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Yun-men:The Sound of the Bell

The Gateless Barrier

Yun-men said, "See how vast and wide the world is! Why do you put on your seven -piece robe at the sound of the bell?"

Wu-men's Comment

All you Zen students, training in the Way, don't be victimized by sounds; don't follow up on forms. You may have realization on hearing a sound or enlightenment om seeing a seeing a form - that's natural. But don't you know that true Zen students can ride sounds and veil forms? They see all and sundry clearly; they handle each and everything deftly.

Perhaps you are such a person. But tell me - does the sound come to the ear, or does the ear go to the sound? And if you have transcened sound and silence, what do you say at such a point? If you listen with your ear, it is hard to understand. If you hear with your eye, you ar intimate at last.

Wu-men's Verse

  • With realization, all things are one family without realization, all things are disconnected
    Without realization, all things are one family with realization, all things are disconnected.

This koan shows us two sides of practice, two sides of our true nature and challenges us to reconcile them. "See how vast and wide the world is!" When we settle deep into our breathe, deep into our bodies, deep into the silence behind our thoughts, when we become transparent to the sounds of the city that enter the zendo, when we there is no longer anyone who listens or anything listened to, just the sound that fills us and the whole universe togerther, we are one with the vast world. In this oneness, there are no distinctions, no boundaries, no rules, no particulars. To realize this oneness is to realize one side of our true nature, but one side only. To protect us from getting stuck there, Yun-men asks, "Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?"

Since we here are all lay practictioners and not monks, we do not wear the ceremonial robes Yun-men refers to. But we ring bells, chant sutras, eat our meals with oryoki, engage in work practice. Why don't we simply sit and forget about all that? Wu-men says Zen students aren't "victimized by sounds; don't follow up on forms." That is, they are aren't stuck in a duality of self and object. But having become one with sound and form, how do you function? The sound doesn't come to the ear, the ear doesn't go to the sound, there is just the sound. But, "what do you SAY at such a point?" In oneness, all things interpenetrate and partake of one another, and the distinction between eye and ear vanishes. One then can speak of hearing with the eye, seeing with the ear, but still your robes must be on straight and the bell struck soundly the the striker and not your finger!

Yun-men challenges us with his "Why?" The cosmologist might ask "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Anyone who has had a taste of the vastness Yun-men describes is tempted to want to stay there. Why come down to earth? Why follow so many rules? But our life, our true nature includes both aspects, and we must learn to move freely between them until they are united in our every action. Wu-men says that it's "natural" that we may have "realization on hearing a sound or enlightenment on seeing a form" - but that naturalness, like an ordinary mind, does not come so easily.

  • "With realization, all things are one one family without realization, all things are disconnected."

This is the view of enlightenment "from the outside," so to speak. When we start out, we are in the grip of duality, with realization we see the oneness of all things. But then we still are in the grip of the duality of delusion and enlightenment.

  • "Without realization, all things are one family; with realization, all things are disconnected."

The Oneness of the universe is not a function of our subjectivity, not a state of our personal consciousness and the one family exists whether we realize it or not. But true realization goes beyond a recognition of the one family: each family member has their own identity, individuality and role to play. What is yours?