The Record of Dongshan, fascicle 30

[Teisho given during Zen Group of WA Sesshin in Perth, WA. January 2017]


When Shenshan had picked up a needle to mend clothes, the Master said, “What are you doing?”

“Mending.” answered Shenshan.

“In what way do you mend?” asked the Master.

“One stitch is like the next.” said Shenshan.

“We’ve been travelling together for twenty years and you can still say such a thing! How can there be such craftiness?” said the Master

“How then does you’re the venerable monk mend?” asked Shenshan.

“Just as though the entire earth were spewing flame.” replied the Master.

Just as though the entire earth were spewing flame! A little daunting isn’t it?

Tonight’s koan is taken from the Record of Dongshan, a collection of 119 portrayals of dialogue and behaviour between teacher and student of the Way. For the first few fascicles Dongshan was the student, and later he was the teacher.

Dongshan lived in 9th century China and together with his disciple, his premiere disciple Caoshan are seen as the origin of the Caodong, or Soto, school of Zen. During Sesshin we chant the historical line of the Soto and Caodong ancestry in our first round of sutra dedications each morning and include Dongshan Liangjie out of recognition of his place in our lineage.

Caoshan Benji is remembered for his immense contribution and collaboration with Dongshan in the Five Ranks and the promulgation of that work. However the Caodong line however didn’t come down through Caoshan but through Dongshan’s other senior disciple, Yunju Daoying. Yunju’s was the only line from a total of 25 Dharma Heirs that continued through the centuries and reaches us here in this hall today.

So I want to look for a moment at what is a koan?

A koan is a direct invitation to mystery. The mystery of the juxtaposition of here you are, but who are you! Well, who are you? Really! Who are you? Beyond your story your labels your ideas, your identifications, who is that sits on your mat?

It is clear that we do. And yet when we try and find that one we seem to be able to only touch the things we seem to know about that one. This is part of the mystery that we come as, that we inherit.

Formally a koan is a point of inquiry that the Zen student wields to batter down or ease open their own delusions. Sometimes it can feel like battering at a door or a brick wall, only to find a gentle easing open rather than a shattering. Sometimes it’s a shattering. There is no fixed way here, just as there is no fixed way to you. We are organic. There is no fixed way. You are you.

So a koan is a tool to work with our delusion.

In the usual sense of delusion is ‘false thinking’ or ‘false confidence’ or at least it is in colloquial New Zealand language. “He’s absolutely deluded if he thinks he’ll make that shot”

In Zen delusion is particular. Delusion is the mistaken apprehension that I am in here and not I is out there beyond this border of skin. And that’s our genuine impression, it’s not an intellectual proposition. If I sit here and close my eyes, my kotsu sitting on the floor in front, I’m not aware of the shape and size of the kotsu, it’s independent. All the while we are utterly the body, the arising sensation events.

Even though this is normal, it’s the way we are as people; it’s also how we feel about ourselves. We feel like we are here.

There are a few very unfortunate instances were this is not the case but generally as people we have the feeling that we are here.

And we do need a border. If we are to uphold ourselves as discrete, distinct and specific, we need to be able to delineate and mark out a border to ourselves.

This isn’t haphazard, this is functional, it has purpose; we are social creatures. This didn’t just happen by accident I’m sure. We do have a border and a region that we have sovereignty over.

And that sense of sovereignty is over the aspects that we come as, that we are solely privy to. Aspects that nobody else has access to as this specific individual, you. You are the only one who feels your little finger sensation. You’re the only one who is aware of your thoughts. You may not be the only one who weathers the heat but you are the only one who feels it as your body. As we all do .

No one else feels the ache in your hands, the ache in your back, even as their hands ache or back hurts. We are sovereign in this territory.

Because this is sovereign territory, we identify with it as me. Naturally. What else are we going to do with it? We’re not going to think, ‘Oh I think this might be ..(not your name).. here.’ No. It’s clearly you, because it’s no one else. We say its me because it’s clearly no one else. Not because it is you, but because it is clearly no one else.

But this is delusion. It is not that way, it just seems so. Delusion or delude comes from Latin meaning ‘to play false’. Like to act falsely. To make a play of being false, to act falsely. So to treat all that seems to be inside of the skin covering as you is a false act. But a useful one. We are social creatures, we need it to be this way. But it’s a false act. Its partial, it’s misleading.

A koan is a tool we use to personally resolve this misleading impression.

Imagine if you could come into a Zen group and sit down and the teacher could snap the fingers and the misleading impression was gone and you’re enlightened on the spot. It is immediately clear that there is no one here and no need for anyone to be here and everything trucks along as if nothing had changed. How on earth would you deal with that?

Practice is not just to realize ourselves, it is to hold what we come to realize. This is really, really important.

So a koan is a tool we have to resolve this misleading impression we have of who we are, what we are, as this one here. It doesn’t resolve as some special way of thinking about ourselves and things, it really doesn’t. It doesn’t matter how careful and developed our analysis is, thinking won’t free us. It’s not personal, it’s just the wrong ground to work for resolving our sense of separateness.

And it doesn’t matter even if you have the ‘right answer’ to the koan. That still won’t cut it. In a sense a koan has no right answers, maybe even only wrong answers. At least it seems like that when we hear, “Not like that!” Dingggg-a-liinnngggg dingggg dingggg dinggggg…. And out we go, again.

But a koan has a point of resolution, and that resolution can be expressed. People mistakenly think that a koan is to be answered, like finding the answer to a clue; but the koan is there only for its resolution, which is your resolution. A koan works toward resolution; the resolution of you. And when the koan is resolved we can express that resolution to some degree for ourselves, which is the work of the dokusan room.

This is not an easy process, but to does not mean that it requires us to be hard in response. The difficulty of the koan is not something to harden ourselves against, but rather it leads to a softness, a permeability. However it does however require one thing, and one thing only, and this is absolutely unerring. It requires you and things to be exactly as you are as they are. Exactly. This is the gate of the Way. We don’t go about trying to make ourselves better in some contrived way so we can practice properly, we just know what to do (when we practice) and do it.

Every koan that is worthwhile stops us in our tracks. Completely stopped, utterly stuck! This mile high impenetrable barrier, being stopped, is the treasure and virtue of koan practice. This is where we do work. We don’t do the work that blossoms in realization by passing koans, we do the work by being stuck. It doesn’t feel like it but it is that Way. We are stopped because there is a fundamental barrier or impediment in ourselves. Actually not in ourselves, it is ourselves, our impression of who we are. There is a definite impediment and working with a koan is the work of resolving that impediment, resolving that barrier.

However it’s not like we know what we are resolving, we don’t. We can’t see it, we can’t apprehend it, we can’t really think about it, at least not usefully. We just know that we’re stuck and we’re trying and we just don’t get it. It’s difficult. It really does require perseverance.

What we resolve in terms of a barrier is a sense of inherent separation or another element that we hold as being necessary to being ourselves. This is not the realm of psychoanalysis or trying to figure something out. This is very very organic.

We can’t really get rid of these elements and attributes we hold to be necessary to be ourselves, we really can’t. And we don’t need to. It’s not about clearing out all the little edges and assumptions so you somehow cease to exist, not at all.

We can’t get rid of these things we hold to as me mainly because they’re imagined. There really is nothing to get rid of except our recreating what we hold ourselves to be. If we get rid of anything, we get rid of, or cease to have, the need to keep recreating ourselves. And in this way we become no one to be, which curiously leaves us most genuinely and freely being ourselves.

There is no one else to be here but you. And that doesn’t change, even if as you do. One thing we learn through zazen, through koan work, is how not to pick up these elements that we identify as me.

This applies to no longer playing the same story of how that person doesn’t like me, because of an argument 3 years ago, that always gets played each time that person is in our presence, as well as simply not redoing conversations we had or rehearsing ones we haven’t had or expect to have.

We become content with not having to play with the stories, the impressions; we become ok with not continuing to glorify them, with having to do something with them, and by inference, with our me.

We don’t need to fix that part of ourselves in some way. But if we discontinue the aggrandizing of self by no longer picking it up to play with, whatever it is, then what’s left?

The difficulty is that all this work is done in the dark. All we know when we’re sitting is our zazen, that we haven’t passed our koan, and that it’s difficult, and that I’m just not getting anywhere with it. That’s how the perception is for us. But if we’re applying ourselves to the practice, things are happening in the subterranean strata, underground. And they do happen.

Fruits of practice are real. When people absolutely fall in love with breath practice it’s beautiful. Their life changes. They have a resource to calm themselves when things are difficult, and often find a real peace that they never thought possible through the very functional work of breath practice. And it works because we are organic. We’re biological. It’s functional.

But still the work of our zazen happens predominantly in the dark. That is how the work proceeds. So how do we proceed? How do we go on with our lives and with our practice? This is what Dongshan is pressing Shenshan for when he asks “In what way do you mend?” How are you with what arises as sore back, what comes as lunch, with the cooling evening the sound of voice, the ache of knees? How are you with that?

Shenshan responds honestly and without artifice or craftiness when he says, “One stitch is like the next.” He’s mending, maybe mending a travelling bag or mending robes, stitching, one stitch like the next. It’s good for sewing to be regular. It is stronger when regular and doesn’t distract the eye. It looks right. The regularity is in harmony with the circumstance.

We keep our zazen regular. The regularity of each breath being the only breath. There is the regularity of raising the inquiry of koan fresh and live, time and time again. There is a regularity that we don’t vary the practice we meditate with. When there is regularity then there is deepening. If we’re always jumping about, really all we do is empower our own self centricity. If its time to change, talk with the teacher in dokusan and work it out there.

In our case Shenshan’s response is also honest. He’s not seeking to make himself look more adept or sophisticated than he is. He’s very straight forward.

Zen is about trust. For instance trust in what is current, allowing what is current – allow, allow, allow. This is trust. For example, how do we allow this room, this space? We truly allow it by not requiring ourselves to be. We allow the room. Just the room. This room is real. We’re sitting here. Even though most of the time the eyes are down towards the floor were in a room. It’s spatial, it has dimension. The space in this room is as live as you are.

As much as Zen is about trust, trusting what is, allowing it o be as it is, it is also bout honesty. Honesty with ourselves and honesty with the world. When we are not honest we are playing falsely, we are perpetuating delusion.

If your honest response to Mari’s question last night, “Who are you?” is “I don’t know.” Then that ‘I don’t know’ is so much more valuable than some conjured insight, or contrived certitude. The Way is straight ahead.

Honesty is the Way and it is how the Way flourishes among us. This is not the apparent honesty of declaring our view, it’s the honesty of not holding to the conceit of separateness. The conceit of me in here, and everything not me out there.

When we hold on to our self in here and everything else out there, all this talk starts to sound so special, ‘the whole earth spewing flame!’

A monk said, “Everywhere [people] just speak with their mouths. How do you instruct people?”

The master kicked over the censer with his foot and pointed to it.

The monk said, “That is it, isn’t it!” –meaning your foot poking out kicking over the incense holder, there is the great matter right there, that’s the very expression of Buddha Nature itself, right there!

Zhzaozhou responded, “You got a good look at my foot.”

-The Record of Joshu, James Green, # 271 p 93

No conceit, no view, the foot is at the end of the leg. But good to notice that Zhaozhou doesn’t dissuade the monks view either.

Dongshan seems dissatisfied with Shenshan’s expression of how it is for him. In fact Dongshan scolds Shenshan, “We’ve been travelling for twenty years together and still you can say such a thing! How can there be such craftiness?”

Pointing to delusion can be hard. Sometimes we do get a rather challenging sideways poke in dokusan. It may seem pretty uncomfortable at the time, but it can open the Way for us, or not. It’s not really up to us as the agency here.

Shenshan continued, “How then does the venerable monk mend?” he asks. Sometimes it’s highly worthwhile batting a challenge back and see what happens. “What would you do?’ “How would you say it?” It’s creativity after all. Dongshan responds, “Just as if the whole earth were spewing flame!”

Wow, that must really be something! Maybe in the pitch dark of night he could still see his sewing with all that flame about. It conjures up massively heroic images of what it must be like. A part of us responds to these stories with, “Oh, so that’s how it will be. And by inference, ‘that’s so much better than and a world away from sitting through a talk, from this back pain, from having to shift about a little, from life’s dissatisfactions, from our own dissatisfaction. It’d be much better surely!’

But what if Dongshan’s ‘as though the whole earth were spewing flame’ what if this is absolutely no different at all to Shenshan’s ‘one stich is like the next.’? What if they’re one and the same? What if this (clap) is the entire earth spewing flame. What if the fact of lifting a glass or a spoon to your lips at supper time is the fact of the entire earth spewing flame? And that’s just the way it is.

Regardless of the content each moment is here as you.

There is no good or bad in such a thing, there is no bigger or smaller in such a thing.

How big are you? Listen! Listen!

There you are. If it’s not apparent it doesn’t mean that it’s not apparent. It can be that in such a moment we are so taken up enough with ‘the current’ that there is no one left to say, “Oh!”

Working in practice is not about vigorously hunting each moment; that adds a sort of blocking effort. It can be softer than this.

Every moment perennially rising for you, as you, but that is saying too much. Actually every moment claims you and you disappear into that claiming. And we don’t notice. In the disappearing we’ve lost the resources to notice.

Koan work shifts us a little, so we no longer have to say, ‘It shouldn’t be like this. It should be something different.’ It just takes a glance to see, we are empty beyond our borders even whilst we are ourselves. This is what this is. This is where you are. It cannot be passed on, it’s too late for that, it is already so. This is the mystery, so we practice relinquishing to the current moment. Being claimed, disappearing into that claim, losing ourselves, remembering ourselves, practicing. As if there were someone to disappear.

Why is it when you look, you only find story, preference, a wall, flowers, air conditioning, a warm evening. Why is that? I wonder.

© Glenn Wallis 2017