Zen Koans in Relationship – A Talk by Lee Shields

Posted by on Apr 20, 2015 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Zen Koans in Relationship – A Talk by Lee Shields

(At the Three Treasures Sangha zazenkai on April 12th, Lee Shields talked about koans relate to the everyday. Read the talk below or download it.)

Photo of Leeland Shields

It is customary in giving a talk to begin with a koan or traditional text. Though I don’t always follow that tradition, today I would like to offer two koans that I have spoken about recently, and take them again from a different perspective.



Chu-chih (Gutei) and T’ien-lung

One day toward evening a nun named Shih-chi (True World, as Yamada translated her name) appeared at [Chu-chih’s] hut. True World did not knock or call out when she arrived, but just walked in…and there was Chu-chih, sitting in Zazen, right in the center [of the single 10×10 room]. Without taking off her sedge hat, she walked around him three times and then stood before him saying, “If you can say an appropriate word, I will take off my hat.” [She rudely did not follow etiquette by bowing.] Chu-chih was unable to respond. He seemed dumbstruck.

So True World walked around him three times again, stood before him, and said, “If you can say an appropriate word, I will take off my hat.” Again he was unable to speak. She repeated her performance still a third time. Silence. So she turned and walked out. When Chu-chih finally came to himself, he went to the door after her and called out, “It will be dark soon. Why don’t you stay the night?” She turned around and said, “If you can say an appropriate word, I will stay the night.” He still couldn’t say a word, so she left.

Chu-chih was downcast. He felt he had been defeated by True World and thought, “I’m going about this matter of finding realization the wrong way. I need a good teacher.” He packed his gear and then, because it was dark, sat nodding over his pack, waiting for dawn. Suddenly, the tutelary deity of the mountain appeared there in the dark and said, “Don’t leave. A great Zen master will come here soon and you can consult with him.” So Chu-chih unpacked his gear and waited. Sure enough, in a couple of days T’ien-lung appeared.

Chu-chih told him the whole story, and T’ien lung raised one finger. With this Chu-chih was enlightened to the dimensions of the true world.

(Translation by Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier)

The second koan is from The Entangling Vines: A Classic Collection of Zen Koans

Case 154
There was an old woman who supported a hermit. For twenty years she always had a girl, sixteen or seventeen years old, take the hermit his food and wait on him. One day she told the girl to give the monk a close hug and ask, “What do you feel just now?”

The hermit responded, an old tree on a cold cliff; Midwinter – no warmth.

The girl went back and told this to the old woman. The woman said, “For twenty years I’ve supported this vulgar good-for-nothing!” So saying, she threw the monk out and burned down the hermitage.

(Translated by Thomas Yuho Kirchner, The Entangling Vines: A Classic Collection of Zen Koans

These stories both involve monks who have separated themselves from the world in order to dedicate themselves to the Way of Zen. Both monks have the world outside their huts intrude upon them, in these cases in the form of women, demanding that their practices include interface with others. Each and together, they provide opportunities to understand and hone our lay practices.

When previously discussing these stories, I focused on their reflection of our personal practices, yours and mine. We can also see through them to engage in the one practice we all share.

This is a simple, lovely, and sometimes demanding practice. It affords an opportunity to slow our minds, our lives, so that we can fully experience the light of day washing across the wood floor, in a slow dance from the east, and in a continuous motion, to the west. Bells ring and we sit. Bells ring and we turn, stand, and walk. Playing our own part in the dance with the light, keeping our time as the sun moves, not too fast, and not too slow. Our cadence is set with bells and clappers and with few words. Together we move through the day. And individually face the wall, breathe, listen, return to mu, and practice in the ancient way. Just this. Neither one nor many, just this. In the simplicity of this space, we practice, sharp and dull are part of the dance, focused and dispersed. Eyes open, again we receive the light shining off the grain of the wood.
moon3We have koans and stories in our practice that demonstrate the fundamental experience of the Buddha – just this, in words, in deeds of slaps, and simple gestures (lift finger). We also have stories that point to path, paying attention, letting all else fall away. I am grateful for the forms we have as well, that bring us together on a day like today, sitting many hours in silence. In the silence we have elegant simplicity – each with our reactions, expectations, and stories arise that are undeniably our own. In the near-silence of our form, if one’s attention is drawn to our own regrets, or wanderings, there is no other to blame or take responsibility. It is up to each of us individually to find a way to foster falling away. Whatever anyone in the room is doing, each of us has one focus. It may seem that your practice is your own, and mine is my own.

The practice in the give and take of interactions when we leave this room has a different cadence. Even if fundamentally no different, it often seems very different. How do we carry our practice to the fast, interactive world of relationships?

It is essentially the same to carry Zen practice out of this building, or even in interacting out of this room but with each other in informal times. When we meet each other, our friends, family, and coworkers, there is still only just this, still only attention. Meeting a friend, or one with whom we have discord, is no different than meeting Chao-Chou as he shouts Mu! No different than observing Chu-chih raise a finger. But we are not in ancient China, so the response must in in accord with each of us, here, and now, and in accord with who and that which is with us.

I read a magazine article years ago that comes to mind in reflecting on the one practice we share. The article was written by a musician who wondered how animals related to each other through music. He didn’t stop with wondering though; he also made a practice of it. He took a number of instruments and went to a place where he knew birds sang at sun rise. He sat under the tree in which a bird was repetitively singing a beautiful song, and he played a couple of instruments, listening to see if the bird would sing and play with him. When he played the flute, indeed, the bird began to adapt her song, and they played together for some time. The bird was not just singing independent of the world around her; her song was a part of the whole.

He then went to a wildlife preserve one moonlit night and sat down with a fence between him and where wolves were baying as a pack, together. The musician listened a long time before joining his voice to theirs, but when he did, the wolves all immediately stopped baying as if of one voice. He waited through the silence until they began again and listened before he tried his own voice in another way. Again the wolves ceased their song. One sat directly across from him as if to mentor him. He repeated his attempts several times until he was able to find a way to sing such that the wolves continued. The musician and wolves together sang for quite some time, before all stopped again naturally, sitting in silence. He on one side of the fence, they on the other. All appeared content, looking at the moon; over time the wolves stood and wandered away. Let me share a third, I’ll say jam session, the musician had. He made an instrument that floated in the water which he could strike with mallets to play various notes. The sound resonated though the water as he played it. He took this instrument to places he thought he might find porpoises swimming, and paddled out near them. With goggles, he put his head under water so he could see the keys, and started playing. The porpoises changed their path to swim in circles around him. Enthralled, he kept playing; the porpoises started breaching all around him, splashing back into the water, as he lifted his head out of the water briefly to watch and back under to play. After some time, the porpoises continued their original path and swam off.

(Full disclosure: I read the story a long time ago and may not recall all the details accurately, but I’m confident I got the main ideas right)

Central to our practice, whether in this room of black cushions, in the kitchen over informal lunch, or joining the cacophony of life and relationship, is the letting go of concepts, and to stand with that which is simply true, not filtered through words. The musician’s story came to mind as I wrote this talk as an example of interactions in relationship and without concepts. Acknowledging that I don’t know the minds of birds, wolves, and porpoises, I expect that these creatures are responding to the world with less of a story of self, past, and future. The musician was not able to join their dance and song on the first try, but he kept, listening, and with these various creatures, shared one practice. Just baying. In accord. Of one mind, body, and species.

What does it take to seamlessly join in relationship? In the story of Chu-chih you may conclude it takes a sharp mind, quick enough witted such that one is never caught without a sage response. Perhaps Chu-chih had that expectation of himself and thus was not able to respond to True World. But T’ien-lung’s response, raising one finger, is ordinary. Nothing special. If Chu-chih were not quick witted, and held no concept that he was insufficient for it, he may have returned to his seat after True World left, thought to himself, “Darn, that’s so embarrassing that I can’t come up with something more quickly.” Resting in the truth doesn’t mean equanimity as we might wish, but can include equanimity with embarrassment and awkwardness. That too is no-self.

Taking this outside the hut can be even more difficult.

Koans point directly to the fact. Dropping concepts can lead to dropping of distinctions of self and other, like a wave on the ocean. There is no denying that there are individual waves, but where does one start and one end? One pod of individual porpoises playfully circles, in one motion swimming, breaching, and playing music. There is one voice of flute and bird. One Sangha joined in sitting on a gleaming wood floor. And one presentation in an argument with one’s spouse, friend, or family member.

So far this sounds comfortable. How nice would it be to always respond without investment in my image of myself and others’ images of me? Our stories and koans are often involving interactions with people who don’t know each other. Chu-chih had apparently not met True World, and the monk in the hermitage apparently did not have an intimate relationship with the young woman who brought his food.

In our lives today, the deepest challenges to practice often come from those we love and/or are familiar with. When present, love can offer a powerful experience of being known and accepted. A colleague of mine described love as death to therapy because what could be wrong when loved and accepted? Love can also include an experience of resting in the truth of what is – this is who I am – and no separation of self and other.

Any love story I know of outside of a few Disney movies also includes stumbling on differences and disappointments. At such times it isn’t a stranger circling us rudely, it is a colleague doing so repeatedly, wearing us down. Or a spouse, parent, child, old friend, or all of the above. When one we have trusted or need to trust is disrespectful and critical rather than accepting, he or she is circling, asking for a word. In such a moment, you are Chu-chih, with the knife of the question reaching close to the bone. What now is your ordinary response?

When your investment in the relationship is deep, or the investment in an idea of yourself is central to your expectations, it is difficult to welcome the truth of what arises. When the pace is conversational, rather than that of the path of the sun, it is harder to see past the immediate. Formal practice no doubt helps us to loosen the ideas of self in all areas. The story of the hermit and young woman warns us that just practicing in isolation may not be enough though. In relationship it is easier to notice when we have slipped from the open-handed experience of “we,” and my voice as one indivisible component of a boundless whole, to experience of “you,” and “I.” But don’t worry, True World will let you know.

In our lives we sometimes have the more uncomfortable experience of meeting not a stranger, but someone who is calling us out on something we did or didn’t do. Whether we agree we made a transgression or not, there are times each of us inevitably hurts or disappoints someone we care about.

Picture one of these probing encounters in your life:

You forgot to take out the yard waste and now the house smells like fish. What were you thinking?

You know how important it is to me to get places on time, yet you were 45 minutes late. If you cared…?

How could you drink again after all the family went through before you went to rehab?

What’s the point; I just wish I would die.

I want a divorce!

tired-twoOr, perhaps one in which someone you care most about tells you how you let her down, or how furious you are that he let you down. I suspect lifting one finger would not be well received as a response in many instances. If you settle into the encounter, allow all ideas that anything should be otherwise to fall away, what then is your ordinary response? Take raising one finger not as a response to repeat in a perfunctory way, but a demonstration of acting with immediacy, simply and directly. Perhaps something like, “I’m so hurt I don’t know what to say.” Or, weeping. But only that if either expresses what is true for you, and in accord with where you are. Lighting a match to see may be a perfectly valid choice when you truly need light, but it is still an unfortunate one if you are standing in a dusty coal mine. Or your genuine response may be to tango, but doing so when band is playing rock is likely not in accord. So what is your response to the band? Expanding one’s practice to include the world in which one abides breaks the separation of inside and outside. There is no appropriate response in isolation. Taking it further, we can also say there is no isolation possible.

I heard of a Zen teacher who counseled that whoever, and whatever we encountered we can say, “This too is me.” It was a client that gave the phrase to me, from a teacher of his years before. I found it helpful and so pass it on to you. The expression from that (unknown) teacher is another example of the ways our responses to the world are more than solely our own; they join the totality in ways we may never realize.

Now, fully attending to the one with whom you are arguing, hurting and feeling hurt, allow the ideas you hold about who you are, who with, and where you are to fall away. Now, there is just the truth of who you are in this moment, whether or not it fits with who you wish you were.

This too is me.

Now there is just the truth of who your loved one is, however either of you feel about that.

This too is me.

Now there is the room, perhaps others around, perhaps your fatigue from a long day, and tasks yet to be done. What is your response? In this case, it could include first sitting down with a sigh.

This too is me.

Going back to the koan of Chu-chih and the old-tree-midwinter hermit, we could also describe each as holding back rather than responding fully. Recall instead Yun-men when his leg is slammed in the door and he shouts in pain. Recall instead Chao-chou’s Mu! We can see another way to respond to the world outside our “huts” is to hold nothing back, act with nothing left. Acting with nothing left can still be simple, such as a bow, with body and mind. To try this out, when we complete chanting the 4 Great Vows; stand and bow without leaving your cushion.

There is a seeming contradiction that comes up often when we talk about a full and genuine response. I could walk into any bar downtown and before waiting too long, probably observe someone who was acting less fully than he was several drinks earlier in the day, ready to express anger without holding back. And that anger may be quite genuine. So why bother with all this sitting if instead we could act irresponsibly by drinking instead? This is not the same for two reasons: One is that our exemplar drinker is likely to be very engaged with him or herself, but not as likely to be imbedded in and in accord with the room and others in it. The second is that acting to protect a limited self is not the same as acting fully. When hurt and defensive, it is very difficult to point to that in ourselves we wish to defend and say, “This too is me.”

There is much more that could be included in this topic, but there is only one more point that I feel compelled to include before stopping for the day. As I wrote this I recalled a teaching of Eido Roshi that I can still picture him delivering. At Dai Bosatsu Zendo, at the end of the meal, we passed tea pots down the long table for use in cleaning our oryoki bowls. The tea pots were passed on one side only. If I were on the side that received the pot, holding the handle with two hands, we would bow and I would offer tea to the person across from me, pour my own, and then pass the pot to the next person. Eido Roshi admonished us that when offered tea, to take a careful and mindful bow before offering our bowl, left the one holding a heavy pot with arms outstretched, waiting uncomfortably. He reminded us that to be sincere and perfect in our form at the expense of another was not in keeping with compassion and not acting in accord with others. This was deeply meaningful to me as a reminder that practice itself could be a barrier to acting in accord if we are not watchful. Herein is a koan which is presented to each of us sometime. The awareness of the heavy pot may be straightforward enough, but how often do we have to choose between engaging in the ritual of practice by attending a formal sitting event of hours or day, rather than eschewing the ritual and cancelling our retreat plan to support a loved one in crisis? And what if it isn’t a crisis, but on a spectrum of need?

Returning to Eido Roshi, when later learning that my beloved teacher was causing harm to women students that he slept with, I was reminded even more deeply to bring humility to how I considered what practice offered to me. Even while returning to the marketplace with “bliss-bestowing hands,” none are immune from being wrong, and failing to act in accord. Most importantly, we may not know it when we do.

Still, if not taking Zen as a protection from error, we can still use the experiences and principles of our practice on the cushion, and off.

— Lee Shields