it'll throw this one off as well. All you can do is learn to let go and focus on the present shot, right now. When he said this, I laughed, and said (rather arrogantly) 'Well, you're talking to a mindfulness teacher, so I know all about that!' He stared at me like I'd made a total non-sequitur - as far as he was concerned, he was talking about golf, so why was I bringing up mindfulness?
So why meditate, then?
If we can find insights in any aspect of life, is there anything special about meditation? As a meditation teacher, I really want to say 'Yes, of course!', but after reflecting on the question for some time, I'm really not so sure. Martial arts make you fit and strong; if you're a poet or a painter, you create works of art that others can enjoy. In meditation, we're just sitting there! OK, maybe we learn to open the heart, chill out, or explore the nature of consciousness. And you're very unlikely to pull a muscle... except maybe the ones in your forehead. But I think all we can really say is 'Well, meditation does some nice stuff too', as opposed to 'meditation is clearly the best approach'.
It's certainly true that meditation develops tremendous skills of concentration power, sensory clarity and equanimity. We learn to focus the mind where we want it to go, and we become much more sensitive to the quality of our attention and much quicker to notice when the mind wanders. We develop the ability to examine our experience in much more detail, seeing a richness which was not previously there. And we learn to be present with whatever comes up in our practice, without being knocked off our perch and falling into reactivity.
Even better, those skills are transferable. For example, my partner sometimes works as an exam invigilator - one of the people who supervises the students who are taking the exams, to make sure they don't cheat or disturb the other students by messing around. She's found that it's immensely helpful to have a clear sense of when her attention is fresh and sharp and when it's starting to drift. It's also extremely useful to be able to see the students as clearly as possible, because even the subtlest movement can give away an attempt to communicate with someone else or look at a hidden crib sheet. And equanimity is a vital quality for an invigilator, because the teenage students can often be very difficult, and if she lets herself get too worked up then it's much harder both to focus on the job.
On the other hand, though... She and I both tend to understand those skills as having originally been developed in the meditation practice, and now they're being applied in the context of exam invigilation, so in a sense they 'belong' to meditation. But maybe if she'd been an invigilator before taking up meditation, we would see the arrow of cause and effect the other way around - we might instead say that those same skills which she had developed as an invigilator were now applicable to the meditation practice instead, perhaps interpreting meditation as a kind of 'invigilation of the mind'.
Maybe there's another way to look at it. Perhaps it's possible to find fulfilment, insight and wisdom through the deep cultivation of any skill, whether it's golf, karate or meditation - and all that really matters is to find a skill that we find interesting enough to be willing to pursue. We begin by learning the outward manifestation of the skill - the basic techniques. Swing the club a certain way; practise a basic front kick over and over; keep coming back to the breath each time the mind wanders. Over time, the techniques etch themselves into our muscle memory. Now the performance of the technique becomes effortless, and - if we're so inclined - we can begin to delve deeper, exploring the deeper principles behind the skill. And if that exploration goes deep enough, we can touch into transformative insights, and discover our true nature. Once we have those insights, the next step is to take those insights back into our life and apply them in different contexts - manifesting those deep principles in new, creative ways.
And maybe that's what it means to live in accordance with the Great Way - to go deep enough to find something truly of value, then bring it back to the surface and live in accordance with it. And you don't need to grow a beard to do that - unless you want to.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!