The monk here is asking the kind of question that in one way or another leads us all to practice. He says the physical body decomposes, and he’s asking, What’s the alternative? The physical body decomposing is literally enough of a problem, but it also stands in for all the suffering of impermanence, of change. It’s not just that things change, but that we can’t control that change. We can’t hold onto what we find good and we can’t keep out what we find bad. So the decomposition of the physical body is a literal version of the problem that begins the Four Noble Truths, that life is suffering. The decomposition encapsulates the problem of attachment and desire. We want to hold onto or control, somehow escape the reality of impermanence. The monk asks, What is the immutable reality body?
Now, that may sound entirely fanciful as an alternative, and to some extent it is, but traditional Mahayana texts say that the Buddha has three bodies: First is the nirmanakaya body, which is the body that decomposes, undergoes changes and dies, the body we all are familiar with. But there’s also the dharmakaya, the body that’s the immutable reality body, the body of emptiness, the body of the absolute. In what sense is this body different from the first?
Now Dairyu’s answer is very interesting in that when asked about what is immutable, he says, Mountain flowers bloom like brocade. Valley streams brim blue as indigo. He gives as examples flowers blooming in their season and the color of flowing water. His examples of immutability are really paradigms of change, of seasons and flowing water. You can say that one way to look at this answer is that he’s saying, The very thing you complain about, the change that brings about the decomposition of the body, is the very same thing that brings about the blooming of flowers in the spring and the flowing of water. That change has both of these aspects. They are two faces of the same thing, and one does not exist without the other. All that you love and hold dear in this world is the same thing that causes this world to go away.
But he also answers the question about one person’s physical body with reference to the whole world, a vision of the whole landscape. Another way of looking at that answer is to see that as you change, you change along with and part of the whole world, which you both leave and never leave, which goes on forever in one way or another, and even though it never holds still, it never disappears either.
Now if this monk had asked a different kind of teacher this same question, you might have gotten a very different kind of answer. If you ask, All I know is the suffering of this relative body, this body of impermanence and change. What’s the alternative? What’s the absolute? If you ask that kind of question of a teacher like Rinzai, he might just shout or he might hit you upside of the head, and he’d demonstrate the absolute to you, which is just this moment. Whack!
Dairyu gives a very different kind of answer. He gives an answer that’s all about particulars, not some absolute thing that is featureless, which in a way is more what the monk is asking for. He’s trying to say, I want there to be some experience that is behind and transcends my ordinary daily experience, and if you get a teacher who gives you a big shout or does something really Zen-like, you can have the sense of doors being opened up into a whole other realm. Or if you have some kind of experience on the cushion, you may feel that another world has opened up, that you’re no longer in your daily life of suffering, but somehow you’ve entered another realm, a curtain has been drawn aside and you see reality now.
It’s a common feeling and a common way of talking sometimes about spiritual experience. In a lot of different traditions you get the image that all we see is appearances, like a curtain, but behind the curtain, behind these ephemeral appearances, is the deeper spiritual reality. In a way that’s what he’s asking about here. What’s that immutable reality behind the scenes, behind the curtain? A lot of traditions, both East and West, have some version of thinking that there is something behind the curtain, and you can see beyond this world of appearance into something eternal, something transcendent.
But Zen really says, when you pull aside the curtain, there’s nothing at all behind it. And when you see through appearances, there’s nothing behind appearances. If there’s nothing behind appearances, they’re not really appearances, they’re as real as anything. There’s not a deeper level of reality behind what we’ve taken to be a superficial appearance. Dairyu’s answer speaks right to that. It’s as if he says, This world of change and appearance is the only world there is. He doesn’t go along with this monk’s desire to have the absolute presented to him in some kind of dramatic form that will make him think that Yes, there’s something else and I can get it! It’s just this world of seasons and flowing water and decomposing bodies. Just all one world.
Now the third body of the Buddha that is alluded to is the sambhogakaya body, the bliss body. But it means the body that unites the dharmakaya and the nirmanakaya, the reality body of emptiness and the body of suffering and impermanence. It’s the realization of the identity of these two. It’s very easy in the course of our practice to get stuck like this monk pursuing some version of an alternative reality rather than seeing all we’re going to do is have a different relationship or a different stance to the one reality that there is.
Some of you may know a funny optical illusion drawing called the duck-rabbit, and it’s a little figure that looks like a head with two big protuberances coming off and if you look at it one way, it looks like a rabbit with two big ears, and if you look at it another way it’s a duck with a big open beak. As with the case with drawings like this, you can look at it for a very long time and only see the rabbit. You’ve heard that there’s a duck there but you just cannot see it. And suddenly, all of a sudden, you see it, both figures are right there. And it looks like the drawing has changed but of course nothing has changed. You’re just seeing it in a different aspect. Now if you’re, say, Elmer Fudd, and you hate rabbits, you love ducks, it’s a very funny experience to see that the rabbits that you hate and the ducks that you love are actually a single duck-rabbit creature. And they’ve been one thing all along, and you’ve resolutely tried to assume that you can split them apart, and there’s a bad rabbit and a good duck. But it’s just one creature seen from two different sides.
That’s pretty much what this koan is saying about the world of change and decomposing bodies. You can say that Dairyu is fudging a little here and anesthetizing the world of change and making it this beautiful thing of flowers and streams, and you know -- change is just the world of cherry blossoms. Right? Well, it’s also the world of sickness and death and decomposing bodies. Can we have the same attitude across the board? Well, of course not. We’re going to react to those different aspects differently.
But our reaction will change if we don’t think that there’s an escape clause, if we don’t treat our practice as a big Get Out of Jail Free Card at the end of the game. It’s really about bringing these two sides together, and we do that only when we’re very honest about our desire to have an alternative, to have an escape clause the way this monk is grasping after one. We have to see the way in which we try to enlist practice in the service of trying to get away from our life rather than giving in to our life. We can come up with very high-falutin language like this monk does in terms of the immutable reality body when we think about what the alternative is. We may try to just be more down to earth and say, All I want is a little peace and quiet.
But the world that gives us peace and quiet also gives us all the noise of the city and it’s one world. For our practice, we have to bring these sides together, and that only happens when we’re really honest about how much we try to split them apart. We can’t heal that until we’re very honest about the split, how we’ve tried to pull life into two pieces and keep one and throw away the other. When you see that, then you can really see two hands and one body, and they will always come together.