Friday, February 13, 2015

Mumonkan, Koan 32: A Non-Buddhist Philosopher Questions The Buddha

photo: Leh Ladakh Tourism
A non-Buddhist philosopher said to the Buddha, "I do not ask for words; I do not ask for non-words." The Buddha just sat there. The philosopher said admiringly, "The World-honored One, with his great mercy, has blown away the clouds of my illusion and enabled me to enter the Way." After making bows, he took his leave.

Then Ananda asked the Buddha, "What did he realize, to admire you so much?" The World-honored One replied, "A fine horse runs even at the shadow of the whip."

The Buddha's answer suggests that someone who has trained their mind does not need to be to be told they are on the Path or told anything in order to learn. Just as the mere shadow of the whip is enough to make the horse respond, the enlightened mind needs no overt words or guidance.

Further, there is something in this koan about how what we have learned manifests itself in our behavior. When we learn something...truly understand it...then it becomes part of our nature. We do not need to be told or preached to or reminded. If a person has been enlightened or come to an understanding of something, then they need no words and that learning naturally manifests itself in their life and behavior. If that isn't happening or reminders are needed, then it has not been learned and we do not really know or understand it.

There's a big difference between saying words and living the meaning behind them.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mumonkan, Koan 31: Joshu Investigates An Old Woman

Trail to Taisan summit (photo by Scott on
A monk asked an old woman, "What is the way to Taisan?" The old woman said, "Go straight on." When the monk had proceeded a few steps, she said, "A good, respectable monk, but he too goes that way." Afterward someone told Joshu about this. Joshu said, "Wait a bit, I will go an investigate the old woman for you." The next day he went and asked the same question, and the old woman gave the same answer. On returning, Joshu said to his disciples, "I have investigated the old woman of Taisan for you."

It's helpful - but not essential - to know that Taisan is a sacred mountain full of temples to which many people make pilgrimages. So the old woman's comment appears to be a criticism of pilgrims for their practice of going to a 'sacred place' of any kind. This is solid Zen philosophy: Place or location have little or nothing to do with the Path or gaining enlightenment. If you cannot find it where you are right now, moving 5 feet away to the left or making a pilgrimage to a sacred mountain will not make any difference. I believe the disciples tell Joshu about the old woman because they assume her criticism reveals an understanding of Zen.

Joshu investigates the old woman, perhaps to determine whether she truly does have some understanding. If that is the purpose of his investigation then, as soon as she answers the question in the same way and gives him the same criticism, he realizes she possesses no true wisdom.

First, to provide the same guidance or criticism to everyone you meet is wrong-minded. It is generally true that a pilgrimage is not essential to enlightenment, yet even so and even if we assume that most or all of the people who pass her have wrong-minded reasons for heading to Taisan, one still cannot mouth the same platitude to all of them and pretend that it is wisdom (or even relevant to the person being addressed). This is why Zen does not proselytize nor transmit wisdom through literal explanation. At best, even the greatest teacher can only point the way. A seeker must find the Way for themselves.

Second, since Joshu is a master who is clearly already living on Taisan at this particular time, the old woman's answer proves that she is merely mouthing a platitude - because in this case the platitude is completely meaningless. Joshu was not asking her the way Taisan because he wanted to go there (he already was there!) and not because he was seeking enlightenment (he already had attained it!). Thus her criticism is off the mark. She is not evaluating the situation or person she speaks to, her pronouncement is like the repeated words of a parrot.

Joshu's remark at the temple lacks an explanation of what he found for two reasons: 1) He found nothing, and 2) It would be wrong for him to feed his conclusion to the disciples. They must think over what occurred and what Joshu said and perhaps find their own understanding of this event. By not explaining his conclusion, Joshu avoids making the same error as the old woman.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Back From New York City

Gawking at a massive meteorite at the MoNH
I've been to the Big Apple a few times over the years, but it was always very briefly and always for business. So I never have had a chance to see much of the city. Recently, The New Criterion ran a review of the "Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs" exhibition at MOMA. It's an entire exhibition of 100 works brought together to provide an overview of Matisse's last period of creativity. As often happens when I read about such shows, I thought: "Wow, I would love to see that! Maybe I will just go to New York." In one hemisphere of the brain and out the other; I never act on this impulse.

However, as fate would have it, the same issue of The New Criterion also had a review of the Met's exhibition "Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection". This privately held collection of cubist painting and sculpture is being donated to the Met and includes 81 pieces by Picasso, Gris, Braque, and Leger. I looked up from the magazine and said to Jim: "I'm going to New York."

He decided he wanted to go too, so it instantly became a trip. For the first time, thought was transformed into action! Of course, once it became a trip, we planned other things to do as well. We decided to buy a Wolf Kahn...until we got the dealer's preview and saw that prices on his work have gone up quite a bit since I last priced them. Fail. More successfully, we went to see The Book of Mormon, bummed around Times Square, and hit the highlights at the Museum of Natural History.

It was a short but very enjoyable trip! Sometimes it's a good idea to act on impulses.