Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
One crack and all knowledge is dissolved.
The struggle is over.
I follow the ancient Way, not lapsing into doubt.
Dignified bearing and conduct
that is beyond sound and form;
no trace remains of my passing.
Those who have mastered the Way
call this unsurpassable activity.
– from “Xiangyan’s Great Enlightenment”
Coming to Zen is to come to a basic unknowing. There are no texts that structure the kind of insight Zen offers. It is a rupture that evades thought, indicating the place at which the practitioner and the rest of existence co-occur. Zen brings the entrails of time and space squirming into the light.
It is interesting and highly symbolic that becoming a monk is known as “home-leaving.” To take up Zen is to leave home in more ways than one. It is not only leaving one’s family and former life. We also leave our projections behind. What is constitutes itself instantly as “a path unknown to any vulture.” There is a depth to that path that cannot be known or understood through theory. Instead, we forsake theorizing to begin our own unique inquiry.
When they seek the source of this practice, the student is often thrown into a more confusing position than before. Confronting the behavior of experienced Zen monks, and the lack of belief system, easy answers do not materialize. No respite is offered. We are told to simply sit in position, breathe, and follow the room exhaling in tandem.
These sitting periods compound our questions. Zen deals with these questions in surprising ways. It does not deny their importance for the spiritual seeker. Rather, it sees them as superficial and incomplete. Zen does not succumb to grand theories. Its questions arc interminably with no explanation of existence as a guarantee. Many metaphysics amount to a story we have provided for ourselves, and little more.
Gazing into our thought for long enough gradually reveals our ignorance. The Koan is one of Zen’s most important tools in helping to show us this. Since the mind hungers for explanation and security, the koan seems confusing on the surface. Continued practice, however, reveals their depth and breadth.
The Koan may display some of Zen’s insights in action, or present us with a situation to which we are asked to respond. They grab us and our base assumptions by the throat. Many Zen koans that I have read place emphasis on one’s present, concrete reality. That moment is a source of freedom, explanation, or experience. These koans are directing our attention to that moment:
Yuezhou Qianfeng was once asked by a monastic, ‘Bhagavans in the ten directions have one path to the gate of nirvana. I wonder, what is the path?’
Yuezhou drew a line with his staff and said, ‘It’s right here.’
Discussions such as these are attempting to approach the student in way that does not appeal to reductionist, idealistic thinking. Masters try to show us this in experiential ways. Rather than getting entrenched in a discussion on gradations or paths, Yuezhou hits the student with a physical, embodied answer. This is displayed in Zen literature frequently. An example of this, from Cultivating the Empty Field, utilizes a gorgeous description of natural detail:
A person of the Way fundamentally does not dwell anywhere. The white clouds are fascinated with the green mountain’s foundation. The bright moon cherishes being carried along with the flowing water. The clouds part and the mountain appears. The moon sets and the water is cool. Each bit of autumn contains vast interpenetration without bounds. (41-42)
The present that Zen teachers want us to appreciate is not capable of being fully understood. Beneath our opinions is something immense, which can be intuited through examination. Unknowing is explicitly demonstrated in Shitou’s “Ask the Pillar”:
Shitou was once asked by a monastic, ‘What is the significance of Bodhidharma’s coming from India?’
Shitou said, ‘Ask the pillar.’
The monastic said, ‘I don’t understand it.’
Shitou said, ‘I don’t understand it either.’
Integral to this understanding is what has been referred to as suchness. Suchness does not designate a stable entity that we close ourselves around. It reflects our intuition into a more consistent effort. Zen teacher Taigen Dan Leighton elaborates on how this word describes an adjustable, engaged practice:
Known in Sanskrit as tathata, this suchness is described in Indian Buddhism as ultimate truth, reality, the source, or the unattainable. Experientially, this suchness might imply the direct apprehension of the immediate present reality, harking back to early Buddhist mindfulness practices of bare attention. So, in varying contexts suchness may refer to our clear perception of reality, or else to the nature of that reality itself. (9)
No codification can hold us at this point. Suchness is to practice at the precipice, existing in transformation. As described in a line of the Four Great Vows: Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them. Dharma gates demonstrate the truth, allowing us to awaken in every lineament of the entire world.
A grove of trees invites us in. They speak in melodies, in the thrum of sun and wind, and the throb of blood in universal channels. This time we brim with compassion for all things. Reality fills itself in a newly imagined flood, each act merely a beginning. Our center dissipates throughout the universe and we come once more to unknowing. For when we really begin to question, all dividing lines begin to crack. Thoughts, opinions, and beliefs become like gossamer strands.
As streams of fluid chaos, we navigate what we are in every sensation. Zen takes hold of this movement, and everything flourishes without our understanding.