...comes immobility, apparently?
This week we're taking a look at case 20 in the Gateless Barrier, a classic collection of Zen stories. (You can find the other commentaries in this series on the Article Index page.)
As usual, we're presented with something that's pretty weird, borderline nonsensical, at face value. In fact, this koan gives us a second helping of strangeness - not only does it offer us a person whose power is so great that they apparently can't move, but it doubles down and claims that speaking doesn't involve the tongue, which - at least last time I checked - was best described as inaccurate.
Before we get into the meat of the koan, however, a digression. (Or is it?)
How do you embody Zen in your life?
Recently, Zenways (my Zen sangha) put together a video of sangha members answering the question 'How do you embody Zen in your life?' I'm not in it myself - with this summer's retreat coming up, I have my hands pretty full and have been doing my best to resist my usual pattern of taking on way too much - but when I saw the final video (which is good fun - definitely take a look if you haven't already), I spent some time pondering how I would have answered it.
The conclusion I came to is that I'd have said 'I sit zazen for an hour every morning.' (Zazen is the Zen term for sitting meditation.)
'But Matt,' I hear you say, 'the question was about how you embody Zen in your life, not in your sitting practice!'
That's a fair point. Honestly, I wonder whether, if I'd submitted that as my answer, I'd have been left on the cutting-room floor. But bear with me, and I'll try to explain.
A few years ago now I attended a Zen retreat taught by Stephen and Martine Batchelor. (Stephen has sadly now retired from teaching retreats, but Martine is still active, and is a fabulous teacher - I highly recommend sitting with her if you have the opportunity.) I had an interview with Stephen, and one of the questions I asked was something like 'How do you integrate your practice into your life?'
Stephen's reply was that the question was, in his view, already mistaken. Rather, he said, it was better to ask how I could make my life my practice. He didn't say much more than that, and we ran out of time shortly thereafter, but I've spent a lot of time since then contemplating his reply, and trying to find ways to implement it.
Here's what I think he's getting at. When I ask a question like 'how do I integrate my practice into my life?', I have the idea that my Zen practice is one thing - probably the hour each morning I spend in zazen - and my life is something separate, something involving people, activity, work, travel, entertainment and so forth. And by 'integrating my practice into my life' I might be asking something like 'how do I bring the peace of mind that I find in my zazen practice into the course of my daily life, dealing with irritations and frustrations and suchlike?' I might conceive of an answer in terms of something like daily life mindfulness exercises - brushing my teeth mindfully, for example, or taking a few moments each day to recall events from the day for which I feel some gratitude.
In contrast, Stephen is suggesting something more thorough-going - an approach which erases the distinction between 'practice' and 'life'. But what does that mean? Sometimes I encounter people who claim that they're 'meditating all the time', or that 'everything is meditation for them'. Maybe that's true for them, I don't know. It seems like a stretch to me, and perhaps just an excuse not to sit formal meditation.
So let's come at it from another angle. What are the skills we train in a meditation practice? Borrowing some terminology from Shinzen Young, we might speak about concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity. Stephen Batchelor promotes qualities like care and compassion. For me, one of the big themes is exploration - taking an interest in what's going on, being willing to learn even from the most difficult experiences, cultivating an active curiosity which isn't satisfied with what 'everyone knows' about how things work.
Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but I've never been terribly good at those formal 'mindfulness exercises'. I certainly get some benefit out of them, but I often struggle to remember to do them, especially in social situations - I'm not the most socially intuitive person around, and so dealing with other people takes up a lot of my mental real estate, so much so that it tends to push my resolution to practise 'mindful speech' straight out of my head.
Nonetheless, I've benefitted tremendously from my practice - it's no exaggeration to say that it's totally changed my life. And, when I look closely, I can see that many of the changes in my life precisely parallel those qualities that I've developed in meditation (or strengthened, in the case of qualities which I already had to some extent before starting to meditate). I am more attentive to the people around me, more careful in my work and my dealings with others, calmer and more resilient in the face of stress, kinder and more generous with my time when I'm in a position to help someone, more connected to my environment, more aware of subtle details in my sensory experience.
Now, in case it sounds like I'm just telling you how great I am, I should hasten to add that I still have considerable room for improvement in all of these areas! I'm very much a work in progress. Indeed, it isn't just the good stuff that carries over. I also find that the same struggles which are present in my life also show up in my practice. Restlessness, frustration, self-doubt, arrogance and fear are familiar companions both on the cushion and in the office.
My point here is not how wonderful a meditator I am, but simply how, on close inspection, I can find no meaningful division between my practice and my life.
And so my honest answer to the question 'How do I embody Zen in my life?' is to say that I sit zazen for an hour every morning. I start the day as I mean to go on - by taking the time to cultivate qualities which are important to me, to continue my exploration of myself and the world around me. Then I do some exercise, have breakfast, and go out into the world, hopefully in a way that benefits both myself and those around me. That's the best way I've found so far to make sense of Stephen's advice to make my life my practice, and it seems to be going OK so far!
So now, with that extensive digression at the back of our minds, let's get back to the koan.
Returning to the koan
'Why is it,' Master Songyuan asks us, 'that someone of great power cannot lift a foot?'
We have an additional clue in the verse commentary provided by Wumen, the 13th century Chinese Zen master who compiled the Gateless Barrier koans. Wumen says this:
Lifting a foot, one stamps over the ocean;
Lowering the head, one looks down upon the heavens:
The whole body has nowhere to stay;
Please follow up with another line.
(That last line is one of Wumen's many teasing attempts to goad you, dear reader, into taking this koan with both hands and making it your own. How would you conclude his verse?)
We have imagery here which is best described as 'immense' - one might imagine some kind of giant, so huge that they look down on the heavens rather than up to them.
There are two aspects to what's being described here - a meditative experience, and the ultimate consequences of the insight that that experience is pointing to.
Correcting our topsy-turvy view
A common theme in Buddhism - going right back to the discourses in the Pali canon - is that our conventional view of the world is somehow 'upside down'. (Frequently, after the Buddha gives a discourse, his audience will say something like 'It is as if something which had been turned upside-down has been set right.') You'll also hear this described as a kind of figure-ground shift - a reversal in the way that we perceive.
Here's a question. Where does your awareness come from? We tend to have the idea that awareness originates in our brain - so first, there's the brain, and then awareness comes along secondarily. But is that actually what you experience, or is it merely how you think things work?
'Of course awareness comes from the brain!' you might retort. After all, we have lots of science demonstrating that if people suffer certain kinds of brain damage, their awareness seems to be dramatically impaired. There's no question that our ability to function depends on having a brain in good working order, and I'm not trying to claim otherwise.
But now we're talking about what we know to be true on the level of intellectual models, thoughts, logic, rationalisation, science - what we might call 'third-person' knowledge, knowledge relating to the material world as measured by independent observers.
By contrast, in my first-person subjective experience, I don't find any 'brain'. I have a visual field, an auditory field, a tactile field, an olfactory field, a gustatory field, and a field of mental activity. I can't see, hear, feel, smell or taste my brain. I can think about my brain, but those thoughts are not my brain - they're just thoughts. Maybe I could get someone to cut my head open and show me my brain, but I'd rather not!
Meditation is concerned with this first-person type of experience, as opposed to third-person knowledge. (Generally, the third-person knowledge just gets in the way when we're trying to explore our first-person experience.) Many of us spend so much time in our thoughts that it's hard even to understand the difference at first! But it's from this first-person perspective that I'm inviting us to explore the origin of our awareness.
When I examine my experience, it's actually very difficult to examine awareness. Everything in my experience is, by definition, arising in awareness. No matter what arises - sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, thought - by the time I've noticed it, I'm already aware. Awareness got there first! And that seems to be true whether I'm examining my experience of my head (which, I'm led to believe, contains my brain), my feet, the walls, or the distant stars. No matter what it is, where it is or how far away, awareness is already there.
I am forced to conclude that, at least in my first-person experience, it's actually awareness that is primary. Far from awareness being generated by my brain, I find that, actually, my experience of 'brain' arises within a pre-existing awareness.
So previously I believed that my body came first, and awareness came second. Now, that appears to be back-to-front - or upside-down, if you prefer. If I shift to the other perspective - taking up a view from the perspective of awareness, rather than a view from the perspective of the person arising within awareness - then things look very different.
From the perspective of the person, I have a definite size and shape. I'm limited. I have arms and legs, and I'm strong enough to lift my legs, although I wouldn't necessarily describe myself as a person of great power! But from the perspective of awareness, I have no particular size, no particular shape, no particular limitation. I can't really say that awareness has a 'size' because there's nothing outside of awareness to compare it to - I can't say it's a 'big awareness' or a 'small awareness'. It just is what it is. It doesn't have distinct moving parts, like arms and legs - it doesn't have much of anything, except that the entire universe arises within it.
So, from the perspective of awareness, I am indeed someone of great power - powerful enough to contain the whole universe. Yet, from this perspective, I have no legs to lift. I have nothing, yet contain everything at the same time. I am everything and nothing.
Speaking out is not a matter of the tongue
Master Songyuan's second statement is initially just as perplexing as his first. How can speaking not be a matter of the tongue?
(There's a tale about a traditional Chinese storyteller who met a Zen master. The storyteller wanted to impress the Zen master, and asked what story he would like to hear. The Zen master asked for a very simple tale, the kind you might tell to children - the Chinese equivalent of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, perhaps. The storyteller was a bit put out by this - there are so many stories, but this silly old Zen master wants to hear Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Nevertheless, the storyteller gave a performance. At the end, the Zen master said 'Not bad, but you're using your tongue too much.' Needless to say, the storyteller was perplexed, and became the master's student. Many years later, after the storyteller's insight had deepened, he gave a masterful performance of the story, and this time the master replied 'Oh, this time you've lost your tongue.')
In Zen, words are considered to be tricky beasts. It's easy to fall into the trap of 'talking about Zen'. You learn lots of clever philosophical things and interesting facts, and then regurgitate them for the entertainment of others, and call it teaching. (I'm probably frequently guilty of 'talking about Zen' in this way.) The trouble is that words typically belong to the world of ideas, that third-person world of 'knowledge' - we use them to transmit concepts between ourselves, so that we each end up thinking about something in broadly the same way.
How, then, is one to impart Zen, if not through words? The traditional answer is to 'embody Zen' - hence the question that Zenways asked its sangha members, all the way back at the beginning of this article. Hence Songyuan's statement that 'speaking out is not a matter of the tongue' - a true teacher speaks not only with words but through their very life, through how they are in the world. This is how we make our lives our practice; this is how we speak without using the tongue; this is how we embody Zen.
How do you embody Zen in your life?
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!