Approaching Koans. Feeling the question with all of our nature. Barry Magid January 26th 2013

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Seung Sahns Twelve Gates A mouse eats cat food

A mouse eats cat food when the cat's bowl is broken. What does that mean?

When Freud first wrote about the interpretation of dreams in 1900, he sought to explain their seeming irrationality and the strangeness of their images by saying that our unconscious mind was trying to keep hidden from our consciousness certain thoughts or feelings or wishes that were unacceptable. And so there was an elaborate mechanism and dreamwork to disguise what we really felt and it was let out at night in dreams only in this hidden way. In a sense a whole generation of psychoanalysts and therapists grew up thinking that dreams were something that needed to be deciphered, that they had hidden meanings that had to be decoded and there was an elaborate system for doing this, and you could get it right or wrong.

I think there’s an analogy to the way koans are often practiced within Zen. We can become preoccupied with their hidden meaning, get preoccupied with getting them right, thinking there’s a disguised or hidden answer that we’re not getting. But like dreams, koans basically use the language of metaphor, of image, to reveal something about who we are, and the way we can approach both, the way we would approach a poem, is to try to enter into the imagery, try to ask ourselves, in turn, what it would mean to be this part of the dream, this part of the koan. What does that feel like? What part of ourselves or our life does that stand for metaphorically?

Some ways we can approach that can be more evocative than others. We can share our feelings of a dream or a poem with another person. There may emerge associations that we haven’t thought of ourselves which make something about it more vivid to us. That vividness, that immediacy, is what it’s all about, whether we’re talking about interpreting a dream or interpreting a koan. It’s trying to make alive for us in this metaphoric way something that otherwise might simply be an abstraction. So lots of koans use elaborate imagery to illustrate some basic dualism that we carry around unconsciously in our life, such as a koan like this: Does a dog have Buddha nature? It immediately sets up a dichotomy: dog, Buddha nature, two things seemingly at the opposite ends of our spectrum. It asks us how we bring these two things together.

In that spirit I thought I would talk about a koan that isn’t usually used in our Japanese lineages but one that comes from the Korean Zen lineages, one that Seung Sahn used to talk about. The koan asks: A mouse eats cat food when the cat bowl is broken. What does that mean? It can seem like a riddle that we don’t know the answer to and we can get very preoccupied with wondering how do I answer that? We can just start by approaching it as a dream or as a poem and look one at a time at the images of a mouse, food, broken bowl, a cat. How can we relate these to our practice?

I’ll start with the mouse. The mouse is tiny, often timid, afraid, scurries around the edges of things looking for something. It’s a good image for how we start out in life, most of us, feeling like we’re too little, we’re lacking something, trying to get something, we’re hungry. Over there, the cat food, the cat bowl. And that big cat. Now obviously that cat’s got what we want. It’s got this big bowl of food and it’s grown fat and happy. And so as the little mouse we want what that cat has. I think it becomes a metaphor for how students always approach teachers. He’s got something I want. He’s got something I’m lacking. How do I get it? Now there’s a sense in which a broken bowl means it’s cracked and it’s available to a mouse who otherwise couldn’t climb up over the side. That’s how I picture it. It’s like first seeing an ox: It’s our first glimpse of the dharma, in whatever form that’s going to take. It’s tantalizing. But the dharma has to be broken open and given out to people in a form they can reach and understand. If it resides in a perfect unbroken bowl, then it’s like up on a mountaintop that nobody can have access to. It’s so perfect that nothing can get in.

But we can approach it. Fortunately there can be all sorts of people, like myself, who water it down so you can understand it, don’t keep it all hidden and esoteric, and we figure out ways to give mice a taste. So what happens? The mouse goes and gets a taste of the real thing, the cat food. Wow! Now I think what happens in the mouse’s fantasy and what happens to most of us in a beginning practice is that we go through a stage where we eat a little cat food and we turn into Mighty Mouse. We’ve now got the super cat food rocket fuel that lets us be really big and powerful and strong instead of a weak little mouse, and we get really energized by that. So that’s a stage of practice where we really think we’ve finally got us something, and our lives have been empowered and enriched and energized. Wow! We’ve got it! That’s more or less where people will spend their whole Zen career -- longing for the cat food, getting a taste of it, and if they get some they really feel full of themselves, and they get to play Mighty Mouse. That really feels very good although occasionally it doesn’t play well at home.

The problem is it doesn’t stop there. Well, for some people it may stop there and they’ll see if they can get away with it. But we’re not just talking about the mouse here. There’s also the cat in the corner. Somebody’s nice enough to put food in this cat’s bowl but what do cats really like to eat? Mice! So the mouse thinks that what’s in the bowl is the cat food, but really the mouse is the cat food. If the cat in some way represents a more fully realized state, the way that’s going to come about is for that mouse to get eaten, that mouse to die. Unfortunately it’s not part of the mouse’s script, most of the time. It’s not what the mouse has in mind. He thinks he can come in to a dharma center, grab a quick bite of the dharma, feel empowered, and then run out.

But dokusan is intended to be where the cat gets the mouse. Now that takes a lot of forms, and we have to try to understand what that can mean. When Joko gave me dharma transmission she said, I’m going to ruin your life. And that’s kind of a typical expression, which says, if you’re really going to do this, don’t think in terms of what you’re getting, think in terms of what you’re going to lose, what you’re going to give up. That mouse starts out thinking about it all in terms of what he’s going to get, and he can get a lot, but the real transition, the real big step is when the mouse gets eaten, when the mouse, the small self of a mouse’s ego, or self or whatever we want to say, something in that is what has to get killed by the cat, really get killed by the dharma, not get puffed up by the dharma, and what’s that actually going to look like or feel like?

Now in reality, from the mouse’s point of view, this is not good news. But part of the dualism, the false dualism of the koan, is that there are two separate beings: mouse and cat. But from the beginning we really are both. We’ve split ourselves into imagining there are these two aspects, but really there’s just one of me. It’s like they say there’s only one moon in the sky, not two. It’s not like you’ve got a big self and a little self. It’s just you.

What that means is that in some sense, that mouse side of us, which is small and preoccupied with a narrower range of interests, gets taken over by something bigger, something larger in our life. One of the ways we talk about that in practice is the transformation of gaining ideas into compassion and functioning. The mouse is basically a model of practice at the level of some gaining idea, some curative fantasy, something that’s going to make me bigger and stronger. But the cat in some ways wants to see the death of the mouse as something like what we speak of as no gain. What does it mean to transform our practice to a level that’s different from that level of gain into some higher or different or more other-directed kind of functioning?

Now there are lots of levels to this, and we can play with the imagery of the koan a little bit. I mean, cats of course can also get fat and happy and complacent. If you think that, well, I’ve gone past being a little mouse, now I’ve realized true Buddha nature and I’m a Roshi, you can get to be a pretty fat cat in your own imagination and try to live like one in the world, So there are lots of dangers in every level of this. But the cat in this koan really does need to live on mice, not cat food. It shouldn’t just be something out of a can, which is how much of us get the dharma, right? But we have to live on mice, on something that is alive and real in ourselves, we could say our own emotional reality. We have to keep going back to that over and over again and it has to feed us and nourish us. We’re not really like cats in the mode of trying to eradicate mice once and for all. This would eliminate our food supply. Just like we’re not trying in practice to eliminate our humanity. We’re not trying to extirpate our appetites, our desires, our emotions, or any other side of our animal nature as if it’s a pesky rodent. We can fall into a practice model that makes us think we’re an exterminator and all of those parts of us are like those rodents we want to get rid of. It’s the wrong approach.

Somehow we have to find a way to be nourished by that side of ourselves. That’s part of the healing of the split in our mind, between mouse and cat, between thinking that we have fundamentally two different natures that are at war with each other. As long as you picture yourself as having two sides, one of which is at war with the other, you’re never going to win. You’ve got to figure out how to bring those two things together.

Now when I talk about a koan this way, there may be people in the Korean lineage who say, well, that’s not how you answer or work with that as a koan. Well OK, they can do lots of different things with it. One way or another they’re going to engage these metaphors and usually in koans you enact them one way or another. But it really doesn’t do you any good to learn to answer koans. The real value is in learning to penetrate them as questions, to really feel all the sides of your own nature embodied in the different images. Students rush too quickly to try to figure out what’s the answer. It’s much more important to really feel what’s the question.

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