Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mumonkan - Case 11: Joshu Sees The Hermits

The Case:

Jõshû went to a hermit's cottage and asked, "Is the master in? Is the master in?" 
The hermit raised his fist.  Jõshû said, "The water is too shallow to anchor here," and he went away.  Coming to another hermit's cottage, he asked again, "Is the master in? Is the master in?"  This hermit, too, raised his fist.  Jõshû said, "Free to give, free to take, free to kill, free to save," and he made a deep bow.

Mumon's Comment:

Both raised their fists; why was the one accepted and the other rejected?  Tell me, what is the difficulty here?  If you can give a turning word to clarify this problem, you will realize that Jõshû's tongue has no bone in it, now helping others up, now knocking them down, with perfect freedom.   

However, I must remind you: the two hermits could also see through Jõshû.  If you say there is anything to choose between the two hermits, you have no eye of realization.  If you say there is no choice between the two, you have no eye of realization.

Mumon's Verse:

The eye like a shooting star,
The spirit like a lighting;
A death-dealing blade,
A life-giving sword.

My Analysis: 

Two hermits, one shared response, and two reactions.  It's a simple, but effective means of getting the reader to ask "why?"  Why do the hermits raise their fists?  Why does Joshu respond dismissively to one, and respectfully to the other?  When you have seemingly identical situations with different outcomes, it presents a problem that the logical brain itches to solve.  "The answer must be unstated in the text," you might think.  "Joshu can see through the hermits and knows that one is enlightened and the other isn't" is a common interpretation of this koan, though that would seem silly and mundane to me.

I've also heard some mention that there is only one hermit that Joshu visits twice.  There is no evidence to support that in the text, though it honestly doesn't matter if you view it that way, and taking that approach might even be helpful.  Assume for a moment that it is the same hermit visited twice, given the dismissive response first, and the respectful response on second visit.  In this case, we can't hide behind a made-up understanding that there is some difference in quality between the two hermits.  You're forced to acknowledge that Joshu gave two different responses to the same greeting for no discernible reason.   

And that, really, is the heart of the matter.  Any context outside of the text is outside the scope of the koan.  All we know is that, presented with the same greeting, Joshu gave different answers.  Luckily, Mumon flat-out gives you the answer to this problem.  Joshu helps others up, and knocks others down, with perfect freedom.  If you find that his differing responses make no sense, you're correct; his freedom is perfect--it is not bound by anything, including the need to make logical sense.  Logic, reaction, words: these are tools to be used, ripe to be manipulated, and Joshu does so without any regard for making sense to those he's speaking to.  If this seems frustrating, then perhaps ask yourself what a logical, reasonable response would be, having greeted a hermit and being responded to silently, with a raised fist.  Ask also what kind of response a raised fist is to a greeting.  If you're accepting that, and questioning the response, I'm afraid you've given yourself no foothold to judge from.  

Mumon goes on to make the point even clearer:  "If you say there is anything to choose between the two hermits, you have no eye of realization.  If you say there is no choice between the two, you have no eye of realization."  These statements appear contradictory, but they aren't.  If you say that there is any reason to choose one over the other, you're not getting it.  If you say that there is no choice, you're still not getting it.  Joshu chooses one and not the other.  Clearly the choice can be made, even when there is no logical reason supporting the choice, again, because Joshu is not bound to logic to make his decisions. 

We see this kind of behavior frequently in Joshu.  While other masters slap, or cut off fingers, or break students' legs, or shout violently, Joshu simply speaks mild-mannered words that shake logical perception to its core.  If you seek to attach meaning to his words instead of viewing them as the expression of perfect freedom, then you yourself are a slave to logic, rather than allowing it to be the tool you manipulate.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mumonkan - Case 10: Seizei is Utterly Destitute

The Case:  

Seizei said to Sõzan, "Seizei is utterly destitude.  Will you give him support?"

Sõzan called out, "Seizei!"  

Seizei responded, "Yes, sir!"

Sõzan said, "You have finished three cups of the finest wine in China, and still you say you have not yet moistened your lips!"

Mumon's Comment:

Seizei pretended to retreat. What was his scheme?  Sõzan had the eye of Buddha and saw through his opponent's motive.  However, I want to ask you, at what point did Seizei drink wine?

Mumon's Verse:

Poverty like Hantan's,
Mind like Kõu's;
With no means of livelihood,
He dares to rival the richest.

My Analysis:  

The starting point for this koan is to understand that both Seizei and Sozan are talking in metaphors.  Seizei says "I am utterly destitute, will you help me?"  He is not speaking in literal terms.  He is not a beggar on the street.  He is a monk, and he is saying "I have nothing; I have no understanding of Zen, please teach me."  This is a tricky request.  Zen is a practice that specifically involves the casting aside of conceptual thoughts, teachings, and understandings, so while "I know nothing; teach me" seems on the surface to be a plea for help, in reality it is an extremely bold claim which Seizei is attempting to use as a trap.  If Sozan teaches Seizei, this is stepping into this trap.  If the master has teachings to share, then he is no master.  If the student has no delusion to cast away, he is no student.  If Sozan were to step into this role of teacher to Seizei's student, the teacher would be engaging in dualistic thinking thinking with a student who would seem not to.  Seizei is boldly attempting establish his own mastery and superiority over his teacher by leading him into this logical trap.

Sozan replies "Seizei!" and Seizei replies immediately, "yes sir!"  The master calls; the student answers.   In this extremely brief exchange, Seizei has betrayed his own cause.  He clearly has not cast aside the dualistic concept of teacher and student.  He is not free of his own discriminating mind, and his claims that he "has nothing" is clearly shown to be false.  All this just in his readily subordinate response.

Sozan follows with "You have finished three cups of the finest wine in China and still you have not moistened your lips!"  By this he means "you've got plenty, and here you are saying you have nothing."  It's easy to say that you have no conceptual thoughts or discriminating mind, but saying it doesn't make it so.  Sozan sees that Seizei is making false claims, and completely disarms those claims without stepping into the trap of playing the part of the teacher.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Mumonkan - Case 9: Daitsu Chisho Buddha

The Case: 

A monk asked Kõyõ Seijõ, "Daitsû Chishõ Buddha sat in zazen for ten kalpas and still could not attain Buddhahood.  He did not become a Buddha.  How could this be?"

Seijõ said, "Your question is quite self-explanatory." 

The monk asked, "He meditated so long; why could he not attain Buddhahood?"  

Seijõ said, "Because he did not become a Buddha."

Mumon's Comment:  

I allow the barbarian's realization, but I do not allow his understanding. When an ignorant man realizes it, he is a sage. When a sage understands it, he is ignorant.

Mumon's Verse:  

Better emancipate your mind than your body;
When the mind is emancipated, the body is free,
When both body and mind are emancipated,
Even gods and spirits ignore worldly power.

My Analysis:  

We're presented with a difficulty.  Daitsu Chisho Buddha sat in meditation for an incalculably long time (ten kalpas is a mythical measurement of time), and despite this did not become a Buddha.  However he is identified as a Buddha.  What's more, Seijo says that this is entirely obvious.  He's correct, and it's a fairly simple process of understanding, or rather, eliminating a misunderstanding.

In many schools of thought, there is the belief that through meditation, a person improves him or herself, and becomes an enlightened individual, that they attain Buddhahood.  This is not the teaching of Zen.  Zen teaches that the Buddha essence is present in all things.  An individual cannot attain Buddhahood anymore than you can attain personhood.  You were born that way.  You have always had it.  Daitsu Chisho Buddha didn't become a Buddha; he, like every being, and thing and thought and action, was Buddha to begin with, whether he sat for ten kalpas or not.  

But let's not just leave it as a simple play on words.  There is more here to realize.  I said above that everything, Daitsu Chisho Buddha included, are Buddha, or the absolute.  While this is, in one sense, true, it is a tangentially a product of delusion.  I used the term that way as a means of explaining the wordplay piece of the koan.  However, the greater delusion is the view of a self apart from others, of individual apart from whole.  Daitsu Chisho Buddha is not a Buddha, because "Buddha" is not individualized, or personified.  "Buddha" in Zen is a term for the absolute.  The all-inclusive one totality.  A pebble is not the absolute, but the absolute is manifest in the pebble.  Daitsu Chisho Buddha is not the absolute, but the absolute is manifest in his being.  

Here is what Mumon points to with "Better to emancipate your mind than your body."  If you free yourself from the concept of self, then there is not a "you" to possess your body; thus your mind and body are both free from the burden of the self, and are free to manifest the absolute without the delusion that it is lacking. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Mumonkan - Case 8: Keichu The Wheel-Maker

The Case:  

Gettan Oshõ said, "Keichû, the first wheelmaker, made a cart whose wheels had a hundred spokes. Now, suppose you took a cart and removed both the wheels and the axle. What would you have?"

Mumon's Comment:  

If anyone can directly master this topic, his eye will be like a shooting star, his spirit like a flash of lightning

Mumon's Verse:

When the spiritual wheels turn, 
Even the master fails to follow them.
They travel in all directions, above and below, 
North, south, east, and west.

My Analysis:

This is a logical problem similar to the Ship of Theseus, in which the question is asked, if, gradually over time, you were to replace every plank forming a ship, when no pieces of the original construction remain, is it still the same ship?  Or a more simplified version I've come across:  "This hatchet has been in my family for so long that the head has been replaced four times, and the handle three."  If both the head and handle have been replaced and nothing of the original hatchet remains, is it the same hatchet?

In this case, we have the story of Keichu the Wheelmaker, and his miraculous cart.  If you dismantle it such that the wheels and the axle are gone, what do you have?  Is it still a cart?  More directly, is it only a cart if it has the function of a cart?  Is that function what determines that it is the form of "cart"?  Or is it a cart whether it functions as a cart or not?  The similarity to the Ship of Theseus is in this issue of how we recognize something as what it is.

This is not just limited to things.  Scientifically we know that your body's cells are largely replaced such that you are not made of the same pieces today that you were ten years ago.  Even setting that modern understanding aside though, it is clear that everything is in a state of constant change.  There is no permanence.  So the question begins to strike close to home very quickly.  What are you if we were to take away the parts that make you, you.  

Of course, it's rarely a simple matter of choosing a correct answer with Zen.  This is a practice geared toward casting aside dualistic, conceptual thought, so "is it a cart or not" must be immediately thrown out.  "Cart" is simply a conceptual label, and distinguishing "cart" from "non-cart" is engaging in dualism.  By entertaining the debate of form and function, we've stepped into the trap.  When conceptual and dualistic thought are cast aside, there is no separation between cart and non-cart.  

No thing is distinct unto itself, all are simply components and expressions of one absolute, or what Huang Po called the One Mind.  Mumon, in his verse, calls it the "Spiritual Wheel."  From the perspective of this absolute, the forms and functions of "cart" take shape and dissipate freely.  Nothing is created or destroyed, only expressed in one form or another, one function or another, with those forms and functions always in a state of flux.  This is what is meant when Mumon says that the Spiritual Wheel turns in all directions.  The Absolute, the totality of everything, the one whole that is the Universe, which delusively divide into chunks we identify as "carts" and "ships" and "hatchets" and "I," that Absolute is in a state of constant motion, constant change, in all directions. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Mumonkan - Case 7: "Wash Your Bowl"

The Case:

A monk said to Jõshû, "I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me."  

"Have you eaten your rice porridge?" asked Jõshû. 

"Yes, I have," replied the monk.  

"Then you had better wash your bowl," said Jõshû. 

With this the monk gained insight.

Mumon's Comment:  

When he opens his mouth, Jõshû shows his gallbladder. He displays his heart and liver. I wonder if this monk really did hear the truth. I hope he did not mistake the bell for a jar.

Mumon's Verse:  

Endeavoring to interpret clearly, 
You retard your attainment.
Don't you know that flame is fire?
 Your rice has long been cooked

My Analysis:

It's easy to attach a metaphorical meaning to Joshu's "Wash your bowl," and even somewhat useful ones.  A popular interpretation is that, just as you wash out the residue of your meal so that your bowl is clean and available for use again, you must wash out your mind of accumulated knowledge and thought, so that it may be useful in whatever new endeavor you encounter.  This definitely has ties to Zen, but it would be a mistake to stick to that interpretation and call it a done day.

The placement of this koan immediately following the Buddha holding up a Flower is no mistake, though, and it gains some new weight being partnered with that one.  In the previous koan, the Buddha declares his teaching, giving it a gaudy, grand name, and announcing that it is being transmitted to one student, implying a sort of exclusive hierarchy, or at least establishing a clear delineation of "has" and "has not," which is of course, fallacious, and intended to spur investigation.  Since an understanding in Zen can ultimately only come from oneself, and since "enlightenment" in the Zen sense is simply awakening to that self nature that you've always had, there can be neither exclusivity, nor transmission. 

Here, we have Joshu taking the exact opposite approach.  He refuses to make this ordinary self nature into something that he can transmit.  He refuses to make it into something grand.  Asked for teaching, and knowing full well that the realization must be the student's own, Joshu teaches him the only way he can; by showing his Zen in the context of the mundane.  His teaching wipes away any sense of superiority.  It completely discards any notion of the sacred.  Zen claims that there is no merit; eating and washing your bowl are then just as holy as any ritual.  How could they be any lesser, how could anything else be greater, when there is no merit to mark the difference?  

It's also noteworthy that Buddha's Flower koan represents a more typical type of teaching in Zen, and Joshu's behavior in this case shows a very different approach that is very characteristic of what we know of him.  In the previous Koan, the Buddha is setting a familiar kind of trap, leading his followers into getting lost in thought.  Familiar, because this is what we see in many, many of the koans in this collection, and in many others.  Many masters use that method to teach their students.  Many shout, or hit, or intentionally confuse.  Joshu is fairly unique in that he typically does not trap, and does not use aggression to get through.  There's a saying that Nansen wields the sword that takes life, and Joshu wields the sword that gives life.  Nansen is another Zen master, Joshu's teacher, and was fond of using the typical mental traps.  His words will get you stuck, take away all of your logical options, and in doing so he awakens you to your true nature by means of removing everything else.  Joshu's method is the opposite.  He is not always easy to understand ("Mu"), but his answers are usually direct, simple, and completely lacking in guile.   He openly gives what is needed, he doesn't conceal anything or misdirect.  He opens his mouth and "shows his gallbladder," showing you exactly what he's made of, and pushes you directly toward an understanding. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Mumonkan - Case 6: The Buddha Holds Up a Flower

The Case:  

When Shakyamuni Buddha was at Mount Grdhrakuta, he held out a flower to his listeners.  Everyone was silent. Only Mahakashyapa broke into a broad smile. The Buddha said, "I have the True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, and the Subtle Dharma Gate, independent of words and transmitted beyond doctrine. This I have entrusted to Mahakashyapa."

Mumon's Comment:

Golden-faced Gautama really disregarded his listeners. He made the good look bad and sold dog's meat labeled as mutton. He himself thought it was wonderful. If, however, everyone in the audience had laughed, how could he have transmitted his True Eye?  And again, if Mahakashyapa had not smiled, how could the Buddha have transmitted it? If you say the True Dharma Eye can be transmitted, then the golden-faced old man would be a city slicker who cheats the country bumpkin. If you say it cannot be transmitted, then why did the Buddha approve of Mahakashyapa?

Mumon's Verse:

Holding out a flower,
The Buddha betrayed his curly tail.
Heaven and earth were bewildered, 
At Mahakashyapa's smile.

My Analysis:  

This is a well known Buddhist story, and one that means a lot of different things depending on where you're hearing it from.  We're hearing it in the context of Zen; so what does that tell us?  Like Gutei's Finger and Joshu's "Mu," in the Buddha's Flower, we have another example of something presented with no explanation, which defies our attempts to attach a meaning to it, and in doing so provoking a response.  Again, try as you might to attach a meaning to it, you're forced to come to the conclusion that it is you attaching that meaning, not a meaning inherent in the gesture.  

We're hearing it from Mumon, who tells you that this story presents the Buddha "selling dog meat labeled as mutton."  What is he getting at with this?  Let's take note that the focus of the story, the point where it reaches its climax, is in the Buddha's presenting the transmission of his teaching to Mahakashyapa.  Considering that Zen holds no specific practice, or belief, or scripture to be holy, transmission of anything seems nonsensical.  So what is being transmitted is this "True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, and the Subtle Dharma Gate, independent of words and transmitted beyond doctrine."  That's an awfully big mouthful to describe what is essentially the lack of dualistic, conceptual, discriminating mind.  

So let's take it piece by piece.  The Buddha holds up a flower.  There is no meaning behind this gesture, though nearly everyone in attendance (and every reader) tries to find a meaning to derive from it.  In reality, it is an ordinary gesture, trying to provoke the audience to dismiss that part of their mind that craves to conceptualize.  Mahakashyapa smiles, and the Buddha declares him the recipient of the transmission.  However, nothing is transmitted.  Mahakashyapa simply sees the lack of meaning in the gesture.  It's not that something special was transmitted only to Mahakshyapa.  In fact, the whole of the exchange is entirely lacking in anything special or conceptual.  

However, the Buddha gives it a grand label, and makes it seem exclusive.  This what Mumon means when he says that he's selling dog meat as mutton.  He's taking something that isn't special, and making it seem special in order to turn heads.  Why would he do this?  To get others investigating of course.  To make them think themselves in circles.  He is setting the trap that will exhaust their thinking, and hopefully once that thinking is exhausted, they'll get it as well. 

Mumon also asks, what would have happened if Mahakashyapa hadn't smiled?  What would have happened if everyone had smiled?  Wouldn't the Buddha's grand plan have been ruined?  It's worth noting that this story is almost certainly not historical, so it is best not to look at it as a testimony of ancient fact.  It is firmly in the realm of legend, and Mumon either knows this, or is at least using the story in that way.  Asking questions about "what would have happened if this had happened differently?" are specifically designed to trip you up, in precisely the same way that the Buddha's grand description was designed to trip up his followers.  In exactly the same way as Hyakujo's student's question about "what would have happened if the monk had given the correct answer" in case 2 is a trap to test his teacher.  

Trying to break down the circumstances of the koan doesn't help you.  That is the same as trying to derive an explanation from the Buddha's flower.  The fictional nature of it doesn't matter; here it is in front of you, presented only as it is.  Cast away your discriminating mind and see it, simple and ordinary.  Don't be deceived by the convoluted "True Dharma" label, or by the mentality that this is exclusive or limited.  Otherwise, Mumon has also sold you dog meat labeled as mutton.  

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Mumonkan - Case 5: Kyogen's "Man Up a Tree"

The Case:

Kyõgen Oshõ said, "It is like a man up in a tree hanging from a branch with his mouth; his hands grasp no bough, his feet rest on no limb. Someone appears under the tree and asks him, 'What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?' If he does not answer, he fails to respond to the question. If he does answer, he will lose his life. What would you do in such a situation?"

Mumon's Comment: 

Even if your eloquence flows like a river, it is of no avail. Though you can expound the whole of Buddhist literature, it is of no use. If you solve this problem, you will give life to the way that has been dead until this moment and destroy the way that has been alive up to now. Otherwise you must wait for Maitreya Buddha and ask him.

Mumon's Verse:  

Kyõgen is truly thoughtless;
His vice and poison are endless.
He stops up the mouths of the monks, 
And devil's eyes sprout from their bodies.

My Analysis:  

"What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?" is roughly equivalent to Zen's "what is the meaning of life?"  It isn't asking for a meaning to existence specifically, but it is asking "what is the heart of zen; what is the ultimate truth?"  It is the sort of question students ask their teachers hoping to gain insight.  It's the kind of question teachers ask their students to test them.  Here you are asked to consider, presented with this question, in a situation where answering it will kill you, what do you do?

If you choose to answer, you die.  If you choose not to answer, you fail the asker's need.  What do you do?  When faced with the situation our minds immediately want to compare the options.  "Answering the question is the most selfless option," you might think.  Or perhaps "the truth can't be transmitted via words, so nothing I say would help him anyway; I'd do better to hold on."  

By now it should be clear that this is no simple either-or situation as laid out.  To present an either-or question as though it has an answer is a logic trap; a theme common in koans.  Joshu, who was featured in our first koan, and will show up in more later, is known to have said "The great way is not difficult; it simply avoids choosing."  To be clear, it avoids judging actions and circumstances in the scope of "better" and "worse."  The person of Zen is free of such distinctions; he (or she) has no need to let his thoughts and actions be bound by previously acquired knowledge, or relativistic morality; he is perfectly free to respond to this situation in any way he sees fit. 

It is a freedom every person has, but many close themselves off from it under the delusion that one way is "better" than the other.  Most of us are mentally trained to solve problems, and here is a presented problem that seems like it must have a solution. But there is no choice to make between answering and falling; you either freely fall, or you freely hang.  Believing that one choice or the other is "better" is the delusion binds that freedom. 

Mumon's verse is especially telling here.  He accuses Kyogen of being thoughtless (jokingly; Mumon likes to poke fun at the subjects of his cases), poisoning the minds of Monks in such a way that it "stops up their mouths" and causes "devil eyes to sprout from their bodies."  By presenting the fundamental question, the question of reality or truth itself, he is presenting a lofty challenge, and one that an eager student would love to rise to.  But it's a fake goal, one that draws the attention away from trap of choosing, which sidles in and sucker-punches any attempt to rise to that tempting challenge.  The student who tries to grasp the choice finds that he has no answer, and that his perception of the problem is delusional--his mouth stopped up, and his perception governed by devil's eyes.