When you meet a Zen master on the road

April 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

Meditation is the practice of waking from the world of thought to the reality of the present moment. Koan study is one way to practice this waking.

In “The Gateless Gate,” koan 36 has Goso saying, “When you meet a Zen master on the road you cannot talk to him, you cannot face him with silence. What are you going to do?”

Mumon’s commentary on the koan reads: In such a case, if you can answer him intimately, your realization will be beautiful, but if you cannot, you should look about without seeing anything.

Meeting a Zen master on the road,

Face him neither with words nor silence.

Give him an uppercut

And you will be called one who understands Zen.

 

A key part of this koan is Mumon’s, “you should look about without seeing anything.” It is quite impossible to look and not see anything, so we need to go beyond any idea of ordinary perception to understand these words. But we needn’t step into the extraordinary because to look without seeing simply means to see the present moment without distraction.

Distractions are many. We are all thought litterbugs who toss judgments, fear and desire out onto the landscape to spoil the beauty that is actually there. So Mumon asks we focus on the moment and not the litter. He tells us to look without seeing.

Koan 36 addresses a particular type of thought litter surrounding authority but to understand it we must talk a little about the mind.

The mind works by constantly favoring significant details of life, while ignoring the insignificant. Actions considered favorable are encouraged, while others that do not are discouraged. Once the mind has figured out which is which, it sets up mental blocks or barriers to keep self-expression within the boundaries of what is acceptable. Over time these barriers fall into the background of consciousness where they exert their influence invisibly, or as projections in the outer world. Either way, their authoritative force is felt to be something exterior to the self.

To study this feature of the mind koan 36 provides a hypothetical Zen master as the recipient of projected authority and conflicting rules to represent its barriers. As with any koan, this study is not just an intellectual exercise but must involve the whole person. The full power of awareness must be brought to bear on the inner experience of being blocked by one’s projections. The invisible restrictions placed upon the self must be felt and made visible. Only then will the barriers be seen as your own mind operating as if it were some exterior force.

The coercive force of authority in social situations, like that presented in the koan, generally come from the belief that power resides in the other. If this belief is held within awareness and compared to the present moment, it will be seen as false. Then, something clicks, and you realize that it simply makes no sense to coerce yourself into inaction or into doing something you don’t want to do.

This “Aha!” moment is symbolized as an uppercut in the koan’s poem. It is not a call to actually hit someone but a representation of the spontaneous energy of the self being released.

With this initial realization the mind’s barriers begin to crumble. As it deepens and extends to other areas of life, all the authoritarian thoughts littering your mental landscape become apparent. The full realization of this “will be beautiful”, to use the words of the koan. “And you will be called one who understands Zen”.

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