Spoiler alert: nothing at all
Today we're looking at case 22 in the Gateless Barrier, At first sight, it's a classic non-sequitur koan, where the master doesn't even appear to be responding to the question. But, actually, it isn't so difficult to understand when we decode the imagery. (Putting into practice is another matter.) So let's get straight into it!
Deciphering the imagery
First of all, let's look at the cast of characters. Ananda and Kashyapa are two figures from the time of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.
Ananda was the Buddha's attendant, and is renowned for his remarkable memory - according to the stories, after the Buddha's death, Ananda was able to recite from memory all of the Buddha's discourses, as a result of which the texts of early Buddhism's Pali Canon have survived right down to the present day. If this is true, then we owe Ananda a great debt of gratitude. However, poor old Ananda has had a bit of a hard time throughout the history of Buddhism.
Even in the Pali Canon, he was a bit slow to catch on (perhaps because he was too busy looking after the Buddha's material needs to do his own practice), and he failed to attain arahantship (full awakening in the early Buddhist tradition) before the Buddha died. Sometime thereafter, a 'council of arahants' was declared so that the surviving community could discuss what to do next, and they weren't going to let poor old Ananda in, because he wasn't enlightened enough. He practised his socks off but still didn't get it! Finally, he gave up, and lay down to sleep, certain that he was done as a practitioner. In that moment of letting go - according to the discourse, before his head hit the pillow - he finally became fully awakened. And a good thing too!
In the Zen tradition, Ananda doesn't fare so well either (although he's in good company - several of the Buddha's key disciples are not held in such high regard in the Mahayana, including Sariputta/Shariputra, who was regarded as 'foremost in insight' in the Buddha's time, but in the Mahayana scriptures is constantly having to have things explained to him by the Mahayana Bodhisattvas, as a not-so-subtle way of 'proving' that Mahayana wisdom is superior to the old stuff). Because of Ananda's profound memory of the Buddha's discourses, and because Zen often promotes the view that true wisdom is found through practice rather than learning, Ananda often represents the insufficiency of abstract intellectual knowledge when he shows up in koans.
In this story, Ananda is asking a question of Kashyapa, aka Mahakassapa. Zen traditionally regards Kashyapa as the first successor of the Buddha - in fact, we've seen the moment when the 'transmission' took place, all the way back in case 6, 'Buddha Picks Up A Flower'. (If you don't know it, go check it out now, because it's of central importance to today's koan.) As an aside, Stephen Batchelor has written some interesting stuff about the historical figures of Ananda and Kashyapa and their (somewhat rocky) relationship, which you can find in his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, which I highly recommend. In the symbolism of Zen koans, however, Kashyapa tends to represent direct, intuitive insight into the true nature of things (as demonstrated in case 6), as contrasted with Ananda's intellectual knowledge.
In any case, this koan effectively serves as a kind of sequel to case 6. Ananda's question concerns the nature of the transmission Kashyapa received in that koan. Ananda asks about the 'golden-sleeved robe' that Kashyapa received from the Buddha. In the Pali Canon it's recorded that the Buddha gave a robe to Kashyapa, and after the Buddha's death, Kashyapa held up this robe as a symbol that the Buddha had intended Kashyapa to be his successor. According to the Pali Canon, on his deathbed the Buddha actually said that he was not nominating a successor (see DN16, part 2, paragraph 33!), but in the Zen tradition we just quietly skip over that part and say 'Yup, Kashyapa got the robe, he's the guy.' Subsequently, passing on the robe became a formal sign of transmission, a way of indicating who the next successor in the lineage would be. (That tradition continued all the way down the 28 Indian ancestral masters, and then into China to the first six ancestral masters, ending with Huineng, who we'll meet in two weeks' time in case 23, so stay tuned for that story!)
Getting back to the story, Ananda is effectively saying 'OK, so the Buddha gave you transmission. I can see that he gave you his old robe. Is that it? What else did you get?'
After a call-and-response, which will hopefully already be familiar to you from such koans as case 10 (if not, please check that article out, because I don't have time today to repeat that discussion - sorry!), Kashyapa gives the seemingly cryptic instruction 'take down the flagpole in front of the gate'. Making sense of this requires a bit of cultural context. In ancient times, monasteries would apparently raise a flag to indicate that a debate was taking place. When the debate was finished, the flag would come down again. So this is Kashyapa's way of saying 'the teaching has ended' - a bit like the slap all the way back in case 2.
But wait, where was the teaching?
What is 'transmission' anyway?
In order for the Zen lineage (or any other) to continue, sooner or later a teacher needs to nominate one or more successors, and authorise them to teach. Otherwise, when the teacher dies, that's the end of the lineage - and that can cause a bit of a mess for the community left behind. (Indeed, the early Buddhist tradition had its issues after the Buddha died. As Stephen Batchelor describes, Kashyapa essentially put himself in charge, using the aforementioned golden-sleeved robe as his credentials. Some people felt that Ananda should have been in charge instead, or at the very least was well worth listening to in his own right, whereas Kashyapa was rather more dismissive of poor old Ananda, presumably at least in part to establish himself as the new top dog.) And so, at a certain point, there'll be a ceremony, and probably some kind of scrolls and/or other trinkets handed over, as physical symbols that the transmission has taken place.
The trouble is, however, that Zen itself isn't something that anyone can ever give you. In fact, you already have what you need - it's just that you might not yet have discovered it for yourself. The work of the Zen practice is to turn inward and explore who you really are, until at last you see your true nature directly. Then, little by little, you deepen your connection with that true nature, until it begins to manifest in your daily life. At that point, you've become a teacher of sorts irrespective of whether you've had transmission. Nevertheless, it takes time for that connection to mature and ripen, and so typically there will be a period of time in which a teacher keeps an eye on you before deciding that you're ready to be cut loose and formally given transmission. The transmission, then, isn't really a 'giving' of anything to anyone. Rather, it's a teacher's way of saying 'OK, I think you've come far enough now that you're ready to be a full teacher in your own right.'
So when Kashyapa calls to Ananda, he's really speaking to Ananda's true nature, just like Caoshan and Qingshui in case 10. He's pointing directly to the heart of Zen, to what Ananda needs to see for himself. When Ananda finally sees it, he too will be in the same place as the Buddha and Kashyapa, seeing with the same eyes. When Ananda gets there, Kashyapa could then give him transmission (which is indeed what the Zen lineage charts say eventually happened) - but, in a sense, Ananda wouldn't really need it. He already has it all - Kashyapa is simply conferring a public seal of approval so that others (particularly those who don't yet have a sense of themselves of which so-called teachers have 'got it' and which haven't) can more easily figure out who's worth listening to.
Of course, this is an idealised picture of transmission. It doesn't always work that way. Historically, transmission has often been given to continue the 'family business', or been denied due to personality conflicts or factional politics. One teacher I spoke to when I was starting my teacher training said to me that 'The real authority for the dharma is the understanding of the dharma itself' - in other words, if you've got it, you've got it, regardless of whether the paperwork is in place. But, of course, that has its own disadvantages - the history of spirituality is rife with self-declared 'masters' who weren't as awakened as they thought they were. When it works, formal transmission within a lineage acts as a safeguard against that kind of thing. So there are pros and cons to both approaches.
(For the avoidance of doubt, I don't have transmission in a Zen lineage! So maybe I'm not worth listening to. I have a 200-hour Zen meditation and mindfulness teaching qualification, and I'm undergoing teacher training with Leigh Brasington, with whom I'm co-teaching a retreat next month, but I'm very much at the shallow end of the dharma pool. Even so, I think I have something to offer - I'll say more about my own approach to teaching in a moment.)
The role(s) of the teacher
So if we have to find this for ourselves, why do we need a teacher at all?
Throughout the ages, different models have arisen for what teachers can and should look like. At one end of the spectrum is the guru, sometimes called the 'sage on a stage' - someone in whom we can (ideally) place absolute trust, surrendering our own ideas about what's best for us and allowing the guru to lead us in the right direction. That can work very well under the right circumstances, and of course can also be highly prone to abuse in the wrong circumstances. At the other end of the scale is the 'spiritual friend', where we relate to one another more as fellow practitioners, sharing what we've found. Most teachers sit somewhere in the middle of that spectrum - the teacher holds some measure of authority but the student maintains some degree of autonomy. The teacher's role is then essentially one of 'coach' - sharing techniques, offering suggestions, trying to help the student along their journey with the benefit of the teacher's (presumably) greater knowledge and experience.
Personally, I see myself as an explorer. I was drawn to meditation not because of any great suffering in my life, but out of curiosity. I read books about this stuff that sounded very interesting but totally alien, and I wanted to know more - I wanted to do whatever needed to be done to taste it for myself. And I've been doing that pretty seriously for some time now, and through the practice my life has been substantially transformed. I've experienced all manner of benefits from my practice (although the benefits aren't really the point for me so much as the on-going exploration), and I see people around me who seem like they'd really enjoy those benefits as well, and so I'm highly motivated to share what I've found so far, and occasionally to speculate about things that I haven't experienced for myself but which are part of the Zen or early Buddhist traditions. If the people who come to my class express an interest in something that I've explored for myself, I'll share what I know. In the absence of that kind of clear direction, I talk about whatever happens to be interesting to me at the time. It isn't very systematic - I'm sometimes envious of teachers like Shinzen Young who have massively detailed systems worked out - but it keeps things interesting for me, and enough people keep coming back that I guess there's some value in it for others as well.
At the end of the day, though, all I can do is point things out. You still have to find them for yourself. So please do that! A good place to start is with the koan 'Who am I?', which gets directly to the heart of the matter. (Instructions for koan practice can be found here.) When you see who you really are, you will take your place together with Kashyapa, Ananda and everyone who has come since, male and female, young and old, near and far. I can highly recommend it!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.