Cart without Wheels – A Talk by Leland Shields

Posted by on Jul 17, 2019 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Cart without Wheels – A Talk by Leland Shields

July 13, 2019

Hsi-chung Builds Carts

The priest Yueh-an said to a monk, Hsi-chung made a hundred carts. If you take off both wheels and the axle, what would be vividly apparent?

Wu-men’s comment: If you realize this directly, your eye is like a shooting star and your act is like snatching a bolt of lightning.

Where the wheel revolves

Even a master cannot follow it;

The four cardinal half points, above, below,

North, south, east west.

(Case 8, The Gateless Barrier, Robert Aitken, p 60)

I thank Larry for bringing this koan came to my attention recently. He referenced it as speaking to him in particular since he had a bike accident that has laid him up for weeks during recovery, surgery, and more recovery. It seems to me that Larry and Kay both have demonstrated the spirit of this koan in their responses to the immediate and profound change in their activities from the moment of the crash. One could easily measure one’s life by what it is not. At least as I’ve heard about it, both have lived the life they have, wheels off, yet living this without stopping. This does not deny that there must be difficult, tedious, and frustrating moments, if not days.

We all know the feeling that the world should be different than it is, I should be different than I am, or you should be different than you are, leading to statements like, “How could ‘they’…” or “How could I…”

Or, we can stop right here. Apparently, they/I could after all. What’s left to say but, “Damn,” and again, “Damn

The aspect of this koan that I want to address is the taking off of not only the wheels, but the axle. Sentences that start with the phrase, “I’m going to…” are ubiquitous. I’m going to the grocery store. I’m going to get in shape. I’m going crazy. I’m going to practice Zen. All these sentences are useful, expressive and communicative of something practical and necessary. And something can be obscured by each one of them. What if we take the wheels off each?

While in my car driving to the grocery store, all my little cloth bags in the trunk, list in my pocket, how do I take off the wheels and axle now? Or, as you listen to me speak you might think, “I’m going to make sense of what Lee is trying to say.” Presume for a moment Yueh-an is offering a perspective that is available to us right now.

While driving to the grocery store if I am listening to a song on the radio, dancing through the traffic within the choreography of traffic laws such that the destination is the drive, the wheels have fallen off my car. At 30 mph, I’ve already arrived at my destination with hands on the steering wheel. If the drive is a transition between home and store, taking 15 minutes here, 35 minutes in the store, the wheels are on my car. I’m moving from home to store.

When the bell rings to start the period, we reasonably adjust our posture so we can sit 25 minutes without too much discomfort, and settle in to focus on breath, on mu. If trusting the timekeeper we abandon concern for time, for what we need to do this evening to be ready for the week, intimate with this one breath, the wheels are off.

The idea of taking the wheels off is simple enough. Moving along now without wheels is difficult to maintain. The idea that we strive to no-wheel state, or should maintain a no-wheel state is to be in a transition from here to there, demarcating that I am not “there” yet. Of course we strive, sometimes in benign circumstances such as driving to the grocery store when the stakes are low. When the stakes are low it is easy to forget that here, in my car, now, is exactly and wholly my destination. There is truly no where to go. At such times there is little discomfort to motivate me in kicking out the wheels. It is likewise challenging when the stakes are high – surely there is a better way to bring practice to the chaos and confusion that is my mind as I argue with one I love, wishing for a bridge when there is none I can find. I don’t want this to be the destination so can’t imagine kicking out the wheels. Yet, there is no where to go. Once recognizing there is no where else, no where to go, only this confusion, while not fixing anything, struggle releases.

There is no more profound perspective offered by our ancestors than this one: There is no where else, nothing else. In The Gateless Barrier, Robert Aitken wrote that a single Chinese character represents both “wheel” and “cart.” With this recognition, he reminds us that the cart too is absent along with the wheels. Grocery shopping without wheels, without cart, bread and strawberries still find their way into my cloth bags, handles of bags find their way into my hands, hands find their way to wash strawberries in my sink. Strawberries are delicious. And some are rotten. Nothing of this could be otherwise.

Don’t let my stories of strawberries distract you from the relevance of absent wheels as we meet now. No need to wait another moment, or imagine another state of mind. This, whatever you or I are thinking or feeling, will do just fine.

There was a time when Soen Roshi would visit Dai Bosatsu Zendo in the Catskills. During one sesshin Soen would walk through the kitchen each morning as the cook was preparing the midday meal and ask what the cook was doing. Each day the cook said, “I am cooking to save the many beings.” The cook gave this answer once again after several days, but this time Soen slapped his open hand on the counter with a crack and loudly said, “NO! It is YOUR practice!” And then he walked calmly off. What would your answer to Soen be if he wandered through your kitchen before a meal? Of if he wandered through this Zendo as we sit?

In my last talk I included some lines from the Empty Bowl Sutra recently translated by Red Pine. Reading a little further in the sutra, there is a passage that fits nicely with today’s koan:

Manjusri said, “Indeed! So it is! It truly is as you say. Although a person dreams they travel to all sorts of places, they don’t actually leave or arrive, walk or stand, sit or lie down. They don’t really travel anywhere. So it is with bodhisattvas. Although they might cultivate a practice while they are awake, they have no conception of a practice. They view the practice they practice as essentially empty, like space. If bodhisattvas can practice like this, not clinging or engaging in any all-consuming fiction, they are truly fields of pure blessing among humans and devas and deserving of the respect and support of the world.”

Hearing this, Nagasri Bodhisattva was overjoyed and said, “In that case, Sir, I’m going to Sravasti to go on my begging round for the sake of others.”

Manjusri said, “Go then if you will, but when you do, don’t lift your feet or put them down, don’t bow or extend your hand, don’t think about anything or engage in fictitious nonsense, don’t think about the road or about the city or its neighborhoods, don’t think about anyone’s age or gender, don’t think about streets or gardens, buildings or houses or doorways. And why not? Because enlightenment is free from conceptions. It isn’t something that’s better or worse. It isn’t a contraction or expansion. It’s the mind free of disturbance, language free of fiction. It doesn’t contain anything to count or measure. This is the enlightenment a bodhisattva seeks. If, Sir, you can go forth like this, then by all means go on your begging round.”

We can all take Manjusri’s instruction during kinhin and walk without lifting our feet. Walking free from conceptions of walking is indeed kinhin, walking meditation. To be sure, this includes freedom from the conception of being free of conception. I find this last point to be of great importance. When I have a concept that my mind is disturbed, mired in the intention of clearing my mind to just walk, I am engaging in a fiction that I could be somewhere else, could be free while now I am not. At such times, I am engaged in a fiction that there is somewhere else to be, to which I want to leave here to get there.

In Confessions, Saint Augustine wrote:

I interrogated the earth, which replied, “It isn’t me.” And all things upon the earth gave the same testimony. I interrogated the sea, its depths, with their slithery live things, and they informed me, “We are not your God; seek above us.” I interrogated the veering winds, but the air with its flying inhabitants said, “Anaximenes was wrong; I am not God.” I interrogated the cosmos – sun, moon, stars – which said, “Nor are we that God you are searching for.” So I addressed the entirety of things that impinge on the portals of my body: “Tell me about that God of mine that you are not. Tell me something about him.” And clamorous together they spoke back: “He made us.” My interrogation was nothing but my yearning, and their response was nothing but their beauty.

(Augustine, Confessions, 10.9; in Wills, What the Qur’an Meant, p. 87)

I was touched by this passage, though I have to qualify my comments – in speaking about a tradition that is not my own I may be seeing the relevance to this talk that would not be fitting to Augustine himself. I see in this, a man with abiding yearning leading him to look everywhere, which is to say, everywhere else. In the end he discovers that he can rest here, in the yearning that gave fire to the questions, and see the vastness in beauty everywhere he looked. It is as if the cosmos asked Augustine if he were to lose the wheels of his yearning while with things upon the earth, then what? If he lost his place within the cosmos, then what?

There are at least two ways we talk about getting lost. One is expressed in a Chet Baker Song with lyrics, “Let’s get lost, lost in each other’s arms. Let’s get lost, let them send out alarms.” Herein is the spirit of wheels removed, engaged, active, beyond thought of self and other. In the spirit of the lyrics we can all recognize for ourselves to what Yueh-an points.

Another kind of “lost” is less attractive to us. In fact it can be exceptionally uncomfortable to perceive one’s self to be here, wanting or needing to be somewhere altogether different, with no clue as to direction towards the goal. In the worst of these moments we might not only have no idea as to which of the four cardinal half points, above, below, north, south, east west to choose as a direction to try, but believe we’ve already tried everything. The more motivated we are to move, the more frustrating and despairing to be here. All horsepower, no traction, like being in a perfectly powerful car on a perfectly icy road. Yueh-an also offers us something for this manner of being lost. There is nothing to do but turn off the engine and wait with open mind to take in the totality of the circumstances, and with creativity to see it all in a new way.

During this period and the next, we can yearn for the fruits of practice, yearning for the destination. Or simply yearn, and breathe, mu, hear. We can notice that knees feel as they do, thus there must be about 10 minutes left before the bell rings. Again, we can also sit with this breath, mu, hearing in a world without a bell. We can trust the timekeeper to hold the form and sit now with no bell, no destination, our striving revealed as no striving.

I made an omelet the morning after writing this passage, with red and yellow peppers, fresh basil, served over a tortilla with melted cheese on it. As I enjoyed it, it occurred to me that it would have been better with a fake-meat sausage I like. If your mind is like mine, you’ll understand that from that moment on, I began a square dance, circling sometimes with appreciation for the breakfast in my hand, and sometimes circling with the breakfast that I could have, but didn’t choose to trouble myself from the table to make the sausage. The practice perspective was clear, to eat the one breakfast. My practice was also clear in eating one breakfast with the one mind I had, dancing as it was. Even as I ate, I appreciated Yueh-an’s koan hanging around in my peripheral vision such that I could watch with amusement as the wheels of my mind fall off, fall on, and fall off in responding to the taste of my breakfast, and again in thinking about my response to the taste of my breakfast.

While brushing teeth with an electric toothbrush, a built-in timer shuts it off automatically after 2 minutes of brushing. There are some days it seems a very long time and I’m anxious to get on with my list such that my focus is on being done and what’s next. That is a time to invoke this koan. If weeding with focus on finishing a section rather than the weed before, it is a time to invoke this koan. Yueh-an is inviting us to a consistent practice with immeasurable potential. Each act is for itself, without destination.

Thank you, Yueh-an, for bringing the immediacy of practice here, always here, always available.

I’ll finish with a verse from Joseph Shabalala, the leader of Ladysmith Black Mombazo. This verse is taken from another song lyric:

Strong wind, strong wind
Many dead, tonight it could be you

And we are homeless, homeless
Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake