A student asked, "What is enlightenment?"
The teacher replied, "Flypaper!"
¬ Asked about the meaning of his novels, D.H. Lawrence wrote, "If you try to nail anything down in the novel, either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail." [The Letters of D.H. Lawrence Vol 8. Boulton, J. (ed) Cambridge UP 2001]
The same is true of Zen, yet over the centuries Zen students have persisted in trying to nail down the meaning of Zen. In koan after koan w hear an earnest young monk entreat his master, "What is the Way" or "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the west?" They are looking for something solid, something essential to hold onto, but Zen can't be nailed down. If you think Zen is something lofty and esoteric, the master will give you a shout or slap for an answer. If you think it is abstract, you'll be told it's three pounds of flax or the oak tree in the garden. If you think it is beyond words and abstractions, the master may quote the sutras or a poem by Han Shan. If you think Zen is nothing but our everyday life of eating when hungry and sleeping when tired, you'll be told it's the dance of a stone boy to a tune played on a flute without holes. Or as one old teacher replied when asked about the great immutable truth of Buddhism, "It just moved."
Over and over in our practice we try to nail down what practice is to some technique or some picture of who we think we are and what we supposed to be. But every picture we have of our path slams shut the gateless gate. Zen can't be nailed down any more than life can be nailed down. For awhile, we may get away with our techniques and conceptions and have our practice or our life go the way we want, but eventually life will refuse to stay within any boundaries we try to impose. These weeks following the World Trade center tragedy should be proof of that to all of us.
However, we can't simply turn off our thoughts and throw away all our mental pictures. A practice that claims to obliterate all conceptualization, either by settling into deep silence or coming out with great shouts, in the long run will probably succeed only in keeping our preconceptions comfortably unconscious. We need to make them explicit and keep them right out there where we can keep an eye on them; not bury them out of sight. That's why I think it good to keep using words like "Zen," and "enlightenment" and even "Zen master." Words like these serve as mental flypaper for all our expectations and fantasies. So much sticks to them! You know how beginners are often instructed to sIt as if a piece of string were attached to the top of their heads, gentling straightening their spines? Well, the other end of that string, where it goes into our skulls, I like to picture as having this big piece of sticky flypaper attached to it. And every so often we have to take that old piece of flypaper out and give it a good look and see all the mental bugs & dust balls that have gotten stuck to it. Just watch all the junk that sticks to "Zen" as it hangs down there in your mind. So to all of you who want to know what "Zen" is - here's my answer: "Flypaper!"