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Mumonkan Case 35 : Sen-Jo and Her Soul Are Separated

The Case:
Goso asked a monk, Sen-Jo and her soul were separated, which is the true one?

Mumon's Commentary:
If you are enlightened in the truth of this koan, you will then know that coming out of one husk and getting into another is like a traveler's putting up in hotels. In case you aren't enlightened, don't rush around blindly. When suddenly earth, water, fire and air are decomposed, you will be like a crab falling into boiling water, struggling with its seven arms and eight legs. Don't say then that I have not warned you.

Mumon's Poem:
Ever the same, the moon among the clouds Different from each other, the mountain and the valley. How wonderful! How blessed! Is this one or two? (this translation of the case is taken from Shibayama Roshi's “Zen Comments on the Mumonkan, Harper & Row, NY 1974)

This koan is based on an old Chinese folk story, which Goso is using to make a point about the nature of the true self. To summarize the story: Sen-Jo is a young woman who grew up in a little village along with her childhood sweetheart and the two of them always assumed that when they grew up they would be married. But when Sen-Jo came of age, her father picked out a different husband for her and told her she couldn't marry her sweetheart. Thereupon her boyfriend left town, because he couldn't bear for her to marry someone else. He got on a boat and sailed down the river. But after he had gone a ways, he suddenly saw someone following him along the bank and pulled over. Miraculously, it was Sen-Jo, who had somehow managed to follow him. She got into his boat and they sailed away to a far off country where they married and had children. Years passed and Sen-Jo missed her old father whom they had left behind in their home town, who had never seen his grandchildren. And so she said to her husband, “I can't just stay here and not know whether he is alive or dead. We must go back and make our peace with him.” So they got in the boat and sailed back to their hometown. And her husband now says to her, “You stay in the boat, and I will go meet with your father and explain the situation and then you can come out.” So he goes in and explains how he and Sen-Jo ran off so many years ago and how they are now happily married with children and how she wants to be reunited with him. And old father looks at him as if he is nuts, I don't know what you are talking about, Sen-Jo never left home. The day you left she fell sick, and has been lying in bed there motionless for all these years. The husband says, “No, no, she's out in the boat, she is with me right now.” So the father brings him to the bedroom and sure enough Sen-Jo is lying in bed. But then husband goes out to the boat and brings his Sen-Jo back into the house. When Sen-Jo walks into the room where her other self is lying in bed, somehow, miraculously, the part that has been sick all these years gets up, the two of them come together, and they merge and become one person. And (presumably) live happily ever after. So Goso asks: all those years Sen-Jo and her soul were separated - when she was split in half - which was the real one?
In order to understand this, we need first of all to understand the nature of the separation: the self or soul from the body, of one Sen-Jo from the other. We can all think of ways in which we have stood apart from our selves one way or another. Like Sen-Jo, in a very literal sense, if we try to split off some vital part of who we are, we will fall sick. Sen-Jo can't live without love, cannot live without marrying her sweetheart, she goes to bed, depressed and immobilized. Often, people come to practice because they have lost touch with something vital in themselves and are trying to bring it back. They rightly see that practice can put them back in touch with their body, their feelings, their connection to others. But unfortunately people can also use practice to rationalize having lost something and being cut off from it. And then they say, this practice will allow me to live without love, (or hope, or physical comfort, or recognition or any personal needs) to be strong enough to do without it. We imagine that we can exile some aspect of ourselves through practice and still flourish. If we go that route, we end up like a ghost and then call being a ghost being spiritual. But the bottom line is that we've lost something of our true self, our embodiment, and if we use practice to cut ourselves off from some aspect or another of our emotional reality, we have perverted practice and will eventually have to pay the price.
How do we connect this to the question which is the true Sen-Jo... who is the real me? If we cut off some aspect of ourselves, we must try to go and get it back. We can't be our true self if we are only half of ourself. But there is another side to Sen-Jo's story. One part of her is separated from another by a span of many years. You could say that that symbolizes what is actually going on moment after moment. The depressed Sen-Jo, the married Sen-Jo, the one that is united. You could say that these are all different self-states which succeed one another other. In the folk story, there is a gap of years but for us you may go through them all in 30 seconds... a moment of feeling depressed, feeling bored, elated, perfectly calm, restless. Which one is the real you? That is a question you really have to answer for yourself. Or, you might ask, which moment represents true practice? When you are sitting there all calm without a thought in your head or when the snot is dripping off your nose... wondering when is this going to end? Which one is true practice? We pass through all of these states and inevitably we prefer one to the other. We want one of them to be the real thing and we want the other to be something that we can push into the background and eventually eliminate. We want to pick out one and say this is the real one.
What is our true self? We may want to imagine that it is something deep inside with a nice polish or finish to it. Something nice, calm or compassionate, maybe. If I were asked who I am... how am I going to answer? I'm not going to answer with a description of some precious inner state that's the real me, I'm going to say I'm a psychoanalyst, a teacher, a father. All of these things don't have anything to do with what is inside me - they are all relational, they are all how I am in the world with all sorts of different people.
So who I am isn't something hidden deep inside, who I am is something that is constantly manifesting in all these different shapes and roles depending upon who I'm with, what light I'm in, what function I'm performing. It's always changing. Is it the same you that is doing all of these things? As it says in Mumon's the commentary, going from one state to another is like a traveler putting up at different hotels. The temptation is to think that there is an essential me that is the same but stops in different places. So that I have this experience, then I have this other experience, then I have a third experience…in each case it is me doing three different things.
This is a misinterpretation of what life and “self” actually are because there is no one that can stand outside and observe each one of these different experiences. The man who observes it is inseparable from what is being experienced, and the observer is changed in each case by what is being observed and experienced. It is not that I can tell you from the outside what it is like for me to be a teacher because the person who is going to tell you is also the teacher. I can't separate the teacher part out and say what it is like for Barry to teach... Barry and the teacher aren't two different people. And though I go through the day and go through all these different states it is not as if “I” am having them all, as if some unchanging me is having one experience after another.
Who I am is always subtly changing and being changed by what is happening. This is the part we all half get and half resist. How fluid do we allow ourselves to be, how much do we try to hold on to one constant state, one constant observer, one constant view of ourselves? By holding on to a view of an unchanging self, we may end up saying, I sat really well this morning, but badly this afternoon. But really who we are is just the experience of having it be one way in the morning and another way in the afternoon. You can't stand outside of that; well we can! -  but we end up like Sen-Jo -split in half. And then one half tries to control the other, one half may even try to assassinate the other if we aren't able to tolerate that all these different states and feeling are who we are. One day, the act of dying, like Mumon's crab hanging over a pot of boiling water, will be who we are.  Where is your true self then? When you look for the true self, where do you look for it? Deep inside? Will you discover it by some action of introspection? where are you going to find it? Right now, it's dripping from your nose.