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Rhinoceros Fan (Shoyoroku 25 / Hekiganroku 91)

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 10/05/2007
In Topics: Zen Koans

Yanguan had a rhinoceros fan. Possibly it was made of rhinoceros horn. It was no doubt a very expensive item…. But naturally the rhinoceros fan is broken. Because real life, our actual life, is broken. But brokenness isn’t a tragedy, it’s a delight.

One day Yanguan called to his attendant, "Bring me the rhinoceros fan."

The attendant said, "The fan is broken."

Yanguan said, "Then bring me the rhinoceros!"

The attendant had no reply.

Zifu drew a circle and wrote the word "rhino" inside it.

This is a delightfully silly story. Yanguan had a rhinoceros fan. Possibly it was made of rhinoceros horn. Or maybe it had painted on it a picture of a rhinoceros gazing at the full moon. It was no doubt a very expensive item, given to him by some important person. Maybe he was holding the fan in his hand when he asked the attendant to bring it to him. So the attendant was already tipped off to the fact that something more and less than the rhinoceros horn fan was being referred to. So he said, "It's broken." Or, possibly, Yanguan was not holding the fan and he wanted the attendant to go fetch it, but it really was broken.

This reminds me of a famous saying of Achaan Cha, the great Thai monk. He would hold up a tea cup and say, "To me this cup is already broken." Everything is like this, already broken. Why does this upset us? When we think something is not broken, we think it is intact, that it is ours, so we have to protect it. And then when it turns out we cannot protect it, that we lose it, that it breaks, that it is taken from us — as everything always is — we go to pieces. We feel as if the world is not a safe place. We become paranoid and stressed out. But if we knew, with Achaan Cha, that things were already broken, that the nature of things — and of ourselves, especially and most importantly ourselves — is brokenness, and we could learn how to embrace and accept that, then I think we can live a happy life, appreciating the preciousness of what comes to us and goes from us. We'd know that whatever comes to us is always a precious and temporary gift. And whatever goes is peaceful in its going. Everything we lose makes way for something else. Every loss is an opening. Even death is an opening. So even though we might grieve, we are not surprised or shocked. We knew the cup was broken to begin with. It was always broken. It could not have existed at all had it not been broken from the start. The same is true of the lovely rhinoceros fan. So we can imagine here that the monk is not naively answering the request for the rhinoceros fan. He knows what he is saying. Bring me the rhinoceros fan. Bring me success, money, bring me love, bring me satisfaction, bring me happiness, beauty. Sorry, it is already broken.

The rhinoceros in Zen is like the Ox, a symbol of — oh what do you call it — I really resist calling it anything — but we have so many names for it, True Mind, True Nature, Original Face, Buddha Nature, the Inconceivable, Nirvana, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, I don't know. All these terms are abstract and misleading. Like the word God. Very sneaky and misleading. Still, you need a word I suppose. And, having a word, you can talk but the talk is always misleading. Anyway, suffice it to say that the rhino is Mind, Heart, Consciousness, the large indefinable inconceivable limitless space in which the drama of our lives is enacted. So if I say the rhino fan is broken like a teacup is broken, that's true, but I am only saying half. When I ask for the rhinoceros fan I am bringing up the other half. A teacup can break. A rhinoceros fan cannot break — or if it breaks or is already broken in the very breaking the very brokenness it is complete and unbroken and perfect. Impermanence is Nirvana. Brokenness is Nirvana. Naturally the rhino fan is broken. Because real life, our actual life, is brokenness. But brokenness isn't a tragedy, it's a delight. It's only because we imagine some state of unbrokenness that we think brokenness is tragic. Brokenness is freedom — that things are always off balance and imperfect is the transcendence of the ordinary world. The ordinary world is the rhino fan — it is true mind, true nature, Buddha nature, god, Buddha, Nirvana — perfect in its brokenness. So things are always ok, always improving, always falling apart. When we give up resisting and complaining about this, and trying fruitlessly to fix it, we can live a beautiful and happy life. So the attendant is making a very wise statement when he says the rhino fan is broken.

Yanguan then says, Then bring me the rhinoceros! This is a great retort, don't you think? Bring me the rhino. Show me, right here and now, transcendence, perfection. Drop everything — all your preconceptions, desires and needs. Why not? It's easier than you think. It easier than NOT doing this. Start over again, with courage, right here and now. Just let go of whatever has been holding you back. Let it slip out of your fingers. Now what is there? Now what will you do? We talk about enlightenment, peace, Nirvana — all these silly abstractions. God. Sacredness. Enlightenment. Can you simply live straightforwardly into this moment, responding freshly to what arises?

Such a request seems astounding — also intimidating. Indeed the attendant was intimidated. He — or it might have been a woman, she, didn't know what to do or say. This is because the attendant was immediately caught, as probably all of us would be caught, by the loftiness, or the absurdity, of the request. I am sure Yanguan said this with a straight face. Bring me the rhinoceros. Bring me the whole of reality right here, in your response. But in truth there's nothing intimidating about this. The rhino can't be conceived, can't be defined, can't be measured or contained. And, at the same time, it is right here in each moment and in each thing — even in the teacup that is already broken. The attendant could have responded quite easily, could have handed Yanguan a teacup or a paper napkin and said Here is the rhino, I am sorry he is so smelly. Or the attendant could have stepped forward, bellowed like a rhino, and said, watch out for charging rhinos. Or the attendant could have simply taken the request in stride and without saying anything just brought Yanguan a cup of tea — or a different fan. But — here is the point, and here is the problem. Like us, the attendant was intimidated and frozen by his preconceptions. He had some pretty big ideas about himself, about Buddha Nature, about Yanguan, about Buddhism. He was not comfortable with the inconceivable, he didn't know how to play with it, he wasn't open to it. Possibly he was frightened of it. Which makes sense, doesn't it, because to be free within one's brokenness, to really and truly accept that the rhino in all its brokenness is right in the middle of everything all the time — and that one is willing at any time to let go, give up, even to die if that is what is happening — well I suppose this is a little intimidating. But really not intimidating, since we are letting go, giving up, dying all the time anyway. But embracing this reality, being ready for it moment after moment: I guess this is more difficult. There's nothing to do — literally nothing to it — but it is or seems difficult. So the monk was stopped by the request — as we would be, most likely. Nevertheless, though most of the time it's not so explicit as Yanguan is here, we too are constantly being asked to bring forth the rhinoceros. Usually we don't notice the request.

One aspect of things is impermanence — everything is falling apart. The world is a leaky boat — lets not kid ourselves — we all hope to improve but it is a losing battle. Body and mind are unreliable, they fall apart no matter what we do. That's one way to see things, and it is necessary to face all this clearly, and to feel the full weight of it. But the other way to see things is to realize that although the eyes and ears may fade and dissolve, seeing and hearing don't fade and dissolve, consciousness doesn't fade or dissolve, and the moon's light shines through all acts of thinking and perception, so that every moment is forever, and every moment is complete. The rhinoceros fan may be broken but the rhinoceros remains just fine, plunging into the warm stream for a bath. The rhino is there forever. The wise attendant monk is wise up to a point. He sees the brokenness of the fan but he doesn't see its wholeness — that there never was a fan, that the rhino was present before the fan was made and after it was made. It is as if Achaan Cha would have also said, the whole universe has always been, is, and will always be inside this cup, before it was made, now, and after it is broken and disintegrated, returning to its elements. This we know — this is why we are always satisfied with everything, right? But the attendant monk didn't yet know it, so he was silent.

In the story as I've quoted it there is just one other response to the request for the rhino, the one by Zhifu, who draws a circle and writes the word "rhino" in it. In the version of the story that appears as case 91 of the Blue Cliff record there are numerous other responses to Yanguan's request. Mostly they are a bit picky, it seems to me. The old Zen masters got a bit too refined and detailed for my taste. They fall into Zen jargon, inspired though they may have been. They begin to create a kind of koan-speak. This is always what happens in religion. The impulse, the need, is clear. And then you refine it, getting pickier and pickier, until the whole thing gets oppressive. Still, you can't ignore the refinements entirely. I suppose too it is a matter of style — everyone has his or her style. I like things to be simple and clear and ordinary because I feel that teaching that is simple and clear and ordinary is more respectful and useful for the listener — I don't mean that I try to oversimplify or eliminate problems where there are problems — but to me it is best if it can be simple. But others enjoy involved formulations — they seem more mysterious and interesting I suppose. So here are further commentaries and commentaries to the commentaries. I offer them in the spirit of our becoming a bit more familiar with the literary style of our Chinese predecessors, so that we can be less intimidated by it:

T'ou Tzu said, "I do not refuse to bring it (rhino) out, but I fear the horn on its head will be (lacking)." Hsueh Tou commented, "I want (the lacking horn)."

Tou Tzu is saying, I would bring the rhino out, master, but I am worried that when I do it'll be lacking, it won't be complete. This is a sort of joke, isn't it? A joke on us — on the stupid way we usually look at things. Parody and irony are so much a part of Chinese Chan discourse, which is interesting, isn't it, that parody, irony, and joking would be a style of religious talk. So it's silly in just the way we are so often silly: we are self conscious, worried about getting it wrong, being incomplete. But how could the rhinoceros be incomplete? And also, how could it be complete? Complete or incomplete are human concepts, they have nothing to do with the rhinoceros. Hsueh tou, commenting later, says — that incompleteness is exactly what I want. The horn that doesn't exist — is missing — that's the sort of horn I want. So yes, we shouldn't be afraid to bring out our enlightened mind, to express it, to be ourselves. No doubt it'll be a bit off kilter, lacking somehow. But if we present with full commitment then it'll be complete in its incompleteness. This is what I personally have always appreciated about our Zen way — it is very human. We are not trying to become perfect buddhas — we celebrate and acknowledge our lack, we know it's really not a problem. What other rhino could there be, standing here, where I am? Hsueh Tou says, yes, I know this is the human lack, this is Buddha lack, lets use it well for the benefit of all.

Now it is Shih Shuang's turn to respond to the request to bring the rhino. He says, "If I return it to the Master, then I won't have it." Hsueh Tou commented, "The rhino is still there." Shih Shuang is also making a joke; like Tou Tzu his joke is a joke on us, it makes fun of something we so often do. It is very stupid but I think that we all have this idea that enlightenment comes in packages of a certain size. If I get the package then you don't get it. Or if I get half of it then there is only half left for you. This is ridiculous but I think we see it like that. As if the truth were something to be distributed and acquired. But there is more than enough truth to go around. So Shih Shuang is joking — if I give you the rhino then I won't have a rhino. But Hsueh Tou explains — no if you give it it is still there. It is like Achaan cha's cup — it is already broken, and when it breaks and you throw it away it is still whole, and it still contains the whole universe and everyone can drink out of it.

Next comes Zifu's circle with the word rhino brushed inside. Hsueh tou commented, "Why did you not bring it out before?"

This circle is an important teaching device in Zen schools — it is the circle that appears on the top of kechimyaku, our lineage paper, above the name of Buddha, and it appears in other secret Zen documents of dharma transmission. It is the circle that Suzuki Roshi drew when Baker Roshi asked him on his deathbed, where will we meet again. He drew a circle with his boney hand stuck out from the bedsheets. This is the circle of emptiness, the inconceivable unity of being /nonbeing, me and you as one eternal person. Everything is inside this circle, and all the buddhas are born from it — it is the womb of buddhas. When a baby is born — you know it is a miracle because it comes out of this circle and it is inconceivable. And when someone passes out of this world she goes back into the circle and you know it is a miracle, inconceivable. During our lifetime we never leave this circle and everything is in this circle. So Zhifu drew a circle and wrote the word rhino inside it. He liked using devices like this. It was his personal style.

Next Pao Fu spoke up, he said, "The Master is aged; he should ask someone else." Hsueh Tou commented, "What a pity to have worked hard without accomplishing anything." In other words, Pao Fu is saying, you have asked your attendant for the rhino fan then for the rhino and you didn't get either one — you are old by now, don't waste time on it — get another attendant! You failed as a teacher to awaken your student and now it is too late, so give up. Then Hsueh Tou says, what a pity — working hard and accomplishing nothing. So all this is still more irony. Where's the rhino? Can it be somewhere else and not here? Can it be used up or produced? Can the attendant be unenlightened and is it up to the old master to enlightened him? Is there success and failure in practice? Can you work hard and accomplish something? No is the answer to all these questions. Working hard and accomplishing nothing — that's the Zen spirit. But this doesn't mean accomplishing nothing — as if we could accomplish something but we failed to do so. This is the real nothing, the total and complete nothing — beyond any question of nothing or something. This nothing is freedom from any something or nothing. It is Nirvana, letting go, blowing out, bathing in the light. Ajahn Achaan Cha,"We talk about things to be developed, things to give up, but there is really nothing to develop and nothing to give up."

® 2006, Norman Fischer