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Ruiyan Calls the Master

Commentary on Mumonkan case 1

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Jan 11, 2003
Location: Loon Lake
In topic: Koan Studies
Talking to yourself as Zen practice and other suggestions for daily life practice.


The Case:

Every day Ruiyan would call to himself, "Master, Master!"
And every day he would respond, "Yes, yes."
Then he would say, "Be awake! Be alert!"
"From now on, don't be fooled by anything."
"No, I won't be!"

Wumen's comment:

Old Ruiyan sells himself and buys himself, playing out so many spirit heads and ghost faces. Why? Listen: one who calls, one who answers, one who is alert, one who is not fooled by others: If you cling to recognition as before you are not sound. And if you imitate another, everything is wild foxy interpretation.

Wumen's verse:

Those who search for the way do not realize truth They only know their old discriminating consciousness This is the cause of the endless cycle of birth and death Yet stupid people take it for Original Self

This is one of my favorite Zen stories, and I love it because it is so straightforward and user-friendly. I have often used it as a practice myself and I would recommend it to all of you: any time, during meditation or not, call out to yourself. Then when you have heard yourself, answer, yes! Here I am! That's a beautiful moment: to just drop everything and say to yourself, feel for yourself, here I am. It's collecting yourself, recollecting yourself, recalling yourself from whatever it is you have been lost in. Here I am. Then you can say to yourself, be alert, be aware, and you can acknowledge: yes, I will be. Then you can tell yourself, don't be fooled by anything. No no, I won't be.

Zen is simple practice, stripped down practice. It is, you might say, Buddhism in slang: reducing something that can be and is very elaborate and detailed, some high culture, into something very simple and pithy, streetwise and without pretense. So if you could practice like that, returning all the time to "here I am" and letting go of all your complications and pretensions, then I think all of Buddhism would be included in that. The rest would be extra. They say that Master Ruiyan used to practice like this all day long in meditation. I suppose he'd sit up straight, establish his breath in his belly, concentrate his mind on his breath strongly, and then begin this process of calling out and responding, of being present with the situation he was in with a strong degree of alertness and critical intelligence. This kind of intent emphasis on being here with inquiry and alertness- assuming nothing, releasing everything, and asking deeply, where am I, what am I, what is this, until the whole world crystallizes into this very place and time, this very moment of consciousness- this is the Zen way. The radical dwelling within the present moment as the eternal moment, the ineffable moment. So this was Master Ruiyan's practice and it is ours too.

They say also that the master would practice this way publicly, as a form of instruction. When it was time for him to give a talk, he'd take the high seat and go through this ritual: Master! Yes. Be awake, be alert, and so on. He'd enact this little play. Anyway, in Zen a talk isn't a usual talk. It's not called a lecture or a talk, it's called "presenting the shout," in other words demonstrating rather than explaining the teaching. So a Zen talk is more a play or a ritual than a talk. Master Ruiyan must have really done practiced it that way. On the other hand, the koans do certainly exaggerate a bit for effect. They mythologize on purpose. You can see this if you study some of the cases as they originally appear in the biographies of the masters and then get recycled into other texts and koan collections. There is a tendency to make things more dramatic and elliptical. So I would say that probably Master Ruiyan did go through this dialog with himself many many times in his talks, but he probably said other things as well. In any case, I am sure that his students got a strong dose of it, and that they all practiced it.

The interesting question, though, is, who is meant here by "himself" and by "The Master." When you read the case and think about it it sounds obviously as if Master Ruiyan is calling himself, his ordinary conventional self, his ego self. Ego calling out to ego. When we think about ourself we usually don't go very far with it. Myself, sure. Yes, me, that's who I am. Me. My history, my feelings, my character, my personality. But who I actually am is something not so simple and not so easily discerned. That's another good koan: who is it, or who am I, a very old and very fruitful koan. Am I my body? Am I my mind? Am I my history, my habits, my dreams, my aspirations, my vows, my relationships? And when all of that is gone, who am I then? The story is told of one of Master Ruiyan's students who went to Master Gensha for instruction. Gensha asked him where he'd studied before and what method had been used. So the monk told him about Master Ruiyan and how the practice went. Gensha said, why didn't you remain with Ruiyan, and the monk said, he died. Gensha said, "well if you called out to him now, Master, Master, don't be fooled by anything, would he answer?"

So the person who is calling out and the person who is answering is not exactly the ordinary me and you. This is such an interesting and important point. It is probably the only point. It's like Buddha standing up when he is born and pointing to the heavens and to the earth and saying, "In the heavens above and the earth below I alone am the world honored one!" My me is all inclusive and inconceivable. Really, whatever problems I have don't matter much, because they are all problems of the limitation I have imposed on myself, shrinking down my vastness into something six feet tall with a nose and thoughts. But what's truly marvelous is that that vastness can't appear in any other way than through my little life and your little life and through all the things of this little world. So we need to think of our lives and take care of them and think of the lives of others and take care of them also, but not as something small and limited. Each life, each moment of each life, is everything. It alone is the world honored one.

So when the Master calls the Master answers. The Master is the unnameable immeasurable vastness, and also it is an ordinary Chinese Zen monk named Ruiyan who was born, grew up, ate meals, practiced meditation, spoke, and died. It's the same for us too, but oh how easily we forget. A million times a day we forget. So really practice is no mystery, it's nothing difficult. It is just a matter of remembering to practice, of remembering who we are. Master Ruiyan's way of reminding himself of who was actually in charge was very effective, I think. I recommend it.

In his commentary to this case Aitken roshi talks about a number of way to remind yourself, on a daily and on a moment by moment basis, of who you really are and what you are really about. This is something necessary, an intimate training of body mind and spirit, so that we can transform our lives, lift them up, so to speak, to the level of dignity and reality that they deserve and need. It's lack of that lifting that ultimately makes us feel dissatisfied and causes our own and others' suffering.

So in Zen monasteries almost every daily action is taken as a practice: we use, in a sense, the power of the human imagination to lift up each small action, to make it into a cosmic action. Ordinary, yes, but at the same time cosmic. And by cosmic I mean, quite simply, resistant to definition. Because definition is what limits us and makes us small- our habitual definition and conceptualization of what our life is. In fact, it is so much more. Actually we and everything else are undefinable. So in the monastery before we take a bath we recite a verse that imagines the washing of the body as the purification of everything inside and out. When we brush our teeth we recite a verse imagining that we are preparing our teeth for the purposing of gnashing down on all delusions and confusions of the world. When we eat our meals we say a verse of appreciation and dedication, making it clear that we are eating but not just eating- we are eating for an exalted reason. In other words we use all our actions all day long as cues for our practice, as mnemonic devices.

One of my favorites is using doorways, entrances, and thresholds. If you think about the very words, entrance, which has the word trance in it, or the word threshold, you see how profound it is or could be to simply enter a room. Threshold comes from the word thresh, as in threshing grain, which transforms the grain from an ordinary plant into something precious, food. In the old days threshing was often done with the feet, treading on it, so the word tread is related, and the threshold is the stone you tread on leading into the house. In ancient times the threshold was a sacred space, that's why the bride was carried across it, and the bones of the ancestors would be buried underneath that stone- as you find in European churches, not necessarily now at the threshold, but under a stone elsewhere in the church. So to enter the room was to enter a sacred, transformative space, passing over a sacred marker. And it's really true that whenever you leave a room or a building or enter a room or a building you are beginning your life over again fresh. You are letting go completely of what has happened where you were and entering a new place in which anything could happen. So it's good to pause there, at least in your mind, and note the transition. So I try to do that, to use the entering into a doorway, as a moment of profound meditation. This practice was given to me many years ago by one of my teachers.

In the Jewish tradition this practice is highly developed: there's something called a mezzuzah, a small box, that is placed to the right of the doorway. Inside the box is a prayer handwritten by a scribe, that speaks about the oneness of God, and the prayer actually says that you should take these words and put them on your doorpost and wear them on your forehead and on your arm. So when an observant Jew enters a room he or she is supposed to touch a kiss this mezzuzah to acknowledge and remember that the moment of entering the doorway is a covenantial moment, a God moment.

Another reminder I use a lot is walking. Over a long time of practicing walking meditation I have developed the feeling in my body of how profound walking is. When you take steps you are being supported by the earth and by gravity, held by them onto the earth. The earth of course is spinning around fairly rapidly and we really should all be having a hard time hanging on but we don't, we easily stay put because the earth keeps us that way. So every step is really a miracle, and then we take several steps, and there's a marvelous rhythm to that as we take steps calmly and with awareness and we can feel our breathing as we walk. So whenever I walk, whether it is down the street a ways or just to the bathroom, I try to feel this feeling in my body of how profound it is just to walk, the rhythm and connection there is in simply walking.

There are many many ways like this. The telephone. When it rings it is a little disconcerting because maybe you weren't expecting it. When you pick it up you really have no idea who it will be, and even if you have a machine that tells you who it will be you don't know what they will say. So the phone's ringing is a call to us to the unknown, to the unexpected. Why not take a moment to breathe before you answer, a moment to remember yourself, your real self, and to reaffirm that you will be alert and awake, that you won't be fooled by anyone, especially yourself.

When you wash your face, why not take a moment to center yourself first and then splash the water onto your face, warm or cold, with strong attention, feeling the miracle of sensation, how beautiful the water is, refreshing and cleansing. Gently massage your face and treat it with lovingkindness, as if it were a heavenly field you were preparing for the advent of angels.

I could go on in this way but I think you get the picture. You can invent your own practices to help you remember yourself, your true self, throughout the day, so that you can cleanse your spirit of the build up of unawareness that gets crusted onto it during the day. I think we need to do these kinds of practices long enough until they become second nature. Then there's no special practice, there's just doing whatever you are doing. And the doing is deeply satisfying and profound, although you don't think of it that way.

We have to be careful about this though because it could be something very stupid, especially if we begin to identify our spiritual practice with a particular kind of feeling or experience. Practice is just a matter of being present with our lives, whatever they are, deep or shallow, interesting or boring. It's a great mistake to think that something, and not something else, marks our practice. The reason for this is that as soon as we define and identify we are creating the conditions for nostalgia- for holding onto the moment that we want and running away from the moment that we don't want. And that's death to practice.

Master Wumen talks about this in his commentary to the case: "Old Ruiyan sells himself and buys himself, playing out so many spirit heads and ghost faces. Why? Listen: one who calls, one who answers, one who is alert, one who is not fooled by others: If you cling to recognition as before you are not sound. And if you imitate another, everything is wild foxy interpretation."

Old Ruiyan sells himself and buys himself, playing so many spirit heads and ghost faces. one who calls, one who answers, one who is alert, one who is not fooled by others: If you cling to recognition as before you are not sound. These lines are pointing out that one has to be very careful with such practices. The one who calls and the one who answers are both limitations- ghosts and spirits buying and selling reality. To be fooled or not to be fooled, to be alert or not to be alert- it makes no difference. If you cling to recognition, Wumen warns us, you are sunk. In other words, if you cling to definitions and distinctions you are sunk. Just remember where you are and what you are doing, that's all. Don't make up standards of good or bad. Don't think you're anyone when you call yourself. Recognize your you as who it is and let go right there. As I said before, the limitless self, the original self, and the limited self, the discriminated self, are not different yet they are also not the same. You appreciate your discriminated self as it is, recognizing it as the only way the limitless self can appear where you are: so you honor it, you cherish it, you take care of it, but you don't overestimate it or mistake it.

Gertrude Stein said, "I am I because my little dog knows me. " And I am I because you know me and my wife knows me and my little dog knows me. Because I was born at such and such a place and was educated in such and such a way and read such and such books and lived in such and such temples so on. I am a wide network of relationships and events swirling around and recreating me every moment. If I look for anything in that that is mine, that I can have and hoard and clearly define I'll never find it. My me is something fluid and ungraspable. It is unique in all the world. You could never be me- and I could never be you. So you better not try to imitate me, and neither of us should try to imitate Master Ruiyan. If we want to do the practice he does we had better do it as our own, from our own ground, not his. Each one of us has to make our practice real, reinventing it again and again.

Those who search for the way do not realize truth They only know their old discriminating consciousness This is the cause of the endless cycle of birth and death Yet stupid people take it for Original Self

All we will ever actually know is our old discriminating consciousness. That's because our knowing is only through discrimination, through separation. We long for unity, all of us do, we know in our hearts that we are in exile, lost in the endless round of birth and death, and we long to come home. We can come home and we do come home, but not in the way we'd like to. Once we grow up our mommy will never be able to hold us in her arms again as when we were children. But if we work with our practice we can be touched by oneness, we can have a real sense of it not only in our exalted transcendent moments but in our ordinary moments too. The issue is not that we only know ordinary discriminating consciousness and we want to know something else. It's that we take that discriminating consciousness for all that we are, not recognizing that the original self both is that and is much more than that: without any boundary at all. Once we appreciate this- not as a thought or a belief but as a daily felt experience, something we can absolutely rely on, without defining it or possessing it, then we understand and embrace this practice of calling and answering that dear old Master Ruiyan teaches.

© 2002, Norman Fischer