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Tou-shuai’s Three Barriers

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 05/20/2003
In Topics: Death and Dying, Zen Koans

“When your life is ending how will you be free?” Zoketsu discusses practice in the light of our living and dying.The Case:
Tou-shuai Yue set up three barriers for his students:
First: When you hack through the underbrush searching for the truth you find your self-nature. Right now, where is your self-nature?
Second: Realizing your self-nature, you are free from birth and death. When your life is ending, how will you be free?
Third: When you are free from birth and death you will know where to go. When the four elements scatter, where will you go?

Mumon's comment:
If you can give turning words here you can be the master wherever you are; all the circumstances you encounter will be the Path. If not, the food you bolt down won't sustain you. Chew well, and you won't go hungry.

Mumon's poem:
This instant: measureless eternity
Measureless eternity: right now
Seeing this
Is seeing through the one who sees

In the last case we focussed on application, the most important thing. Applying what we come to know on our cushions to the daily events of our lives. How do we come forth in word and deed as bodhisattvas; being ourselves as we are, and yet not being caught by our fears and habits, willing and able to meet others, and to offer what help we can. I suppose you could call that practical work, or psychological work. It's quite ordinary, really. What makes it spiritual practice? The old Zen teachers felt that the only way to really be whole, to really come forth truly in our living, to really be what they liked to call "ordinary,"or "everyday," was to base our actions and sense of self on the deepest human truths. Anything less than this, they seem to be telling us, will always fall short, will always lead to suffering in the end. This case brings up those deep human truths once again, offering us three barriers, three contemplations, for encountering the question of life and death. The question of life and death is like a mirror. Long and long you stand before it, see your whole life reflected in it, and you look and look. Even when you see all the way through you're not finished. You keep coming back, and looking yet again. The deepest questions are inexhaustible.

The first barrier says: "When you hack through the underbrush searching for the truth you find your self-nature. Right now, where is your self-nature?" This barrier is, on the one hand, meditation instruction: the underbrush referred to is all the thought and emotion that swirls around in your mind when you sit in meditation. The way to work with it is to let it be, and to return again and again to body and breath as a focal point, creating an alternative to the spinning thoughts and emotions. This is not an aggressive practice, and there is no sense that we are trying to make thoughts and feelings disappear. Yet, at the same time, it is important that the mind quiets and deepens. If we don't allow thoughts and emotions to float away, but instead churn them on and on forever, driven by identity and the passion that flows from it, then we are probably wasting time on our cushions. Eventually we have to find some peace, allow it to intensify, and eventually come to see who we really are.

Broadening this teaching a bit, and applying it more widely to our whole lives off the cushion as well as on, Master Tou-shuai is telling us that the way to solve our human problems is not to indulge them, or to try to fix them, but rather to see through them: to see that on the other side of our anger or disappointment, on the other side of our fear and aggression, there is something more wondrous and inclusive. Solving our human problems by making effort to solve our human problems will never work, or will work only in a limited way. Truly solving our human problems is to see through them. Then we can be angry, aggressive, fearful, disappointed, whatever we may be, but, at the same time, we can recognize that this anger or fear isn't us, isn't all that's going on. A larger self than my small self expresses contains my emotions. Feeling this, I can go through my process of grief or longing, fear or desire, with some lightness, knowing that that is not all that's going on, and that my life is held in a wider scope. So fear doesn't need to become terror, nor desire obsession. I can enjoy my human passions, seeing that they can be tamed. When I come to appreciate my self-nature, maybe I can even have a little humor about my hang ups and stupid desires! Seeing my life as appearing and disappearing here in the present moment, and not so much caught by notions of identity, which bring with them judgment and desire, I can relax, even if something difficult is happening. I can be within whatever is going on without anguish or excess.

"Realizing your self-nature, you are free from birth and death. When your life is ending, how will you be free?" Here the Master brings up the question of death, which is always the ruling question of our lives. Death is not something for later on; death is something always for right now. I have done a lot of work with the dying, and with teaching people to care for the dying. Sometimes I worry about this, that death is too seductive, too exciting. The fact is, to be with dying people is an extremely intense and joyful experience. When death is near you feel how profound life is. I often point out to people who work with the dying that the patients are not dying, they are living. They are alive, completely alive, just as we all are, and they will remain completely alive until they stop being alive. They are only dying in the sense that we are all dying: like the rest of us, the patient we say is close to death is simply alive in this present moment that is always passing away.

Truly, death is always with us, and that's wonderful. Death reminds us how precious our life is, and how little time we have to squander. And how, when we accept this moment of our life completely, even if it is a tough moment, there is great joy.

There is only one way to be free when you are dying: and that is to let go. To recognize that nothing can be held onto and that possession, emotion, reputation, relationship – it all comes and goes, delightful when it appears, delightful when it disappears. Being free isn't optional; it is a necessity. Because when you try to hold onto what cannot be held onto you suffer a lot. To have to die when you are not willing to die, to struggle against death in a losing battle – this is the greatest anguish of all. On the other hand, to let go when it is time to let go, to willingly leap forward into the next moment, which is always unknown, is a joy, a great release. This could describe the moment of death. But it could also be the description of any moment in which we are truly alive. The third barrier goes a step further: "When you are free from birth and death you will know where to go. When the four elements scatter, where will you go?"

People often ask, "What do Buddhists say about life after death? Does the soul reincarnate? What about the subtle rainbow body and the colorful deities of the bardo realms? How true is all of this?" I don't really know. In Tibetan Buddhism, based on medieval Indian Tantra, there is certainly a lot of lore and it has its usefulness. But Zen is much more open on the question: in fact, as this third barrier shows, the answer to the question of what happens after we die is a question. I am fond of quoting the story of Kuei-shan when someone asks me if rebirth is a part of Zen doctrine. Kuei-shan told his disciples that he would be reborn as a cow pastured on the monastery grounds. "When you see the cow that has become Kuei-shan you will know it because the cow will have the characters 'Kuei-shan' calligraphed in bold strokes on its side. If you say this cow is me you will be wrong. On the other hand, if you say it is not me, you will also be wrong."

My mother, when she was dying of cancer, asked me what Zen had to say about life after death. "Well," I said, "when we practice for a long time with depth we find that the person we have always thought ourselves to be is much more limited than the person we most truly are. That true person is limitless, undefinable, without boundary. If we identify completely with the small person we are then death is really terrifying- it really is an ending, utter and complete. On the other hand, if we can also identify with the larger person that we are then death doesn't appear to be an ending. It's a big change for certain, but life goes on. The journey continues." My mother seemed bewildered by this answer and quickly changed the subject. When Issan Dorsey, one of our most illustrious Zen Center priests, a former female impersonator and the founder of an AIDS hospice, was dying, someone leaned over to him and said "We're going to miss you, Issan." Issan looked up at him and said, "Why, are you going somewhere?"

In his commentary to this third barrier Shibayama roshi quotes many Japanese Zen sources on the subject of where we go after dying.
The death poem of Daimin reads,

In coming I have no abode
In leaving I have no fixed direction
How is it ultimately?
Here I am all the time!

And Dogen's death poem is also quite famous:

For fifty three years I've hung the sky with stars
Now I crash through:
What a shattering!

Master Ryutan in his last moments struggled and cried out- very un-Zen, his students felt. When they asked him about it he told them, "Crying out in agony is the same as laughing with joy." This reminds me of my dear friend Phil Whalen who once said that he thought that when he died he'd be crying out for his mother. I think he did cry for his mother for a while, but then he became quiet. Master Bankei once told someone who asked him for good dying instructions, "When it's time to die, just die!" Very helpful. Master Ekkei said, "I will return, if not in the south, then in the north. Mountain after mountain, I just go on my long journey. Do I come to its end someday? All the green bamboos in the yard are greeting me."
Ryokan's death poem is the best:

Showing now its front side,
Now its back,
Falls the maple leaf

The point is, where we go after we die isn't, or shouldn't be, a speculative question, a question about the exotic mystery of what comes next. It is a question about what we are, how we must live, how we are to face what happens, moment after moment. I feel this especially when I do ceremonies, even if it is just the daily service. Entering ritual space, you enter the endlessness of time. There's no play acting involved. You just plunge in, with calmness, ready for whatever will happen. If we could live this way all the time, giving ourselves over to the daily endless ritual of living and dying in mystery in the middle of the moments of our lives one after the other, then we would be, as Wumen tells, us, masters of our lives, using whatever circumstances arise as our path for this moment. We won't any longer be caught in desire and preference- this is what I wanted to happen, this is what I didn't want. This is how I like it, that was a mistake and should never have been. No such thing as that. We face what is, inside and out, with full authority, with humility, with calm. The word humility comes from the word humus, which means earth. To be humble is to realize that we are not separate creatures for whom things have to go a certain way; humble, we recognize ourselves for what we are, made of earth, one with earth, before we are born and after we die. All the green bamboos in the yard are greeting us. Wumen's verse is referring to the teaching of Manifestation Only that we talked about last week. The Alaya Vijnana, the 8th consciousness, is beyond boundary and definition. All that is, was, or could ever be, is contained in it, and it contains our individual karma, from the beginningless past, as well as the previous moment. We are all of that- what has happened to us, as well as everything else. When Manas, the illusion of a fixed and limited self, arises we begin to suffer, and we go on suffering until we see through it, putting it in its proper perspective and context. This is an achievement of meditation practice, as well as a craft for our daily living. When we see the one who sees, we will see how immense are all the moments of our lives, from the first to the last. We'll never be able to draw a map of the after-death worlds, but neither will be afraid of where we're going. Chewing our lives thoroughly, working the craft of our practice again and again, trying every day to understand a little more of how life goes, and knowing that this meditation is endless, we'll be well nourished for the ongoing journey.

® 2002, Norman Fischer