Zen Koan Discussion: “Linji’s Four Realms”

In the Zen tradition, koans are used as direct expressions of the truth of Zen. Examining the words of masters past allow koans to take on an awesome depth and join us on our inquiry to help guide us. Koans are a challenge to look at their truth for ourselves without turning away from our humanity. We can use them to come to our own understanding of Zen’s “Only Don’t Know,” an unraveling of our most basic assumptions and ways of looking at the world.

Looking at koans, I was initially confused and couldn’t really make sense out of them. A daily sitting practice has gradually shown me that koan answers are so precisely tuned that it’s easy to overlook them. Instead of molding koans to try to fit our expectations of them, we have to look at the koan and try to understand it on its own terms.

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The koan collection Entangling Vines, translated by Thomas Yuho Kirchner, is one the of the most valuable koan references I’ve found. It’s packed with intriguing details that enhance the original text, as well as a fantastic translation. I haven’t finished the whole book yet, but it has steadily become my favorite koan collection. One of the koans featured in Entangling Vines that struck me recently is called “Linji’s Four Realms.” After some biographical details, we’ll take a look at the main text of the koan, and discuss how it locks together to form an organic whole. Linji’s economy with his teaching is astounding, and he covers a lot of ground in a short span of time.

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According to Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and their Teaching by Andy Ferguson, Linji was the founder of the Rinzai school of Zen.

Linji Yixuan (d. 866) was a disciple of Huangbo Xiyun. Linji is a preeminent figure in the history of Zen. He came from the city of Nashua in ancient Caozhou (now the city of Dongming in Shandong Province). As the founder of the Linji school of Zen (in Japanese, Rinzai), his tradition remains, along with the Caodong school, as one of the two lineages that survive to the present day.
After taking the vows of a monk, Linji studied the sutras, the Vanaya, and the various doctrines that were carried on the currents of Buddhism in his era. Although he practiced under Guishan Lingyou, his enlightenment came about under Huangbo Xiyun, with the teacher Gao’an Dayu a key player in the drama.
 (173)

And according to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (PDB), koans such as these are extremely important to the Rinzai tradition:

[Rinzai was] one of the major Japanese Zen schools established in the early Kamakura period . . . After the decline of the Gowan monasteries, the Otokan lineage came to dominate the Rinzai Zen tradition during the Edo period and was the only Rinzai line to survive to the present. Despite the presence of such influential monks as Takuan Soho and Bankei Yotaku, the Rinzai tradition began to decline by the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. The monk credited with revitalizing the Rinzai tradition during the Edo period is the Myoshinji monk Hakuin Ekaku. Hakuin systematized the koan method of meditation, which is the basis of modern Rinzai Zen practice; it is also through Hakuin and his disciples that most Rinzai masters of today trace their lineages. (715)

The information on Linji quoted in the Ferguson volume contains a story about Linji’s interviews with monks Dayu and Huangbo. The first part of the story involves Linji asking for the dharma teaching in various ways. He only gets hit in response. I’ve included some of the text here for reference:

When Linji reached Dayu, Dayu said ‘Where have you come from?’
Linji said, ‘from Huangbo.’
Dayu said, ‘What did Huangbo say?’
Linji said, ‘Three times I asked him about the essential doctrine and three times I got hit.  I don’t know if I made some error or not.’
Dayu said, ‘Huangbo has old grandmotherly affection and endures all this difficulty for your sake-and here you are asking whether you’ve made some error or not.’
Upon hearing these words, Linji was awakened.
(174-175)

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Now let’s see the main text of “Linji’s Four Realms” taken from Entangling Vines:

Someone asked Linji, “What are the four realms of no-form?” The master said, “A thought of doubt in your mind and you’re obstructed by the element of earth; a thought of desire in your mind and you drown in the element water; a thought of anger in your mind and you’re scorched by the element fire; a thought of joy in your mind and you’re blown about by the element wind.”  Understand this, however, and you will no longer be tossed about by circumstances; instead you will utilize them wherever you go. You can appear in the east and vanish in the west, appear in the south and vanish in the north, appear in the center and vanish at the border, appear at the border and vanish in the center. You can walk on the water as though it is land and walk on the land as though it is water.  Why can you do these things? Because you realize that the four elements are like dreams, like illusions. (Kindle Version, loc  4848)

Like many koans, “Linji’s Four Realms” is structured in a question and answer format. In the first part of the koan, Linji is asked the question, “what are the four realms of no-form?” The question is used as a springboard to address Zen’s concerns in an honest and direct fashion. The question is usually set up to indicate that the student is looking for some kind of doctrinal answer, or is seeking clarification on some area of Buddhist doctrine. Linji twists this question around and breaks it down. The question also indicates the artistry called for in these responses, as the master uses the question to create something new and interesting, while still broadly reflecting the Zen tradition as a whole.

In the next part of the koan, Linji uses the concept of “four realms of no-form” and creates an outline based on the student’s question that uses doubt, desire, anger, and joy. This outline is used to show the student their own mind, and the consequences of thinking and feeling in certain ways. When we have thoughts of doubt, desire, anger, or joy, those thoughts suffuse our actions and we enact the corresponding state of mind. Since we have examined anger a little bit in a previous article, let’s use desire as an example of what Linji is talking about.

When we look into desire, several components of the experience come immediately to mind. There is an abstract longing for the desired object, in which we fantasize about situations with that object, and how by acquiring it we will make our current experience happier or more meaningful. There is a tendency, at least in my own experience, to abstract out the problems associated with acquiring and keeping the object. Desire perpetuates itself through any objects that exist at hand, and can readily shift between them. There is also a corresponding sensation that is stimulating or enthralling, like a compulsion that moves us closer to the object.

Based on this examination, we can see how when we fully give ourselves over to desire, according to Linji we “drown in the element water.” Once this happens, we no longer see the ephemeral basis of desire and drown in its elemental nature. Linji’s succinct analysis indicates that forms such as desire are unfounded, and in fact are empty as discussed in Buddhist texts such as the Heart Sutra. By showing us that emptiness is in fact the fabric of our own minds, Linji gives us the key to pulling down the entire structure. He ties this point into the last segment of the koan, how insight into this empty nature of thought helps us respond to change.

In the next sentence, Linji says that “you will no longer be tossed about by circumstances; instead you will utilize them wherever you go.” Once we see into the empty nature of mind and constant change, we no longer have to rely on rigidly controlling situations or relying on external situations for happiness. One of the realms of reality that Buddhism describes is the “realm of hungry ghosts,” in addition to “hell denizens, animals, and sometimes demigods or titans” (PDB, 677).  Read metaphorically, we are no longer hungry ghosts that chase after the ephemerality of our own minds. We become much more capable of utilizing the intelligence of situations to help others and ourselves.

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This is why Linji says we can “appear in the east and vanish in the west.” Understanding this passage was informed by my own deepening process of self-observation. Closely noticing my own behavior, I could no longer believe in a necessity to the way I did many things. My approaches were often limited and sometimes arrogant if they did not allow for change. For example, at my job my skill set was a mix of approaches built over time. Some of these I had fine tuned to deal with many of the problems that arise at work and take the form of flexible programs. Many others were subjective, allowed within the wide scope of the job but not correct in any absolute sense. Some of my methods seemed more neurotic, entangled with a variety of personal and idiosyncratic details and repeated only for their own sake.

Over time, I have used these insights to broaden my own situational awareness and change my behavior as needed. Within these situations a tremendous amount of potential exists. Knowing this can result in a much more childlike, playful sense of existence. We can do things that seem unlikely because we are no longer relying on following rigid lines of behavior. We can break out of these boundaries as needed while still understanding the value of rules and obligations to social life. After this, Linji says that “[we] can walk on the water as though it is land and walk on the land as though it is water.” Linji reflects this childlike attitude through playing with the concepts of land and water.

In the last sentence of the koan, Linji says “why can you do these things? Because you realize that the four elements are like dreams, like illusions.” It’s as if we thought that elements such as desire, anger, joy, and sorrow were the proper way to live our lives. We spent our time patterning things after their structure. But what if we want to experience a different dream? Can we see through Dogen’s “colors of the mind” to the thing that interlinks us all? Can we do this, through our own efforts and with the help of Zen students of the past and present?

Let’s pursue this question fully, with the help of koans such as these, to realize our true capabilities and our identity with the boundless universe.

Salvation in Flux

And though it is like this, it is only that flowers, while loved, fall; and weeds while hated, flourish.
-Eihei Dogen

I sigh when I see learned men
Wasting their minds all day
Babbling away at a fork in the road
Deceiving whoever they can
Creating more ballast for Hell
Instead of improving their karma
Impermanence suddenly comes
And all their learning is dust
– Pickup

Impermanence means that our perception and experience don’t stay in one place, but always remain in flux. The fluidity of phenomena, self, and agency are painful, so we try to cling to the walls of the dilapidated house we have built for ourselves in our own minds. Failing to see this fact for ourselves, we enter and inhabit elaborate fantasies, looking for salvation in something beyond change. Impermanence guts our opinions and gradually corrodes everything that we believe to be true.

Our minds serve to erect a kind of illusion that does not take the fact of impermanence into account. It frequently tries to uphold a static idea of self. Archaic attitudes we are raised with do little to help this situation. They place us further inside the morass by attempting to give us stable definitions of words like “self” and “other.” Thankfully, meditative practice is an antidote to these limited ways of understanding. The more we sense instability, the more we are able to see on a deeper level than we typically perceive.

Nothing seems to fully inhere on that level of change as concepts, acts, and agents are plucked from the void and thrown into the stream. Seeing into universal change has implications for our freedom. It allows us to go into what we experience with an inquisitive attitude and open eyes. It is beginning to swim from a our own small tributary into something abyssal and endlessly fluctuating.

Flux allows things to bloom, as there is no possibility in a static world. Infinite openings exist within that watery confluence of events, allowing us chances to act, to change ourselves, and to help influence all creation. The more we penetrate through to the core of things, the more we find something surprisingly malleable and contingent.  Contingency and change in the moment allows new choices to be discovered and mined. Aided in our perception of that change, we can respond in ways that free ourselves and benefit other beings.

It is through an understanding of impermanence, and the doors to action that it creates, where we come to the edge of choice. Here is where we discover what it means to be truly moral. That moral choice is something that requires the entire arc of our lives to appreciate and fulfill.

Similar ways of understanding exist in the Kabbalistic masterwork The Zohar. As described in The Zohar, Torah is infinite. The central characters known as the Companions participate in what scholar Melila Hellner-Eshed describes as “the nocturnal delight.” Waking at midnight, this group makes creative interpretations of Torah. The Companions connect passages from Torah amongst themselves in incredible, gravity-defying ways. These connections reveal each verse’s secret meanings. In doing so, the divine is evoked and its joy in the good that the Companions bring flows into the world. Hellner-Eshed’s writes:

The engagement with Torah after midnight and the endeavor to participate, day in and day out, in the nocturnal delight in the Garden of Eden lie at the core of the mystic’s service and worship; and it is this spiritual task that determines his way of life and his soul’s orientation . . .

The following passage, one of the most detailed accounts of the nocturnal delight found in the Zohar, highlights the interconnection between the events transpiring in the upper world and those transpiring below. The souls of human beings, together with their words of Torah-the fruit of their thoughts and emotions-are transformed into a gift bestowed by the Assembly of Israel to the blessed Holy One.They function as an aphrodisiac arousing the union between God and His Shekhinah. The delight is characterized by the arousal of the entire reality of the Lower Garden of Eden-with with light, song, joy, and play preceding the dawn union.

Rabbi Abba said, “Now is certainly the time for the blessed Holy One’s desire; and many times we have been aroused by this, that at midnight the blessed Holy One enters among the righteous in the Garden of Eden and delights in them. Happy is he who engages in Torah at this time!” Rabbi El’azar said,” How does the blessed Holy One delight in the righteous in the Garden of Eden? At midnight the blessed Holy One is aroused with love from the left [side] toward the Assembly of Israel…. and the Assembly of Israel has no gift with which to draw near to the king, nor any important, excellent [offering] like the spirits of the righteous that the blessed Holy One sees crowned with many good deeds and many merits attained that day. And the blessed Holy One is more pleased with them than with all the sweet savor of the sacrifices and offerings. Then a light shines and all the trees of the Garden of Eden utter song and the righteous are crowned there with the delights of the world that is coming. When a person arises at that hour to engage Torah, he partakes with the righteous in the garden.” (Zohar 2:173b)

There is a connection between the “world that is coming,” from the preceding passage, the fluctuating present of the Kabbalists, and the Four Great Vows of the Buddhist tradition. The vows are:

The many beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly, I vow to abandon them
Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them
The Buddha way is uncontrived, I vow to embody it fully.

Every night the Kabbalist restores harmony and creates blessings.  The world is always in need of the Companions’ righteousness. Similarly, every moment the Buddhist practitioner discovers truth and corresponding action. This is the opportunity couched within decay that flows into the new. The need to fulfill these vows, and to help heal ourselves and others, is never ending .

Of Itself So

From birth to death, it’s just like this!
-Zen Koan

So much of the spiritual path involves trying to escape, to spend ourselves on the rocks of effort, to transcend time and space. We want to escape to a place without sin and where we can live forever. The answer that eludes us lies encased in a journey to the top of an inner mountaintop, filled with dangerous excursions, roaming beasts, and the real potential of insanity. If only we can master instructions provided to us, the veil will finally lift and allow us into the sanctum. Then we will know the secret, or acquire magical powers, or ascend to whatever place we feel we need to get to.

This often begins the start of the religious journey. The false Teacher or Guru may only be too happy to give us what we think we want. Their eyes shine like a shark’s, full of sleek and ancient hunger. They tell us what they’ve discovered and how they can grant it to the elect. Instead, they’ve only scratched the surface of their own obsidian core. In order to fully realize ourselves, we have to look squarely and intensely at our own desires, including the desire for enlightenment. It is this desire which spurs us on, eventually to be undermined as we look at the assumptions that motivate our seeking.

In philosophy, the word immanence is invoked in contrast to the idea of transcendence. Rather than any external, reality manifests through itself. Immanence is reality as it is here, of itself so.

It is difficult to find the right language to describe the relationship between dao and human beings. The dao is not external, so it is not a matter of getting or reaching it, and it is not an object that could be grasped. Since the self-so spontaneity to which dao refers is always present, what is required is a negative process of removing obstacles. Ziran is what remains if we free ourselves from striving and conventional goals. Thus this same process is described as wuwei 無為, which literally means “lacking action” but refers to giving up striving and effort. The Zhuangzi gives another example, the “fasting of the heart/mind” (xinzhai 心齋) that allows us to rely directly on vital energy (qi) and respond spontaneously to whatever appears before us.
– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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A religious teacher worthy of our time will help us explore reality for ourselves. Any claims should be greeted with investigation on our part. It is time we acknowledge that religious teachers are not chosen or above us. They have developed their own unique genius and can show us how to do this too. We merely invest ourselves in them, hoping for an answer even though we all remain in the dark.

The idea of a chosen few is an all too convenient narrative that works at cross purposes with the religious experience. It not only brings up the forces and structures that prevent us from accessing our own liberation. It changes us from constantly seeking something which does not include us, or which we lack and must possess, to dwelling in the thatness which is all things. This feeling is of an incredible span of intelligence which is part of all things and occupies the same ground. This incredibly subtle feeling continues as we meditate, until we find ourselves always “in the hand of the absolute.”

This is a problem with religions that claim we have to absorb baffling and complex ideas. Instead, they point our own reality back at us, “through a speculum that shines.” Seeing this completely has little to do with the opinions of others, let alone our own. How could the multiplicity of perspective, feeling, and the beyond be limited to the thoughts of our stinking skin bag?

The realization of the Buddhist patriarchs is perfectly realized real form . . . What has been called ‘forms as they are‘ is not a single form, and form as it is is not a uniform reality as it is: it is countless, boundless, inexhaustible, and unfathomable reality as it is.
– Eihei Dogen, Shoho-Jisso (69)

This is not an answer that can be taken by force, but attuned to closely as it is given freely. It is also not an answer that we can look to as separate from anything we do. We can see everything, let it unfold, and realize that unfolding. The moment is inextricable with all that you are. Look to it, and its profundity, as the ground from which you spring, like a tree erupting forth from space itself. It is just like this, the mysterious Dao, the powers of chopping wood and carrying water that no one understands.

The Unbounded in Creativity, Ethics, and Philosophy

The tree of life is precisely in the middle of the garden, conveying all waters of Creation, branching below, for that flowing, gushing river spreads into the garden, whence waters branch in many directions. Receiving them all is the ocean, from which they emerge in numerous streams below, as is said: watering all beasts of the field (Psalms 104:11). Just as they emerge from that world above, watering those towering mountains of pure balsam, subsequently upon reaching the tree of life, they branch below by paths in every direction.
– The Zohar

Broadly understood, meditation and spirituality ask for exacting individual scrutiny. We uncover the dark soil inside, leaving nothing untouched by contemplation. Here we find something seething, gibbering, and incredibly complex. This complexity, vibrating in time, destroys any chance we may have of a reality that conforms to our expectations, plans, and ideas. However, this is simultaneously a rent that allows us to choose new moments and new questions. This feeling of universal complexity and change has revised my understanding of the human domains of creativity, ethics, and philosophy. I would like to explore how this has occurred and how it helps illuminate our own capabilities. This is found in every moment: participation in raw creation with the entire universe.

Paying attention to our experience can result in the apprehension of universal unfolding. Eihei Dogen referred to that state as “the flowering of the unbounded,” using the metaphor of “flowering” to describe the persistent expression of all phenomena. He describes the flowering of space as part of Buddhist truth in his essay, The Flowering of the Unbounded. Alternately translated as “Flowers in Space,” this essay ranks among other essays in Shobogenzo as some of the most significant contributions ever made to global religious literature. Dogen describes these blossoms as follows:

Seeking the radiance and form of this blossoming is what your investigation through your training should be all about. What Bodhidharma calls ‘the resulting fruit’ is something that one leaves to the fruit: he describes this as ‘what naturally comes about of itself’. ‘What naturally comes about of itself’ is his term for mastering causes and being conscious of effects. There are the causes of the whole universe and there are the effects of the whole universe; there is our mastering the causes and effects of this whole universe and there is our being conscious of the causes and effects of this whole universe. One’s natural self is oneself. This self, to be sure, is ‘you’, that is to say, it is the four elements and the five skandhas of which you are comprised. Because Bodhidharma is allowing for ‘a true person devoid of any rank’, he is not referring to a specific ‘I’ or to some ‘other’. Therefore, that which is indefinable is what he is calling ‘a self ’. This natural state of ‘being as it is’ is what he is acknowledging. The natural state of ‘being as one is’ is the time when the Single Blossom opens and Its fruit results: it is the occasion when the Dharma is Transmitted and one is rescued from one’s delusions.It is within this context that the World-honored One spoke of the flowerings within Unbounded Space . . .

On the other hand, those folks who pay attention to very little and see even less are unaware that petals and blossoms with their varied hues and brilliance are to be found within everything . . . Only the Buddhas and Ancestors have known about the blossoming and falling of the flowers of Unbounded Space as well as that of earthly flowers. Only They have known of such things as the blossoming and falling of the flowers within the human world. Only They have known that such things as the flowers in Unbounded Space, earthly flowers, and the flowers within the human world are all Scriptures; this is the standard by which we investigate what Buddha is. Because what has been taught by the Buddhas and Ancestors is this flowering of Unbounded Space, the realm of Buddha and the Teachings of Buddhas are therefore synonymous with the flowerings of Unbounded Space. (Shasta Abbey Translation, 554-555)

This feeling emerged more strongly the more I practiced and reflected, and concepts cannot do it justice. The blossoming of space mentioned by Dogen is around us, continuing the primordial creation. Light dapples on every surface, constellating itself into beautiful shapes. Each breath effloresces with every mouth speaking in tongues. Experience points back to itself within the foam of becoming.

The moments in that experience frequently shift its potentials. New frontiers branch in innumerable crystalline patterns. Existence pulsates with creative discoveries as we are delivered over to a sweeping movement beyond ourselves. Creativity itself seems to follow this free-form growth. Associations reach out and interpenetrate as unique opportunities present themselves. Returning different each time, creativity sloughs itself and redounds. Creation simultaneously embraces and presses against barriers and divisions of every kind. This is what it means to be a creative agent -choosing, enacting, flowing like a spring. We are an “infinite ocean of effulgence” and these choices matter, given unceasing weight and force.

There are authoritarian strains that slither into our minds, offering us transcendence. They attempt to install their own process as the sole operation, attracting converts and changing them into vectors. The result is their world as the logos, of their opinions becoming the basis of shared reality. What is not discussed is that these beliefs and methods are a haphazard creation like any other. The construction of experiments, interpretation, and chance turns all contribute to the process. Anomalies make every situation unique.

However, what if we wish to return to the process to obtain another result? The author’s continued mining of their own potential creates their style. However, since these can naturally be limiting, the author may need to transform themselves again and again. There is always the chance of removing artistic limits and crashing the gates of what we had only assumed. Rekindling the act of creation is a fire that inheres in every form. The surface moves like a porous net, sliding us through into being, carrying us to the other shore.

Art is the minister of nature, nature is the daughter of time.
– The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz

Authors and musicians are not the only ones who can be considered creatives. We all create, in the sense that our actions take on their own life and effect others. Although meditation helps us dispense with a continuous, transcendent law, it seems that the more we notice the effect of our actions the more important they become. Our actions embrace all existence. Every cruel word or deed fashions itself into a crown of thorns for us to bear, nailing others to a possible cross of suffering.

We must take responsibility for the reality we are helping to make. The importance of ethical behavior in this regard becomes even more clear. Seeing events growing in time like a child, our ethical needs may change in an instant. Ethics emerges spontaneously, with branches into other configurations of experience. It is therefore important to question our own assumptions about the behavior of others, as humans are not carved out of our ideals. We cannot expect a person to act similarly in any given moment. However, if we look in the present to see the individual needs of others, we may have a better idea how to proceed.

In unbounded space, philosophy also takes on a different meaning. Since philosophy reflects on and engages existence, it buds out of dynamism, creating different ways of understanding. Other forms of culture help philosophy reinvent itself at each stage of development. Philosophy embodies the unbounded through a liberation of its own refractory potential. Explanations become multivalent, capable of changing themselves depending on one’s perspective and situation.

Philosophy can order or deform depending on its conceptual applications. The complexity of universal processes have no need for uniformity. Each person may have individual desires that allow for unique solutions. To create a “perennial” philosophy relevant for all times and persons thus seems unnecessary. Other elements of the cosmos may remain, eclipsed in unknowing, or utilized in unpredictable ways. Philosophy “opens the sieve to allow chaos in,” if chaos becomes a placeholder for disintegration and freedom past the bounds of our conception.

Unbounded space is this freedom at its purest. The universe consumes, alters, and expands its own connections simultaneously. These connections create unique spaces for diversity and accession, which we are able to partake in. This is the freedom found in ethics, philosophy, and any creative enterprise we set in motion. To find this freedom to create is part of our potential, as well as that of the unbounded, blossoming forth as time and space.

A Hammer to Strike the Earth, A Scream to Rend the Sky

Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, and even on the Mount, nothing.   – St. John of the Cross 

A monk asked Chao-chou, ‘has the dog buddha nature or not?’
Chao-chou said, ‘Mu.’

Mu is a hammer to strike the earth and a scream to rend the sky.  It is an open palm, a thunderclap, and a bank of foaming clouds.  Most of all, it is simply MuSimple, direct, and profound, Mu invites the student to fully experience their own existence.  It is not something that can be expressed through familiar territories.  Instead, it distorts and undermines our own certain foundations.

Although it means “no,” or “negation,” Mu resists all of our attempts at easy definition.  Once taken on by a student, the intellect scrabbles for a foothold.  Generating this tension we arrive at the Great Barrier.  The teacher will not let us pass without a reply, and we throw ourselves headlong into Mu’s great ocean. The teacher, understanding what we are attempting to do, summarily rejects all of our answers.

The monk in the koan is ourselves, always grasping at an authoritative interpretation of reality.  Mu only flows through our fingers like sand.  We strain for an answer, the understanding examining the question from every angle, drawing up vast schematics.   The mind seeks its limits in scripture, philosophy, and previous experience, dredging up former skeletons from their graves.

In our practice, we bring a mountain of speculation, hoping to set our lives upon a new system, and fashion a new set of chains to bind ourselves.

In a sense the unlimited assemblage is the impossible.  It takes courage and stubbornness not to go slack.  Everything invites one to drop the substance for the shadow, to forsake the open and impersonal movement of thought for the isolated opinion.  – Georges Bataille

The more the intellect attempts to ground Mu, the more it finds uncertain purchase.  The student has reached a point where they cannot proceed.  The trail veers off in uncertain directions.  We lift our gaze and look upward.  The answer stares us in the eyes, and reaches out its hand to touch our own.

The Mu koan is an embodiment of Zen practice. It doesn’t dwell in bounded concepts but in its very incomprehensibility.  Rather than giving the student a system to assimilate, it draws the seeker deeper into their own lives.  There is no fixed abode, and like life, Mu admits of unparalleled inventiveness.  Rather than parroting old responses, Mu asks us to display a new understanding, rooted in the newness of each moment of experience.  Free from our concepts, we are pulled into each new moment divested of the past.

Eihei Dogen expressed this understanding in one of his discourses on practice-realization. He indicates this using startlingly direct language.

It is not in the realm of ordinary people or sages.  Thus it can neither be measured by the intellect of those who are wise, nor guessed at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge.  Neither can it be discussed by the intellect of those who are beyond wise, nor can it be arrived at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge beyond knowledge.  Rather it is buddha ancestors’ practice-realization, skin, flesh, bones, marrow, eyeball, fist, top of the head, nostril, staff, whisk, leaping away from making.

Mu explicates itself atop mountains, deep in the earth, and everywhere.  It is bound up in all our responses to the questions of life.  The ideas of past and future cannot encapsulate the moment as it swells outward in all directions.  The complex situations of life cannot be done justice by discursive thought.  Mu gestures us towards what Dae Gak has called “the power of possibility in the unknown” :

The nature of all existence is change.  This does not mean change into the familiar, but in spite of the familiar into the unknown.  This is the heart essence of Mu practice.  This is the bone of these Mu ashes left by JoJu for us to investigate, to manifest again and again, and make vibrant and brand new, alive.

As we throw ourselves headlong into Mu, we notice the question becoming more transparent, until that question arises to embrace everything that is.  It is this ambiguity that we carry with us throughout our lives, always unresolved, incessantly questioning, beating like a heart.

Bring this question forward, until doubt infects your whole being, and Mu runs through the veins and arteries of the world.

Nothing to Attain

I have been trying to get back to the local Zen Center every week, after a short hiatus. We do 50 minutes of Zazen (seated meditation), combined with some chanting and Kinhin (walking meditation). After the practice, some of us were talking in the kitchen and a student (I unfortunately can’t remember her name, all credit due to her) asked a pretty insightful question referencing the Heart Sutra and practice in general. This question was along the lines of: “If there is no attainment and nothing to attain, why do we sit?” I think this is a pretty common question that arises as we sit, especially as we continue to grow in our practice and the discursive mind begins to seek answers to questions such as these.

A similar question supposedly motivated Eihei Dogen in his own process of inquiry:

As I study both the exoteric and the esoteric schools of Buddhism, they maintain that human beings are endowed with Dharma-nature by birth. If this is the case, why did the Buddhas of all ages – undoubtedly in possession of enlightenment – find it necessary to seek enlightenment and engage in spiritual practice? (Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, 22).

This is a profoundly challenging question. If we are the very embodiment of truth and enlightenment is an expression of our original nature why do we sit in Zazen? Is this like the koan where we are polishing a tile to make a mirror?

Let us examine the passage from the Heart Sutra the student is referencing and then I’ll try to give you my understanding of this.

The passage (taken from Red Pine’s translation) is:

No suffering, no source, no relief, no path;
No knowledge, no attainment and non-attainment.
Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment;
Bodhisttavas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
And live without walls of the mind.

The Heart Sutra is an essential Buddhist text that directly inclines us to the heart of truth. This is the truth of our lives, of the present, and of reality. Buddhism is realistic, and derives directly from lived experience. It is a very concrete approach to truth that is not limited to any particular concept or metaphysic. In our meditative practice, the concepts we form about reality begin to fall away, and the immeasurable complexity and richness of the world become starkly apparent. We no longer have to relegate the whole of the world to our opinions about it, and no longer need to take refuge in systems and frameworks of our own devising.

The Heart Sutra is thus a critique of these concepts, and proceeds to negate each in turn. Proceeding through “no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind;” and come to “no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment.” The present opens, teeming with life.  It becomes clear that reality is unfettered by the symbols we traditionally use to describe that experience. Throughout our practice we begin to see our concepts as fundamentally incomplete. We “live without walls of the mind,” open to the boundless possibilities for action in each moment. A vast field opens up, and we become more flexible and fluid.

The Heart Sutra is thus an antidote to our mind’s constantly seeking security in concepts such as “attainment.” When we say that we will “attain” enlightenment, we divorce ourselves from the present reality. We project enlightenment into a state in the abstract, that will be realized in the future.

Asking what exactly we mean when we use concepts such as englightenment can help us as we look into ourselves.  Taking apart this question and exploring it should be gone into deeply and taken to the end.

At the same time, we will not be able to understand the feelings that gave rise to works such as the Heart Sutra without a regular meditative practice. This is similar to how no amount of reading, writing, and intellectualizing about fitness will make someone a stronger athlete. One must begin by looking into the particulars of their own situation. We sit in order to aid us in this process of inquiry, as sitting is one method that allows us to investigate our reality. This understanding will not be brought into our lives without some kind of practice. An example of this is brought out in Genjokoan:

Mayu, Zen Master Baoche, was fanning himself. A monk approached and said ‘Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then, do you fan yourself?’
‘Although you understand that the nature of wind is permanent,’ Mayu replied, ‘you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.’
‘What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?’ asked the monk.
Mayu just kept fanning himself.
The monk bowed deeply.

The actualization of the buddha dharma, the vital path of its authentic transmission, is like this. If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind. The nature of wind is permanent; because of that, the wind of the buddha house brings forth the gold of the earth and ripens the cream of the long river.

This passage describes and directly points to actualization and action in the present moment, the becoming-real of the monk’s interaction. In our practice, we bring this understanding and appreciation for action into our lives. Sitting in Zazen helps us to see this with more clarity. It is important to remember that there is “nothing to attain” even as we do our best to practice. In this way we always come back to and appreciate whatever is arising in our lives in the present moment, without arbitrarily separating ourselves in thought. Paradoxically, we attempt to attain something in order to realize there is nothing to attain (in the way we have conceptualized it) and begin to feel the truth of it for ourselves.  Zazen helps us remember the truth of who and what we are.

We embody this understanding, always coming back to the present and caring for this reality. This is the beauty, completeness, and blossoming forth of our own lives.