What is freedom, anyway?
This week we're looking at case 16 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Putting on a formal vestment at the sound of a bell.' And unlike last week's koan, there's not much to decipher in this one, so we can get pretty much straight into exploring the deep and profound question that's at the root of the story here.
The koan at face value
Master Yunmen showed up in the previous koan, where he told poor old Dongshan that he deserved a damn good thrashing for answering Yunmen's questions at face value. Thus, it's with a certain trepidation that I approach this koan in literal terms. Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere.
We might imagine that Yunmen is speaking to an assembly of monks, all adorned in their 'formal vestments' - other translations say 'the three-piece robe', which is the traditional garment for monks in training. Perhaps this is the first talk of the morning - the wake-up bell has just rung, and so the monks have quickly dressed in their robes and hurried to the teaching hall to hear Yunmen speak.
When he does speak, he opens with a direct challenge. 'The world is so wide, so vast' - there are so many possibilities in this life. You could be anywhere, doing anything! And yet here is a group of monks, voluntarily submitting to the notoriously hard life and rigorous schedule of a Zen monastery - little sleep, little food, lots of hard work, little in the way of comfort. Why would anyone choose this?
Perhaps this is a hard question for us to relate to - after all, presumably most people reading this article are not Zen monks. (I'm not!) But we can rephrase the question in a way that keeps the original meaning intact but broadens it out to a wider range of life circumstances.
Why are you here?
Given all the things you could possibly be doing with your life, why are you here, at this moment, reading these words? What calls you to this practice?
This question invites us to examine and clarify our intention. My Zen teacher Daizan likes to say that we tend to get out of this practice whatever it is that we want to get out of it - and so it's important to be clear about that! If our intentions are muddled, or we're just doing it because someone else suggested it and we're going along with it, we can practise for a long time without achieving much of anything. By comparison, having a clear intention is a powerful thing. Daizan likes to tell a story of a student of his who found himself suddenly unemployed, with a few months on his hands before his next job. The student declared to Daizan that he wanted to achieve kensho - the initial awakening in the Zen tradition - before Christmas, which was a few months away at the time. He got it the next day.
You can't always get what you want
Now, earlier I said 'you could be anywhere, doing anything.' But how true is that, really?
The world of human society is governed by many rules. Some of these are explicit - we call them laws, and we formalise systems of punishment for people who contravene those rules. It doesn't mean you can't break the rules, but there will be consequences if you're caught. Other rules are implicit - social conventions, for example. We expect people to dress, speak and behave in certain ways, and there are plenty of alternatives which are not explicitly illegal but nevertheless carry severe social consequences if we violate them. We find that factors such as wealth, ancestry and class are tremendously important in society, and open certain doors to us while closing others, in ways that can be extremely difficult to overcome. And then, over time, we impose rules on ourselves as well, internalising criticism from parents or teachers - perhaps we learn not to talk so much, or that nobody wants to hear us sing, or whatever it might be.
When we undertake the practice of insight meditation, we start to see the structures in our views, beliefs and habitual thought patterns which have hitherto been implicit. As they become conscious, we have the opportunity to decide whether these structures are really serving our interests, or whether they're simply getting in our way. In the long run, we can drop the ones that are limiting our potential, and gain some freedom in the process.
As the practice deepens, we begin to see the emptiness - the arbitrariness, the fundamentally fabricated nature - of more and more of the structures in our lives. We understand that even laws are not absolute truths of the universe - they're simply very well understood and widely upheld agreements, and at any time we can choose to adhere to them or not. Even our sense of who we are is just a story that we repeat to ourselves and others, a way of making sense of the disparate events of our lives and packaging it in a neat form, but one which can become self-limiting if held too tightly.
Nevertheless, just because all of these things are found to be empty upon close examination, that doesn't mean we can ignore them, or simply decide for ourselves how we want things to be. Simply discovering the emptiness of the structures around us may give us a certain amount of freedom from self-imposed limitations, but it doesn't magically free us from the need to earn money to buy food, at least if we continue to live in a capitalist society. And even though, on one level, 'Matt' is not really who I am, but rather just one facet of my experience which arises from time to time, it's still pretty helpful for the people around me if I continue to respond when they call my name, rather than deciding that I'm now too enlightened to come when called.
Indeed, in many ways structure is very helpful. If I compare my life to that of the squirrel I can see sitting on the fence in my back garden, I have all sorts of obligations that the squirrel doesn't - I have to pay my mortgage every month, for example. But there's a trade-off there. The squirrel is free to roam wherever it wants to go, whereas I'm tied to this pile of bricks and mortar. On the other hand, though, the squirrel has to bury its food and hope that it's still there when it comes back later, whereas I have walls and locked doors to protect my possessions. You could view me as limited by association with this physical structure, or you could instead view it in terms of the opportunities that the house provides for me to keep various possessions safely, not to mention running water and electricity. Being 'limited' by my house actually enables many features of my lifestyle that would be much more difficult if I were living in nature like the squirrel.
(OK, that was a whole paragraph about squirrels. Sorry about that. I came up with the analogy a few months back and I've been waiting for an opportunity to use it.)
In the long run, the skill in Zen is not so much in casting off all the structures we discover, but in learning to use structure skilfully, to support our aims and intentions rather than holding us back. We become able to adopt roles, responsibilities and stories as necessary, and then put them down again afterwards. This is a more valuable freedom than the initially appealing but ultimately impractical notion of simply throwing off every rule and convention.
In the end we may well choose to put on a formal vestment at the sound of a bell - not because anyone is forcing us to, but because we see how submitting ourselves to the rigorous discipline of Zen training will ultimately help us get where we want to be in our lives, and so we make the conscious choice to adopt the structure for as long as it serves us.
Coming back to the koan
So far I've provided an interpretation of this koan which is focused on structure and freedom. But if I leave it there, I've only provided you with structure and not offered any freedom! So, in closing, let's take a totally different look at the central question of the story - 'Why am I here?' - as an illustration of the multiple avenues of exploration that a good koan provides for us.
In this case, it can actually be very interesting to take the question apart and examine each word in turn. So let's do that now - I'll offer a suggested route for contemplation in each case, but if something else comes up for you, by all means explore that too, or instead!
How does one answer a 'why' question? Here's a seven-minute video of physicist Richard Feynman explaining at length that it isn't as easy as it might appear to explain 'why' something happens:
I really recommend watching the whole video - it's genius - but in brief, when we answer a 'why' question, we provide a story which describes what's going on in terms of something else that we feel we understand. But that understanding is itself either built on an explanation in terms of something else, or it's simply accepted on faith. Sooner or later, we run out of 'Why?' and end up with 'Just because, OK?'
So it can be very interesting to play the 'annoying child' game, and ask 'Why do I habitually behave this way?' or 'Why do I hold this belief?', and then, when an answer comes back, question that too. See how deep the rabbit hole goes, until you finally get to 'Just because.' It can be eye-opening!
'Am' is the first-person present tense of the verb 'to be'. But what does it mean, exactly, for something 'to be'? What is being? What does it mean for something to exist, and how do we know whether or not something exists? How do I know that 'I am'?
We can also use 'to be' to assert equivalence or identity. 'He is tall,' 'this is really good,' 'Capitalism is good/bad/<insert your political philosophy here>'. We say 'it is' to indicate that something is true - but what is truth? What do we know for certain, and where is the source of our certainty?
My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, used to say that 'All koans are just footnotes to "Who am I?"' This most fundamental of all spiritual questions points us right back at the source of our experience, looking back at our 'original face'.
If you only ever study one koan, make it 'Who am I?'
In a previous article I've written about the strange nature of time, and that popular spiritual concept, the 'present moment'. Generally speaking, we tend to think of time as a kind of line, with 'the present moment' being a point moving along that line. In direct experience, however, it turns out to be more accurate to say that 'the present moment' - or perhaps more accurately 'now' - is all that really exists, and all of our experience of past, present and future is contained within that timeless, endless 'now'.
(Don't just take my word for it, or write this off as typical Zen double-speak. Check it out for yourself!)
It turns out that we can perform a similar analysis of space, and 'here-ness'. What does it mean to be here, as opposed to there? Does space come first, and we occupy a mobile piece of it - or is our experience now and always 'here', and our experience of space flows through and around that ever-present 'here'?
(Again, in the likely event that the paragraph above didn't make a lick o' sense, forget the words and examine 'here-ness' for yourself. It's well worth it.)
Finally, we can, of course, work with the whole question as well. We can interpret it at face value (what bought me to this place at this moment? - which of course has many levels of possible answer), as a more existential question (what is the meaning of life? do I have a purpose, and if so, what is it?), or in any other way that seems fruitful to us.
Whatever approach we pick, it's good to stay with the investigation longer than we think we need to. Often these kinds of investigations will deliver an info dump fairly quickly, then we can enter a kind of dry spell where it feels like we've already answered the question and there's nothing left to discover. Don't be fooled.
There's always more to discover.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!