The Physical Zendo is currently closed until Monday, July 1st

Recognizing the appropriateness of every response Barry Magid January 23rd 2010

Download Talk

The Blue Cliff Record, Case 14 The teaching of a whole lifetime

A monk asked Yun Men, “What are the teachings of a whole lifetime?”
Yun Men said, “An appropriate response.”

The teachings of a whole lifetime probably refers to the Buddha’s whole life of teaching, in which he is said to have taught continuously without ceasing since the day of his enlightenment until the day of his death. Everything he did and said and lived was his teaching. What is that whole lifetime of teaching? Yun Men sums it up or manifests it in a simple phrase, an appropriate response.

When we hear that, we think about what appropriate usually means, we think of it in an ordinary sense as appropriate to the circumstances, something like skillful means, a response that takes into consideration who the person is, what their situation is, what they’re capable of understanding, are they a simple person, an intellectual? Our ordinary sense of an appropriate response is something guided by our empathy or understanding of the person in the situation and something that is geared to be most helpful to them. And that’s an important level on which to evaluate everything that we do, but I think if that’s all that Yun Men meant here, it wouldn’t be preserved as a koan. It might be a good teaching but we would not see it in the Blue Cliff Record.

So we have to look at it in the context of the kind of lesson these koans point to, and fundamentally they are all going to be lessons about non-duality. If we start with that premise, then we immediately look at the contrast between an appropriate response and an inappropriate response, and say that there must be something in the question and answer here that is asking us to examine the way we set up that usual dichotomy between appropriate and inappropriate, and are somehow challenged to dissolve that distinction. One way in which we think of it as dissolved is in the question itself, where the monk refers to a whole lifetime of teaching. There’s something seamless and continuous there, not divided into the good parts and the bad parts, or because it's Buddha, maybe it’s just the long boring parts. Some of those sutras are pretty devious.

But the whole lifetime of teaching points to something that is seamless. So we need to ask what really do we mean by the appropriate response, what would be an example of that? One that I thought of was going back to Buddha’s day, the story of the transmission from Buddha’s first disciple, Mahakasyapa, who became the first patriarch to the second, Ananda. As the story goes, after Buddha passed away and Mahakasyapa took over the sangha as its teacher, Ananda, who had been with Buddha for many, many years of his life and had this perfect recall for all his teaching, went to Mahakasyapa. Something was still not resolved for him, and he asked, The Buddha transmitted to you his robe and the bowl. Is there anything else that he gave you? In the question there’s a sense that Ananda’s the one who recalls everything the Buddha said. So he knows better than anyone there alive what it was that Buddha gave. And yet there’s something that he feels must lie beneath the surface or beyond the words, that is beyond the symbols that were transmitted to Mahakasyapa.

So he says, Other than the robe, the bowl, there’s something else. What’s the essence? What else did Buddha give you? Mahakasyapa looks at him and says, Ananda? Ananda says, Yes? Mahakasyapa says, Take down the flag. Take down my teaching flag. Put up yours. What was transmitted? Ananda? Yes? See? When Ananda immediately responds to his own name, Mahakasyapa shows him, There’s nothing else. There’s just this immediacy.

And with that, somehow Ananda, in recognizing his own name and responding without thought, got something of the dharma that he never got listening to the words of the Buddha decade after decade after decade. We can say that Ananda’s Yes? is a quintessentially appropriate response. But what could he have made as an inappropriate response? Didn’t he know his own name? See, it’s that kind of immediacy in which you can’t get a right answer because there’s no possibility of having a wrong answer. Appropriate only makes sense if you can contrast it with inappropriate. But in that kind of exchange, there’s no way to miss.

This morning, in my opening remarks as we began sesshin, I said that each moment calls to us, and each moment we respond. Sometimes we will say yes to that moment, sometimes we’ll say no. We’ll say no in some kind of form of resistance or judgment. But the immediacy of our no of our judgment or our thought is just as great, just as automatic as a yes. It’s automatically called forth by the moment. It is a perfect expression of everything that we are right up until that moment. You could say every moment, all our character and history and training, are just now manifesting as this. We can’t miss. We can’t miss perfectly expressing the sum of everything that we are in that moment.

That’s our face showing up in the mirror. There’s no way we’re going to get it wrong. Our face is going to be right there. It’s going to be shown to us. And whether we’re smiling or crying or looking distracted, it’s us. A mirror is always giving an appropriate response to a face in front of it. So our practice is recognizing the appropriateness of every response and how much of a whole lifetime of teaching is summed up without fail in each moment’s response. Is there anything else?

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.