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No Zen Master - Talk 4 Koans 2011

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 18, 2011
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In topic: Koan Studies
Norman gives the third talk of the Koans 2011 series on "No Zen Master" found in the Blue Cliff Record Case 11 "Huang Po's Gobblers of Dregs" and Book of Serenity Case 53 "Huangbo's Dreg Slurpers.
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From: No Zen Master - Talk 4 Koans 2011

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 18, 2011

Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum

Once Huang Po said to the assembly, "All you people are gobblers of dregs.  If you go on traveling in this way, where will you have today?  Don't you know that there are no teachers of Chan in all of China?"  A monastic that was there came forward and said, "Then what about those in various places who order followers and lead communities?"  Huang Po said, "I do not say there is no Chan.  Just that there are no teachers."

That's the story.  This is Case 11 in The Blue Cliff Record and Case 53 in The Book of Serenity. There are the same commentaries, but different poems. It was fun to read the commentaries in both those collections.  The commentaries in Zen stories often involve the commentator telling you other Zen stories that are related to the characters in the story.  There was a lot of that, and also a lot of references to classical Chinese literature.  I find it really illuminating to read these things.  It's fun to do, although I forget most of it.  The next time I come to the case, I barely remember having read it at all. 

Aside from all the commentaries, the stories themselves are really beautiful in their simplicity.  When you stop being entangled in all the commentaries and just consider the story itself, you realize that it flies beyond the commentaries.  They are so offbeat sometimes.  They really arrest your attention, and they have a certain kind of pungency and power, as this story does.

Of course, this story is particularly dear to me as a so-called teacher of Zen.  Those of you who know me know that I have a lot of resistance to this designation, even though I actually enjoy being a so-called Zen teacher.  I like what it entails.  I like practicing closely with people, knowing people over a long time.  I like going to the all-day sits every month.  I never get tired of them.  I like all the sesshins that I attend every year.  I like studying dharma, as I did today in preparing a talk.  I find it really engaging and fun.  Since I probably wouldn't do any of that if I didn't have to do it - which I have to do because I'm a so-called Zen teacher - and since those things give me a lot of pleasure, I really appreciate having this kind of job.  Left to my own devices, I might not do any of that.  I might sort of goof off.  Since I have done it for so long, I might say, "Why don't I forget about it and do something else?"  But if that happened, maybe I would eventually realize that I am getting crabby and dull in the head.  Maybe I would want to do it on my own anyway.  But maybe not.  Maybe I would just go on in that way.  So thank you all for making me do this.  It is really good for me. 

So it is fortunate that I have this job, but the idea that I am teaching something called Zen, that I have something to teach, strikes me as entirely wrong.  I've never felt comfortable with the idea, because it seems so wrong in terms of how I understand the spirit of our practice.  It is not a matter of my being modest.  I don't think I mean to be modest, and I don't think it is a matter of being irresponsible, and not wanting to take my place or take up the burden of teaching.  I am happy to do that.  It is worthwhile. 

So it's not that.  It's just that the idea of being a teacher of Zen seems stupid to me and entirely incorrect.  So I don't see myself as being a teacher of Zen.  I see myself as practicing Zen with all of you.  And maybe from the outside it looks like I am teaching Zen, but from the inside, I don't look at it like that at all.  I think that I am practicing Zen, and I'm practicing Zen with other people, and sharing my practice with other people - back and forth. 

In the story Huang Po seems to be scolding the assembly, either harshly or affectionately.  As the commentaries let us know, Huang Po was an immense Zen person.  He was literally immense.  According to the commentaries, he was seven feet tall.  It is possible that Huang Po was a huge guy.  Why not?  Maybe it is true.  Also it says in the text that he had a lump on his forehead, like a pearl, which is a sign of a great Zen teacher, or a great spiritual person.  It also says in the Blue Cliff Record commentary that he understood Chan "by nature," which is to say that he had natural spiritual power all his life, even before he came to study Chan. 

In Chan, or Zen, there are all kinds of practitioners.  There are a lot of them like Huang Po, who were quite noticeably lofty and gifted.  But there are others like my favorite, Zhauzhou, and like Suzuki Roshi, who was quite unspectacular in his way.  Interestingly, the tradition seems to honor both types pretty much equally, and all the types in between.  So we can imagine that Huang Po was very intimidating and scary, and that when he criticized the community, they really took it to heart.  "You people are just gobblers of dregs.  It you go around traveling like this, where will you have today?"

So I think it is clear what Huang Po is saying. The point of our practice, and the point of all religious practice - and maybe the point of all living - is to really be alive. To live your life with liveliness and fullness.  We all want to be real in our lives and true to our gifts. 

The point of our living is not to fulfill someone else's expectations, or even our own expectations.  The point is not to accumulate knowledge or fame or fortune, or even to do good or great deeds.  Or even to be good or to be great.  The point is to fully occupy our own life and to live it truly and with strength.  And, of course, if we will do this, we probably will do worthwhile things, and we probably will be of benefit to others, because these things naturally occur in one form or another when we are real and true to ourselves. Being real and true and really alive in our lives can never be a selfish thing.  Whenever we are selfish, we are not really fully alive, because then we are too narrow and our scope is too limited. 

The point that Huang Po seems to be making here with his assembly is that it is up to each one of them - and to each one of us - to find his or her particular way.  The dharma is unique for each person.  Of course, as we are doing now, we are studying the sayings of the Ancients and trying to understand; but the point of that is not to slurp up the dregs left behind by others who have drunk life's cup to the full.  The point is to be inspired by them to surpass our confusion and small-mindedness, so that we can come into our own just the way that they did. 

Issan Dorsey, whom many of us knew, was one of the great treasures of the San Francisco Zen Center.  He died quite a long time ago, and when he died, I remember Mel, my teacher, saying about him, "You know, Issan was really good at being himself," which seems like a ridiculous thing to say.  I mean, is somebody not good at being themselves?  But actually, from the standpoint of Zen practice, this is a profound accomplishment.  Because when you think about it a little bit, actually it is possible not to be good at being yourself.  It is possible never to seize hold of who you actually are.  It is possible to sleepwalk through your life trying to be someone else; to be who somebody else told you that you were supposed to be; or who you have internalized thinking that you are supposed to be; or to be someone who others need you to be; and never really noticing and affirming who you actually are.  Actually, it is possible, isn't it, to live a whole life like that?  Not only is it possible, it is really common. 

So from a Zen point of view, it is a high achievement to actually admit to oneself, "This is who I am.  This is what I am.  This is my unique, unrepeatable-in-the-entire-universe, karmic package."  To embrace that and appreciate it and live it.  This is a high achievement. 

There is a saying about this in Judaism.  It is one of my favorite teachings of the rabbis.  Rabbi Zusha said once, "When I die, I don't think God is going to ask me, ‘How come you weren't more like Moses?'  God is going to ask me, ‘How come you weren't more like Zusha?'"

So this is Huang Po's point.  Probably because he was so impressive and so enlightened, the members of his assembly emulated him and took very seriously the sayings of the Ancients that they read in books - sayings that Huang Po was always bringing up in his teachings.  So they were very respectful in their effort to be like the Ancients and to be like their teacher.  But that is just "gobbling up the dregs," Huang Po was telling them.  "You have to find your own way.  We are all on our own.  No one can show us the unique way that our life must go.  We can't imitate anybody else.  Others can't teach us how to be ourselves."

So there are no teachers of Zen. 

The monastic's follow-up question is really good, because it is such an obvious, simple-minded question.  It reminds me a little bit of the story that Dongshan told about when he was a boy and heard somebody chanting the Heart Sutra.  He was puzzled and said to his teacher, "Wait a minute!  I have eyes and ears and nose and tongue and body and mind. So what is this sutra saying?"  Most of us wouldn't ask such a question, because we are too intimidated by religion to question it, so we either ignore it or deny it or believe in it too much.  We don't have that guileless ability to say, "Hey, wait a minute!  What's really going on here?"  But that is what the monastic does in this story.  He or she is equally simple-minded and straightforward, and says, "Wait a minute.  How can you say there are no Zen teachers?  What about all these people doing this stuff, running Zen communities and leading rituals and ceremonies and giving talks?  What are they?  Chopped liver?  What are you talking about?" So Huang Po says, "I'm not saying there is no Chan.  I am just saying there are no teachers of Chan."

So, yes, there is definitely a method and a practice.  There are all the things that we do.  We sit, we chant, we bow, we study, we encounter one another.  To me it is so marvelous that we have all this - all of our robes and our okesas and our rakusus and our incense and our altars. 

The deepest human questions and the deepest human problems are so vague, so hard to get an idea of what they are.  This has impressed me all my life, even as a child.  The deepest things about being human - you can't even say if they exist or not.  They are so vague and so ungraspable. God?  Meaning? What is meaning?  What is death?  What is love?  It is impossible to get a handle on these things.  No wonder the whole world is rationalist, materialist.  At least you can get hold of that.  Or it seems that you can, anyway!  Maybe you can't, but it seems like it.  But these deep, human questions are so slippery.  Maybe the biggest problem is you can even doubt whether they exist at all.  Maybe it is just you!  Maybe you are thinking too much.  Maybe you should just get over it! 

Does God exist or not? 

Just get over it!

Is there enlightenment, nirvana?

Forget about it.  Just go to work. 

Do we die and disappear, or does something else happen?

Never mind.

What is love?

Who cares?  [Laughter]

It is impossible to get at any of this stuff.  You talk about it endlessly, over and over again, and you never really get anywhere.  Yet you can't really escape these kinds of questions.  They keep coming up in the heart.  That is why, to me, it is so great that we have a Way - robes, teachings, seminars, sittings - that we can engage, somehow, these questions that would be there anyway.  Without a Way or a method, we wouldn't know what to do with them.  Maybe if we didn't have any method at all, these questions would end up eating us up alive, bite by bite, and day by day. We would get old and dazed and confused.  Which happens.

So, yes, Huang Po is saying that there is Zen; there actually is a method; there is Chan practice.  It's just that there are no teachers of Chan.  As far as guys like me, who sit as heads of assemblies, give talks, and appear to be teachers - well, the method calls for them.  It's part of the process.  Our practice, like most forms of religious life, operates on an archetypal system that seems to be somehow deeply embedded in the human heart.  This does not mean that it is eternal and that it can't change.  There is nothing that actually exists in this world that can't change, or won't change.  Nor does it mean that this system is entirely correct and perfect, because archetypes are scary and have a lot of problems associated with them. 

But the archetype of Zen practice seems to require that someone is sitting in this seat that I am sitting in right now.  Some generations from now, someone else will be sitting in this seat. We were just passing through.  But somebody has to sit here.  The mandala is organized around that.  Actually, if you study mandalas, you realize that every point in the mandala is the center.  There is no point more real than any other point, and if any point gets out of whack or is missing, the entire shape is thrown off.  The Zen mandala has its integrity.  Here is where the altar should go, here is where the priest bows, here is the teacher, here are the senior students, and so on.  Here is where the Ancients reside, the ancestors who have passed on the teaching.

Even though in Everyday Zen we purposely do not emphasize these traditional things, they're there for us, behind everything that we are doing.  I know this is true.  I myself feel it quite directly, and maybe you can feel it too in some way.  Even if you are not familiar with the mandala, and certainly if you are, you'll see it.  This is just how it works.  Its healing power comes from this ancient shape.  Thanks to it, there is a vehicle for each one of us to achieve what Issan achieved.  We too can become very good at being ourselves, and it is not necessary for us to slurp up somebody else's dregs.