We all start off thinking we know who we are, where we are, where we're trying to get to, and what we think we have to do to get there. We have a picture--a pretty clear picture--the way our life is suffering. We have a pretty clear picture of how we want that to be ended, and the state we want to replace it with. And we usually have a picture in our mind of how we imagine practice, what we have to do in order to get from here to there. We may not think we're very good at it. We may think we're always doing it wrong or that somebody else can do it in a way that we can't, but we usually have, at least implicitly, a picture of what it is we're supposed to be doing, and where it is we think we're supposed to be going.
Now, the master implies that that whole picture of things, our usual clear-eyed view of the world, is part of the problem, not part of the solution, and that in some way, we have to stumble into the alternative: falling down a well, where we can't see a thing, where we're helpless, where we have no idea where we are or what to do. And the path is precisely in losing our bearings, losing our seemingly clear-eyed sense of who we are and where we're going. The path of practice is precisely that state of not knowing.
In many ways, we have to practice with the paradox that we are trying, in the very nature of practice, to undercut or deconstruct our very sense of what practice is. And when we speak of "just sitting," in a way we're talking about taking things down to the absolute bare bones. We’re eliminating any trace of technique, any trace of means to an end, bringing us back to immediacy without object or without goal.
Now, I think that that is one level at which to understand falling into the well, but I think that this kōan could also be understood at another level, as it applies to people who have been practicing for a very long time. Because if we persist in this, it may be that after a decade or two or three, we might arrive at some state where we think we have some clarity. And that sense of arrival, that sense of relief of the problems or uncertainty or doubt that first brought us to practice might be a place that we in some way become attached to. We can find an analogy in kōans like "How do you step off a 100-foot pole?" There, the dilemma is how do you come down from the pole onto the ground. In this case it's how do you go from the ground down into a 100-foot well? But in both cases, I think we have to confront a certain loss of clarity or certainty about where we've arrived and what we've seen.
Now, one way to think about that, traditionally, is that there has to be a move out of transcendence back into the ordinary, out of whatever experience of oneness or emptiness that might have been the fruit of our practice back down into the weeds of ordinary life. And that may indeed be experienced as a rather painful fall back into the very world of problems that we thought we came to practice to escape, and in fact that we in some sense had escaped through our practice. The dilemma is that our practice offers many, many opportunities for emotional bypass. To substitute so-called "spiritual" experience for real thorough-going emotional development. And almost everybody who's involved in this business has some experience with that.
It happens to be the anniversary of Thomas Merton's birthday. As you may know we have one of his calligraphies over the alter, a little ink drawing in the days when he was allowed to spend time at his hermitage. Merton is a pretty good example of a clear-eyed man who fell into a well. He was a deeply accomplished contemplative who, after being in the monastery for more than a couple of decades, fell in love with a young nurse when he was taken to the hospital for some medical problems. And he had to literally fall into love like falling down a well to realize what had been bypassed in his quite accomplished spiritual development, for there was something personal and emotional about love that could not simply be abstracted into God's love. This kind of fall into the well for a clear-eyed man is probably a necessary, but really very difficult aspect of our practice. We have to sometimes be painfully reminded about what we have come to practice to avoid dealing with. I suspect the recent news out of Zen Mountain Monastery where Abbot Ryushin, a very accomplished man and teacher, decided to resign over news of a love affair that he had been carrying on with someone outside the monastery. A clear-eyed man falls into a well. Someone of great clarity suddenly has to confront what has been bypassed in his practice.
There is a sense in which these are fortunate falls. Certainly for Merton, there was a way in which he needed to rediscover another dimension of love that he had been missing. I think a great deal of what happened in terms of misconduct with teachers in Zen over the last few decades is this kind of story, where teachers who try to find in asceticism or monasticism a solution to emotional problems in their life, find that at a certain stage they cannot forever bypass the needs for the love, or dependency, or vulnerability, or connection, that they came to practice in some way to get away from.
We have to fall back into those things. To fall back into the ordinary is to fall back into an acknowledgement of our basic needs. Zen is very good at talking about basic needs at the level of "When you're hungry: eat. And when you're tired: sleep." It's not so good at extending that to emotional needs, and certainly not sexual needs. We don't quite know how to extrapolate what is the right way to live a simple and direct life on the emotional, dependent side. That's the well that we have to fall back into. We hope we don't fall too hard, break anything too badly, or hurt anyone else in the process, but usually fall, we must.
Sometimes in order to find the path, we must lose ourselves. Sometimes to find ourselves, we must lose the path.