Half of you is in other people
This week's koan, taken as usual from the Gateless Barrier, is case 35, called 'A woman's split soul' in the Thomas Cleary translation. This is one of those koans that needs a certain amount of cultural context before it can even begin to make sense, so we'll start there.
The story of the woman's split soul
The koan is actually a reference to a traditional Chinese story which would have been well known at the time the koan was composed - the sparse text we're given was evidently enough for readers of the era to pick up the reference, in just the same way that most modern readers will know what's meant if I were to say 'use the Force, Luke!' with no further explanation. (Maybe I should substitute 'Rey' for the young'uns among you...)
Anyway, rather than attempt to write my own telling of the story (which, although fun, I don't really have time for this morning), here's a version of the story that I found on the Zen Center of Syracuse website. (Note that the story uses the Japanese version of the characters' names, which is common practice in Zen lineages tracing back to Japan. In the original version of the story, of course, they would have Chinese names.)
There was once an old man named Chokan, who had lost his first daughter. As you might imagine, he was very attached to his second daughter. Seijo was her name; Jo means young woman. Seijo was very beautiful, and so was her cousin, a boy named Ochu. The two of them were so cute together. The family would watch the two children playing and say, "Ah, what a great couple they make. How adorable." Chokan often said, "The two of you are so perfect together."
Well, they grew older, and indeed they felt that way about each other: "You are right for me. You are my great love." But then, to their dismay, Chokan told his daughter that he had chosen a husband for her. It was not Ochu! We can't imagine that here, but this was a very common occurrence back then, and even not so long ago. Now, too, in some cultures this kind of arranged marriage is quite common. So what happened to this young loving pair? They couldn't bear it. Ochu couldn't stay and see his beloved married off to someone she didn't love. He got into a boat and began making his way up the Yangtze River. Then he noticed someone running along the shore, calling after him. He peered into the darkness-who could it be? It was Seijo! She got into the boat, and they went off together. Years passed. They had a family together. Now the mother of two children, Seijo began feeling deep regret for having run away from her father. Knowing what it's like to love a child, she could imagine his anguish. She said to Ochu, "I long to go back to my native village and see my father and beg his forgiveness." And he replied, "I, too, feel that way. Let us go." So they got into a boat again and went back down the river.
When they reached the village, Seijo stayed in the boat while Ochu went to her father. Ochu bowed low and begged for forgiveness for having run off with Seijo. The old man listened with a look of incredulity on his face. "What? Who are you talking about?" Ochu said, "Your daughter, Seijo. She's in the boat." Her father replied, "No, she's not. She's lying in bed. She's been sick all these years, and we haven't known what's wrong; she's been lying there like an empty husk. She hasn't spoken since you left."
"But she followed me," Ochu said. "We've been living in another country. We're married, and have two children, and she's in great health. She's here now to ask for your forgiveness." Ochu went to the boat and asked Seijo to come to the house. Meanwhile, Chokan went to tell that sick daughter of his about all this. Still not speaking, she got up out of bed and walked out of the house. Seijo coming from the boat, Seijo coming from the bed, now One. The shocked father said to his daughter, "Ever since Ochu left, you have been lying lifeless, as though your soul had fled." Seijo replied, "I didn't know I was lying sick in bed. When I heard Ochu was going away, I ran after him as if in a dream."
So, which was the real Seijo - the one in the bed, or the one in the boat?
An allegorical reading of the koan
We can approach this koan in a variety of ways. One approach is to treat it as an allegory for a common feature of our psychology - daydreaming. When I was a kid, I loved to imagine all the cool ways my life was going to turn out - all the awesome things I'd be able to do, all the cool people I'd hang out with, all the exciting adventures I'd have. Actually, although I said 'when I was a kid', I still have some of that tendency today - it's pretty common to find myself approaching an activity (let's say learning a new Tai Chi form) with part of my mind busily caught up in imagining how awesome it will be when I'm proficient at it. It's been a hard lesson for me to learn that, while that kind of fantasy is an entertaining way to pass the time, it isn't terribly useful, and it does take up quite a bit of my time and energy if I let it. So a big part of my Zen practice these days is noticing when I'm straying into 'what if?' territory and bringing myself back to what's in front of me.
(Or, continuing the Star Wars theme from above and quoting Master Yoda: 'All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, hmm? What he was doing.')
In this reading, it's fairly clear which is the 'real' me - and it isn't the one with awesome Tai Chi skills, sadly. Taken this way, the koan is a gentle reminder that, no matter how exciting our imaginary life might be, the real one that's right in front of us is the one that really needs attention, and we're perhaps better served working to improve our actual life than imagining a better one but never taking any action to move in that direction.
A relational reading of the koan
A second way to explore this koan is to take a look at the concept of identity in the context of relationships, where we find another 'split'.
Suppose you and I meet. You get to see certain aspects of me, and I get to see certain aspects of you - any other aspects of our personalities that don't come out in the interaction we have remain hidden, so the picture is necessarily incomplete. Finally, we part. I now have an 'idea of you' in my head, and you have an 'idea of me'. In the time we've been together, we've formed opinions about each other - I have some sense of the sort of person you are, the way you speak, the way you dress, the way you behave; and you have the same kind of information about me.
The idea of you that I've formed doesn't necessarily bear any relation to what you might regard as 'who you really are'. Hopefully it's close enough to be workable, but every now and again I'll make a mistake because my model of you isn't accurate enough to predict everything about you - so maybe I'll buy you a Christmas present that you hate, or I'll inadvertently say something that upsets you because I didn't realise that topic was a hot button for you. Over time, as I get to know you better, I'll refine my idea of you and (hopefully!) make fewer mistakes, but it'll never be totally accurate, not least because you're constantly changing in small ways as you gain new life experiences, whereas my idea of you only gets updated when we interact, and is basically a frozen snapshot of how you were at a particular point in time (or rather how I thought you were at that point in time!). On a podcast once I heard someone say 'Fully half of yourself is in other people' - it's interesting to reflect that everyone we meet is relating to us through their idea of us rather than our own sense of who we are!
In the story, Seijo is seen one way by her father - as a daughter, perhaps with a social obligation to be married according to the father's intentions, as was the way of things in that era in China - and another way by Ochu - as his lover, a life partner, a soul-mate, an independent individual who doesn't have to be beholden to her father's wishes for her. Which is the 'real Seijo' here - the obedient daughter or the independent lover?
In the course of a day, we may find ourselves taking on many such roles. For example, right now, I'm a meditation teacher. Earlier, I was a qigong practitioner, and before that a meditator. Later on, I'll be a partner in a relationship. Tomorrow I'll be a colleague, a manager, a managee, a mentor and a researcher, amongst other roles. Sometimes I'm a son, sometimes I'm a godparent, sometimes I'm a friend - and sometimes I'm a thorn in someone's side, although usually not deliberately. In the same way, in the story we see Seijo in a variety of roles - daughter, partner, mother. (It's also noteworthy that when Seijo takes on the role of mother later in the story, it has a profound effect on her, recontextualising the 'daughter' role as she comes to understand her father's perspective better than she previously did.)
Each of these roles requires a slightly different set of behaviours, language and so forth. How I speak to my own mother is not how I speak to my goddaughters. Neither mode of address would be appropriate in the workplace. (I've actually seen a senior manager speaking to their staff as if speaking to their children, and it wasn't pretty!) Even when I'm in the role of 'friend', I'm a little different depending on which set of friends I'm with, because we share different interests - Yoda references will land with some of my friends better than others, for example.
These roles aren't only about other people's ideas of us - they're also something which exists within ourselves. We don't simply act a certain way in a certain situation because others compel us to do so (although at times it may feel that way!) - we select modes of behaviour which are appropriate to the circumstance, either consciously or unconsciously. It can be worthwhile to spend some time thinking about the many roles that you play in the course of a day, a week, a month or a year. Are some roles more comfortable than others? Do you feel forced into certain roles, or find it difficult to escape others once you've taken them up? Have you found, like Seijo, that taking on a new role (e.g. parent) sometimes changes the way you relate to another role (e.g. child)? Which, if any, is the 'real' you amongst all these roles? Is Seijo daughter, partner, mother, all of the above or none of the above?
An existential reading of the koan
Most people conclude that none of these roles really fully capture their 'true' self. Roles are more like masks which - ideally - we put on when they're helpful and take off when they're no longer needed. But then what's behind the mask? As we dig into this, we find a third reading of the koan, based on a more fundamental, existential question.
We may feel that we have two aspects to ourselves - what we might call 'nature' and 'demeanour', to borrow terminology from a game I used to play at university (ironically, a 'role-playing' game). In the language of the game, the 'demeanour' of a character represented the face that that character chose to show to the world, while their 'nature' represented who they really were, deep down inside. At the time, this struck me as a nice model - I certainly felt like who I was inside wasn't necessarily what other people saw on the surface. Of course, it's not uncommon for teenagers to feel that 'nobody understands me!', but I think some degree of that sense of a split continues into adulthood for many people too.
So then we can ask: what exactly is my 'nature'? What sits behind all the masks, at the centre of the web of aspects, personalities, roles and social interactions? What is the deepest, truest part of ourselves - beneath our social identities, beneath even our beliefs about ourselves? Who am I really?
In fact, among the classic 'breakthrough' koans (i.e. those which lead to kensho, a first glimpse of awakening in the Zen tradition): we find two which point right to the heart of this exploration: 'Who am I?', and 'What is my true nature?' These are tremendously powerful questions to sit with - if you aren't familiar with how to work with a koan in meditation check out my page on koan study for details. It's well worth the exploration, particularly if you have the opportunity to go deep into the question, such as by going on a retreat like the Breakthrough to Zen retreats offered by Zenways, the sangha I belong to.
Going deeply into these questions will change your life forever.
One more for the road - a mystical reading of the koan
Personally, I've always looked at this koan as being about the emptiness of self, exploring it primarily through the second and third lenses above - although the first perspective is also very helpful as a splash of cold water to the face whenever I'm getting too clever for my own good!
A few years ago, though, one of my teachers mentioned another, more mystical, interpretation. Some traditions teach meditation practices which are designed quite literally to separate one's consciousness from one's body, resulting in a kind of out-of-body experience - another type of 'split'. Personally, this is something I don't have much experience of, so it's not a practice that I would ever offer myself. If you're interested, though, here's the link I was given. If you do want to explore this kind of practice, I strongly recommend finding a teacher who is appropriately qualified to guide you!
Whichever of these interpretations speaks to you, I hope you get some value from the story of Seijo's split soul. I've found it very fruitful in my own practice; may it be similarly helpful for you.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!