Then the student asked Yunmen, “But when it’s not the things I can see, and it’s not what they’re doing, what is it?”
“Say it upside down.”
–Blue Cliff Record Case #15
I Keep Searching for Something
It is not what you think. How many times have I heard that in Zen circles? And as many times as you have heard to the contrary, you are not what you eat. When you are not what you think, or what you eat, or how you feel, or the car you drive, what school you went to, or what job you have, who are you? That’s a good question. Empty it all out and what’s left? After Bodhidharma told Emperor Wu that there was nothing essential or primary or holy to hold onto, the Emperor asked him, “Well, who are you?” “I don’t know,” came the reply. And that is a good place to start. Nothing holy, fixed or certain. Some of our koans come back to that and ask, “Can you abide with this? Live like this? Well…, I’d say easier said than done. I spent years searching for something “higher,” a better version of David, a something to replace the thoughts, the feelings, the car and good school. A blessed assurance and a foundation to believe in, with which to identify seemed ideal, comforting even.
Turning the Tables or Knowing Where to Tap
A story, or is it a joke? Nope. Probably a story, or a parable.
The furnace breaks and the homeowner calls the plumber. It is cold out so she comes right over. She quickly looks over the furnace and pulls out a hammer and taps one of the pipes. “That will be a hundred dollars.” The owner is enraged. “That’s too much for two minutes work. What could cost so much?” The plumber looks him in the eye and says, “One dollar to tap the pipe, and 99 for knowing where to tap.”
Yunmen is a master of knowing where, and when to tap. One feature of his teaching style is to apply one word at precisely the right time. To one question he says, “Barrier!” When asked another he calls out, “sesame rice cake.” With his one word hearts open and worlds come together. In this koan he taps not with a single word, but with a phrase. The monk who has come to Yunmen has done some work, “It is not what I can see nor is It how what I sees functions.” It is not this or it is not that. But, he might ay, it must be something. “What is it? This essence?” he asks. And just then Yunmen taps, “Say it upside down!”
For Yunmen and for Chan in general, essence, if there is such, will take care of itself. Can’t be grasped.
No Explanations. Rather, Here You Are: Now What Will You Do?
This koan, probably all koans, make the invitation for you to respond. The koan is not looking for something “correct” or sanctioned. The koan elicits your response, the words/actions that arise here and now. “Say it upside down.” This is as if to say, “it is no thing, what will you do now that you are here?” (In the koan right before this one in the Blue Cliff Record, Yunmen make a like “tap,” a bit more direct, “Say something in response.”) Yunmen’s tap pulls the student into the moment. Yuanwu in his commentary on the koan speaks of Yunmen and Chan teachers,
In reality there is no other purpose, just to melt sticking points and release bonds for you, to pull out nails and draw out pegs, to strip off blinders and unload saddle bags.
Upside Down and Free
When she was twelve my daughter was accepted into a painting program at the California College of Arts and Crafts. One exercise went like this: the teacher placed a large vase of flowers in the center of the room and directed the students to paint it. As the class progressed she took my daughter’s canvas and turned it upside down. Her instruction was to keep painting. Something clicked for my daughter as she enlivened to the moment — more was possible. Her brush movements became less restrained, uninhibited. Colors vivid. With one tap, the teacher had pulled the nails and pegs, blinders were removed and saddlebags lifted from Becky’s back.
For the moment she was free to paint.