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Posts Tagged ‘koan’

While I’m thinking about identity, I wanted to share a Zen anecdote I rediscovered recently.

Fishy Zen

While Chuang-Tzu was walking along a river with a friend, he noticed the fish were swimming about in the clear water. After watching them a few moments, he remarked, “Those fish are having such fun, enjoying themselves in the water!”

His friend scoffed, “You are not a fish, you couldn’t possibly know whether they’re enjoying themselves.”

Chuang-Tzu shrugged back at his companion. “You are not me. How do you know I can’t know they’re enjoying themselves?”

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I got a phone call today from someone who needed help, but wrote the number down wrong and got me, one of the people least qualified to help him. I explained that I was not only in the wrong department, but also in a satellite office, and that I would forward him to the queue where he could talk to someone who could connect him with the right answers.

He acknowledged this, and as I went to put him on hold to get him forwarded to the right place, he started talking again about the help he needed, as though the situation had suddenly changed.  I had already pushed the buttons, so I finished the transfer and went to go meet with someone.

I got back to my desk to find that he’d called me twice more.  Apparently he didn’t like being put into the queue he needed to be in, so since he had spoken to someone — even the wrong someone — he was convinced I could, in fact, help him.

How often do we keep chasing the wrong resource because it’s the one in front of us, instead of following the guideposts to where we really need to go?

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I was trying to think of a truth that is very difficult to embrace.

What came to me is, “This is all there is.”

I started to think about how that can be a fear, accepting that this present moment is all we really have.  The feeling that accepting this means settling for less than we would want things to be in the future, as opposed to merely dropping our resistance to observing what’s in our present.

I also thought about the idea of what we see, hear, feel, and so on may be the sum total of existence. That is, the perception that there’s nothing beyond these senses of any substance or meaning. And objectively speaking, that possibility really needs to be considered and brought to heart. If we’re forced to stop and accept that our physical life holds such weight, it places a huge responsibility on us to make the most of it. We can’t shrug off that responsibility figuring that there’s better things later we just have to hold out for. There’s a real value to that.

I then realized a third and even more difficult way to embrace that truth. Who, what and where we are: it’s all interconnected. Time, space, the resonance of matter that forms the particles we are now experiencing as our breathing lungs and beating hearts… there’s no hard barrier once you start to follow the threads. On the vast continuum of Indra’s Net, we are holding the space of just one of those dewdrops, reflecting every other bejeweled node on the net.

In this moment, we hold a connection to every other moment.

In this space, we resonate echos of every other space.

In this experience, we enjoy a reflection of all there is.

Those can be easy things to throw out there as words and concepts, but harder to make “feel real” to our own psyche. And if we do let it “feel real”, what does that mean? What potentials are there for us in the here and now? What responsibility do we have to discover and use them?

If this is all there is, what are we obliged to make of it?

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I’m feeling very understated today. That’s unusual for me, particularly because I’ve been very silly at various points of conversation throughout the day.

Since I just don’t know what to do while being understated, I am going to share a koan about understatement:

The Announcement

Hara Tanzan was a Soto Buddhist monk who served as a temple head and a professor of Philosophy in Tokyo. He was a pioneer in a modernization of Zen, and was the first in Japan to try to blend natural sciences into Zen Buddhism. So by the time his turn on this planet was finished, he’d amassed a number of friends and family he felt he should send a final word to.

On the last day of his life, he wrote up sixty post cards and asked an assistant to mail them for him. They read:

I am departing from this world.
This is my last announcement.
Tanzan. July 27, 1892

 

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I went looking for a koan to write about before bed, and came across this old favorite.

If You Love, Love Openly

In the traditional Zen monastery, it generally wasn’t the done thing for monks and nuns to have relationships. Both monks and nuns shaved their heads, which besides being practical was thought to discourage those heads from being easily turned.

However, this wasn’t the case for a nun named Eshun. Her shaved head seemed to accentuate the beauty of her face and form, and several monks were enamored of her. One of them sent her an ardent letter, insisting that she meet him privately, in secret.

So the next morning after the master’s lecture to the group, Eshun stood up. She turned to the letter-writer and said, “If you truly love me so much, come and embrace me now.”

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The Zhuangzi is considered the most essential taoist text after the Tao Te Ching.  It’s named for the author, who was properly named Zhuang Zhou.

One of his beliefs was that our past shapes the ways we perceive and understand our world. It’s our past that is responsible for the ways we experience and use language and cognition, which are intertwined. We have learned how to name things, and how we are expected to feel and behave with regard to these labels. Any of our decisions or actions might seem terribly misguided, had we experienced a different past.

He also called into question our ability to objectively know what our past truly is. I think you may have heard part of this story before, from the second chapter of the Zhuangzi:

A while ago I, Zhuang Zhou, dreamed I was a butterfly. I was completely absorbed in my butterfly experience, happily flitting about, tasting the flowers, and feeling all the marvelous enjoyment in doing what butterflies do. So absorbed was I, I didn’t even know I was Zhou; I knew only my butterfly experience.

I then woke up, and suddenly realized myself to be Zhou. I didn’t know if I had been a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or was now a butterfly dreaming he was a man. Yet by necessity, there is something that separates man from butterfly. It’s called metamorphosis.

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Hotei happens to be one of my favorite buddha figures, and I know I’m in good company in that regard. He’s the Laughing Buddha, that big-bellied guy with an almost-as-big linen sack, whose belly you rub for luck. (The statues of him, I mean of course.)

Back when he was alive, he wasn’t the sort of zen master who gathered a school of disciples. What Hotei gathered was a playground of children. In his sack was candy and treats that he’d give to children, who loved to play with and around him. Yeah, he was that fantastic.

As I’ve heard it, sometimes someone would come up to him and tell him he belongs in some zen temple or another. He’d respond by telling them to give him a penny. At times he’d come across a devotee of zen, and he’d tell them to give him a penny as well.

Another story is that some zen monk asked him what the whole meaning was to zen. Hotei set down his heavy bag with a contented sigh. The inquiring monk then asked how zen is realized.

Hotei slung his bag back over his shoulder, and merrily went back to handing out treats to children.

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Today, I did well to follow that old line from a master regarding how to practice zen.  I ate good food when I needed it.  Now, it’s time to rest up.

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I’ve had on my mind today how difficult it can be to shape a challenging situation through the careful, compassionate use of words. I was in a situation this past week where things could have gotten pretty argumentative and ended up rather poorly. I managed to make sure everyone felt their concerns were given due weight, and then also helped alleviate them by showing how some things weren’t quite as bad as they may have seemed.

It’s something I’m still practicing. I’ve got this koan on my mind as an example of how it can be done right.

Obedience

The master Bankei’s talks were attended not only by Zen students but by persons of all ranks and sects. He never quoted sutras nor indulged in scholastic dissertations. Instead, his words were spoken directly from his heart to the hearts of his listeners.

His large audience angered a priest of the Nichiren sect because the adherents had left to hear about Zen. The self-centered Nichiren priest came to the temple, determined to have a debate with Bankei.

“Hey, Zen teacher!” he called out. “Wait a minute. Whoever respects you will obey what you say, but a man like myself does not respect you. Can you make me obey you?”

“Come up beside me and I will show you,” said Bankei.

Proudly the priest pushed his way through the crowd to the teacher.

Bankei smiled. “Come over to my left side.”

The priest obeyed.

“No,” said Bankei, “we may talk better if you are on the right side. Step over here.”

The priest proudly stepped over to the right.

“You see,” observed Bankei, “you are obeying me and I think you are a very gentle person. Now sit down and listen.”

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Today while playing on the grass, I noticed a tiny yellow flower bud within the “weed” plants that grow in our lawn. I saw there were a few of them in the small area I was looking at, and I paused to really look at them. I thought, if I can stop and take in the beauty of a rosebush, or a stand of wildflowers, can’t I have that same appreciation for these tiny yellow buds?

It made me think about what it means for something to be alive, whether I intended to see it there, or whether I even have any real use for it. Does it matter what I think, when it comes to the pricelessness of any expression of life?

In this vein, here’s the koan I came across while trying to focus my thoughts to write of zen:

Everything Is Best

A monk named Banzan was browsing the market, passing by a butcher’s shop. He wasn’t planning to eat meat himself, but he was close enough to hear a customer tell the butcher, “I want to buy your best piece of meat.”

The butcher replied, “Just look around and tell me what you want. Everything you see in my shop is the best.”

That made Banzan stop to think what it would mean, to perceive that everything he saw truly was the best. Even the dead flesh of slaughtered beings, this was also the best. This shattered his illusions of better and worse, bringing him the experience of enlightenment.

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