You don’t have to travel too far into Zen teachings to find that one of major obstacles to living generously and effectively is the self. As I like to say from time to time, Zen practice is not so much about taking care of yourself as it is about getting over yourself. This brings forth another delicious irony: in order to get over yourself you have to take care of yourself to some degree, to appease that self just enough so that it stops dominating the territory and obstructing the view, to allow it a satisfying modicum of contentment so it can wander away from the center of things and settle down a bit. So I’m not tossing out all the light and fluffy stuff completely. I just want to be clear that, in the course of Zen practice, tending to and caring for oneself in such ways is not where the journey ends but what clears the way and makes it possible for it to truly begin; and though they aren’t the most important steps to take within the overall journey, there is something essential about taking such steps. Mmmm…irony mixed with paradox served in a clearly clouded dish!
What prompted this response of mine was recently encountering “10 Zen Things to Remember”, a little animated offering (click on that title to view it). After initially meeting it with sighs and eye-rolling and thinking I would let it drift on by, I was instead inspired to find and present some stories and sayings from the Zen Koan tradition to accompany each of the points being made. Some of these will support the statement, going further into the territory it points to; some will offer an and also to the statement, to accompany it and widen the territory; and others will simply toss the statement out onto its head. Regardless of the specific intention of each, they all carry the general intention of being helpful in their own way, which is true of all koans, no matter how strange and unhelpful they seem. And if you’re wondering which is which in regard to the three possibilities I mention above, I’ll simply say that since I see the animated offering overall to be in putting-oneself-at-the-center spirit, the koan I offer to accompany the title is of the final sort. As to the rest, enjoy keeping company with them and seeing what you discover along the way.
[Please note: while the material presented below can be found among various koan collections and other Chan/Zen writings, most was excerpted from Acequias and Gates by Joan Sutherland, Roshi. You can find out more about that book and others, Joan Sutherland and her teachings, and our Open Source Koan Tradition here: Cloud Dragon: The Joan Sutherland Dharma Works.]
10 Zen Things to Remember
After a few recent unsuccessful attempts, Yunmen once again went to Muzhou’s one-room hermitage and knocked on the door.
Muzhou asked, “Who’s there?”
Yunmen replied, “It’s me, Yunmen.”
Muzhou blocked the entrance and asked, “Why do you keep coming?”
Yunmen replied, “I’m not clear about myself.”
Muzhou said, “Utterly useless stuff!”, pushed Yunmen out, and shut the door.
1. Do one thing at a time
Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.
2. Do it slowly and deliberately
Shenshan was mending clothes with a needle and thread. Dongshan asked, “What are you doing?”
Shenshan said, “Mending.”
Dongshan asked, “How are you mending?”
Shenshan said, “One stitch is like the next.”
Dongshan exclaimed, “We’ve been traveling together for twenty years now, and you can still say such a thing! How is this possible?”
Shenshan asked, “How do you mend?”
Dongshan said, “As if the whole earth were spewing flames.”
3. Do it completely
A student asked Dongshan, “When cold and heat come, how can we avoid them?”
Dongshan said, “Why don’t you go to the place where there is no cold or heat?”
The student asked, “What’s the place without cold or heat?”
Dongshan said, “When it’s cold, the cold kills you. When it’s hot, the heat kills you.”
4. Do less
Dongshan was sweeping one day when a monastic said to him, “Work, work, work—all you do is work.”
Dongshan replied, “I do it for another.”
“Why don’t you get that other to do it for himself?”
“Because he has no hands.”
5. Put space between things
Touzi said, “You’ve hit a barrier and can’t find your way home. If you go forward you’ll fall into the hands of the angry gods. If you retreat you’ll slip into the hell of the hungry ghosts. If you go neither forward nor backward, you’ll drown in dead water. What do you do?”
6. Devote time to sitting
Meditation in the midst of chaos is a thousand times better than meditation in the midst of stillness and silence.
7. Smile and serve others
One day, while Nanquan was living in a little hut in the mountains, a strange monk visited him just as he was preparing to go out to work in the fields. Nanquan welcomed him, saying, “Please make yourself at home. Cook anything you’d like for your lunch, then bring some of the leftover food to me. The path outside leads directly to my work place.”
Nanquan worked hard until the evening but the monk never came, so he returned home very hungry. The stranger had cooked and enjoyed a good meal by himself, then thrown out the leftovers and broken the cooking pot and all the utensils. He discovered the monk sleeping peacefully in the empty hut, and as soon as Nanquan lay down to go to sleep himself, the monk got up and left without a word.
Years later Nanquan told his disciples this story, saying, “He was such a good monk. I miss him even now.”
8. Make cooking and cleaning become a meditation
Seijo lived alone with her son, and eventually she came to study Zen in earnest. Her meditation ripened, and true doubt solidified in her mind. She would meditate all day and forget to cook, so that when her son came home he had nothing to eat. The neighbors used to take pity on him and feed him.
One day when her son came home, Seijo asked him, “Whose son are you?”
Her son was startled and asked, “Mom, have you lost your mind?”
“Yes,” she replied.
It went on for several days like this when suddenly she had an awakening.
9. Think about what is necessary
"Nothing will do. What do you do?" This is the fundamental koan, the koan that is the common denominator of the thousands of koans.
10. Live simply
Baizhang asked, “What is the crucial thing about this practice?”
Great Master Ma replied, “It’s just the place where you let go of your life.”