Cutting through spiritual materialism
This week we're looking at case 27 in the Gateless Barrier, 'It is not mind or Buddha'. This koan is dear to my heart - Nanquan (who we've seen before in case 14 and case 19) is one of my favourite Zen masters, and this koan is one that I've spent a lot of time chewing over, and continue to do so.
Why does it resonate with me so much? Because I see myself in the monk asking the question - I'm prone to the same mistake he is.
Pursuing spiritual practice through acquisition
I imagine that this monk was a pretty well-read fellow. He knew the classic Zen teachings, he probably had a few good discourses and poems committed to memory, he could explain the teachings forward and backward with ease.
It's easy to approach spiritual practice this way. I love to read, and I have a vast and ever-growing library of books about Buddhism and other spiritual traditions. I enjoy getting into the details of historical disputes between this school and that one over some minor point of doctrine, and seeing how traditions over time have addressed the perennial issues that come up in spiritual circles through a wide variety of ingenious philosophies, metaphysical models and approaches to practice. I'm the kind of person who, if you ask me 'What does Buddha Nature mean?', will begin my answer with 'Well, it depends,' and proceed to rattle off several of the different ways the term has been used throughout history. I tend to grind my teeth when I hear someone say 'Oh, samadhi? That just means concentration,' because it's never quite that simple. Different teachers use terms in different ways, and what they're saying doesn't make any sense if you try to apply the wrong definition of a term in that context.
Personally, I've found all this learning - all this collecting of knowledge - to be both inspiring and helpful for my own practice. I love finding out new things, and so it's a great joy when I come across a text describing something that I don't understand at all, because now I have a new project with a new discovery waiting for me at the end of it. Great stuff!
The downside of all this is that it's easy to fool oneself into thinking that this gradual accumulation of knowledge and experiences is the 'point' of spiritual practice. Arguably the central principle in spiritual practice is letting go, not acquiring more. If we take too much interest in our growing trophy case of spiritual trophies, we're in danger of missing the point altogether.
Let's get back to the koan and see how this can manifest.
A crafty monk lays a trap
Let's suppose this monk is familiar with Nanquan's ways - maybe he's even heard about the teaching outlined in case 19, that 'the ordinary mind is the Way'. A major theme in Zen is the idea of 'nothing special' - we don't have to go to some far-off place or transform our minds in some deeply mystical way. Strange experiences may come and go as we practise, but in the long run, the Zen ideal is to become utterly and completely ordinary, with no trace of 'enlightenment' remaining. Sometimes you see spiritual teachers who make a very big deal about how wonderfully special their experience is all the time - this is sometimes called the 'stink of Zen'. (My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, would sometimes hold his nose and say 'Stinky, stinky!' if someone was a little too impressed with themselves.)
So this monk sidles up to his teacher and says 'Hey master, do you have any secret teachings?'
Now, the monk is a smart cookie - he knows (because he's heard it from someone) that 'ordinary mind is the Way', so there's no secret teaching. He's expecting the teacher to confirm what he already knows, so he can go away feeling like a smarty pants and return to his complacency.
On the other hand, he's also a collector of knowledge, and so, deep down, a part of him really wants there to be some kind of secret teaching. There actually is something called 'the secret teachings of Zen', and every time my teacher Daizan Roshi uses that phrase, my ears perk up. I want the secret teachings, dammit! The regular ones are boring, but the secret ones - that must be the really good stuff.
So this question is a win-win situation for the monk. If Nanquan says 'no', the monk gets an ego boost - but if he says 'yes', SECRET TEACHINGS!
The trap backfires
Knowing that the promise of a secret teaching will really get the attention of this tedious bookworm monk, Nanquan says 'Yep, I have a secret teaching.' And it works - the monk is now hanging on his every word. 'Tell me, tell me! What is it, what is it?'
Then Nanquan drops his bomb.
'It is not mind, it is not Buddha, it is not a thing.'
(If Nanquan had been holding a microphone, he would have dropped it here.)
Now, the koan doesn't tell us what happened next, so we don't know whether the monk had a great awakening or was simply thrown into confusion. But, speaking as someone who's had the rug pulled out from under me by Zen masters on more than one occasion, I can imagine at least some of what might have been going through the monk's mind at this point.
Before we get into that, though, we should take a look at what Nanquan's reply actually means.
As I mentioned above, in case 19 Nanquan told Zhaozhou that 'the ordinary mind is the Way'. We might conclude from that that the object of Zen practice is to understand this 'ordinary mind' fully - and when we do, we'll know how to practise the Way and be free from suffering. But now he's saying nope, it ain't that - and, by doing so, he's undercutting the monk's expectations pretty severely. It's like the monk has been learning to play tennis for the last few years and his teacher has suddenly said 'Tennis? You're never going to play tennis.'
Now Nanquan goes a step further. In the Zen context, the word 'Buddha' is typically a shorthand for the principle of awakening itself, as opposed to a reference to the historical Siddhartha Gautama. Indeed, many koans begin with a student asking 'What is Buddha?' (see e.g. case 18 or case 21). But now Nanquan is saying nope, it ain't that either. This second part of the answer doubles down on the first part - not only has Nanquan rejected the 'ordinary mind' answer, but now he appears to be rejecting a basic pillar of Buddhism!
This last one is translated in different ways by different teachers. Thomas Cleary has 'It is not a thing,' as given above. Katsuki Sekida has 'It is not things' - Chinese doesn't have true plurals like English does, so you can make a case either way. Guo Gu has 'not a single thing', which calls back to Huineng's poem which I mentioned in the discussion of case 23 (the third line of that poem is sometimes given as 'Originally there is not a single thing').
Whichever way you translate it, though the meaning is the same. Nanquan is saying that the deepest truth of Zen is, ultimately, not any 'thing' in particular. As soon as you pin it down and say 'Oh, it's this', you've gone wrong.
What is it like to be enlightened?
In last week's article we looked at a description of awakening from the early Buddhist tradition - disillusionment, the fading of desire, liberation. When we encounter a model like this - which promises a radical transformation of the way we experience the world - it's natural to get a little uneasy about the whole thing. People will start to ask questions like 'But what's that going to be like?', or finding interpretations of the words that sound really bad ('Wouldn't it be boring if you never felt desire? I like desire!').
The problem is that it's impossible to say what it'll be 'like' to be awake, because it isn't 'like' anything in particular. It's a bit like asking 'What is it like to be alive?' - no matter what answer you give, it doesn't really capture what's going on. (The second most annoying thing in Zen is when a teacher says something smug-sounding like 'As soon as you start to talk about it, you've already gone wrong.' The most annoying thing in Zen is when you realise that they were right.)
The next temptation lurking in the shadows is to turn 'no thing' into a fixed thing. 'Oh, I know this one, there's no fixed answer to it.' This is a kind of meta-strategy, a way of dealing with the mystery by throwing up our hands and saying 'No point, it's a mystery'. But that doesn't work either - and a good teacher will call you on it if you try. There's a story I heard once (I couldn't find the reference, sorry - if you know it, please leave it in the comments) about a student who tried to deal with his teacher's questioning with a wise, lofty response - 'Oh, you can't lay hand or foot on it' - at which point his teacher grabbed him by the nose and said 'Well I can lay a hand on this!'
So what the heck are we supposed to do with this?
It seems like all our options are cut off at this point. We can't say it's like something, but the mean old teacher will pinch our nose if we say we can't say it's like something - what's left?
Well, one thing we can take from this teaching is that any time we find ourselves landing on one particular thing - a meditation technique, a philosophy, a way of being - as 'it', we can be certain that we've gone wrong. That's not to say that those things aren't useful! Meditation techniques can be hugely useful - this website is devoted to sharing them, after all, and I wouldn't be doing that if I didn't think there was value in it. The point is rather that if you find yourself thinking something like 'Ah, when I'm enlightened, I'll never have to deal with xyz any more' or 'I need to remember to do abc every day because that's what enlightened people do', that should be a warning sign that you've started to turn your practice into just another 'thing' to attain - and in doing so, you've missed the mark.
If you'd like to work with this koan in your own practice, a pithy version of it is 'Not mind, not Buddha, not things - what is it?'
If you figure it out, maybe you can write a book about it...
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!