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Zen Meditation: It's not what you think!

Not Knowing is most intimate

I spent last week in Mexico City. One of the people that I visited was a brother zen priest, Francisco Cinencio. Francisco has just published a book based on the sutra book and orientation that his late teacher Ejo Takata used with the people who came to practice with him in DF.

I have met several people who practiced with Takata roshi at different times, and I have been struck by the impact that he had on many students. When I speak with some of them, I get the strong impression that each one knew a different Takata-roshi. I think that Takata approached each of his students individually and what he saw as appropriate for one was not at all appropriate for another or even for the same person a different time. It seems that some people don't like Francisco's book. They are maybe dissapointed that they don't recognize the Takata roshi that he knew and wrote about with the Takata roshi that they knew. Is there a right and wrong in all this? I don't know.

Buddhism teaches that knowledge is a skill and not a body of facts. Skillfull Means is an important term in Buddhism. A teaching that is appropriate and helpful for one person at one time may not be appropriate or helpful at all at another time or for another person. Applying this understanding is what is meant by using skillfull means. If we find or are given a teaching that deepens our understanding, it is understandable that we might want to share this teaching. But it would be a mistake to think that the same teaching that helped us to see something clearly would do the same for everyone.

Book of Equanimity (Gerry Shishin Wick, trans.)
Case 20
Main Case:
Attention! Master Dizang asked Fayan, “Where have you come from?”
“I pilgrimage aimlessly,” replied Fayan.
“What is the matter of your pilgrimage?” asked Dizang.
“I don't know'” replied Fayan.
“Not knowing is the most intimate,” remarked Dizang.
At that, Fayan experienced great enlightenment.
Not knowing is the most intimate. When the first zen ancestor, Bodhidharma, arrived in China he appeared before Emperor Wu. The emperor was already a great supporter of Buddhism. He had built temples and ordained monks throughout his realm. When he heard that a holy man had come from India to his territory, he had the man brought to him. I think he wanted to get some recognition and respect. He said to Bodhidharma, “I have built temples and ordained monks. What merit is there in this?” Both the emperor and Bodhidharma knew that the teachings of Buddhism say that one accumulates merit from doing good deeds, so the emperor was just wanting Bodhidharma to acknowledge how great he was. Bodhidharma didn't take the bait. He replied, “No merit.” A little taken aback, the emperor asked, “Then what is the highest meaning of the holy truths?” and Bodhidharma responded, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” Maybe the emperor started getting angry then. “Who do you think you are?” and Bodhidharma said, “I don't know.”

That story is the first case in the Blue Cliff Record koan collection. And it's the beginning of Zen in China. It started with “I don't know.” Now I'd like to refer to another collection of zen koans, the Mumonkan or Gateless Barrier. The first case in that collection is known as Zhaozhou's “Mu.”

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” and Zhaozhou answered “Mu” which may be translated “Does not have.”
This story appears in the Book of Serenity also, but in that version two different monks ask Zhaozhou the question. One time he answers “no” and the other time “yes,” so we don't want to get too hung up on “mu” as being “the” answer. It seems like his answer isn't about his knowledge, but instead shows his wisdom in responding appropriately in two different situations.

It seems to me that the monks asking this question are uncertain about finding their own Buddha nature, and wondering whether even a dog is more realized than they are. They know that Buddhism teaches that all being has Buddha nature and they're troubled that they haven't been able to realize this for themselves. Can a dog be more realized than this dedicated monk? I used to really wonder when I was beginning Zen practice, because the zen literature encourages not thinking, non-attachment and not knowing. Was that any different from being a so-called “dumb” animal, like Zhaozhou's dog? Is it really true that ignorance is bliss? Was the ultimate state of awakening much different from being in a coma? I'd like to explore this a little in this talk.

Back to the Book of Equanimity. Dizang was first known as Guichen. As a young Buddhist monk, he studied and strictly followed the precepts of the vinaya, which is a list of over 200 precepts which theravadin monks still observe today. Eventually he decided that studying and adhering to these rules was not what he was seeking so he left his vinaya master and went to study zen He received dharma transmission but apparently was not particularly interested in being a Buddhist leader. However word about him spread and people began to follow him. He was invited to become the abbot of a monastery named Dizang for Earth Store bodhisattva. That's how he came to be known as Dizang (in Japanese, Jizo)

The other monk in the story, Fayan also had studied with a Vinaya master, and before that had studied the Confucian classics. The point is that both of these men were literate in a time when that was uncommon, and they had studied extensively in their pursuit of the way.

As the story goes, a young Fayan and some brother monks were on pilgrimage when a snow storm forced them to seek shelter at the Dizang monastery. This is where the exchange took place. It seems that another exchange took place when the group was preparing to leave the monastery. Maybe the first encounter still wasn't enough.

Dizang said, “I've heard you say several times that 'the three realms [desire, form, formlessness or 3 times] are only mind and the myriad dharmas are only consciousness.'” He pointed to a rock by the gate. “So do you say that this rock is inside or outside of mind?”
Fayan said, “Inside."
Dizang said, “How can a pilgrim carry such a rock in his mind while on pilgrimage?”
Fayan couldn't answer. He realized that he had found someone that could be his teacher. He put down his bag and stayed to study further with Dizang.
“How can a pilgrim carry such a rock in his mind while on pilgrimage?” This phrase reminds me a little of the familiar passage in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few.” The expert's mind that is closed to new possibilities may be like Fayan carrying that rock around on pilgrimage. If you carry your expertise around like a big stone, you've got a heavy load. Unfortunately, I've heard and repeated that phrase from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind so many times that I can quote it from memory. I guess I've become an expert at it, or at least knowledgeable about it and that means that I may have become closed off to it. Maybe this is a little bit like some of Takata roshi's students carrying around a fixed idea of him and his teachings. Ironic isn't it. It's not the phrase itself that is important. The identical words can sometimes open us and other times not.

Here's another story about Fayan after he became a teacher in his own monastery. It goes like this:

A monk had been at Fayan's monastery for some time, but had never gone to see the master for an interview.
Fayan asked why. The monk said, “Didn't you know that when I was with Ch'ing Lin's place I had an entry?”
Fayan said, “Try to recall it for me.”
The monk said “I asked, 'What is Buddha?' and Lin said, 'The Fire God comes for fire.'”
Fayan said, “Good words, but I'm afraid you misunderstood. Can you say something more for me?”
The monk said, “The Fire God is in the province of fire; he is seeking fire with fire. Likewise I am Buddha, yet I went on searching for Buddha.”
Fayan said, “Sure enough, you have misunderstood it.”

The monk became angry and left the monastery. But once he was on the road and had cooled down a little, he had second thoughts. He knew that Fayan was a highly respected teacher and so he decided to return to the monastery. I think this was a very important moment – the moment when he cooled down and decided to go back to the monastery. He had to let go of his pride and sense of accomplishment, but his desire to learn the truth was strong so he turned back and called on Fayan again.

Fayan said, “Just ask me and I'll answer you.”
The monk asked his question again, “What is Buddha?”
and Fayan answered, “The Fire God comes looking for fire.”
At these words the monk was greatly enlightened.

So when the first teacher, Ch'ing Lin, uttered this phrase the monk took it as an object of knowledge and used it to bolster his ego. Later, when he “swallowed his pride,” and let go of his ego and self-importance, the same phrase opened him to realization.

There's another story about Fayan that I think is helpful. Fayan was invited by a local governor to become abbot of a monastery in his province. People gathered for the opening day. The head monk came to Fayan to tell him that an audience was gathered around his seat waiting. He said, “In that case, they are practicing with a genuine worthy.” I think this is referring to his empty seat. Fayan took the seat and said, “Since you all have come here, it is impossible for me not to make some remark. May I point out to you a way to truth that was given by our ancients? Be careful!” After saying this, he left the seat.

Imagine that you are trying something for the first time, let's say cooking a new recipe, something you've never cooked before with ingredients that are new to you. What is you attitude? You're very careful. You don't know this recipe and so you pay particular attention to the ingredients and the instructions. You watch everything closely, maybe check the instructions over and over, cut and mix things carefully and give your full attention to all the details. You give particular awareness to what you are doing because you don't know. You're open to how things will go, because you don't know. I think this is getting closer to what Dizang meant when he said “Not knowing is the most intimate.” He's saying get really close to your experience, give up your preconceptions and prejudices, and be careful. You can't just stop at not-knowing. You actually have to begin at not knowing.

In another case of the Mumonkan, Nanquan advises a young Zhaozhou, "The Way does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is blank consciousness. When you have really reached the true Way beyond all doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. How can it be talked about on a level of right and wrong?"

So “not knowing” doesn't mean stupidity or mindlessness. Far from it. It's not advising some kind of blankness or insensitivity. When we don't know what we're getting into, we approach the situation with caution and heightened awareness, not with indifference and ignorance. It isn't “not knowing” per se where the intimacy lies. It's this attitude of being careful, of cultivating awareness and paying attention.

The not knowing that Dizang advises is not knowing that goes beyond knowing or not. As Nanquan told Zhaozhou, it's “as vast and boundless as outer space.”

It means not taking a fixed position on the way we think things are or we think they should be. It means being open to the way things actually are. We don't try to run and hide behind our beliefs, and we don't try to force the vast ocean of reality to conform to our prejudices and preferences. We are just open to what is, whether it is joy or suffering or anything else. Not knowing, not clinging to ideas or perceptions, trusting openness instead of trying to protect or defend ourselves... this is joining with Buddha in the absolute. This is taking refuge in Buddha.

As I said before, I used to wonder whether not knowing is any different from just being stupid. I was pretty sure that it wasn't, but I didn't know how to express that. As I thought about it I came up with some important differences. The first is that what we often call “stupidity” could also be called “wrong view.” The first practice in the eightfold noble path is “right view.” This means understanding the four noble truths and being able to distinguish the wholesome from the unwholesome. Wrong view means having a view, but a view that is erroneous. Stupidity is believing that you understand, when in fact you don't.

I think another important distinction between stupidity and the teaching of not knowing, is that stupidity thrives on ignoring situations, circumstances and events while the Not Knowing that the zen teachings encourage requires just the opposite. It requires giving mindful attention and awareness to conditions. “Not Knowing” requires being careful. Stupidity abhors it.

How is it that we can practice this not knowing? This is after all the most important question. I'd love to have a good answer. I think we need to look back to the teachings that we've just been talking about. What do they say? It's not really about knowing or not knowing, it's about paying attention and being careful. And it's about having patience, not being in a hurry to have everything figured out. This is just basic zazen. Give attention to your posture and breath. When you notice that you've latched on to thinking or fallen off into dullness, just acknowledge it without judging and return your attention back to the simple fact of the body, the breath and the situation right in front of you.

It actually requires some confidence to do this. Maybe even faith. Faith that we can enter into circumstances without putting up defences or trying to control everything. Faith that whatever the situation, this practice of being careful, of not knowing, is enough and that it will lead to appropriate action when that is what is called for.

Most of us need to develop this confidence. Sometimes we will still grab on to things and try to feel secure. It's a strong habit. But when we don't feel too threatened, in our practice inside and especially outside the zendo, we can risk ”not knowing.” And it probably will feel like a risk. But as we learn to do this in situations where the threat is low, we can begin to develop the confidence and faith in the dharma that will make it easier to feel less threatened or maybe to still feel threatened but not react the same way. We can allow ourselves to “not know” in more and more situations. This is the most intimate.

Thank you very much.

© 2006, Burai Rick Spencer

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