This koan continues a discussion of the student-teacher relationship that I’ve been talking about the last couple of weeks. In a sense it’s asking, What do you get from the teacher? The monk’s question is, “I heard you met Nanquan in person. Is it true?” Well that would be like your asking me, Have I met Joko? It’s common knowledge that Zhaoshou was Nanquan’s dharma successor, so it’s not asking literally, did you meet Nanquan, but what did you get from Nanquan? There’s a trick in the question, when you ask: Did you meet him? Or if you paraphrase it: Did you get anything from him? The trick is asking what did he have that you didn’t already have? What does it mean to go to someone else to get a teaching?
If Zhaoshou were to answer that he met Nanquan, that he got something from him, that would be wrong. But if he said he didn’t get anything, that wouldn’t be right either. But Zhaoshou replies, “Jin Province produces a giant radish.” It’s an answer that’s sort of like if we said, “New York is famous for its bagels.” I use that example because bagels figure prominently in my relationship to Joko and the story of my dharma transmission.
I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but I received dharma transmission on my son’s first birthday. I was visiting Joko with him, and for his first birthday I bought him a bagel, I bought him his first bagel. So I passed along a bagel to him on that occasion, that was in the morning, and in the afternoon, Joko gave me transmission, and later, when a group of her dharma successors were meeting, someone asked, What is your relationship to Joko now? Do you consider yourself still to be her student? Is she still your teacher? And I said, Joko is like a bagel I eat for breakfast. I’ve chewed her up and digested her and now she’s part of me.
And now, every week my son likes to go out with me to get a bagel, and it’s a very nice ritual because he always wants to share a bagel. We get one bagel and cut it in half and share it. Of course, he’s the kid who always wants to pick which half he gets, to see if one is a little bigger than the other. But there’s that sharing of the bagel. I brought him to the place that I think have the best bagels and we share them together, which I think is pretty much what I do here. I’ve gotten to know what kind of Zen is particularly tasty, I’ve had a lot of it over the years, I try to share it with you, the parts that I think are the tastiest and the best. We just have to divide our bagel into fifteen pieces here.
In the verse, it asks, How do you distinguish the white of the swan from the black of the crow? Well, does Zhaoshou have to go to Nanquan to tell that? Everyone can distinguish that. So what is it that you get? The verse ends, “Thief! Thief! -- he’s snatched a Zennist’s nostril!” It’s two-edged. Who is the thief here? The monk in the question is implying that Zhaoshou is the thief, that a thief is someone who takes something that doesn’t belong to him, that’s not already his. So he’s asking Zhaoshou, Did you get something from Nanquan? Did you take something that wasn’t already yours? But Zhaoshou turns out to be the better thief. He snatches away the question and doesn’t let the monk get anything like the answer he expected.
The giant radish of Jin is something that everyone knows about, it’s famous, everybody can have some. There’s no secret to it. I was very happy to find out from Jessica today we had a big radish in our soup. So by a nice coincidence we all shared in the radish together, both in the koan and in our soup.
Let us enjoy our life together.