July 21, 2015 § 8 Comments
What is the right answer to life’s problems? Is there a right answer to life’s problems? Or is the problem the answer itself?
To discover who you are you must pass through barriers of your own making. What are these barriers? They are dualistic thoughts of good or bad and right or wrong. They are the tendency to see your self as “this or that” or, more precisely, “as this but not that”. They are the seemingly rational tendency to prefer one situation over another, such as power to powerlessness, wealth to poverty, life to death. These thoughts of “either/or” are barriers because they limit and direct your life into conflicts that cannot be solved by dualistic thinking. To pass through these barriers you must leave such thinking behind.
If you take up Zen you may be given a koan that brings you into direct contact with a barrier. If not, life will will do the same job. Someone close may die. You may become ill. You may lose your job. Any event that creates an inner conflict and leaves you unable to answer questions of “Why?” or “What shall I do?” will be your barrier. As with the koan you will not find an answer through thinking, though you will certainly try. Being unable to think a way to a solution, is it any wonder that most fail to pass through these barriers and get stuck?
I recently spoke with a friend stuck in the barrier of poverty. He’s never actually been poor but now that he wants to change careers to something less demanding he thinks that a lower salary will automatically make him impoverished. The irony is that he has always been sensible with money and even when the economy was at its worst he’s always been employed. Any onlooker would say he has next to zero chance of being poor but in his mind he stands on the brink of poverty.
This is how it is when a barrier catches us. Reality is replaced with dysfunctional thinking and fearful imaginings, and no amount of rational argument can change this outlook. Nothing can persuade us to step through the barrier because in our minds what lies beyond is something horrible.
Knowing our reluctance, the Zen Masters of old created the koan system to distract our thinking minds so something greater can be born.
There is no answer to a koan because the koan itself is nonsensical. When we think we understand it, the Zen Master will give us three blows and send our befuddled minds back to the koan to try again. Until we finally divorce ourselves from thought we will never be open to the koan’s true solution.
Life does the same as the koan system. It presents us with insolvable problems and knocks us down just when we think we have the answer. In doing so, life pushes all of humanity to give up their dysfunctional ways, even as humanity tries ever harder to patch them up.
So, if life is a koan for which there is no thinkable solution, “What,” you may ask, “do we do?”
The answer to this question is simple, though heeding this may take years to attain.
In all things have no preferences but be relaxed with paradox and ambiguity. Attach yourself to nothing for that will only bring suffering. Remember that whatever you pursue with your thinking, that is what will limit your awareness.
If you follow these instructions you will come to know why Bodhidharma said, “Not thinking about anything is Zen.”
You will see why Thích Nhất Hạnh said, “The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.”
You will understand the wisdom in Pema Chödrön’s words, “Without giving up hope—that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be—we will never relax with where we are or who we are.”
And why Lao Tsu said, “Do nothing, and all will be well.”
July 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
Has a dog Buddha nature?
This is the most serious question of all.
If you say yes, if you say no,
Dead your body, lost your soul.
Mumon’s verse on the koan MU may seem remote and far removed from our everyday life. To some, it may not even be a serious question at all. Yet are there not times when we couldn’t decide what to do? Should I take this job? Should I accept this proposal? Should I teach my children Buddhism or let them choose their own spiritual path when they are older?
When we don’t know whether to say yes or whether to say no we have encountered a barrier. Our world has become divided into a choice of “this or that” and “either/or” that leaves us wondering how to move forward. There is often a fundamental conflict over the question of who and what we truly are where we have the most difficulty. Outwardly it may not matter what we do but inwardly these barriers leave us in turmoil. Any choice, it seems, will lead to the situation reflected in Mumon’s words, “Dead your body, lost your soul.”
Zen koans purposely arouse our barriers. As it is thought that created the barriers any further thinking would only strengthen them, so the koan is designed to have no thinkable solution. They work instead by forcing us to give up thinking so we may open to a new way of being.
To be sure, thought does have its place and we should not conclude that we can get through life without it. But thought is just a handy tool for exploring the world. It begins with certain assumptions that necessarily divide the world into parts. These parts eventually come into conflict and when we try to integrate them back into a working whole we find we cannot. The initial assumptions we made and the subsequent line of thought that followed, makes reintegration via further thought impossible.
Believing that thought could resolve the very problems thinking creates is a fundamental error of thought. Yet as long as we believe that there is a thinkable solution we will look for it. Koans are a means to completely exhaust all thinkable solutions so we may finally realize that, in the Great Matter, thinking is useless. Then, divorced from thought and no longer looking for a solution or any change in ourselves, our true nature dawns. To quote Zen Master Dogen:
“The very ‘nowness’ of this is beyond anything I know of, beyond anyone’s ability to comprehend intellectually, beyond all your expectations, even beyond a Buddha’s Eye to catch a glimpse of.”