A student said to Yunmen, ‘The radiance serenely illumines the whole universe…’ Yunmen interrupted him and said, ‘Aren’t those someone else’s words?’
The student replied, ‘Yes they are.’ Yunmen said, ‘You have misspoken.’

Abiding nowhere, the heart/mind comes forth. 

In this Covid world I am searching for real words, living words, signifying, pointing to something real. Instead, I get opinions. Politicians, leaders, the person down the street, the acquaintance across town are free with their opinions. As they speak they tell me what they have heard, explain to me the virtue of their opinion over others. They appeal to authorities, red, blue, right and left. In their appeal for loyalty, these opinions often leave the realm of evidence and ask for my fealty to a world of assumption and belief. All this reminds me of the the words of Yunmen in the Gateless Gate:

 A student said to Yunmen, ‘The radiance serenely illumines the whole universe…’ Yunmen interrupted him and said, ‘Aren’t those someone else’s words?’
The student replied, ‘Yes they are.’
Yunmen said, ‘You have misspoken.’

So much misspoken these days. So, I am looking for living words.

Location, Location, Location

In Real Estate these are the magic words. Location makes all the difference. What’s true of real estate is true of our social location. We tend to interact solely or mostly with people from similar location, class, race, clan, world view. Facebook knows this. Check out your newsfeed. How often do you receive posts from folks with differing perspectives? Not so much, right?

Location is more than our place on earth, it is our place in the social landscape, determined by the silos we live in. And each location, each silo, has its own narrative — other people’s words, words which invite allegiance and loyalty, that define our place in the tribe. Just to say, we will find ourselves here — humans crave community and this is one way we have of engendering community. And yet, the Chan masters ask us to speak for ourselves, to move from static words that don’t seem to move or breath to living words, words of heart that mysteriously come forth and touch others.

But how?

Koans: Postcards from Awakening

Let’s jump ship, abandon location, the worlds we cling to as we explain ourselves to ourselves and others, through which we find our place. For that we have koans.

Koans are not things that fit into our belief system nor can they be used to manipulate others in support of a particular world view. Rather, they pull us out of our attachments and perceived certainties in deference to the moment, calling us to be “now” and right “here,” or nowhere. They guide us as we abandon location, the living words of the koan engendering living response, alive to the situation. Koans fit the moment. Moving and shimmering with vitality, like a postcard from awakening they call, “Wish you were here!” The universe calls out to us in the koan. Like the horse shining in the sun on my early morning walk, the koan calls me into relationship. They are living words that open to an encounter and relationship with life as it is, not as remembered or imagined. But, simply, as it is.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote of two relationships – I – It and I – Thou. I-It is the relationship of manipulation, of fixing, of moving something from point A to point B. I-Thou is the living encounter, a conversation and dialogue. I-Thou is the beginning of intimacy, an opening to transformation. It is the call and response of life to life, a movement towards awakening, towards the coinherence of things. In an I – Thou world, there is no room for the words of others, slogans or creeds. In the I – Thou relationship, heart/mind opens to heart/mind.

Dharma Talks in a Covid World

I have learned a great deal in the 9 or 10 weeks we have been Zooming. It has given me a chance to work on my Dharma talks, noticing my location as I speak. I have spent nearly 40 years speaking to groups of people. I have developed over that time a style that I am comfortable with and that seems to reach others in a meaningful way. I am grateful for this because it meets my heart’s desire to be there for others in a deep way. Yet…

With these Covid Zoom talks I have noticed how I take techniques I have learned over the years of public speaking to reach others — bring folks in easy, use plenty of illustrations and stories, use the element of surprise, body language as a simultaneous communication, etc…. This all came clear to me when a friend of mine asked me what I had talked about on Thursday evening. What I noticed is that my tone was more relaxed and conversational. In conversation with my friend I seemed more connected to the moment, to my own heart/mind and to that of my friend. I allowed myself to sense the vitality in my communication, the words that breathe and move, that shimmer as they flow from the lips and touch others. Covid Zoom talks have thus taken me deeper into my own practice and community.

The Japanese word for talk is teisho, which means “presentation of the shout.” A teisho need not explain anything, much less is it an exposition of a koan that might lead to intellectual understanding. Actually, it is not about anything outside of the presentation itself. The teisho is the moment, the shout, the hit, the sun rising at dawn, the horizon aflame. Life co-inheres, each reflected in the other, always changing. It’s alive, all of it. In deep conversation, we speak from right here and now.

Living Words

So, living words. Heart to heart. As we share with friends and neighbors, over Zoom on FaceTime and over the phone: Are those your words? Or the words of others? How are you feeling through this pandemic? How is your day? No, really, how are you today? Nobody can say it for us. As we give up the axes we have to grind, as we eschew location, and step off the pole into life, we find ourselves and one another. Right here. Nice practice in a crisis.

 

 The Open Hand

 A teacher asked a pilgrim, “Where have you come from?”
“From Dongshan’s,” replied the pilgrim.
“What does Dongshan teach?”
“He usually teaches in three ways.”
“What are they?”
“The dark way, the bird path, and the open hand.”     

Where Have You Come From?

Sometimes I come out of my fear, the projection of my “self” into an imagined future of dire consequence. At other times I arise from my desire to please others, seeking approval. As long as others like me I must be ok. The other day it was shame, guilt, a diminishment of the present moment, of my life as it is — This “I” I think I am could be better. And there are other identifications along life’s path: pride, jealousy, resentment, you probably know the drill and have your own particular location. Where are you coming from?

But sometimes, like Bodhidharma coming from the west, devoid of first principle, absent the Holy, I proceed from the dark vastness, not knowing who I am or where I am going. I am just now here.

The Open Hand

Now here hands are open, mine and everything around me. The world unfolds giving and I receive — the kindness of a friend, her smile a gift on a rainy day; the way the dog nudges against me, asking me to rub her ears; the phone rings, a friend calls; the sun as it rises – the horizon aflame; the trail rising to meet me as I walk the property; the Blue Heron rising from the pond, squawking as she flies. The hand that freely gives is the hand that receives. The hand that receives and declines to hold is already the hand that gives. Dongshan teaches this open hand. Good thing too. How could one teach anything else?

We will take up Dongshan’s Open Hand using the koan, “Guanyin’s Hands and Eyes,” from the Blue Cliff Record.

Yunyan asked Daowu, ‘How does the Bodhisattva Guanyin use those many hands and eyes?’
Daowu answered, ‘It is like someone in the middle of the night reaching behind her head for the pillow.’ _
Yunyan said, ‘I understand.’ Daowu asked,
‘How do you understand it?’
Yunyan said, ‘All over the body are hands and eyes.’
Daowu said, ‘That is very well expressed, but it is only eight-tenths of the answer.’ Yunyan said, ‘How would you say it, Elder Brother?’
Daowu said, ‘Throughout the body are hands and eyes._’

The Bird Path – A Wild Goose Chase

 I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
-trad., performed by The Carter Family“Toto, I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore.”
-Dorothy in the Wizard of OzA teacher asked a pilgrim, “Where have you come from?”
“From Dongshan’s,” replied the pilgrim.
“What does Dongshan teach?”
“He usually teaches in three ways.”
“What are they?”
“The dark way, the bird path, and the open hand.”

Where Have You Come From?

We are on enforced pilgrimage, the world has changed and we have found ourselves a-roving, wandering the once familiar to find that it has all Covid-19 changed. The shed in the back of my house is a bit different now, the way I walk the fields of my farm has changed, the trips into town are now adventures into not knowing what I’ll find as people do or don’t distance, as I view the world anew, now unfamiliar and strange. “Where have I come from?” the koan asks. “Where am I? Where am I going?” The question is enough and all of a sudden I don’t know. Call me unsui (a cIouds and water wanderer). I drift like the clouds and flow like the mountain stream, not knowing what shape as I drift, the course of the next moment as life flows. And as I drift and flow there is clarity — this, just this, is for you.

In English, the word, “pilgrim,” finds its root in the Latin words for “moving beyond one’s field.” As pilgrims we move from place to place, wandering beyond our field, forsaking home. Leaving home is to leave the familiar, the table there, the chair here, a bed within which to sleep, a kitchen for food. Outside four walls, the constraints that home gives us, we move freely through life, like free-floating clouds or flowing water. So, the wandering monk, Santoka Taneda, makes another appearance in our Covid series. On pilgrimage, outside of the four walls of expectation,

Aimlessly, buoyantly,
Drifting here and there,
Tasting the pure water.

—the taste of what is here. Santoka once said,

“Westerners like to conquer mountains; Orientals like to contemplate them. As for me, I like to taste the mountains.”

And the valleys, beaches, trees, friends, herds of buffalo, the night sounds, the birds of day calling out under the full moon, silencing as owls claim the night. Not knowing, not expecting what is next, or regretting what has been, we taste it all, like cool water, the mountains or a bowl of rice and beans when we are hungry.

In leaving the home we have built for ourselves, the secure identity of self, our true home comes clear. Home is here and now, appearing and disappearing, moment by moment. On pilgrimage, our’s is the bird path — no trace, no road, a no-path sky path.

Wild Goose Chase

Shakespeare popularized the term in Romeo and Juliet and it has been with us ever since, a “wild goose chase.” In the 50’s Scottish minister George MacLeod picked it up, “wild goose,” to describe spirt in life — mysterious, unexpected, coming and going as it will.

Six years ago, I visited the Island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland. Famed for its restored abbey church and its roots deep in Celtic Christianity, Iona is a place of pilgrimage. It wasn’t the church, though, nor was it the history that called to me. It was the landscape. During my visit, I spent my days tramping over the small island, from hill to hill, beach to beach. While on the rocky south shore of the island, climbing a rocky knoll, I stumbled upon a pair of nesting wild geese. Honking they flew over my head. I disturbed them, they disturbed me. You just don’t know. 

The wild goose chase is a mystery path, taken with a spirit of adventure, an absence of plot or plan, and a healthy dose of “I don’t know” as we tramp the landscape. The wild goose chase is, of course, “a bird path.”

Flying Birds

…The bird path….

Chickens are terrestrial, leaving track and trace. They dig dust holes in the ground, scratch for insects beneath their feet. You can follow a chicken or I guess a flightless bird like an ostrich or emu. RIP, the Dodo, tracked into oblivion. Ah! But a hawk riding the thermals; or the Purple Martin as she dips and dives, turning quickly just a foot above the ground in pursuit of flying insects. The air opens before, and closes behind. No contrails. No track nor trace.

I have a friend whose heart/mind opened one morning at dawn. She said that it was as if the birds were suspended in the air, in just this one moment.

The dark way, the naked trust of each moment to be just what it is — outside of plans, unconcerned for fixed outcome, devoid of plots or schemes for achievement — opens to blessing. We find ourselves on the bird path.

Willing for the moment, we unclench and let go of wanting to shape our reality into what we know and want. We no longer find fault or enter into a quarrel with the life that is here and now. What comes comes. And if we find fear or anger or sadness or despair or loneliness, if we don’t grab hold, or as we unclench, the joy and love that is there before fear, anger, etc…, the spaciousness, comes into plain view. Outside of our objections to reality, lies the bird path.

 

Three Week Series: “The Dark Way, the Bird Path and the Open Hand,” Part One

 A teacher asked a pilgrim, “Where have you come from?”
“From Dongshan’s,” replied the pilgrim.
“What does Dongshan teach?”
“He usually teaches in three ways.”
“What are they?”
“The dark way, the bird path, and the open hand.” 

During this time we have had the occasion to visit with different teachers. They are from all over, San Antonio, Santa Rosa, Denver, Oakland and Lexington. As if on pilgrimage we move from temple to temple, zoom room to zoom room, experiencing the teachings of different teachers along the way. A fair question that might be asked is, “What does so and so teach?  What about ____? So it was long ago in Tang Dynasty China, where pilgrims would move from temple to temple, teacher to teacher.

So, a pilgrim arrives after having visited with Dongshan,”What does Dongshan teach?” The pilgrim answers, “Ususally he teaches in three ways, ‘The dark way, the bird path, and the open hand.'” Ok. My heart is reeled in. Over the next three weeks, through the use of other koans, I will be moving into Dongshan’s world:  the dark way, the bird path, the open hand.

The Dark Way

A while back I wrote this for our Thursday meeting of Bluegrass Zen. It seems a well suited reflection on this time of the Corona virus. I have been talking with folks lately about how everything has changed, that life now has left the land of expectation, the map of life that I have come to rely upon no longer corresponds to the territory. Life, in the form of a virus has called us out and we are in the dark, none of us has ever been here before. So, here I offer the dark way, where the routine and to-be-counted-upon has been taken away and we are on our own, feeling our way, soloing in response to what comes. 

Don’t light a lamp—there’s no oil in the house. It’s a shame to want a light. I have a way to bless poverty: Just feel your way along the wall. Yinyuan Longqi

A few years ago, I took lessons in West African Drumming, learning songs from Ghana and other countries in the region. Learning these songs I was instructed in a rhythmic part which, when mixed with the other parts, would create polyrhythmic cross rhythms that together laid down the overall beat for the song (or something like that). Sometimes there would be words to the songs, other times not. The parts themselves had to be played very precisely so that all the parts would fit together as intended. With the improvised solos, it was another story.

Soloing

With the solo there was no roadmap through the territory of the song. With the solo you were on your own to improvise as you are able within the structure laid down by the parts. With no proscribed part, the soloist is “in the dark” as to where to venture next. She feels her way through the piece.

This koan is like this. We move through our lives and our personalities develop as we grow to adulthood. We adopt routines, and get acquainted with the folkways, mores and practices of our culture. We take on a world-view and fashion a self-image that fits well within our world-view. In other words, we play our part. That is, until we are called out to solo, to risk leaving the comforts of our neatly constructed life, to respond to life as-it-is, calling us. This is to leave home, or to follow the metaphor in the koan, to go dark – to forget what it is we know about life in the lamp’s bright light and to feel our way our way along the wall, not-knowing where life will lead. This is scary. We go dark as illness comes, grief descends, and as our disappointments plague us. Or simply, sometimes, it just goes dark, the old ways no longer adequate for the twists and turns encountered along life’s way. Here, sometimes, we lose hope. But, the koan suggests something else.

I have a way to bless poverty

The poverty that is our life’s experience need not defeat us. The koan suggests blessing. There is a blessed way — just feel your way along the wall, present to what is here in the moment. The dark has a texture its own, a support that leads us into life, that will open us to each discrete and successive moment. This blessed way calls us forth, to feel our way as we experience life as it comes to us. Feeling our way along feels like a naked trust, as it can only be undertaken “in the dark,” from a place of not-knowing. Our trust is naked as we trust the uncertain and unknown, noticing and receiving the offering that the darkness brings, that is our’s in the mystery.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Bluegrass Zen  Zoom Meetings, Every Thursday, 7 pm

I take refuge in my companions. – PZI Refuge Vows

Within the vast web which is life, we find refuge, solace, companionship in one another. Simply, it is good when we get together. With the Covid – 19 virus, we need to create new ways of being community without being a danger to ourselves or others.  For this, we have Zoom, the on-line meeting platform. The Pacific Zen Institute has created an online Temple. This means each week, Sunday through Friday, teachers from the Pacific School are convening spaces for refuge, teaching, meditation, koans and conversation.

Bluegrass Zen hosts its online Zoom meeting on Thursdays, 7 pm, EDT/4 PDT. Here you will sit with members and friends of Bluegrass Zen from around the country and across the world. Everyone is welcome and anyone may join our meeting via computer, tablet, or phone.

To access our Thursday meetings and the meetings of other Pacific Zen Teachers go to https://www.pacificzen.org/from-pzi-new-online-talks-meetings-with-pzi-teachers/

 

 

Every morning a teacher called out to herself, “Master!”
And she would answer, “Yes!”
Then, “Are you awake?”
“Yes! Yes!”
“Don’t be fooled by others.”
“No, No.”

-The Gateless Barrier, #12

“Now, my dears,” said old Mrs.
Rabbit one morning, “you may go into
the fields or down the lane, but don’t
go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your
Father had an accident there; he was
put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”

“Now run along, and don’t get into
mischief. I am going out.”

But Peter, who was very naughty,
ran straight away to Mr. McGregor’s
garden, and squeezed under the gate!
-From Peter Rabbit,by Beatrix Potter

A Tale of Two Naughty Horses

Among the peas and radishes, beans and basil, some people have rabbits in their garden, early morning thieves, eating freely of the tender leaves and shoots, radishes, beans, herbs and lettuce. For a rabbit, a tasty array. And for a horse…?

I have two horses here on the farm, Flare and Ruby. Flare, an older horse and part pony, is the smarter of the two. Ruby, a thoroughbred, has an attitude, pushing the limitations of field, barn and stable. I think it is Flare who has figured how to escape the barn. It is Ruby who takes full advantage. So, the other day  Flare unlatched the door that opens into the barn and before I knew it they had escaped from their stall. I have some sweet feed stored in an aluminum can in the main part of the barn.  Ruby knocked it over and when I went back to tend to them for the evening,  both horses were frantically scarfing down the feed. As I arrive, Flare rather contritely steps back into the stall. Not Ruby, she makes a run for it exiting from the main door of the barn.   It may be her pedigree…,what do they say at the racetrack? “And she’s off…” in a full gallop making for the house and just beyond the house, the garden. I grab a rope and her halter with the hope that I can lasso her, and return her to the barn.   In hot pursuit but still a distance away, I see Ruby turn towards the garden, trotting towards the corn patch, her coat bright in the summer sun. Stepping up to the corn she takes a bite and eats an entire plant. Just as she is taking her next mouthful, I get close enough that she stops eating and takes off, galloping over hills and across fields, further and further from the barn.  I chase her from  field to field until finally she tires and trots back to the barn, waiting for me to open a door and let her into the stall.  Some gardens have rabbits, I have horses.  They take bigger bites.

So, if Peter is a naughty rabbit. Flare and Ruby are naughty horses. Never too naughty myself, I am attracted to the mischievous, the playful, the naughty. Sometimes I have been known to encourage children to stretch the borders of what is acceptable. Sure, it looks like conditions are perfect for a snowball fight. You want to play hide and seek in the church sanctuary? I don’t see why not. Ok, let’s see how far you can swim outside of the area marked off for swimming. Once when he was a child at summer camp, my Dad was chasing a butterfly with a friend. When they reached the boundary of the camp, they looked at each other and stepped over the fence in pursuit. Bully for him. Good job. I remember my own flirtation with naughty. It was a midnight in my youth when I went with some friends to hunt frogs. The naughty part? We never asked the farmer whose pond we were visiting if we could hunt there. When we heard his dogs coming after us and saw a pair of headlights over the hill we took off, scared AND amused. To be alive!! Stepping outside of the boundaries is to stretch the limits of self definition,  to celebrate life outside of the borders. It feels something like saying Yes!

Barriers

I think of the barriers that I put between myself and life.  Like the fences on my farm separating my land from my neighbor’s, I employ barriers. They bound the territory,  enclosing or encapsulating the David I believe myself to be, unique, separate, different — from the trees and flowers, from neighbors and friends. God, Buddha, Allah or whatever you want, too, is separate, say in the Pure Land, or “up” in heaven, occupying another field, another territory that is far from me.  These barriers can be deeply held beliefs that I carry around and use to explain myself and my difference to myself.

  • I don’t fit in.
  • I had a lousy childhood and so I am like this.
  • I have to work hard for others to love me.
  • I am worthy/unworthy of other’s praise.
  • I am socially awkward.
  • There is a better life for me if only….

Barriers/beliefs enclose the territory. But, it is like this: what separates me also binds me. With belief, I range only within my self image and definition. This is to live in exile, from self and other. Life is bigger than this.  Nothing less than eternity beckons.

Knock, Knock. Who’s there?

Last Spring, some carpenter bees bore holes and fashioned homes for themselves in the wooden siding of my house.  In late June the assault on my house continued when I woke to the  sound of a downy woodpecker drumming as she excavated the bee holes, digging out the tender bee larvae. The constant and consistent drumming awakens me.  Life pulsates, she raps and calls.

Right here, wherever “here” is for you in this moment, the universe is thrumming: Wake Up!! drums the rain on the roof.  Wake Up!! drums the flower by the path. Wake Up!! drums the sadness felt at the death of a loved one. Knock. Knock. Knock. Always and in all ways she knocks, drums. Here’s your chance.

  • The barn door opens and Ruby makes for the garden. Yes!
  • The butterfly flies out of bounds. My father, 11 years old,  is in pursuit. Yes!
  • The farmer’s engine starts up and headlights approach across the field. Yikes!!!! Hahahaha!  Yes!

The incessant thrum of life sounds and we find ourselves in the rhythms, awake to the seamlessness. Joining the pulsations of the moment  the heart, not separate, resounds, “Yes!”

The koan is vast, encompassing and moves easily over boundaries. “Master!” There is a call.  “Yes!” is a response.  This practice is seamless, continuous and unending.  Call, response — who calls? Who responds? As I write, the white pine trees outside the window dance in the wind. So, here is the voiceless voice, a mysterious call from I know not where. Out of the dark recesses, feels like the heart, there rising in me, equally mysterious, “Yes!  Yes!”

Is this what it is to be awake?

Oh yes, one more line: Don’t be fooled by others. Others? Well, that would be me somehow co-opting awakening, creating barriers and beliefs where none are necessary. That would make me other than myself, split off from here. So, for now I appreciate finding myself in the stream, in the on-going dance of life, as the pine boughs sway, as I work with students, tend garden and keep chickens, cows and horses. It is nice to be here at the keyboard. As I write, the dog, Panda, sleeps at my feet. This feels like trust, a faith in the dark, uncertain and unknown.

Master! Yes! Just this. Call and response joined.

Don’t light a lamp—there’s no oil in the house. It’s a shame to want a light. I have a way to bless poverty: Just feel your way along the wall. 
Yinyuan Longqi

A few years ago, I took lessons in West African Drumming, learning songs from Ghana and other countries in the region. Learning these songs I was instructed in a rhythmic part which, when mixed with the other parts, would create polyrhythmic cross  rhythms that together laid down the overall beat for the song (or something like that). Sometimes there would be words to the songs, other times not. The parts themselves had to be played very precisely so that all the parts would fit together as intended. With the improvised solos, it was another story.

Soloing

With the solo there was no roadmap through the territory of the song. With the solo you were on your own to improvise as you are able within the structure laid down by the parts. With no proscribed part, the soloist is “in the dark” as to where to venture next.  She feels her way through the piece.

This koan is like this. We move through our lives and our personalities develop as we grow to adulthood. We adopt routines, and get acquainted with the folkways, mores and practices of our culture. We take on a world-view and fashion a self-image that fits well within our world-view. In other words, we play our part. That is, until we are called out to solo, to risk leaving the comforts of our neatly constructed life, to respond to life as-it-is, calling us. This is to leave home, or to follow the metaphor in the koan, to go dark – to forget what it is we know about life in the lamp’s bright light and to feel our way our way along the wall, not-knowing where life will lead. This is scary. We go dark as illness comes, grief descends, and as our disappointments plague us. Or simply, sometimes, it just goes dark, the old ways no longer adequate for the twists and turns encountered along life’s way. Here, sometimes, we lose hope. But, the koan suggests something else.

I have a way to bless poverty

The poverty that is our life’s experience need not defeat us. The koan suggests blessing.   There is a blessed way — just feel your way along the wall, present to what is here in the moment. The dark has a texture its own, a support that leads us into life, that will open us to each discrete and successive moment. This blessed way calls us forth, to feel our way as we experience life as it comes to us. Feeling our way along feels like a naked trust, as it can only be undertaken “in the dark,” from a place of not-knowing.  Our trust is naked as we trust the uncertain and unknown, noticing and receiving the offering that the darkness brings, that is our’s in the mystery. And this by Wendell Berry:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

I don’t ask you about before the 15th of the month, try to say something about after the fifteenth. Yunmen himself answered for everyone, Every day is a good day.  Blue Cliff Record #6

The fifteenth of the month is the day of the full moon, signifying enlightenment. So, Yunmen’s question could be posed: I don’t ask you about before enlightenment, try to say something about after enlgihtenment.

Here is the story of Yunmen’s awakening:

Yunmen went to study with Mu Zhou. He was a difficult person and teacher. When people would come to his door, he would give them the bum’s rush — leave me alone. Yunmen came to his door, once and was not allowed to enter. Twice. The third time the teacher opened the door a crack and Yunmen jammed his foot  in. He pushed the door open and jumped into the room. The teacher grabbed him, demanding, “What is it?” Rather dumbfounded he  could say nothing. The 90 year old teacher threw him out. He was unable to get his leg out and Mu Zhou closed the door on his leg breaking it. Yunmen was enlightened at this. And he limped for the rest of his life.

There is a lot of pushing and shoving going on in Zen, 30 blows here, 30 blows there. One student gets his finger cut off and wakes up.  A whole monastery of monks is treated to the sight of a cat getting cut in two. In that koan another student, not present when the cat was killed, is asked what he would do to save the cat. He places a sandal on his head and walks out of the room on all fours, like a cat.  An enlightened response that would have saved the cat.  And here in today’s koan Yunmen gets his leg broken by his cranky teacher. And gets enlightened. Later he poses this koan, “not before, what about after enlightenment?”  finally answering himeself,  “Every day is a good day.” The day his teacher broke his leg? A good day. The day a teacher cuts the cat in two? A good day. The day I sat in bed all day with fever? A good day. When my relationship ended? A good day. “Every day a good day. “

Before

Yunmen is not interested in before.  But we are. Who am I? is often answered by explanations and descriptions of where we have been, what we have done. I am this way because…; ever since a dog knocked me over when I was a child, I have been afraid of dogs; My father was not demonstrative, so neither am I. You know the drill…we explain ourselves by where we have been. We miss this moment as our reasons for being are mired in where we have been. We are lost to here, what is now. So, Yunmen is not interested in before, the stories that we indulge as we define ourselves. But we are.

Koans – Story Swapping

Koans are an invitation to the “here” of the moment, to our lives as they are. As we come into our lives we are healed, finding our home in the mysterious vast. Exchanging our ‘life stories” for koan story, the koan turns us around welcoming us as Buddha, as the one who comes thus, tathagata — just so.  Here it is, life before story, before belief, before self. Thus.The sun rises pink on the horizon. The crows call to each other. I open the gate to let the horses in after a night in the field.  This is Yunmen’s everyday.  Interestingly, though, koans will take us through life as we believe it to be in order to get there.

I had a friend  spending time on Yunmen’s “Everyday is a good day,” for whom each moment read as a review of all the bad days she had ever had:  the dissatisfactions of her teen years, the concerns that she had about her weight, height, and shoe size; the trouble in her marriage, dissatisfaction with her job, the troubled relationships with her siblings, how her mother…and her father…. The list went on and on, as it does for all of us.
One day she was meditating and remembered the day a large dog killed her new kitten, picked it up with his teeth and shook it until it succumbed.  As she sat with the memories and the images of her kitten’s savage death, tears flowed. The longer she sat the deeper the grief became – the sobbing shook her whole body, tears and snot streaming down her face. After awhile as she sat, a thought came, “it’s ok.” She asked herself, “How could it be ok?” And the thought came again, “It’s ok.” Inquire as she would for reasons, for explanations, she found none. Just so. Yet, she knew, her body knew that nothing was wrong. It was what it was. She could morn the little cat, AND she knew that deep down – the pain, the grief, the memories – all of it holds a “good day.” 

Sometimes in the story switching that is koan study, the koan will take us into the life we believe in, identify in, invest ourselves in, even as it opens us to the mysterious vast, into the everyday, the good day that is here in each moment.  Eternity.

After

So much for before, what about after? What is life like after enlightenment? Yunmen is a sly dog, calling forth prejudice and explanation, fantasies and ruminations of a life lived after “knowing what one needs to know.” This would be a pretty good question if enlightenment were about knowing or attaining a special state. Then there would be a sign post, a signifier of having arrived. Then, of course, the question arises, “what about after?”

Just the Dance

Fortunately, no one in Yunmen’s assembly has the nerve to speak up, so Yunmen makes a nod in eternity’s direction – “Everyday is a good day.” A koan-like expression once occurred to me, “When precisely does eternity begin?” This seems close to Yunmen’s “everyday is a good day.” Or Eliot’s Still Point in his poem, Burnt Norton,

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

 

There is only the dance, the liveliness and unpredictability of each moment, the moves and countermoves, the call and response. Whatever you do,  “Do not call it fixity.”  Better just to dance. To be in the everyday is to be in the liveliness, to not only partake in the dance, but to become the dance – to move with the moves of the unnameable, ungraspable; to move in accord with what is, the Way, the Tao, the here and now.

 

Save a ghost. 
Pacific Zen Institute, Miscellaneous Koans

A Ghost Story

The summer camp of my childhood and youth, Camp Daniel Boone rested on the Kentucky River outside of my hometown. Above the camp was a railroad bed that once held the track of the Riney-B Railroad. Every camp needs a ghost story and at Camp Daniel Boone we had, “Old Sam,” a caretaker along the route of the Riney-B. Sam walked the tracks at night making sure all was well. The story begins: It was a dark and stormy night. In the downpour the trestle over Marble Creek washed out, leaving only the dark abyss over the creek. Knowing that the midnight train was soon to pass over this section of track, Sam began to run up the track, waving his lantern, shouting, “Bridge is out! Bridge is out!” The train barreled down upon him, hit him as he and the train went crashing into the creek bed 75 feet below.

‘Now,’ we used to say, ‘along the railroad bed you can still see Old Sam at midnight waving his lantern and shouting, “Bridge is out! Bridge is out!”’

Nothing like this ever happened. The railroad went out of business in the 1930’s and the track and bridges were removed during World War II and sold for scrap metal. But, each week at Camp Daniel Boone this story was alive and true in its telling: Old Sam working to save us from careening off into dark doom.

The Ghost Saves Me

Old Sam was there to protect us from certain doom, “Bridge is out!” You could say he is a good ghost of the friendly, helpful type Though it seems to me that ghosts are almost always trying to be helpful like this: guarding the threshold between the places I know and am fine with and the places where I simply do not want to go, where I believe I will meet my doom. A ghostly, “Boo!” or a rattling of chains is just enough and I’ll be heading the other way. As I interact with these ghosts and keep away from what I fear the ghosts work to save me from something I have found to be a problem.

As I write this I know that in 15 minutes I need to make a phone call that scares me. I will be speaking with someone who is upset with me, who has opinions about a certain course of action that I have taken. Fear rises in me taking shape as a ghost. She’s huge, dressed in rags. She has a long pointy nose and floppy ears. At times her form changes and she looks like my mother. She tells me that the person I must call has the power to destroy me. “Turn around, run!” she says. “Bridge is out!” Now a bit more forceful, “Boo!” Like Old Sam her project is to save me from certain doom. The ghost works to save the me I think I am .

But really the ghost is shielding me from the person I am afraid of, the situation that scares me, the large force in my life, say anger, that unexamined just appears to be too powerful and overwhelming. Whole areas of life become off limits – sadness, sex, anger, joy, grief, happiness, other people, love, scorn, you name it, ghosts will arise for any scary place. The mansion of Life, life itself, becomes very small indeed, with most or many of the rooms supposedly haunted and off limits. The final truth though is this: I cannot know about the areas in my life where I do not go, thus the haunted places, the dwelling place of ghosts is lost to me.

The paradox of the ghost saving me: I am lost to my life, to the fullness of here.

So, this koan reverses the equation. “Save a ghost,” it calls.

Save a Ghost

To save my idea of me the ghost knows me, or at least it knows what I fear. And finally, this ghost? It is me. I made this me to protect. I made this ghost to stand guard. To save the ghost, I am invited to know it, to enter into relationship with what I fear – to feel it, to have tea with it, to begin to see with fear’s eyes, fret with fear’s frets, walk in fear’s shoes, speak with fear’s language. In a word: empathize, with fear and with myself holding on so tight, hiding from life. With empathy the heart, life itself opens. Here is the Heart Sutra as it imagines no walls in the mind, no fears, a life lived here, a heart open in empathy with what is:

bodhisattvas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions and finally nirvana.

A Community of Ghosts

One last thing. Once Jesus went to cast out a demon and when he asked the demon its name, the demon replied: my name is Legion. Yup, demons, ghosts whatever you might call those guardians of who you think you are, they are legion. I have found in my practice that once you entertain one, they all want to be known, want to step into the light of day. Ok, that’s the practice: you save your ghosts and I will save mine. And we always have this koan, “Save a ghost.”

Teacher:
If you get it the first time you hear it you can teach the Buddhas and ancestors.
If you get it the second time you hear it, you can teach the gods and humans.
If you get it thethird time you hear it, you can’t even save yourself.

Student:
When did you get it?

Teacher:
The moon sets at midnight, I walk alone through the town.
-Book of Serenity, Case 76.

Who’s on first?
Abbott and Costello

Who’s On First?

We live in a “who’s on first?” world.” Ranking makes a difference. Every week, coaches, sportswriters and statisticians give their opinion about who is the best basketball team in the nation, they rank all the contenders, 1 to 25 plus 1. Of course, that means a great deal to me now as a resident of Kentucky where basketball is a religion. I am pleased to report that “we” are currently ranked #4 with national title possibilities. That is how it goes, who’s on first? — basketball, football, lacrosse, etc… — who is the richest person in the world? The best chef? The fastest? The smartest? The most intuitive? When I was a minister colleagues would get together and compare — how large? how many in church? Total budget? Even Zen teachers…Good God! All of us clawing our way “Straight to the Top.” This koan with its three times hearing brings me to wonder: Who’s on first? How do I measure up? Recently, I took an intelligence test. It didn’t turn out like I would have liked, you know — 140 or higher. That is how it goes — with comparison and ranking comes self-judgement and criticism.

It Hurts Being Me

Comparing and ranking is painful, it just plain hurts. As long as there is first, first runner up and don’t measure up, I am constantly placing myself on the continuum, valuing myself according to rank — ok here, not so good there, and not even close when it comes to…math. My overall score, my worth? The other day a friend commented on this saying, “I just feel inadequate.” Not a good place to dwell, always needing to prove my self as worthy. When I feel like this I can sense life and possibility shutting down, I clam up and hide away from a world where I have come to believe that I don’t count. In the koan this despair is noted: “you can’t even save yourself.” My world is only as large as my limiting belief. It hurts being me.

Upside Down – On Not Saving Yourself

You are on a Merry-Go-Round, with all this the ranking and the comparing, reaching for the brass ring, a self you imagine, one you can live with, know and love. Ah!! You get it. But the painted ponies continue their circular course, and each time around you must try again, and again, and again. Your pursuit of a self is exhausting. Reach, grab, hold, fix and maybe you will measure up. For now. But, the teacher with this koan is tricky and correct: you can’t save yourself – once, twice, three, three thousand times. Last week’s number one crashes in this week’s polls. In life as-it-is you come to learn that you can’t live to a self manufactured image of your self. Instead, leave the brass ring and feel the pony in her up and down, the wind on your face, the laughter as it rises from deep in your belly, the touch of your friend as she reaches for you from atop her pony. And if you reach for the ring, just feel the excitement of grabbing hold, “yes!” Or missing it, “Darn!” It is all right here.

Not saving the self is to be in your life in accord with what comes.

The Moon Sets At Midnight

The moon sets on your knowing, on your images and ideas of self, well known and worn and you welcome what you don’t yet know. You begin to experience the vast and seamless dark on its own terms. You walk alone, dark, and in the dark. Your walk is one of discovery. There is no separation between you and what is. You are at-one.You begin to live and move with deep appreciation of life as it unfolds. You are alone here, for at-one where is the other? Life meets you, here, in this dark town. Then the awakening — this is how it has always been, before rank, before the suffering, before a self.