I bring this in because I've still been in conversation with the koan that I
wrote about recently (see my previous blog entry for the koan) and find that
more has come to light that wants to be shared. It's along the lines of
something that's been coming up regularly in my practice and in my talks
lately: noticing the way we do a lot of "thinging" in our lives. By this I'm
referring to how our concepts and ideas of how and what the world is become
a little more solidified than they need be; we make into "things" that which
is more amorphous and flowing. We thing ourselves and our experiences, we
thing our partners and children, our friends, communities, societies, our culture, others' cultures, our life and our world. And by doing so we tend to mistake the thing we've created for the person or situation or event that is appearing right in front of us, relating to our environment through how we think it is rather than how it actually is. The thing is, thinging itself is not a problem. It can be useful to a degree and even necessary, helping us to navigate and make sense of our world. The issue is how solid and fixed we allow the things we create to become, which affects how connected to or distanced from our life and the living of it we feel.
In the koan, Zhaozhou engages in a bit of thinging, starting with his first question, "What is the Tao?" Tao with a capital T, already having some idea of this thing he is asking about and perhaps some inkling about what it might be like to experience it. Yet he is still asking for clarification, maybe in part to see if the teacher's response will support his view, and also out of genuine curiosity. Overall, It's as though he is looking to some horizon and asking how to get there. Nanquan's reply leads in a different direction, pulling Zhaozhou back to here: "Ordinary mind is the Tao." For a moment there is a sense of relief, of this Tao perhaps being nearer and more accessible, but then the thinging kicks in again, this time in regard to "ordinary mind." My experience as Zhaozhou at this moment is one of understanding that this Tao is closer than I might think, but Nanquan couldn't possibly be referring to this ordinary mind of mine, the one that is with me day in and day out, so how can I get to the Ordinary Mind of which he speaks. Another horizon created, followed by another response from Nanquan directed toward dismantling it, the entire conversation being a dance between thinging and unthinging in hopes of opening to a wider, boundless territory. I find it interesting that as the territory is unfolding more and more, Nanquan mentions the "genuine Tao," seeming to be working contrary to himself. Is he throwing that out there to gauge how the dance is going for Zhaozhou, to see if he'll swallow the hook? Or is he simply showing, perhaps unknowingly, that thinging is just a part of our human experience, that thinging happens?
As often happens when working with koans, I recalled an event from my own life related to thinging while hanging out with this koan. I see at as my first real koan encounter, though it happened years before I had connected with or developed any kind of formal Zen practice. I was attending Western State College (now Western State Colorado University) and had a class instructed by T.C. Johnson. He could be quite tenacious and intimidating at times, and was mostly. While I had my moments of being unnerved, I find that all-in-all I respected and even enjoyed those qualities of his. One assignment we had was to write a persuasive paper trying to sell something to another culture, the culture in this case being Japanese, trying to appeal to their sensibilities and values. This particular day he had been talking about the Japanese sense of self, the notion of individual identity as related to the group or societal identity. Somewhere in the course of this he invited (maybe challenged is more accurate) someone from the class to present who they were.
Now, although I didn't have a formal Zen practice then, I had been interested in and studying it for some time already, and as a result recognized something about the dynamic of what might follow this invitation, thinking I might have a leg up because of this (and also noticing that, likely due to the aforementioned intimidation factor, no one else was budging in the least). What I thought I might do is say something about who I was right then but explain how I'm always changing, so in the end I can't really say who I am. I stood up and began to speak, and nearly right away was met by a bellowing, "Who are you?!" from Mr. Johnson. I started again. "Who are you?!" "I'm trying to tell you, but-" "Who are you?!" I took a breath and tried a different approach: "No matter what I say about who I am, it will not be-" "Who are you?!" Any kind of strategy or formula was out the window now. "I'm Andrew." "Who are you?!" "Me." "Who are you?!" I just stood there, not knowing what to say, which fell away to just not saying anything (there is a difference between the two), then sat back down. There was no commentary or discussion about any of what had just happened, and the class just kept rolling along.
While this experience was a little embarrassing and awkward in the social context of the classroom, it was also a bit thrilling and exhilarating. I was still enjoying it afterward (and appreciate it to this day), watching as my mind tried to figure out what would have been the "right" response and never being able to settle upon anything. In a fierce and direct way, T.C. Johnson was showing me that nothing (or no thing) I could say, either in affirmation or negation, could possibly convey who I was at that moment. At the same time, with a retrospective lens I see that my standing up and stumbling through trying to say something is who I was, his "Who are you?!" again and again is who he was, and the rest of the class who silently remained in their seats is who they were. And though I had some kind of understanding of this at that time, it was much later I realized that by not being allowed to explain anything I was able to experience who I was more directly, beyond words or ideas.
We are encountering T.C. Johnsons every day, but in much more subtle, nearly invisible ways. Although we don't always notice how we are not what we think or present ourselves to be, there is an underlying feeling of not-quite-it-ness we can experience, regardless. And there can be moments when we become vividly aware of how many things we've made of ourselves and our lives, and a feeling of tightness and heaviness at realizing that none of those things is really who we are. In hopes of decreasing or dissipating that feeling, there is a natural tendency to want to do the opposite of what we've been doing, to undo the thinging that got us here, seeing that as the way to free ourselves of those weights and constrictions. But if we make a project out of it, endeavoring to live outside of our concepts and constructs, then we are making a thing of not-thinging, essentially redecorating the same house and continuing to live there. Even if we recognize this and move out of the house, vowing to never live in another house again, traces of the original dynamic and dilemma still remain, as illumined in this koan story:
Someone said to Zhaozhou, "I've come with nothing. Isn't it wonderful?"
Zhaozhou said, "Put it down."
"But I don't have anything. How can I put it down?"
Zhaozhou replied, "Well, then keep carrying it."
So, what are we to do? Not much, I'd say. Again, thinging happens, it's part of being human and helps us get by. We can simply notice and pay attention to how it occurs and manifests in our lives. We can see how some of our thingings come and go rather quickly, like a series of stones that help us cross a mountain stream. We can see how others are like a boat we have to stay in for a while as we cross a wide river. And we can notice how sometimes we get to dry land but remain in the boat and keep trying to row. And we might even stay in the boat, as it has become comfortable and familiar, so we try to make of it a home. But at some point we realize we are living in something that has gone beyond its purpose, and we can better serve ourselves and the world by stepping out and venturing onward. We can trust that there will be stones at the next stream and other boats at other rivers, or that our feet are going to get wet sometimes and that's okay, or that we can swim and float and drift along as needed.
So, what is the Tao, the Way? As Lao Tzu begins the Tao Te Ching, "The way that becomes a way is not the Eternal Way." That's one response. And another to join it is, "What is not the Way?" It is walking, running, climbing, jumping, stopping, sitting, singing, yelling, crying, frustration, joy, sorrow, despair, contentment, helping, hurting, doing nothing, doing something, seeking, finding, losing, being stuck, being freed, being weak and weary, feeling strong and energized, finally finishing, just starting, having enough, wanting more, receiving, giving, scratches, bruises, healing and being healed. It is none of this and all of this, and more, and not quite, and Yes! It is a cool morning with birds chirping at the feeder, sun coming out now, fingers tired of typing, dishes and other things to which to tend.
You fill in the rest, please.