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Barbara O'Brien

Zhaozhou Wakes Up; Wu-men Comments

By September 22, 2012

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Following up the last post and continuing with the  Zen koan "Ordinary Mind Is the Tao," case 19 of the Mumonkan  -- the main case of the koan concludes with Nanquan saying,

"Tao does not belong to knowing or to not-knowing. Knowing is illusion; not-knowing is blankness. If you really attain to Tao of no-doubt, it is like the great void, so vast and boundless. How, then, can there be right or wrong in the Tao?" At these words, Zhaozhou was suddenly enlightened.

How did those words cause enlightenment? If you were doing Rinzai-style koan introspection under the guidance of a teacher, part of the process would be presenting your understanding of the koan to your teacher. You would have to show the teacher what you realize, and what Zhaozhou realized.

And no, I'm not going to try to explain what Zhaozhou realized. The best I can do is explain a bit about the koan tradition.

It's said (I never tried it myself) that if you begin your presentation with "I think the koan means ...," the teacher will immediately end the interview by ringing a bell. So, while there might be no right or wrong in the Tao, there is right and wrong in the dokusan room.

Instead of "right or wrong," Robert Aitken Roshi's translation reads, "How can this be discussed at the level of affirmation or negation?" We can't say it is; we can't say it isn't. We can't say.

This "we can't say" is a big barrier for many of us, me included. We're raised with the idea that anything that is real can be explained with words. In Zen, words are sometimes seen as traps and snares that we get caught in.

Some Zen teachers actually have criticized Nanquan for saying too much in this koan. According to Zenkei Shibayama, "Master Hakuin criticizes Nansen [Nanquan], saying 'I do not like such grandmotherly mildness. He ought to beat Joshu [Zhaozhou] severely, without a word.'" Even Robert Aitken Roshi commented that the koan is unusually discursive, for a koan.

If a koan can't be explained with words, how do you present it to a teacher? You might gesture or shout, or sit silently.  Or, you might use words in a poetic, presentational way. The next part of the koan is an example of this.

The Mumonkan got its name because it is a collection of koans compiled by a monk named Mumon, or Wu-men in Chinese. And Wu-men added his own commentary -- "Questioned by Zhaozhou, Nanquan lost no time in showing the smashed tile and melted ice, where no explanation is possible."

Zenkei Shibayama explained that Wu-men is warning "truth-seekers, who are liable to fall into intellectual interpretation that the true ordinary mind can never be fully expounded in words."

Wu-men continues, "Even though Zhaozhou may be enlightened, he can truly get it only after studying for thirty more years." According to Shibayama, the "thirty years" does not refer to a fixed length of time; it really means "indefinitely." Wu-men is saying that the training never ends.

The Rinzai and Soto schools approach koans differently, and each approach has its strengths and weakness. The strength of Rinzai, I believe,  is that it gives practice an edge and keeps it from getting mushy. It's a great antidote to the wrong-headed belief that Zen is just a nice philosophy or a stress-reduction practice. Anyone who thinks that way would do well to spend time with masters Nansen and Zhaozhou.

Next post: The capping verse.

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