The very body and mind of all beings is as great and boundless as the universe itself. As for how small it is, it is finer than a single atom. We should understand that holding on and letting go are not another's doing. Rolling up and rolling out are both within one's own power. If you want to free what is stuck and loosen that which is bound, simply remove all traces of mental activity. At this very moment, if one's vision and hearing are clear, and color and sound are purely perceived, tell me, which side is the right side? "This side" doesn't reach it; "that side" doesn't reach it. "Neither this nor that" misses it. "Both this and that" are ten thousand miles from the truth. Avoid the slightest trace of right and wrong, and say a word.
The caterpillar said,1 "One side2 will make you grow bigger,3 and the other side4 will make you grow smaller."5 "One side of what? The other side of what?" thought Alice to herself.6 "Of the mushroom," said the caterpillar.7 Alice looked at the mushroom,8 trying to make out which were the two sides of it, as it was perfectly round.9
1. What's he saying? Caterpillars don't talk. They must be travelling the
same road for this conversation to take place. Complications are sure to
2. If there is one side, there must be another side.
3. I'm large and contain the multitudes. KA! Reaching everywhere. How big am I?
4. Why does he speak only in halves?
5. Ten thousand universes in a single speck of dust. Is it bigger or smaller; the same or different? Does reaching everywhere include them both?
6. Concern is born. The whole phenomenal universe is born.
7. Although he's not a member of the household, there's a fragrant air about this one.
8. Is this seeing, or is it just looking?
9. The mushroom is perfect and complete. No upside or downside, no inside or outside, no one side or other side, from beginning to end. Difficult to understand.
This is a relatively modern koan that deals with a subject as old as Buddhism and humanity itself. The subject is dualism and its propensity to create all kinds of barriers in our lives. The following scenario is familiar to all of us. "I come to a fork in the road. Which way should I go? I have no idea where each path leads. If I choose the wrong way, I'm doomed. How will I make the right choice?"
The interesting thing is that many decisions that need to be made are really not decisions at all. Let's say you have two possibilities, A and B. You start with A. You assume that that's what you're going to do. You follow A to its logical conclusion. Then you do the same thing with B, following it through to its logical conclusion. If the results at the end of A and B are the same, then there was no question to begin with although, initially, there may have appeared to be a question.
But of course not all problems are like that; not all questions are like that. Some require a real and unique resolution. Yet, in the Zen teaching of the Faith-Mind Poem, Seng-ts'an, the Third Ancestor of China says, "The great Way is not difficult; only avoid picking and choosing. When love and hate are both absent, the true way is clear and undisguised." I have always felt close to this poem. When I first started Zen training, I read and studied it over and over again. I didn't understand it, but that didn't surprise me - I had absolutely no comprehension of any of what I was reading and hearing about Zen in those days. Somehow I was being driven by an intuitive recognition and resonance. I knew in my heart that Zen was the right path for me and that, sooner or later, understanding and clarity would come.
In this poem, I had a particularly difficult time struggling with the line, "When love and hate are both absent." I could understand the absence of hate, but couldn't fathom what it meant for love to be absent. I didn't have any sense of the relationship between dualities; love on one side, hate on the other; good on one side, evil on the other; heaven, hell; male, female; holy, profane; sacred, secular. But slowly I had come to realize that these dualities were the source of conflict and tension not only in my life, but in the lives of most people around me. They were universal; yet nobody seemed to have any answers about how to deal with them. Then, the Third Ancestor comes along and says, "Avoid picking and choosing." But we have to make decisions. How do we avoid picking and choosing?
Confronted with this puzzle, great Master Chao-chou responded freely and appropriately: A monastic asked Chao-chou, "How do you avoid picking and choosing?" Chao-chou said, "Between heaven and earth, I alone am the honored one." The monastic said, "That's picking and choosing." And Chao-chou said, "Asshole! Where's the picking and choosing?" The prologue to this koan says, The very body and mind of all beings is as great and boundless as the universe itself. It reaches everywhere. The problem is that we don't see it, we don't realize it. We may believe it or we may even understand it intellectually; we may find comfort in believing and understanding it, but by not seeing it, the self is confined to this bag of skin. The truth has to be realized. When it's realized, it reaches everywhere. As for how small it is, it is finer than a single atom. It is smaller than a speck of dust. How can that be? If it's so great that it reaches everywhere, that there's no place to put it, how is it that it's finer than a single atom? "Reaches everywhere" means reaches everywhere. No place is excluded. Not just the body and mind, this body and mind. This bag of skin. This deluded, profane mind, or this enlightened, holy mind.
The next line says, We should understand that holding on and letting go are not another's doing. "Holding on" refers to a teaching device. The teacher holds back, takes away, and negates. By not being supportive, he throws you back on yourself. "Letting go" refers to the teacher's being nourishing, positive, supportive, and encouraging. But sooner or later, the teacher must disappear. Zen practice has to do with empowerment, and empowerment cannot take place when a teacher is hanging around your neck. Not only must you "kill the Buddha when you meet the Buddha," but at some point you must also kill the teacher. And the teacher helps that along by appearing and disappearing. Sometimes appearing in a grain of sand, sometimes appearing as the vast universe itself. Ultimately, we recognize that appearing and disappearing is a characteristic not just of teachers, but of all beings. It's not another's doing. Rolling up and rolling out are both within one's own power. We have the freedom to become indiscernible, leaving no trace, or to manifest ourselves everywhere.
I experienced this many times with my teacher, Maezumi Roshi. There were times when Roshi was like a 100,000-foot high mountain - fierce, relentless, unmoving. Butting my head up against it was useless; his presence was overpowering. Other times he would disappear. He would become so insignificant as to be nothing, absolutely nothing. Once, on a tour with several Japanese tea ceremony teachers, we were in a tea house and I suddenly forgot he was there. We all ignored him as he was off in a corner by himself, non-existent. There's a time to be present, and there's a time to disappear. We should be able to move and live either way. That's real freedom.
One day, the Tibetan teacher Trungpa Rinpoche and his entourage of bodyguards and assistants came to Roshi's house for a visit. Trungpa walked into the living room and sat on a chair to take his shoes off, observing the Japanese custom of entering a household barefoot. Trungpa was paralyzed on one side and had some difficulty moving. As his attendant went to help him, Roshi pushed the attendant aside and started taking off Trungpa Rinpoche's shoes. Boy, was I pissed! Afterwards I said, "Roshi, what is this? You don't have to take his shoes off! You're just as great a master as he is. In fact, you're a greater master than he is!" (Students tend to identify with their teachers and idolize them. They want their teacher to be the best teacher in the whole universe.) Roshi shook his head and said, "His practice is to be king. My practice is to be servant." And I crawled back into my shell to think about that a little bit.
All of one's actions are within one's own power. If you give that power up, you create a nose-ring that allows anyone who takes hold of it to manipulate you. If you want to free what is stuck, loosen that which is bound, simply remove all traces of mental activity. When the mind is empty, it's not grasping at anything. It's not holding on to anything. This doesn't mean not thinking; it means not attaching to thought. It doesn't mean not loving; it means not attaching to love. It doesn't mean not caring; it means not attaching, not sticking, not holding, not grasping. Everything is in a constant state of change, of becoming. The moment you grab it and say, "I've got it!" it's changed, and you've changed. At this very moment, if one's vision and hearing are clear, and color and sound are purely perceived, tell me, which side is the right side? Before the mind takes hold of things, before it starts comparing them, analyzing them, evaluating them, categorizing them, liking them and disliking them, there is pure cognition. Before the mind starts moving, there's just seeing, just hearing, just touching, just tasting. There's no evaluation.
When my hand reaches down and touches a cup, long before it is a cup, there is a simple touch. That moment of contact is pure cognition. Within microseconds, my brain starts processing the information. I feel its texture, temperature, shape; whether it is smooth or rough, warm or cold, hard-edged or round. With enough information, I will identify it. The interesting and troubling development that comes out of this process is that once identified, I don't see it anymore. I say, "Oh, that's a cup," and it becomes one of the million cups, its uniqueness lost.
Seeing occurs before the wheels of processing start. At that moment, when one's vision and hearing are clear, and color and sound are purely received, which side is the right side? In pure cognition, how do you make a decision? How do you know whether it's this or that, good or bad? How do you differentiate? How do you get across the street? "This side" doesn't reach it; "that side" doesn't reach it. "Neither this nor that" misses it. "Both this and that" are ten thousand miles from the truth. This adds further complications to the question "Which side is the right side?" You can use any of the dualities in this framework - good or evil, holy or profane, enlightened or deluded, monastic or lay practitioner, male or female. It's not one and it's not the other. It's not neither and it's not both. How do you respond?
Avoid the slightest trace of right and wrong, and say a word. This final line tells us how to do it. It was this the type of imperative that brought the monastic Ming to a deep enlightenment in his encounter with the Sixth Ancestor. Ming was chasing after Hui-neng, determined to retrieve the bowl and robe of Bodhidharma from him. Finally, when he caught up to Hui-neng, the Sixth Ancestor put down the robe and bowl and said, "This robe was given to me on faith. How can it be fought for by force? I leave it for you to take it." Ming tried to pick up the robe and bowl but couldn't - they were as heavy as a mountain. He fell to his knees, trembling, and said, "I come for the teachings, not the robe. Please teach me, oh lay brother." Completely open, completely receptive, completely ready, he was a man teetering on the brink of realization. Immediately, the Sixth Ancestor struck. "Think neither good nor evil," he said. "At that very moment, what is the true self of monastic Ming?" Ming saw it instantly. Avoid the slightest trace of right and wrong. At that instant, which is the right side?
The main case: The caterpillar said, "One side will make you grow bigger, and the other side will make you grow smaller." "One side of what? The other side of what?" thought Alice to herself. "Of the mushroom," said the caterpillar. Alice looked at the mushroom, trying to make out which were the two sides of it, as it was perfectly round. This koan is adapted from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. During her journey down the rabbit hole, Alice encountered the wise caterpillar. At the time of the meeting, she was about three inches tall, or the same size as the caterpillar. The caterpillar, sitting on a mushroom, smoking a pipe, said, "Who are you?" Alice responded, "I hardly know, sir, just at the present. At least, I know who I was when I got up in the morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then." We all do that. How many faces do we wear in the course of one day? "What do you mean by that?" said the caterpillar sternly. "Explain yourself." "I can't explain myself, I'm afraid sir," answered Alice, "I'm not myself, you see."
What is yourself? Are you the grumpy, angry one that got up in the morning? The pleasant employee of the afternoon? The romantic lover of the evening? Which one are you? Who are you, really? "I don't see!" exclaimed the caterpillar. "I'm afraid I can't put it more clearly," said Alice, "for I can't understand it myself, to begin with. And being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing."
Being many different things in a day is very confusing. As much as possible, I work very hard to add to the ones that you've already got. That was my teacher's gift to me. When I was certain that I couldn't be split in any more directions, he added ten more tasks for me to do. I wasn't sure whether he was trying to get me to go in ten thousand directions at once, or trying to get me to see that the ten thousand directions are one thing.
"It's very confusing," continued Alice. "It isn't," countered the caterpillar. "Well, perhaps you haven't found it so yet," said Alice. "But when you turn into a chrysalis - you will someday, you know - and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel a little queer, won't you?" "Not a bit," said the caterpillar. "Well, perhaps your feeling may be different," mused Alice, "all I know is that it would feel very queer to me." "You!" shouted the caterpillar contemptuously. "Who are you?"
Indeed, that's the question we constantly come back to. Who are you? No matter where you stand, you must be free to appear in a speck of dust or in vast space, to be manifest the ten thousand hands and eyes of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva or to just simply disappear. As the dialogue went on, Alice eventually got enraged with the caterpillar's attitude. After all, the caterpillar wasn't exactly polite. He wasn't a kind zendo monitor, saying, "Please sit still. If you don't sit still, you'll annoy your neighbor; every time you move, you'll create more distractions for yourself, and the more you move, the more sitting hurts. Besides which, it's not really zazen°" The caterpillar was screaming, "Don't move!" The message was very clear and direct. Alice, annoyed and flustered, stomped out. The caterpillar shouted after her, "Come back! I have something important to say." Alice turned and came back again.
This is a standard device in Zen teachings. There is a saying, "What good is a monastic who turns her head when called?" Sometime monastics will turn their backs on their teacher, flourish their sleeves, and walk out. The teacher will call. If they stop, or even hesitate, doubt is present. A hook is embedded in them. The teacher has the other end of the line in his hand and is reeling it back in.
Alice stopped, turned around, and came back. Obviously, her question wasn't resolved. If she had had no question, if the great doubt had been setttled, she would have kept going. He could have told her nothing. But she was still dissatisfied and turned back. The caterpillar said, "Keep your temper!" "Is that all?" asked Alice, swallowing her anger as well as she could. "No," said the caterpillar.
Being a pretty sharp caterpillar, he didn't just come out and reveal the secrets. For a few minutes he puffed away without speaking, then unfolded his arms, took the hookah out of his mouth, and said, "So you think you've changed, do you?" "I'm afraid I have, sir," said Alice. "I can't remember things as I used to, and I don't keep the same size for ten minutes together." "Can't remember what things?" demanded the caterpillar, returning to his harsh cross-examination. After further exchanges, Alice finally came to the critical point. She wanted to return to her normal size. But she wasn't clear what that was. "What size do you want to be?" asked the caterpillar. "Oh, I'm not particular as to size, only I don't like changing so often, you know." "I don't know," snapped the caterpillar. Alice remained silent. She had never been contradicted so much in all her life, and she thought she was losing her temper again. "Are you contented now?" inquired the caterpillar. "Well, I should like to be a little larger, if you wouldn't mind," said Alice. "Three inches is such a wretched height to be." The caterpillar, all three inches of him, straightened up in his chair and said, "It's a very good height indeed!"
Alice waited patiently until he chose to speak again. In a minute or two the caterpillar yawned, shook himself, got down off the mushroom, and crawled away into the grass, remarking as he went, "One side will make you grow taller, the other side will make you grow shorter." "One side of what, the other side of what?" thought Alice to herself. "Of the mushroom," said the caterpillar, just as if she had asked it aloud, and in another moment he was out of sight.
Alice in Wonderland is a modern Western fairy tale. Here we are not taking it up as a fairy tale, but as a koan. Everything in it, everything I said so far is real, as real as this moment, as you and me. Or as unreal as this moment. The tale is as much a dream as this is a dream. To clarify the points of the koan, I have added the following footnotes. The caterpillar said° The footnote says, "What's he saying? Caterpillars don't talk. They must be travelling the same road for this conversation to take place. Complications are sure to follow." Travelling the same road means speaking the same language, coming from the same source, being on the same path. Sometimes the questions and the answers can't be heard because the person isn't ready to hear them. Walking on the same path is where they can be heard, where they can be seen. That's why commitment in Zen practice is so important, why entry into training is not to be taken lightly. Until there is deep reckoning with one's questions, there's no receptivity.
A similar process operates when students contemplate receiving the Precepts. Why don't we give them to everybody? Why doesn't receiving the Precepts happen at the outset of training? Because you can't hear the Precepts until a certain point in time. You can't hear certain koans until you've heard the ones before. To introduce them too early would be like trying to give sex education to a five-year-old. When kids ask, "Where do babies come from, Daddy?" you don't start explaining all the details of male and female reproductive organs. Kids don't want to know that. They can't deal with it, having no framework or vocabulary to absorb it. A lot depends on where the question is coming from. The caterpillar said, "One side°" The footnote says, "If there is one side, there must be another side." The minute you create one, you've created two along with the multiplicity of three, four, five - endless dualities. "° will make you grow bigger." The footnote says, "I'm large, and contain the multitudes. KA! Reaching everywhere. How big am I?" That's what Alice was worried about. Maybe I'll become bigger and bigger and bigger. How big is big? How vast is boundless? How big is infinity? I remember when I studied physical sciences in college, I was confronted with the question of infinity. I would sit there, trying to grasp it with my mind. What does it mean? What's at the edge of it? I would punch myself in the head, thinking that I would understand it if I hit myself hard enough. Entertaining infinity is like division by a smaller and smaller number. When you finally divide by zero - infinity. How big is it?
And the other side° continued the caterpillar. The footnote says, "Why does he speak only in halves?" Why doesn't he speak of the whole thing? °will make you grow smaller. The footnote says, "Ten thousand universes in a single speck of dust. Is it bigger or smaller; the same or different? Does reaching everywhere include them both?"
"One side of what? The other side of what?" thought Alice to herself. The footnote says, "Concern is born. The whole phenomenal universe is born." The minute the mind starts moving, heaven and earth are separated. Self and other are separated. Concern, fear, anger, ignorance, love, hate, holiness and profanity arise.
"Of the mushroom," said the caterpillar. The footnote says, "Although he's not a member of the household, there's a fragrant air about this one," speaking highly of this caterpillar's understanding of things.
Alice looked at the mushroom. The footnote says, "Is this seeing, or is it just looking?" Return to the prologue and the concept of pure cognition: in pure cognition, which side is the right side? Right side and wrong side don't exist. Sides don't exist. Pure cognition knows only one reality.
Then the final line, °trying to make out which were the two sides of it, as it was perfectly round. The footnote says, "The mushroom is perfect and complete. No upside or downside, no inside or outside, no one side or other side, from beginning to end. Difficult to understand." I will go even further and say this is impossible to understand. So don't try to understand it. And believing it isn't going to do you any good either.
Alice tried all sorts of things. She got herself into a lot of trouble. Now she reached around the mushroom as far as she could and broke off two pieces and bit into one of them. Suddenly something hit her under the chin. She realized it was her feet. She had shrunk and she couldn't open her mouth to eat the other chunk. Finally she got a little bit into her mouth, and her neck started to grow all the way into outer space. Her hands couldn't reach her mouth anymore. She looked down and all she could see were tree-tops and the wide landscape. She had no idea where her body was, where the hand holding the mushroom was. She was in this very complicated situation. She was still caught in the realm of left and right, big and small.
No matter how wonderful your decision-making is, how precise and scientific your picking and choosing, so long as it continues to be picking and choosing, there are endless hells to be experienced. The question persists: how do you avoid picking and choosing? "Between heaven and earth, I alone am the honored one." That's fine for Chao-chou, but how about you?
The capping verse:
Rather than free the body, free the mind.
When the mind is at peace, the body is at peace.
When body and mind are both set free,
The Way is clear and undisguised.
Alice was totally involved in trying to free her body from this weird state she found herself in; one moment big, next moment small, one moment so tiny she was going to be eaten, next moment so big everything moved out of her reach. She couldn't find the middle way.
The caterpillar tried to help her, but she really didn't get it. Not then, anyway. All the while she was working on the body. But to free the body, you must free the mind. How do you free the mind? Empty the mind. If the mind is at peace, the body is at peace. You can see it in your breathing. When your mind is agitated, your breath is agitated. When your mind is quiet, the breath is deep, easy, almost without effort, barely perceptible. Mind and body are not two things. When body and mind are both set free, the Way is clear and undisguised.
That's how we repay the debt we owe to the ancestors who have conveyed this truth mind-to-mind, generation-to-generation, for 2,500 years. There's no other way to do it. A student came to dokusan recently, filled with gratitude. I knew the feeling, because I've felt it hundreds of times with my own teacher. I used to wonder, "Why is this guy doing this for me? I don't count. I'm so unimportant and he's treating me like I'm something special. Why? What did I ever do to deserve such good fortune?" This student was expressing something similar. "I want to DO something for you, I want to give you something, and I want it to be big and wonderful, and I want it to capture and express everything that I'm feeling."
I responded to him by saying that the greatest gift I could get from anybody is their realization. And I meant it. That lets me know that what I've been doing over these past ten years of teaching hasn't been wasted. What students do by way of their own realization is to confirm and actualize my realization. They confirm and actualize the realization of all Buddhas. They confirm and actualize the realization of Shakyamuni Buddha of the past, and of Maitreya Buddha who is yet to be born, and they confirm their own life.
It's no small thing that we're talking about, Alice and the caterpillar notwithstanding. What we're dealing with has to do with the great matter that is the life of each one of us, and it's not to be taken lightly. That's what this practice is about. To take care of it, throw yourself into it. Challenge yourself and take a risk. Take a chance. You've got nothing to lose but your life. When you die once, you can never die again.
©2003 Zen Mountain
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