Out Of Your Mind 08: The World As Just So (Part 2)


Escaping the Tangle


The function of a Zen teacher is to put his students in all kinds of situations where, in the normal course of social relations, they would get stuck. By asking nonsensical questions, by making absurd remarks, by always unhinging things, and above all, keeping them stirred up with impossible demands: to hear the sound of one hand, to—without moving—stop a ship sailing out on the water, or to stop the sound of a train whistle in the distance. Magic. To touch the ceiling without getting up from one’s chair, to take the four divisions of Tokyo out of your sleeve, to take Mount Fuji out of a pillbox. All these impossible questions are asked. And in the ordinary way of interpreting these questions we think, “Well, now—gee, how could we do that?” See? That’s a very difficult question that’s been asked. And you have to think, “What would I do to do that?”


Because we are caught up in a certain way of discourse which the language-game that we play—and the social games, the production games, and the survival games that we play—are good games. But we take them so seriously that we think that that is the only important thing. And this is to unstick us from that notion and realize that it would be just as good a game to drop dead now as to go on living.


Is a lightning flash ‘bad’ because it lives for a second, as compared with the sun that goes on for billions of years? You can’t make that sort of comparison, because a world of lighting goes also with a world where there’s a sun—and vice versa. So, long-lived creatures and short-lived go together; that’s the meaning of that saying: “Flowering branches grow naturally. Some short, some long.”


So this, then, is a scene in a Zen community where spontaneous behavior is encouraged within certain limits. And as the student becomes more and more used to it, those limits are expanded. Until, eventually, he can be trusted to go out on the street and behave like a true Zen character, and get by perfectly well. You know what occasionally happens on the street when two people are walking down the sidewalk straight at each other, and they both decide to move to the right together and then to the left together, and they somehow get stuck and they can’t pass each other. Zen teachers will pull just exactly that sort of stunt, when going down a path, and meet one of their students—to see if they can get him in a tangle, and can he escape from it?


And you will find, in everyday life, that there is a very clear distinction between people who always seem to be self-possessed, and people who are dithering and nervous and don’t quite know how to react in any given situation; always getting embarrassed because they have their life too strongly programmed. “You said”—I mean, this is a common marriage argument—“You said you would do such-and-such a thing at such-and-such a time! And now you’ve changed your plans!” Not that the change of plans really caused any inconvenience, but just the feeling that when you say you will do something at a certain time, you ought to do it at that time come hell or high water! Well, that’s being very unadaptable. That’s being a stone—kind of sticky—thing. If it, after all, doesn’t matter when we do it and somebody is offended because the time has been changed, that’s simply because they are attached to punctuality as a fetish.


And this is one of the great problems. This causes many automobile accidents. Men rushing home to be on time for dinner, when they stayed late either working, or they had to stop for a drink at some bar, or when a girl feels that she has a fussy husband and she feels she has to have the dinner ready at exactly a certain moment, she ruins the cooking. He’d rather have a faithful wife and a bad cook. I hope I’m not treading on any toes.


So, you see, we spend an awful lot of energy trying to make our lives fit images of what life is or should be which they could never possibly fit. So Zen practice is in getting rid of these images. But it’s so explosive, socially, to do that, and it so worries people, they get vertigo, they get dizzy, they don’t know which end is up. And this happens, you know, if you’ve ever been in one of those Blab-Lab sessions, where they call them ‘tea groups’—I think, or something like that—where people gather together without any clear idea of what this gathering is about. They know it’s somehow self-exploration, but just how do you begin on that? And so, somebody starts to push his idea, and then somebody else says, “Well, why are you trying to push your idea on us?” And then they all get into an argument about the argument, and the most amazing confusions come about—but sometimes they all see what idiots they’re being, and then they learn to live together in a really open and spontaneous way.


There was a very interesting dinner party once where a Zen master was present, and there was a geisha girl who served so beautifully and had such style that he suspected she must have some Zen training. And after a while, when she pours to fill his sake cup, he bowed to her and said, “I’d like to give you a present.” And she said, “I would be most honored.” And he took the iron chopsticks that are used for the hibachi—the charcol brazier; moving the charcoal around—he picked up a piece of red-hot charcoal and gave it to her. Well, she instantly—she had very long sleeves on her kimono—she whirled the sleeves around her hands and took the hot charcoal, withdrew to the kitchen, dumped it, and changed her kimono because it was burnt through. Then she came back into the room, and after a suitable interval she stopped before the Zen master and bowed to him and said, “I would like to give you, sir, a present.” And he said, “I would be very much honored.” Of course, he was wearing a kimono, something like this. And so she picked up a piece of coal and offered it to him. He immediately produced a cigarette and said, “Thank you, that’s just what I needed.”


Now, you know, in the same way that we have this in our culture: certain people who are comedians, who know how to make jokes and gags in a completely unprepared situation. Face them with anything and they somehow come through. So that is exactly the same thing in a special domain as Zen. Only, a master of Zen does this in every life situation. But the important thing is to be able to do this—this is the secret—you must remember: you can’t make a mistake.


Now, that’s a very difficult thing to do, because from childhood up we have had to conform to a certain social game. And if you are going to conform to this game you can make mistakes or not make mistakes. And so this thing has gone into us all the time. “You must do the right thing! There’s certain conduct appropriate here. There’s certain conduct appropriate there.” And that sticks in us and gives us a double-self all our lives long, because we never grow up.


Do you realize that the whole of life plays a game, which is a childhood game? There are three kinds of people: top people, middle people, and bottom people. And there can’t be any middle people unless there are bottom people and top people. And there can’t be any top people unless there are middle and bottom people, and so it goes. And everybody is trying to be in a top set. Well, if they are going to be there there’s gotta be people in the bottom set. And there are people who do the ‘right’ thing and people who do the ‘wrong’ thing. Here in Sausalito—we have this very, very plainly—there are the ‘right’ people, the nice people who live up on the hill. Then there are the ‘nasty’ people who live down here on the waterfront, and they grow beards and they wear blue jeans and they smoke marijuana. And whereas the other people on the top of the hill drive Cadillacs, and have wall-to-wall carpeting, and nicely mowed lawns, and their particular kind of poison is alcohol. Now, the people who live on the top of the hill know that they are nice people, but they wouldn’t know they were nice people unless they had some nasty people to compare themselves with.


Every in-group requires an out-group. Whereas the nasty people think they are the real far-out people—whereas those people, those hillbillies, are squares. And they wouldn’t be able to feel far-out unless there were squares. See? These things simply go together. But when that is not seen we play the games of ‘getting on top of things’ all the time, and so we are in a constant state of competition. As to—if it’s not “I’m stronger than you,” it’s “I’m wiser than you,” “I’m more loving than you,” “I’m more tolerant than you,” “I’m more sophisticated than you.” It doesn’t matter what it is, but this constant competition is going on. In terms of that competition we can, of course, lose place and—in that sense—make mistakes.


But what a Zen student is, is a person who is not involved in the status game. That’s the real meaning of a monk. He is not ‘keeping up with the Jones.’ And to be a master, he must get to the point where he’s not trying to be a master. The whole idea of your being better than anybody else simply doesn’t make any sense at all; it is totally meaningless. Because you see everybody manifesting the marvel of the universe in the same way as the stars do, and the water, and the winds, and the animals. And you see them all as being in their right places and not being able, really, to make mistakes—although they may think they are making mistakes or not making mistakes, and playing all these competitive games. But that’s their game!


Now, I only say if that game begins to bore you, and it begins to trouble you and give you ulcers and all kinds of things, then you raise the problem of getting out of it, and therefore you start to become interested in things like Zen. That is simply a symptom of your growing in a certain direction where you are tired of playing a certain kind of game. You are as naturally flowing in another direction as if a tree were putting out a new branch. So because you say, “Oh well, we people are interested in higher things”—you see, that depends, still, on the differentiation of rank between the superior and the inferior people. But when you begin to see through that and grow out of that, you don’t think any more of this ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ classification. You don’t think, “We are spiritual people who attend to higher things as distinct from these morons who are only interested in beer and television.” This is simply our particular form of life. Like there are crabs, and there are spiders, and there are sharks, and there are sparrows, and so on.


The In Defines the Out Defines the In


The trouble with the human being is like the trouble with certain animals. Like the dinosaur, who evolved to the point where he was so big that he’d have to have two brains—a higher self in the head and a lower self in the rump. And the difficulty was to get these two brains coordinated. But we have exactly the same trouble, and we are suffering from a kind of ‘jitters’ that comes from being two-brained. Now, you see, I’m not saying that that jitters is bad—it’s a potential step in evolution and an opportunity of growth. But remember, in the process of growth, the oak is not better than the acorn; because what does it do? It produces acorns.


Or you could say—just like I sometimes love to say—that a chicken is one egg’s way of becoming others. So an oak is an acorn’s way of becoming other acorns. Where is the point of superiority? The first verse of the poem I just quoted—“The flowering branches grow naturally. Some short, some long”—the first verse is,

In the landscape of spring

there is nothing superior

and nothing inferior.

The flowering branches are naturally

some short some long.


So that’s the point of view of being an outcast, in the sense of being outside the taking seriously of being involved in the social game, and therefore being threatened by making mistakes, of doing the wrong thing—that is to say, of carrying into adult life one’s childhood conditioning where somebody is constantly yammering at you to play the game.


So therefore, the preachers and the teachers take the same attitude towards their adult congregations that parents take to children, and lecture them and tell them what they should do. And judges in courts feel also entitled to give people lectures because they say those criminal-types haven’t grown up—but neither have the judges. It takes two to make a quarrel. So one can begin to think in a new way—in polarity-thinking. Instead of being stuck with the competitive thinking of the good guys and the bad guys, the cops and robbers, the capitalists and the communists, all these things which are simply childishness.


Now, of course, you recognize that the moment I say that it’s like talking in English in order to show that the English language has limitations. And I am talking in a language that seems competitive to show that the competitive game has limitations. As if I were saying to all you cats here, “Look, I have something to tell you. And if you get this, you will be in a better position than you were before you heard it.” But I cannot speak to this group—or to society, or this language-speaking culture—without using the language, the gestures, the customs, et cetera, that you have.


The Zen masters try to get around this by doing things—suddenly—that people just don’t get. Well, what is this? Therefore, that is the reason why—this is the real reason why—Zen cannot be explained. You have to make, as it were, a jump from the valuation game of ‘better people’ and ‘worse people,’ ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups,’ and you can only make it by seeing that they all are mutually interdependent. So if we take this situation—let’s say I would be talking to you and saying, “Look, I have some very special thing that you’ve got to take notice of.” Therefore I am the in-group, and I’m the teacher and you are the out-group. I know perfectly well that I cannot be the teacher unless you come here, and so that my status and my position is totally dependent on you. It isn’t something, you see, therefore I have first and then you get. These things arise mutually. So if you wouldn’t come, I wouldn’t talk. I wouldn’t know what to say, because I borrowed your language. So that is the insight: that things go together. Then, when you see that—and aren’t in competition—then you don’t make a mistake. Because you don’t dither.


When I first learned the piano and played these wretched scales, the teacher beside me had a pencil in her hand and she hit my fingers every time I made a wrong note. The consequence was, I never learned to read music because I hesitated too long to play the note on time. Because I was always, “Is this pencil going to land?” See? And that gets built into your psyche. And so, people are always—although they are adults, and nobody is clubbing them around and screaming at them any longer—they hear the echoes of that screaming mama—or that bombinating papa—in the back of their heads all their life long. And so they adopt the same attitudes to their own children, and the farce continues.


Because there is no—I mean, I don’t say that you shouldn’t lay down the law to children if you want them to play the social game. But if you lay down the law to your children, you must make provisions later in life for them to be ‘liberated.’ To go through a process of curing them from the bad effects of education. But you can’t do that unless you, too, grow up, you see? As we grow up. Says I, including myself.


So that is the thing. Now, therefore, in the Zen scene, you would think that the master as we know him and we read about him is an extremely authoritarian figure. That’s the way he deliberately comes on at the beginning. He puts up a terrific show of being an awful dragon. And this screens out all sorts of people who don’t have, somehow, the nerve to get into the work. But once you are in, a very strange change takes place: the master becomes the brother; he becomes the affectionate helper of all those students, and they love him as they would a brother, rather than respect him as they would a father. And therefore, the students and masters, they make jokes about each other; they have a very curious kind of social relationship which has all of the outward trappings of authoritarian, but everybody knows on the inside that that’s a joke.


Liberated people have to be very cool. Otherwise, in a society which doesn’t believe in equality and cannot possibly practice it, they would be considered extremely subversive. And therefore, great Zen masters wear purple and gold and carry scepters and sit in thrones, and all this is carried on to cool it. The outside world knows, “They’re alright, they have discipline, they have order, they are perfectly fine.”


The Japanese Zen Monastery


Having discussed basic principles of what Zen is about, I’m passing on to the more practical side of it. A Zen monastery is not a monastery in the Christian sense. It’s more like a theological seminary, except that it practices more than it teaches. A typical institution consists of a campus, and on the campus there are many buildings. First of all, around the edges, you will invariably find independent temples that were founded in times past by noble families, because one of the things that Buddhists did when they came to the Far East was they exploited ancestor worship.


This was very clever of them: this being the great religion of China, the Buddhist priests performed services like [?] masses for the repose of the souls, or for good incarnation—reincarnations—for one’s ancestors, and they made quite a thing out of that. And so they have memorial services for the departed, and that’s one of the principal functions of temples in Japan. People don’t go to temple in the same way as Westerners go to church. They make pilgrimages to temples and—say, at a great temple like Eihei-ji—you will find, on a Sunday morning—or practically any morning—a swarm of about 500 people attending the 4 a.m. service of chanting. Chanting the Buddhist scriptures. But they are, kind of, in and out of their temples. They have special services, they have memorial services, weddings, funerals, or everything like that, but they don’t have a parish kind of church community as we find it in the West.


Although, when Buddhism—through the Japanese immigrants—exports itself to the United States, they immediately copy the Protestant church institution and sing, “Buddha loves me, this I know, for the sūtra tells me so.” It’s terrible. And all the young men—nisei, who have never been in Japan—the one thing they can’t stand is sūtra chanting, because they don’t know what it means, and the priests don’t know what it means a lot of the time. And so—but it’s beautiful to listen to, and they haven’t got an educated Western ear yet to appreciate that kind of oriental music.


Well, now, aside from these many temples, each of which is in charge of a priest with his family—and some of them are having a hard time making a go of it these days, so they become restaurants for very elegant food, or museums, and all sorts of things.


Now, the central—the guts of the Zen temple is what’s called the sōdō. , in Japanse, is the saṅgha, the order of followers of the Buddha; simply means ‘hall.’ So the ‘saṅgha hall,’ or sōdō, is the center. And this consists of a number of rooms, but the main one—the actual sōdō itself—is a large, long, spacious room, with platforms on either side and a wide passage down the center. The platforms are six feet wide and each contains a number of tatami mats, which are measured six by three, and every monk is assigned to a mat. And on a shelf behind the mat, against the wall, he has all his posessions, which are very simple. And so the mat is his sleeping place and his meditation place. There is an image of the bodhisattvaManjushri in the hall, more or less in the center of the passage between the platforms. Manjushri is a bodhisattva—they call him monju in Japan—who holds in his hand a sword, and this sword is the sword of wisdom, or prajñā, which cuts asunder all illusions. That is the dwelling place and the meditation place of the monks, and then they have, of course, kitchens, and a library, and they have special temples that the monks use for various services.


Then, aside from that, there are the quarters of the kansho, who is the abbot, or administrative head, of the temple, and then the quarters of the rōshi, who is the spiritual teacher. There isn’t, in the Zen—not in the Rinzai Zen School, at any rate—exactly a hierarchy. Every temple is independent. There’s no Pope, no Archbishop, but there is a fraternal relationship between all the temples of the Rinzai sect. The Sōtō sect have a little bit of a hierarchy, but still, on the whole, the kansho—or administrative head of the temple—is the big boss. The rōshi is the respected boss, the man everybody’s terrified of—at least on the outside, at any rate.


Now, if you want to get into one of these institutions and study, they make it difficult. It’s so different from the welcome attitude you get when you go into a Christian church. Here, they repel you. Westerners, of course, are treated with a certain amount of courtesy that is not ordinarily accorded to Japanese—but even then it’s made difficult, because they realize that a Westerner who’s taken the trouble to learn Japanese, and to get himself over the oceans, and to live under unfamiliar conditions is certainly pretty serious about it. And there are a number of Western Zen monks. So funny—there’s one at Taihei-ji, who comes from San Francisco, and he’s tremendously tall, and to see him with all the others is quite amusing.


Anyway, the formal approach is that you arrive in your traveling gear at the gate, and the Zen monk’s traveling gear is most picturesque: he wears a great mushroom on his head; enormous straw hat, about so wide, and then he has a black robe—shorter than a kimono—and he has long white tabi socks underneath, and geta, which are the wooden sandals with bridges on them to keep you high up a bit. Or he may wear just plain waraji, which are straw sandals. Then he carries, on the front, his little box in which are his eating bowls, his razor, his toothbrush, and such necessities of life.


When he arrives he’s told that the monastery is very poor and they can’t afford to take on any more students, and that the teacher is getting old and it might tax his strength, and things like that. So he has to sit on the steps, and he puts his traveling box in front of him, he takes off his big hat, and he lays his head on the box—his forehead—and waits there all day. But he is invited in for meals to a special little guest house, because no traveling monk can be refused hospitality. And he is admitted at night into this special place, but he’s expected not to sleep, but to spend all night in meditation. In olden times this went on for at least a week or ten days to test this fellow out. Then, finally, the assistant to the rōshi comes and tells him that the rōshi maybe will have a talk with him.


Entering the Temple


So, you must remember the aspect of a rōshi to this young monk: he’s a formidable fellow; usually an older man who has about him something that is difficult to put your finger on. There’s a certain fierceness coupled with a kind of tremendous directness, a sense of somebody who sees right through you. And so he really poses to this young fellow, “What do you want? Why did you come here?”


But he said, “I came to be instructed in Zen.”

And the teacher says, “Well, we don’t teach anything here. There isn’t anything in Zen to study.”

Well, the student knows—or thinks he knows—that this ‘not anything,’ which is studied in Zen, is the real thing; that’s—of course, as a Buddhist, he knows—that what isn’t anything is the universe, the great void, the śūnyatā. And so he isn’t phased by that.

He says, “Well, nevertheless, you do have people who are working here and meditating under your instruction, and I’d like to join them.”

“Well, maybe. But strictly on probation.”

And then, of course, all the details are taken and he pays a ridiculously small fee—in modern Japan, at any rate—to be able to stay in the monastery. It’s very, very inexpensive.

Now the teacher comes back and says, “Now, you want to study Zen. Why?”

“Well, because I’m oppressed by the rounds of birth and death—in other words, by the vicious circles of life in which I find myself—by suffering, by pain, and so on, and I want to be emancipated.”

The teacher says, “Who is it that wants to be emancipated?”

That’s a stopper.


There was a good old story about one of these preliminary interviews. The master asks, first of all, very casual questions. “Where is your hometown? What’s your name? What did your father do?And where did you go to college? Why is my hand so much like the Buddha’s hand?” And suddenly, you know, in mid-stream of an ordinary conversation—clunk!—the student is blocked. And so there is devised the kōan—in Chinese: gōng’àn—and this means, literally, the word ‘kōan’ means a ‘case,’ in exactly the same sense as we talk about a case in law which functions as a precedent for future cases. ‘Kōan’ should be translated ‘case.’ The kōans are based on stories, mondō, of the conversations between the old masters and their students.


But you can make a kōan immediately by such a question, “Why is my hand so much like the Buddha’s hand?” Or, “Who are you that asked this question?” If the student tries to verbalize on that and say, “Well, I am so-and-so,” he asks, “Who knows that you are so-and-so? How do you know that you know? Who knows that you know? Find out!” In other words, the basic kōan is always “Who are you? Who is it that wants to escape from birth and death? And I won’t take words for an answer. I want to see you! And all you’re showing me at the moment is your mask.”


So, then the student is sent back to the monk’s quarters, the sōdō, and the chief of the sōdō is—called the jikijitsu—is then put in charge of him, and he teaches him how to behave, what the rules are, how to eat, and how to meditate. In the Zen sect they sit on [a] padded cushion about the thickness of the San Francisco telephone directory—which is an admirable substitute. And then, with crossed legs in the lotus posture—with the feet resting on the thighs, like you always see a Buddha—they sit for half-hour periods. That’s supposed to be the length of time it takes for a stick of incense to burn.


And then, when wooden clappers are knocked together, they all get up and they walk round and round the room—quite fast, at a kind of bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam pace—and this keeps you awake. Then, at a given signal, they go back and meditate again.


And, constantly, there is a monk, one on each side, carries a long, flat stick shaped almost like this fan—in the sense that it’s thin at one end and rounded at the other—and if this guy sees a monk who’s slouching, or sleeping, or goofing off in some way he very respectfully bows before him. And the monk rests his head on his knees, and this fellow takes the stick and hits him vigorously on the shoulders, here, like this. Now, most apologists for Zen say this is not punishment, it’s simply to keep you awake. Don’t you believe it. I’ve investigated this, and it’s the same as the British boys’ school—only it doesn’t have the erotic qualities that the British floggings do. Zen people are cool about it. But it is a kind of a fierce thing.


Anyway, the point of the meditation, the zazen, is that—perhaps at the beginning—one does nothing more than count your breathing—so many breaths in, counting in tens—just to allow your thoughts to become still. Zen people do not close their eyes when they meditate, nor do they close their ears. They keep their eyes on the floor in front of them, and they don’t try to force away any sounds that are going on, or any smell, or any sensation whatever. Only, they don’t think about it. And this can become an extraordinarily pleasant occupation. All the little sounds of distant traffic, of birds, of somebody carpentering somewhere and the hammer going, dog barking, or—especially—rain on the roof; gorgeous. They don’t block that out.


But as time goes on, instead of counting breathing they devote themself to the kōan problem which the rōshi has assigned. “What is the sound of one hand? Who were you before your father and mother conceived you?” When Jōshū was asked, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” he replied, “No.” What is the meaning of ‘no,’ or mu? All sorts of these problems.


Answering the Kōan


And so, as time goes on, everyday the student goes to the teacher for what is called sanzen. ‘Sanzen’ means ‘studying Zen.’ And he has to present a satisfactory answer to the kōan. Now, sanzen is the moment in the monastery when no holds are barred, although there’s a very formal approach to it. The monk has to stop outside the master’s quarters and make this mokugyo. He does that three times. And at a signal from the master, which is ringing a bell in reply, he goes in and sits down in front of the master, and bows right down to the floor, and then sits up, and he repeats the kōan that he’s been given. And he’s supposed to answer it.


Now, the master, if he’s not satisfied with the answer, may simply ring his bell, which means: interview over, nothing doing. Or, if he’s still not satisfied, he may try to do something to hint the student as to which way to go, or puzzle him further; some sort of comment. But what happens is this—do you see what kind of a situation has been set up here?—the student is really being asked to be absolutely genuine. If I said to you, “Now, don’t be self-conscious. I want you to be perfectly sincere. And, as a matter of fact, I’m a mindreader, and I know whether you’re being sincere or not. I can see right down to that last little wiggly guzzle in the back of your mind.” And if you think I can, you see, I’m putting you in a double bind. I’m commanding you to be genuine. How can you possibly do that on command? Especially when the person you’re confronted with is a father figure, an authority figure. And in Japan, the sensei—the teacher—is even a more authoritative figure than one’s father, which is saying a lot. But you are being asked, in the presence of this tiger, to be completely spontaneous.


Or—it isn’t put in that way, you see, though. I mean, I’m describing this from the standpoint of a psychologist observing what’s going on here. No, the thing you’ve got to do is you’ve got to hear the sound of one hand. And as your answers become more and more rejected, you get more and more desperate. And there is built up the state that is called the ‘great doubt.’ The students do everything, you know? They read all the old Zen stories, and they come in with pieces of rock and wood, and they try and hit the teacher, they do everything—and nothing, nothing will do.


I remember I had a friend studying in Kyōto, and on the way to the master’s quarters you pass through a lovely garden with a pool. And he saw a bullfrog in the garden. And he grabbed this bullfrog—they’re very tame in Japan—put it in his sleeve in his kimono, and when he got in to give an answer to his kōan he produced the bullfrog. And the master shook his head and said, “Nu-uh. Too intellectual.” Of course, he meant not so much what we mean by ‘intellectual,’ but ‘too contrived,’ ‘too pre-meditated.’ You know, you’re just copying other people’s Zen antics, and that’s something you just can’t get away with.


Well, there does come a critical point of total desperation. And when the student reaches that point the teacher really starts encouraging him. He says, “Now, come on. You’re getting warm. But you must be ready to die for this. You must”—students have even been put into the position that if they don’t get it in so many days, they’re going to commit suicide. And they have to stimulate this intense period—a thing called sesshin. Don’t confuse the word ‘sesshin’ with the English ‘session.’ ‘Sesshin’ means ‘studying’ or ‘observation of the xīn’—the heart, the mind. The heart-mind.


And this time they only sleep four hours a night. And they meditate solidly all through the day. They go for the sanzen interview twice a day—every one of them—and it’s a tremendous workout, and will last about five days. Five or six days. And in that period the pressure is really on. Everybody is worked into a pitch of, kind of, psychic fury; they have to get this thing answered.


There’s a man in Japan today who has a five-day Zen system, and he practically guarantees that you have satori in his five days. I just got a book about it, written by a British—I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.


Well, I had a—someone I knew of—who was over, studying Zen on a fulbright grant, and the grant was winding up and he still hadn’t got the sound of one hand. He said to the master, “Look, my grant’s running out and I can’t stay here, and I’ve just got to get this thing.” So, just a day before he left, he suddenly realized that there was nothing to realize. And that was it. You know, here he had spent his whole life thinking that there’s something deficient in me. See? There’s something wrong. Something I ought to find out to get this problem of life cleaned up.


Well, you know what you do. Rinzai, the old Chinese master, said, “Zen teaching is like using an empty fist to deceive a child.” Or like trying to stop a child crying by giving it a yellow leaf. See, the child wants gold, and so you give it an autumn leaf and say, “Here, darling. There’s some gold. Be alright.” Or, with your closed fist you say, “What have I got here?” The child comes and tries to see and pull your fingers open. Then you hide it behind your back, and under your leg, and behind the chair; child gets absolutely fascinated. The longer you keep this up, the more the child is sure there is some real goodie inside the hand, and then at the end—pst—nothing. And that’s Zen.


Seeing Past the Illusion


So there comes a time, you see, when the student can go in front of the master and not give a damn. Because he sees—he’s seen the point. There wasn’t a problem. He made up the problem himself. He came and projected it on this master, who knew how to handle that kind of person by making him much more stupid than he was before—until he sees the essential stupidity of the human situation where we are playing a game of one-upmanship on other people and on the universe.


How to get the better of life? Well, what makes you think you’re separate from life so that you can get the better of it? How can you beat the game? What game? Or, who will beat it? This illusion of beating the game, of finding the thing out, of catching it by the tail, is therefore dissipated by the technique of the kōan. It’s called—working on a kōan is like a mosquito biting an iron bull. It’s the nature of the mosquito to bite. It’s the nature of an iron bull to be unbitten. Or they say it’s like swallowing a ball of molten lead. You can’t swallow it down, you can’t cough it up; you can’t get rid of this thing. That’s the great doubt, you see? But this is an exaggerated form of what everybody is ordinarily trying to do: to beat the game.


So, at that moment the student has heard the sound of one hand, or discovered who he was before father and mother conceived him, or what ‘no’ means. So the teacher says, “Good. Now you have found the frontier gate to Zen. You’ve put your foot in at the door and you’re across the threshold. But there’s a long way to go! And now you have found this priceless thing out, you must redouble your efforts.” So he gives him another kōan.


Now, the student may be able to answer that one instantly, because it’s simply a test kōan. See, there are five classes of kōans. The first class is what you call the hīnayāna kōans, and the other four are the mahāyāna kōans. Hīnayāna is to reach Nirvāṇa. Mahāyāna is to come back and bring Nirvāṇa into the world as a bodhisattva.


So once you get the Great Void, you see there’s nothing to catch on to—you are the universe, it doesn’t matter whether you live or die. That’s Nirvāṇa. All clinging to life—everything like that—you see, then, that it’s hopeless and you give it up. Not because you think you ought to give it up; because you know there is no way of catching it. There’s nothing to catch hold of. There’s no safety in the cosmos. So you just have to give up.


Then, the next class of kōans are such things as asking for miracles. In that class comes, “Take the four divisions of Tokyo out of your sleeve.” Or, “Stop the booming of a distant bell.” “Blow out a candle in Timbuktu.” But as they go on in various ways they are concerned with all kinds of problems, and how Zen understanding deals with those problems. Until we get, in the end, to the study of morality and rules of social and monastic life. That’s the last thing, and the Zen way of understanding it.


Now, this may—this takes very, very differing periods of time. Some people get through in as little as ten years; the whole thing. There is a very brilliant Westerner by the name of Walter Nowick, who has just about completed the whole thing. And he’s a musician and pianist, and he’ll come back to this country as the first accredited Zen master of the West. And he’ll set up his little sōdō on a farm, and wait and see what happens.


The day of graduation comes, and then everybody turns out, and there’s a great hullabaloo, and they salute the departing monk, and he goes out. He may just become a layman, as I said, or become a temple priest, or he may be, himself, a rōshi.


The Decline Of Modern Temples


Well, now, the essential of this whole system, as you see, is to use a hair of the dog that bit you for the cure of the bite. It’s homeopathic. When people are under delusion they cannot be talked out of the delusion. No amount of talk could persuade anybody that his ego is an illusion, because he knows it’s there. He knows “I am I,” and simply won’t believe you if you tell him that this is nothing but posthypnotic suggestion.


So the only way to convince a fool of his folly is to make him persist in it. As Blake says, “The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.” Why, some psychiatrists I know—I know when they get a person who over-eats and is tremendously fat, the first thing they do is they make them put on fifteen more pounds. And get an alcoholic terribly drunk, oh, and sick, and just as awful as can be, you see? Really make him go at it, see? That’s a method that’s used. Sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t; it’s a rather desperate method, rather dangerous method. Zen is dangerous, too. People could easily go crazy under this sort of strain without a good advisor.


Well, it is clear, of course, that this method of Zen training is most unsuited to the modern age. And this is witnessed, too, by the fact that the temples are relatively empty. Myōshin-ji, the biggest one in Kyōto, is built to house 600 monks. There are only 80. And you might think that was quite a crowd, but it isn’t—compared with the old days.


To young people in Japan today this is all incomprehensible. They see no point in it. A few—a few, yes, but they are mostly clergy’s sons carrying out the family tradition. And that’s very bad indeed. To be sent to a monastery, virtually. The only possible success can come for someone who goes because he feels that nothing else in the world will satisfy him. He just has to do it.


And so the traditions, as in all these ancient organizations, have become very fixed. A lot of it is meaningless. It is certainly not going to last; not in that form. It’s falling apart right under our eyes. It’s old and it’s set in its ways.


Also, since the time of Hakuin, the kōans have been given fixed answers. That is to say, there is a sort of prescribed way in which to answer, and you’ve got to hit on the right one. And then, after you’ve answered it, you have to find a poem from a little book called the Zenrin-kushū, which means ‘the Zen Forest Anthology.’ And there are little couplets, and you’ve got to find one which represents the meaning of your kōan. I mean, you know, “Take the four divisions of Tokyo out of your sleeve,” nothing could be simpler. But some monk has recently threatened to publish all the answers to the kōans, so that the masters would have to get on their toes and invent new ones.


I know a rōshi who invents new ones, and the moment they open their mouths he stops them, “No! No, no, nope! Too late!” You know, he says—you could ask Christians, “What’s the first word in the Bible?” And things like that. It becomes much more lively, you see, when there is this quick interchange of the teacher and the students. But—in modern idiom—who the devil wants to know about Joshu’s mu anymore, or some ancient fellow’s questions? Couched in language, incidentally—this is part of the problems they have—the language of these kōans is very archaic. I mean, “What is the sound of one hand?” Well, there’s a Chinese proverb which says, “One hand won’t make a clap.” So if you don’t know that proverb—if that’s a proverb that’s in everyday use and I say to you, “What is the sound of one hand?” then it has some sense.


But there are all kinds of, shall I say, references—allusions—in the old stories, and they therefore don’t necessarily fit our world, or the Japanese world of date. You have to take the kōans out of everyday life; things that are going on now, you see? It’s like asking—what’s that man who advertises Schweppes, commander... Whitehead—“Why has commander Whitehead no beard?”


The Truth of Birthless Mind


There was, though—you see—there was a division in the history of Zen. There was a critical point in the 17th century when there were two very great masters: Hakuin and Bankei. Now, the 17th century is tremendously important in Japanese history because that was a time of what you might call the democratization of culture. Bashō invented haiku poetry so that everyone could be a poet. Not necessarily for publication, but for one’s own fun. People didn’t write poems for publication, necessarily—they wrote poems for parties. And he invented the 17-syllable haiku as a result of his Zen feeling for nature so that he could put this within the reach of everybody.


What had happened to poetry before that time was that it had become so obscure, and so effete, and so sophisticated that only great literati could do it at all. This happened to Chinese poetry; there were so many references to other poems it was like reading T. S. Eliot. You know, the Four Quartets. You could get an annotated Four Quartets showing you the sources of all the phrases he’s borrowed, and sometimes you have to know the source in order to see what he means by it.

All shall be well, and all shall be well

All manner of thing shall be well.


Alright, that’s straight from the Revelations of Divine Love by the dame Julian of Norwich, but whoever would know that? You have to understand the scene she was digging in order to know, really, what Eliot’s getting at in that “All shall be well.” And he’s full of that. He quotes the Bhagavad Gita, he quotes everybody. So, if we all had to write that way, nobody could be a poet unless he was a great scholar.


So Bashō popularized the haiku, and the haiku are originally based on the Zenrin poems. They take their flavor from that. There is one, you see: “Those bird calls, mountain changes to be more mysterious.” The first line of that says, “The wind drops, but the flowers keep on falling. The bird calls, and the mountain becomes more mysterious.” And so haiku developed from that kind of short insight, that glimpse of nature.


Now, while Bashō was taking poetry to the peasants, Bankei was taking Zen to them as well—to the farmers. And he ran his Zen on an entirely different system. He talked, mainly, about what he called fushō. Fushō is the unborn; that which has not yet arisen and which, as a matter of fact, never does arise. And so he said there is in you the unborn mind which was given to you by your parents. Let me just read you a few quotations from him to show you what sort of a person he was.


[from Zen: Poems, Prayers, Sermons, Anecdotes, Interviews]

The mind, begotten by and given to each of us by our parents, is none other than the Buddha-mind. Birthless and immaculate, sufficient to manage all that life throws upon us. A proof: suppose at this very instant, while you face me listening, a crow caws and a sparrow twitters somewhere behind you. Without any intention on your part to distinguish between these sounds, you hear each distinctly. In doing so you are hearing with the birthless mind, which is yours for all eternity.

Well, we are to be in this mind from now on, and our sect will be known as the Buddha-mind sect. To consider my example of a moment ago, once again, if any of you feel you heard the crow and the sparrow intentionally, you are deluding yourselves, for you are listening to me, not to what goes on behind you. In spite of this there are moments when you hear such sounds distinctly, when you hear with the Buddha-mind of non-birth. Nobody here can deny this. All of you are living Buddhas, because the birthless mind which each possesses is the beginning and the basis of all.

Now, if the Buddha-mind is birthless, it is necessarily immortal, for how can what has never been born perish? You’ve all encountered the phrase “birthless and imperishable” in the sūtras—not born, not dying—but hitherto you’ve not had the slightest proof of its truth. Indeed I suppose like most people you’ve memorized this phrase while being ignorant of the fact of birthlessness.

When I was twenty-five I realized that non-birth is all-sufficient to life, and since then, for forty years, I’ve been proving it to people just like you. I was the first to preach this greatest truth of life. I ask, have any of you priests heard anybody else teach this truth before me? Of course not.

—Verse 3


A priest said to him, “Once in the Buddha-mind, I am absent-minded.”

Bankei says, “Well, suppose you are absent-minded as you say. If someone pricked you in the back with a gimlet, would you feel the pain?”


“Then you are not absent-minded. Feeling the pain, your mind would show itself to be alert.”

—Verse 7


A layman says, “Though I undertake Zen discipline, I often find myself lazy, weary of the whole thing, unable to advance.”

And he replies, “Once in the Buddha-mind there’s no need to advance, nor is it possible to recede. Once in birthlessness, to attempt to advance is to have receded from the state of non-birth. A man secure in that state need not bother himself with such things: he’s above them.”

—Verse 9


The Buddha-mind in each of you is immaculate. All you’ve done is reflected in it, but if you bother about one such reflection, you’re certain to go astray. Your thoughts don’t lie deep enough—they rise from the shallows of your mind.

Remember that all you see and hear is reflected in the Buddha-mind and influenced by what was previously seen and heard. Needless to say, thoughts aren’t entities. So if you permit them to rise, reflect themselves, or cease altogether as they’re prone to do, and if you don’t worry about them, you’ll never go astray. In this way let one hundred, nay, one thousand thoughts arise, and it’s as if not one has arisen. You will remain undisturbed.

—Verse 13


The only thing I tell my people is to stay in the Buddha-mind. There are no regulations, no formal discipline. Nevertheless they have agreed among themselves to sit in Zen for a period of two incense sticks daily. All right, let them. But they should well understand that the birthless Buddha-mind has absolutely nothing to do with sitting with an incense stick burning in front of you. If one keeps in the Buddha-mind without straying, there’s no further satori to seek. Whether awake or asleep, one is a living Buddha. Zazen means only one thing—sitting tranquilly in the Buddha-mind. But really, you know, one’s everyday life, in its entirety, should be thought of as a kind of sitting in Zen.

Even during one’s formal sitting, one may leave one’s seat to attend to something. In my temple, at least, such things are allowed. Indeed it’s sometimes advisable to walk in Zen for one incense stick’s burning, and sit in Zen for the other. A natural thing, after all. One can’t sleep all day, so one rises. One can’t talk all day, so one sits in Zen. There are no binding rules here.

—Verse 16


And so that’s what happened, you see? Bankei was the abbot of Myōshin-ji—the rōshi—and he stopped the monks from using the kaiseki stick to hit them when they weren’t meditating or sleeping in meditation, because he said, “Even a sleeping man is still a Buddha, and you shouldn’t be disrespectful.” And he attempted a Zen of no methods. You can meditate if you want to, that’s fine. But that’s like polishing a brick to make a mirror. And he used to say, too, that trying to purify your mind is like trying to wash off blood with blood.


But Bankei’s Zen was elusive. Hakuin had 80 successors, Bankei had none. And some people think that that was the most admirable thing about him.

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