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.  

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Mumonkan - Case 4: The Western Barbarian With No Beard

The Case: 

Wakuan said, "Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?"

Mumon's Comment: 

Study should be real study, enlightenment should be real enlightenment. You should once meet this barbarian directly to be really intimate with him. But saying you are really intimate with him already divides you into two.

Mumon's Verse:

Don't discuss your dream
Before a fool. 
Barbarian with no beard
Obscures the clarity.

My Analysis: 

Most koans will bring the concept of non-duality wrapped in easier to digest--though still no by no means "easy"--side issues.  "Mu" discards the duality of "correct" and "incorrect," but does so by challenging the student to give up set ideas in total.  Hyakujo's Fox also deals with correctness, but more so dissolves the separation of self from the flow of cause and effect, but does so with a parable that gives the reader a narrative to follow.  The Western Barbarian's Beard, on the other hand, is not gentle in testing you.  It's a sudden shove out of the nest.  You will fly or you will plummet.

The Western Barbarian is a description associated with Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who, according to tradition, brought Zen to China.  He is always depicted as having a full, bushy beard.  Wakuan asks "Why is it that he doesn't have a beard?"  This is similar to Joshu's "Mu."  It is a question that already assumes what we understand to be an incorrect fact.  Wakuan is looking you in the eye and saying:  "Do you believe you are a person of Zen?  Here's your test:  Bodhidharma has a beard; why doesn't he have a beard?  Have fun plummeting!"

It is in Mumon's comment that you get your only hint, your only nudge toward understanding.  He suggests that, in discovering enlightenment, you should find yourself "intimate" with this barbarian--but that saying that you are intimate with him already divides you in two.  This is one of the most direct statements in Zen, but its brevity, and the connection with the concept of being "intimate" with a long-dead figure infuse it with a sense of mysticism that your mind will use to obscure the simple, concise instruction. 

Mumon is telling you that you need to discard the concept of duality.  Of the self versus other.  Of subject-and-object.  You do not become intimate with the barbarian, you recognize that you and the barbarian are not separate, and that separation is a delusion.  That the barbarian and his beard are also not two separate things.  He cannot "have" his beard, because identifying "him" and "his beard" is an act that cuts out two pieces of the universe which are not independent of each other, or you, or of anything else.  

This is not something you can think your way out of.  Even if you recognize the concept of this duality, and recognize the principle of discarding it, you are not free from it.  But when your thinking is exhausted, and your understanding is stretched thin, if something is able to punch through your conceptual thinking--be it Joshu's Mu, Goso's Buffalo, or even something from your own mundane life--then all of the division is cast aside, and Bodhidharma has no beard.  Until then, Wakuan's shove is a merciless reminder of the delusion of understanding. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mumonkan - Case 3: Gutei's Finger

The Case:

Whenever Gutei Oshõ was asked about Zen, he simply raised his finger. 

Once a visitor asked Gutei's boy attendant, "What does your master teach?" The boy too raised his finger. Hearing of this, Gutei cut off the boy's finger with a knife. The boy, screaming with pain, began to run away. Gutei called to him, and when he turned around, Gutei raised his finger. The boy suddenly became enlightened.

When Gutei was about to pass away, he said to his assembled monks, "I obtained one-finger Zen from Tenryû and used it all my life but still did not exhaust it." When he had finished saying this, he entered into eternal Nirvana.

Mumon's Comment:

The enlightenment of Gutei and of the boy does not depend on the finger. If you understand this, Tenryû, Gutei, the boy, and you yourself are all run through with one skewer.

Mumon's Verse:

Gutei made a fool of old Tenryû,
Emancipating the boy with a single slice,
Just as Kyorei cleaved Mount Kasan
To let the Yellow River run through.

My Analysis: 

It helps to note that there are three pieces to this koan.  The first sentence is the first piece:  Whenever he was asked about Zen, Gutei simply raised his finger.  The second piece is the story of the young attendant's enlightenment.  The third is Gutei's deathbed quote.  I'm dividing it up this way because discussing it in pieces may help clarify some of what drives this koan.  
First, a bit of background on the figure of Gutei, which one of Mumon's readers in his own time would likely have known.  As a young man, Gutei lived in solitude, meditating and studying on his own.  One day he was visited by a nun, who asked him to speak a word of Zen.  He couldn't give her an answer, and viewed it as a personal failing of himself.  He was dismayed.  Shortly thereafter, he was visited by master Tenryu.  Desperate to understand his own failing, he begged Tenryu to teach him.  Tenryu simply raised his finger, and Gutei was enlightened. Reading this, you likely focus on the finger.  The finger is unimportant; what is important is Gutei's internal struggle to understand.  His own fostering of the "great doubt," which left him shaken and unsure of himself.  In that moment when Tenryu raised his finger, there must have been a moment of Gutei's mind trying to understand, and then, under the accumulated strain of doubting itself, giving up understanding.  And that is when it happens. 

At first, Gutei's method of using this gesture to answer questions seems unhelpful, and to many it probably was.  What does it mean to just raise his finger?  What meaning can you find in it?  You could probably find some meaning to attach to it, such as "the entire universe is one," or "this is the line between the enlightened and unenlightened," but Gutei never spoke about the meaning in his finger; finding a meaning and sticking it to the gesture is your own doing. It is something you add to it.  By doing so, you are forced to face the realization that thinking about it represents that attachment to finding meaning. If your own great doubt is as deep as Gutei's was when he met Tenryu, then this strain may be enough.  Otherwise, and most likely, it just seems like silliness. 

The boy serving Master Gutei probably saw him raise his finger hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.  It was his only answer to questions of Zen.  It was his only teaching.  So when asked "what does your master teach?", how can the boy answer but to raise his finger?  He has literally no other answer to give.  

Gutei's response, cutting the finger off, sounds monstrous under the circumstances.  He has given the boy no other teaching, and appears to be punishing him for answering a question truthfully.  The problem is in viewing the act as a punishment.  The boy doesn't understand the significance of raising the finger, which involves understanding the insignificance.  His understanding is stuck on the finger itself.  It's stuck in mimicking the gesture.  In cutting it off, Gutei is forcefully removing that mental attachment.  The boy can no longer raise his finger and delude himself into thinking that is Zen.  This alone could be viewed as a harsh (though perhaps necessary) initial teaching to keep the boy from getting stuck.  

However, in that moment of pain, the boy was probably struggling to understand why this was done to him.  What had he done wrong?  He may have been in a mind to question the reasoning of the master he serves, and he certainly would be questioning himself, which, along with the pain, would have put him in a mindset of that same great doubt that Gutei himself was in when he met Tenryu.  So when Gutei calls out to the boy, and then raises his finger, the attempts to understand the finger are past.  His mind would have strained at trying to see the significance of this gesture, and then it gives up understanding.  And again, that is when it happens.

And then in the final lines, we hear of Gutei saying that he never exhausted Tenryu's one-finger-Zen.  Had the boy, or anyone else, come to accept the finger as just a mundane answer, it may have exhausted its usefulness.  Had anyone gotten the opportunity to attach a meaning to it, it may have exhausted its usefulness.  But through his life, Gutei kept that one-finger-Zen as meaningless as it was the day he received it.  It never meant anything to anyone but what they brought to it, but it remained a tool that could break someone under the strain of their own attempts to understand, if they were primed with the great doubt.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mumonkan - Case 2: Hyakujo's Fox

The Case:

When Hyakujõ Oshõ delivered a certain series of sermons, an old man always followed the monks to the main hall and listened to him. When the monks left the hall, the old man would also leave. One day, however, he remained behind, and Hyakujõ asked him, "Who are you, standing here before me?"

The old man replied. "I am not a human being. In the old days of Kashyapa Buddha, I was a head monk, living here on this mountain. One day a student asked me, 'Does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation or not?'   I answered, 'No, he does not.'  Since then I have been doomed to undergo five hundred rebirths as a fox. I beg you now to give the turning word to release me from my life as a fox. Tell me, does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation or not?"

Hyakujõ answered, "He does not ignore causation."

No sooner had the old man heard these words than he was enlightened. Making his bows, he said, "I am emancipated from my life as a fox. I shall remain on this mountain. I have a favor to ask of you: would you please bury my body as that of a dead monk."

Hyakujõ had the director of the monks strike with the gavel and inform everyone that after the midday meal there would be a funeral service for a dead monk. The monks wondered at this, saying, "Everyone is in good health; nobody is in the sick ward. What does this mean?" After the meal Hyakujõ led the monks to the foot of a rock on the far side of the mountain and with his staff poked out the dead body of a fox and performed the ceremony of cremation.

That evening he ascended the rostrum and told the monks the whole story. Õbaku thereupon asked him, "The old man gave the wrong answer and was doomed to be a fox for five hundred rebirths. Now, suppose he had given the right answer, what would have happened then?"

Hyakujõ said, "You come here to me, and I will tell you."

Õbaku went up to Hyakujõ and boxed his ears. Hyakujõ clapped his hands with a laugh and exclaimed, "I was thinking that the barbarian had a red beard, but now I see before me the red-bearded barbarian himself."

Mumon's Comment:

Not falling under causation: how could this make the monk a fox?  Not ignoring causation: how could this make the old man emancipated?  If you come to understand this, you will realize how old Hyakujõ would have enjoyed five hundred rebirths as a fox.

Mumon's Verse:   

Not falling, not ignoring:
Two faces of one die.
Not ignoring, not falling:
A thousand errors, a million mistakes.

My Analysis:  

At first glance this comes across as a very simple parable about a monk who gives an incorrect answer.  The monk was asked whether an enlightened man is subject to the law of cause and effect.  When he answered "no," he was punished with five hundred lifetimes as a fox.  He asks Hyakujo to give the answer that will free him from this punishment.  Hyakujo delivers the answer, and the old monk is freed.  How simple and charming right?  But notice Mumon dismisses both answers.  "Not ignoring, not falling:  A thousand errors, a million mistakes." So what is up?

It's worth keeping in mind that many Buddhists believe that the law of cause and effect (karma) is something that one can eventually free themselves from.  This seems to be presented here in the monk's statement, that the enlightened man does not fall into the law of cause and effect.  How wrong he appears to be; his incorrect answer causes his "punishment."  He is shown to be both cause and effect of his own circumstances.  Hyakujo's statement, that the enlightened man does not ignore cause and effect, seems to contradict the old man's, and is the impetus that triggers his freedom from the life as a fox. Hyakujo's answer, not to ignore it, does not acknowledge being subject to cause-and-effect, but it does not imply any freedom from it either. 

Understand that freeing oneself from cause and effect is a delusion born from the mistaken belief that cause and effect is something that happens to you, and that there is a you for it to happen to.  We tend to view it as the circumstances that surround us, and which we bump into.  The old monk sees his circumstance of being reborn as a fox as something that was done to him. He does not see that he himself is both cause and effect.  He doesn't see that he is an element of cause and effect, not a subject of it.  He views himself as tangled in the cloth of cause and effect, and fails to see that he's just one more thread in the tapestry.  The enlightened man is free, so when presented with the question, he answers with what seems as though it must be the truth:  that the enlightened man does not fall into cause and effect.  

His answer is correct, but it is born of wrong-mindedness.  He buys into the either-or nature of the question.  He buys into the self-oriented view of the universe.  The enlightened man doesn't "fall into" cause and effect any more than you "fall into" growth. You are born growing, and you grow throughout your life.  You do not "fall into" cause and effect, you are not affected by it, you are a part of it.  Hyakujo's answer is also correct:  the Enlightened man does not ignore cause and effect.  He couldn't even if he wanted to; it is a fundamental part of his entire existence. 

Does the enlightened man fall into cause and effect?  If you answer yes or no, you've already made "a thousand errors, a million mistakes" just in accepting the question.  Just by considering the question, you've already taken on the view that the self is something other than cause and effect.  So what of the belief that you can free yourself from cause and effect (karma)?  In the sense that the ordinary person views it, it is nonsense.  Consider yourself as you are now.  You are very much entirely within the fabric of cause and effect.  Most likely, even if you have an intellectual understanding that you are a part of it, your immediate feeling is that it's something that happens to and around you.  If you are subject to cause and effect now, how can it ever not be the case?  If you work through your life to overcome it, or through multiple lifetimes as some believe, then you are working as a being of cause-and-effect to become a being that isn't.  In other words, you're trying to cause yourself to overcome it.  How can you cause yourself to no longer be affected by karma, when your efforts are the cause, and your supposed freedom from cause and effect is the effect?  

You cannot free yourself from something that doesn't bind you; you can only free yourself from the delusion that it binds you.  Mumon says that Hyakujo would have enjoyed his five hundred lives as a fox.  Of course he would; he views himself as part of the tapestry that is cause-and-effect, not as a subject to it.  Whatever currents of change he is part of, he is free from the delusion that it happens to him, and is therefore free to enjoy his existence no matter what circumstances he finds himself in.  

The final segment of the koan features a student who sees the truth, and asks the question that penetrates right to the heart of the matter. "If he had given the correct answer, what then?" He is testing his teacher. He understands that the question is a trap, and that that choosing "correct" or "incorrect" is stepping firmly into that trap. He is asking his teacher a question, but the details of the question don't matter. The real challenge is: "if you answer this question, you're agreeing to the terms of 'correct' and 'incorrect,' and thus have stepped into the same trap as the old monk." This is presented as a challenge to Hyakujo, but in reality it is a challenge to you, the reader. This is a piece of the koan to push you to question the simplicity of the story that has come before it.

Hyakujo invited Obaku up to the stand, so he might "tell him the answer."  Hyakujo was going to hit him for asking a misguided question.  By coming forward and hitting Hyakujo first, Obaku shows that he knows his question was nonsense.  He is saying:  "I know you are going to hit me, and I know why."  By beating Hyakujo to the literal punch, he displays his own understanding to his teacher. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mumonkan - Case 1: Joshu's "Mu."

A koan is simply a historical case, an example of a master at work.  They're often constructed to confound and mentally trap students such that there is no way to solve them aside from setting aside thinking, but that doesn't mean you can't derive an intellectual understanding from them that might help you direct yourself toward goals.  Just keep in mind that the intellectual understanding is not the goal, and doesn't show the kind of understanding that we're after.  

I'm going to begin with the Mumonkan (Katsuki Sekida translation), which is a collection of 48 koan, assembled and commented on by Zen master Mumon Ekai, for use as a tool for teaching students.  Mumon chose to begin his collection with the case of Joshu's "Mu," which is one of the simplest and most direct, but also one of the most daunting cases for a beginner to grasp.

The Case:

 A monk asked Jõshû, "Has a dog the Buddha Nature?" Jõshû answered, "Mu (no)."

Mumon's Comment:

In order to master Zen, you must pass the barrier of the patriarchs. To attain this subtle realization, you must completely cut off the way of thinking. If you do not pass the barrier, and do not cut off the way of thinking, then you will be like a ghost clinging to the bushes and weeds.  Now, I want to ask you, what is the barrier of the patriarchs?  Why, it is this single word "Mu." That is the front gate to Zen.  Why, it is this single word "Mu." That is the front gate to Zen.  Therefore it is called the "Mumonkan of Zen."  If you pass through it, you will not only see Jõshû face to face, but you will also go hand in hand with the successive patriarchs, entangling your eyebrows with theirs, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears. 

Isn't that a delightful prospect?  Wouldn't you like to pass this barrier?  Arouse your entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and joints and its eighty-four thousand pores of the skin; summon up a spirit of great doubt and concentrate on this word "Mu."  Carry it continuously day and night. Do not form a nihilistic conception of vacancy, or a relative conception of "has" or "has not."  It will be just as if you swallow a red-hot iron ball, which you cannot spit out even if you try.  All the illusory ideas and delusive thoughts accumulated up to the present will be exterminated, and when the time comes, internal and external will be spontaneously united. You will know this, but for yourself only, like a dumb man who has had a dream. Then all of a sudden an explosive conversion will occur, and you will astonish the heavens and shake the earth.  It will be as if you snatch away the great sword of the valiant general Kan'u and hold it in your hand. When you meet the Buddha, you kill him; when you meet the patriarchs, you kill them. On the brink of life and death, you command perfect freedom; among the sixfold worlds and four modes of existence, you enjoy a merry and playful samadhi.

Now, I want to ask you again, "How will you carry it out?"  Employ every ounce of your energy to work on this "Mu."  If you hold on without interruption, behold: a single spark, and the holy candle is lit!

Mumon's Verse:

The dog, the Buddha Nature,
The pronouncement, perfect and final.
Before you say it has or has not,
You are a dead man on the spot.

My Analysis:  

This is a remarkably difficult starting point, even just from a perspective of linguistics.  The western student approaching this koan probably has already heard several, and conflicting things about what the word "Mu" means.  Some will say "nothingness," or that it is a means of refusing to answer the question.  You can make an argument for lots of different interpretations, but it's easiest if you simply take "mu" as a contextual "no."  He is delivering a flat, and simple answer to the monk's question:  "No, the dog does not have Buddha nature."  
Only that isn't simple at all.  "Buddha Nature" in Zen is seen as the essential nature of all beings, or even at times as the nature of reality, and it is said that every being possesses Buddha Nature.  So we're faced with a yes or no question which has as close to a prescribed "correct" answer you could expect to find, and the master responds flatly with what we understand to be the incorrect answer.  His mastery of the subject isn't in question, so as the reader, you're left with the unenviable task of making sense of this.  

Heads up: you can't.  If the goal of Zen is to become free from the attachment to your own thoughts and your concept of self, that isn't going to happen by stumbling upon an intellectual understanding of the koan and patting yourself on the back.  That kind of freedom only comes when you break things.  When Joshu responds with the answer that is fundamentally incorrect, "Mu" becomes a wrecking ball, demolishing his own authority as a teacher, demolishing the concepts of "correct" and "incorrect," "has" or "doesn't have," demolishing the idea of pressing the world into a shape that we understand, demolishing all of the accumulated knowledge that gave rise to the question in the first place.  He hasn't dismissed the question, he has effectively erased it by giving an answer that it wasn't designed to accommodate.  He tossed Mu out into the world, and it began breaking things.  

When Mumon suggests that you grasp this "Mu" with all of your being, this is his intent.  He wants you to hold on to that wrecking ball and allow it to destroy all of your established knowledge, all of your beliefs, all of your concepts, including the concept of a self, all of the things that you're clinging to like "a ghost clinging to the bushes and weeds."  What he describes is an effort, and that is no mistake.  Imagine you're trapped inside a room and the door is locked.  You have a baseball bat with which you can break the window and climb out.  Understanding that you can break the glass does not get you free.  You still need to do the work of breaking that glass.  Understanding that that these things need to break for you to be free is one thing; actually breaking them is quite another.  So don't sit on this realization and accept it as the goal.  All you've done is found a way; you haven't broken out yet. 

Who is This Jackass?

"Oh," you're thinking.  "A Zen Blog.  What makes this guy think he has the answers?  Where did he acquire this supposed insight?  Why would anyone even make a blog about sitting around and meditating?  And what makes him such an authority, anyway?"  These are all fair questions, and even if you weren't asking them, you probably ought to get into the habit of questioning anyone you get any of your information from. I'll start with the last.

What Makes You Such an Authority?

The simple answer is that I'm not.  I make no claims to authority, and you should not hold me to any lofty position.  I'm trying to provide some useful explanation and experience to help people reach an understanding of themselves and their own true natures (by the way, I hate trite terms like "true nature," but what are we gonna do?), but I'm just a dude.  I can't be an authority on your true nature any more than you can be an authority on what it's like to be grass, and if you find yourself starting to think of me as an authority, I wholeheartedly encourage you to dismiss those thoughts.  If you find my words helpful, they will be helpful to you even if you don't consider me an authority.  If you don't find my words helpful, they won't become helpful to you by considering me an authority.  No matter how you slice it, they're just gonna be some helpful or unhelpful words from a dude.

Why Would Anyone Make a Blog About Sitting Around and Meditating?

 I'm sure there's plenty of reasons someone might, and probably plenty have.  That isn't what I'm doing here.  While I encourage sitting meditation as a generally useful practice, it is not necessary for reaching a Zen understanding.  For many people, a structured meditation practice seems to be a helpful means of approaching their own understanding, and I'd never argue against anyone who follows that route.  Similarly, I'd never argue against anyone who opts to follow a rigid teacher/student dynamic, or who follows any of the many other traditional practices regularly associated with Zen.  However, those aren't my method, and they aren't a direct influence on what I'll be writing about.

My focus is going to be more centered on using koan practice to trip up the mind, and cause it to shake off its established delusions, and training it to do so more easily in the future.  Luckily, this and sitting meditation are not mutually exclusive practices, and indeed sitting meditation can be used as a means of allowing your mind to work with a koan.  Zen is a process, a methodology, not a religion.  It frequently comes packaged in a religion, but that's not what you're getting from me.  What you're getting from me is Zen minus the faith.

Where Did You Acquire Your Supposed Insight?

A few years ago, I suffered a disabling injury that changed the way I looked at the world in the most literal sense.  This made me unable to do many of the things I'd done previously, and as a result strained my own view of myself.  This is a very stressful situation to be in, and for a long time, I suffered under that stress, and those close to me suffered as a result of my stress, and some of my closest relationships became strained.  During this time I was also becoming more inquisitive about Zen, and while I found I could come to an intellectual understanding of Zen's goal, it wasn't until I reached a breaking point that the shift occurred in me, and I had a very sudden understanding of myself, my place in the world, and nature of reality. 

As I said before, by all means, feel free to dismiss this.  I'm not asking you to have faith in what I'm telling you; I just hope that you'll read on and find something useful to you. 

What Makes You Think You've Got the Answers?

I don't think that I have answers; I prefer having questions.  Questions are so much less invasive. 

I have methods to hopefully point you toward understandings.  Any answer you come across should be deeply considered and dismissed, no matter how convincing, no matter how useful.  If that knowledge is true, then it will still be there for you find again.  If that belief is worthwhile, you will come to it again.  If you cling to answers you've come to in the past, you are no longer free to examine that issue truthfully, and if things have changed, you are no longer in a position to discover that change.  Think of your understanding as a dance.  If you have props to make a set, your dance can can interact with them to make a great contextual performance, but if you don't set the props aside, they take up room on your dance floor.  Set them aside when you've finished with them, and you have so much more space to move.  Set aside your contextual knowledge and beliefs, and your mind has more room to move.