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Two Monks Roll Up the Bamboo Blinds

The monks gathered in the hall to hear Master Hogen of Seiryo give teisho before the midday meal. Hogen pointed to the blinds. At this two monks went to the blinds and rolled them up alike. Hogen said, One has it; the other has not."

Mumon's Commentary

Tell me, which one has it and which one has not? If you have your Zen eye opened at this point, then you will know how Master Seiryo failed. Be that as it may, you are strictly warned against arguing about "has" and "has not."

Mumon's Verse

  • When they are rolled up, bright and clear is the great emptiness. The great emptiness does not yet come up to our teaching. Why don't you cast away emptiness and everything? Then it ucid and perfect that even the wind does not pass through.

When we sit all day together like this, with such intensity, often with physical pain or emotional difficulty of one kind or another, we may very well have all sorts of thoughts of "has" or has not." Last period I was very focused, but now my mind keeps wandering, or maybe you imagine me thinking some of you are doing a good job, and others not - some version of pride or self criticism. If we're honest with ourselves, we all spend a lot of our time worrying how we're doing, caught up in some mind game of "has or has not." Yet in this story, the monks are said to have rolled the blinds up "alike." Now, we shouldn't get the idea that Master Hogen somehow is seeing into the minds of the two monks, and is somehow able to tell that one is doing his job with complete attention, and the other is being just a little bit lackadaisical, or some such thing, that isn't the point here. They really are doing exactly the same thing, and that gives Hogen an opportunity to teach us all something about the true nature of "has" and "has not." Look carefully at the two things Hogen does in this story, first he wordlessly points; second he speaks about "has" and "has not." One finger pointing, words making distinctions, what is the real relationship between these two?

The fact that what the monks are doing is rolling up blinds also has an interesting connotation in this context. Because blinds separate the inside and the outside, don't they? And by rolling them up, we're symbolically eliminating a boundary, making inside and outside one, revealing the sky - as Mumon says in the first line of his verse: "When they are rolled up, bright and clear is the great emptiness." That emptiness is the backdrop for this little drama of "has" and "has not." In a way, this what we do when we sit and label our thoughts, we set them against this great backdrop. Thinking I'm doing well, thinking I'm messing up, over and over we practice seeing these thoughts as thoughts, each just the momentary manifestation of our mind, and of our life, and of Life itself. We're not trying to making them go away, we just want to see them for what they are, as thoughts. The second line of Mumon's verse reads: "The great emptiness does not yet come up to our teaching." Why is that? It would be as if we all decided to go out and spend the day at Yankee Stadium, and just sit in our seats and look up at the sky. That might be very beautiful for a while, but if we wanted to play baseball, we'd have to divide up into teams, get something small and round for a ball and something long and hard for bat, and play a game that involves losing and winning. The sky knows no distinctions, but distinctions are what baseball is all about. And yet the game is played with that vast empty sky up there as the backdrop.

Sometimes we may imagine we should be able to completely empty our minds of all thoughts., all judgements, and all opinions, get rid of them, once and for all. But while we may have moments like that, it would literally be inhuman not to return to our ordinary minds which have thoughts and make distinctions all the time -though it is all too human to keep dreaming of some world or another of perfection. But if we do, we miss what Hogen is trying to tell us, that these two worlds are really just one world, this world, from which the sky never disappears, even when the blinds are rolled down. I'll end by reading another teacher's poem on this case, and then you all can come into daisan and we'll see whether you understand it or not.

Don't be overjoyed at right
Don't be distressed over the wrong.
For the ancient masters, things are like flowers and blossoms; Peach blossoms are red, plum blossoms are white, and roses are pink.
Though I ask the spring breeze why they are so, it knows nothing.