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Cutting Through Our Problems

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 03/27/1998
In Topics: Zen Koans

Elder Ting asked Linji “What is the great meaning of the Buddhist Teaching?” Ji came down off his meditation seat, grabbed and held (Ting), gave him a slap, and then pushed him away. Why do we not bow?
case 32 of Blue Cliff Record is very straightforward. it’s about what i mentioned last night when i was talking about finding our feet so that we could walk, and i was saying that in order to find our feet we have to let go completely right where we are, see that all our difficulties no matter how drastic or discouraging they may appear just don’t matter, and be willing to simply drop them, die to our life right here on the cushion, and just face this moment. this is like mumon’s phrase “cut off the mind road,” and like dogen’s phrase, “drop body and mind.” we can sometimes see this place opening up right before our eyes in zazen- a big space of stillness with nothing whatsoever going on. can we take one step into that? usually we don’t- we immediately pull back and the mind begins working again with its various distractions. we get scared and back off. we want to let go of our pain and suffering but also we want very much to hold onto it because it is familiar, and anyway, when we have our suffering and pain at least we have something, it is very reliable, and we know what it is. but entering finally into silence and letting go- this is completely unknown and therefore scary. so we avoid doing it. but we do eventually have to do it. so that’s important, but, of course, as our study of case 31 showed us last night, life isn’t as simple as that- there is still walking the path of our life, there is still the mess to be dealt with. but that’s another story for another day. for today there is only one thing- just drop. i remember years ago studying with a tibetan lama i think it was prajnaparamitta literature. he was going on and on about prajna, how it was the one thing in buddhism that really mattered, that everything else was unimportant. one student said that he had taken a class on abhidharma with this same teacher and that in that class the teacher had said that abhidharma was the most important teaching in buddhism, that all other teachings did not matter. the lama said, when i teach prajnaparamitta that is the only teaching, and when i teach abhidharma that is the only teaching. this reminds me also of suzuki roshi who often said, “this is the most important thing.” it’s often striking to read his lectures and to notice what he says is the most important thing. it’s usually surprising, and of course it is always something different. so anyway, for tonight there is only one thing worth talking about.

introduction to the case:
The ten directions cut off, a thousand eyes abruptly open; when one phrase cuts off all streams, myriad impulses cease. Are there after all any who will die together and be born together? The public case is completely manifest, but if you cannot get it together, please look at the Ancients’ trailing vines.

“the public case is completely manifest but if you cannot get it together please look at the ancient’s trailing vines.” the koan of our lives is always present on every moment. what is calling to us? what is it that demands our immediate heartfelt response? what is our life? this question is always in front us but we miss it. actually there’s no need for all these nonsensical stories of these old zen masters, they become tiresome after a while. they are just trailing vines, or as we translate from dogen, twining vines, entangling vines. and yet, since we don’t on our own see the koan of the present moment, the genjokoan, these old cases are set up to bring us back to what is really there all the time from the start.

the case:
Elder Ting asked Linji "What is the great meaning of the Buddhist Teaching?" Ji came down off his meditation seat, grabbed and held (Ting), gave him a slap, and then pushed him away. Ting stood there motionless. A monk standing by said, "Elder Ting, why do you not bow?" Just as Ting bowed, he suddenly was greatly enlightened.

so in this case we meet master Linji, the famous Linji. so far in the blue cliff record we have only met master Linji once, in case 20. in case 20 he also hits someone- this time with a zafu. so Linji is well known for his hitting. sometimes he shouts too. Linji’s specialty was this point we are talking about tonight- immediately seeing through- just cutting through all the complications of our mind and dropping everything right where we are. since he emphasizes this point so much it’s good that he just shouts and hits- these are pretty effective techniques for showing us this point. there’s a time for reflection and calmness but there also has to be a time for immediate response, just jumping into our life without looking to the right or left. and anyway, insight is always immediate even if it comes gradually. awakening is not something we achieve little by little, like learning to ice skate or ride a bike. it happens all at once – that’s the nature of it. there’s polishing and development of course, but that comes afterward; there’s a moment when we just get it. come to think of it though learning to ice skate or ride a bike also happens all at once. if you are learning to ride a bike you keep falling off. you lose your balance and fall to the right so you get back on, resolving to lean more to the left and then you fall off to the left and so you resolve to lean a little more to the right and you fall off to the right again. you keep on being out of balance to the right or left and you get pretty beat up with scratches and bruises until finally- all of a sudden- and you don’t know how it happened- it was not something you did, although you did have to keep getting on the bike- you can just stay on the bike and ride it. you might fall a few times after that, but, more or less now, all of a sudden you have the hang of it. you might get better at it and learn tricks or be able to go faster and so on, but basically, all at once you have suddenly learned how to ride the bike. almost all the important things in our life are like this. so this sudden experience of Linji is not such hot stuff after all. all of a sudden- dramatically or not so dramatically- we know. in the case of zazen all of a sudden – dramatically or not dramatically – we drop. the more pressure you put on yourself or the teacher puts on you the more you suffer and the longer you suffer probably and the more dramatic is the dropping. the less pressure the less dramatic. but more dramatic may not be necessarily better. in fact there may be many disadvantages to it. it is definitely more dramatic though. Linji is a very dramatic teacher. there’s a picture of him on the cover of one of the books of translations of his sayings- maybe you know this picture- he has a black beard and a wreath of black hair around his bald head. his eyes are bulging out and he us sitting in seiza with his right fist clasped in his left hand- he looks very calm but also very alert, very dynamic. very tough.

one of the curious things is that you can have this immediate insight of dropping body and mind, cutting off the mind road, and not notice that you have had it till much later. this sounds strange i know but it sometimes happens that way. i think my favorite zen story of all time is a pretty obscure story- i read it someplace once many years ago and i have never been able to find it since. i suppose i could have made it up or dreamed it but i do not think so. it’s a story from world war ll. there’s a japanese priest who was drafted and went to war. one night he was standing guard duty someplace- marching up and down with his gun- and suddenly he realized that years before during his time of zen training he had actually been enlightened but didn’t notice it at the time. he was so certain of it that he just dropped his gun and walked away from the army right then and there. i had an experience myself that was a little like that only even more strange. years ago i used to spend a lot of time alone, not having a job, sitting zazen for hours and days on my own, and trying to get enlightened. once i was living in a cabin in the freezing cold in the winter in upstate new york doing zazen and trying to get enlightened. i had to take a break to go to the toilet and while i was in the toilet somehow a glass bowl got knocked down off a shelf in the other room and shattered. i went running back into the room and realized that the moment of the bowl shattering was my enlightenment experience but since i had been in the toilet at the time i missed it. i wrote about this in a poem once and so i remember it well.

there are some interesting footnotes to this case. usually i am annoyed with Yuan Wu’s footnotes and ignore them but this time i think there is something to them. note 2 says, today he caught him. he’s kind as an old woman. kind as an old woman. maybe old women aren’t always so kind but anyway- the point is that Linji who may seem to us very tough and scary is actually the kindest of all. sometimes what looks like kindness can be indulgence and in the long run not very kind. to be patient and sympathetic with someone’s folly may not be so good for them. pointing as directly as immediately as possible to that which gets us beyond our problems might be in the end more kind than offering all kinds of good advice to sooth those problems. in last night’s story about the sixth ancestor he was like that. when yongja asked him about the suffering of birth and death he said- why not just find the birthless and go beyond birth and death. we all know that denial is no good. if you live in california you know that. you can’t push your problems down and deny them because when you do that they just get worse. on the other hand, you can make more of your problems than you need to. it’s good to talk about your problems in your own mind, and also with your friends and teachers. but if you talk about them too much, and identify them, name them, over and over, you actually make them stronger. a lot of the reason why we are stuck way down in a deep deep hole and can’t seem to figure out how to get out is that we keep digging our hole deeper by calling it a hole, examining all the walls of the hole, the dirt on the bottom. there’s a japanese koan- without using your hands or feet how do you get out of a hundred foot well? it may be much better not to notice your problem, not to name it or not to name it so much. years ago i felt like my mind went up and down a lot. when it went down i would feel like i was depressed and i would say to myself i am depressed it’s awful i can’t get out of it. finally i realized that, to some extent, i was depressed if i said i was depressed. if i didn’t say i was depressed i wasn’t depressed. i might have various afflictive phenomena going on in my mind but it wasn’t depression until i said it was depression. so i developed a strict practice of not calling it depression. i hate to tell you this story because it sounds like depression. but after a while of not dwelling on it and not naming it it actually began to clear up and finally disappear. the strange thing is that now i say i am depressed very frequently. just last night i was talking to my wife kathie on the phone and she said how are you and i said i am depressed. she said you always say you are depressed but you’re never depressed, and she’s right. i think i say i am depressed for the fun of it. i suppose it reminds me of the tremendous irony that is language. so Linji may be a very kind person here not saying anything to elder Ting about the great meaning of the buddhist teaching, instead just hurling him off a cliff.

note 5- he uses his diligence to make up for his incompetence. elder Ting had a good dharma brother to remind him to bow, and because he was a good monk he bowed even though he was shocked and had forgotten to bow. and when he bowed he dropped everything. in the end our diligence will see us through- just doing the practice really is it, in the end, just as dogen tells us. i always feel like it is absolutely guaranteed- absolutely guaranteed- that if you keep on practicing with diligence you will realize the way, your practice will be realizing the way, even if you don’t see it like that, and you will find a measure of happiness and beauty in it. to me this is a very deep point and at the moment i do not think i can explain it.

after this happened elder Ting became a very strong teacher himself, and he used Linji’s method of hitting people. there’s one story where he almost throws some people off a bridge. he is also the one who tells the tale that later became the most important saying of Linji. he told it once when he met some pilgrim monks on the road who were traveling to see Linji. but Linji had already died. the monks were disappointed and asked Ting to tell them what was the essence of ji’s teaching. well Ting didn’t hit them. instead he told this story: once Linji told the assembly, “all of you: in this lump of red flesh there is a true person of no rank who is coming and going in and out of your face even as i am speaking to you. if you haven’t witnessed this, then look!” one monk came forward and said, “what is this true person of no rank.” Linji grabbed him and shouted, “speak! speak!” but the monk was speechless. ji gave him a shove and said, “the true person of no rank: what a piece of shit he is,” and went back to his quarters.

this is one of the few stories in which Linji doesn’t hit someone. so this is a beautiful practice, i think, and if Linji never hit anyone i think he would be remembered for this saying. he said it often and it is collected in various koan collections: right now, as you sit on your cushion listening to my words, there is a true unnameable person coming and going through the gates of your face. with each breath this person comes and with each breath this person goes. who is this person? who is it? that’s a great way to practice, just to seriously ask yourself that question.

so now i think before we’re done with this case we have to deal with this question of violence, i don’t think it is right to just gloss over it. what about this violent behavior of Linji. how do we understand it?

well, there are several possibilities, and perhaps they are all true.

first, i remember Maurine Stuart’s approach to Linji. maybe some of you also remember Maurine. she was a tremendous rinzai zen teacher and it is really one of the great losses to american buddhism that she left us so soon. she was canadian- born i think in the province of saskatchewan, on a farm on the great plains, so she had a rugged frontier spirit and a bit of an almost english sense of keeping a stiff upper lip. but she married a wealthy new yorker and lived most of her life in new york so was a very sophisticated person. she raised i think three children. she was a concert pianist, a beautiful powerful pianist, and a dignified and really delightful lady. very interested in people, in all the details of their lives. she was able somehow to effortlessly combine an unforced feminine elegance with a tough monastic sensibility. when she led sesshin she’d dress up in her full robes, but she’d wear makeup and earrings. and it wasn't just the make- up- this was her whole way of being. you’d think this would seem odd but on Maurine it was absolutely natural. i remember when my wife kathie went to sit sesshin with her for the first time and saw that makeup she was thunderstruck. she came home and immediately went out and bought some earrings and new clothes- and she’s never looked back. when Maurine got liver cancer, which is of course a terrible cancer and no one escapes from it, she’d say to people I’m not sick. and everyone would talk about her and say poor Maurine- she’s finally met her match. she’s in denial, she can’t face her illness. and i remember wondering about this myself. but then she came to green gulch and gave a dharma talk all about how she was not sick and it was very obvious that she was not in denial. she knew very well she was going to die she knew it was not going to be easy, but she was not sick, and she was not going to be Maurine cancer, she was Maurine stuart, myo on Maurine stuart, and she intended to keep being myo on (subtle sound) until she died. and she was.

anyway- Maurine loved to lecture from the rinzairoku, and she would always say in her strong clear voice- “and he hitem.” just like that “he hitem.” and she’d explain- this doesn’t mean rinzai actually punched or shoved people. it means rinzai was direct with people, just met them head on, looked them straight in the eye, without anything extra. so this could be one explanation for the violence in these stories- it’s metaphorical. it stands for being direct, being kind in a courageous way with people. Maurine was certainly like that. she was anything but unsympathetic, yet people did not dwell on their problems with her. she helped them to go beyond that.

but perhaps this explanation of the violence of this story, and the violence you sometimes find in zen in general, is too easy. i think if we looked a little more deeply, and studied history a little bit, we would have to admit that there was in fact cruelty and violence sometimes in chan and zen monasteries. i have not witnessed much of this myself but i have read about it, and i have heard a few really terrible eyewitness stories about korean zen monasteries, particularly around the treatment of women, really terrible stories. and certainly we have to admit that in japan zen was used as a training methodology and religious justification for the conduct of samurai during the feudal period, and was used in the same way throughout the period of japanese militarism during the twentieth century. zen is beyond birth and death- birth and death are one phenomenon- so killing fearlessly for the warlord or the nation can be strong zen- that’s the argument. i myself have met a man who served on the axis side during ww ii who was trained as an assassin by a zen person who taught him zazen as a way to become absoultely unafraid of giving up his life and of taking life. some of the great zen teachers of this century were active supporters of japanese atrocities in china and elsewhere in asia, and they saw the zen teaching as supporTing that, as consonant with that. so we need to keep a critical eye when we study. as i said last night, right and wrong are both right and both wrong- so it is never possible to be self righteous. but we have the responsibility to make discriminations and use our intelligence and never to advocate violence or racism in the name of truth. this is the trouble with “all things are buddha nature” – why we have to be careful of it. totalizing philosophies often subtly encourage us to gloss over questions of right and wrong and emphasize oneness to a fault. so, as i have been saying, it is necessary that we enter oneness, that we drop our self, find our feet. but then we have to get up and walk, make distinctions and decisions and act on them with commitment.

well that is plenty for this morning. thank you very much for listening to my talk.