The absolute within the subjective Barry Magid March 5th 2016

Two monks, on separate occasions ask their teachers, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?" One says "The oak tree in the garden". The other says "Sitting long is tiring". Is this the same answer? We should come to see the landscape of our mind the way we would a park, in a way that we don't problematize it. Oak tree over here, pond over there. Nothing out of place. Completely empty yourself out, and in that place an oak tree is planted. Then there's just this. And that this happens to be an oak tree. At other times, that just this happens to be "Sitting long is tiring".

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A monk asked Joshu, What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west? And Joshu replied, “The oak tree in the garden.” On another occasion, a monk asked Kyorin, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?” Kyorin said, “Sitting long becomes tiring.”

The first case can be found in the Mumonkan and the second in the Blue Cliff Record. We should inquire what kind of question is being asked, and in what sense do these two teachers give it an answer, and are they giving it the same answer or a different answer?

Often when people come here for the first time, I’ll address them as if they were Bodhidharma, and ask them,”What are you doing here? What is the meaning of your coming to the West Side?” Now if they were Bodhidharma perhaps they would just answer, “I don’t know.” But it’s usually the case that people have a reason for coming, often in the form of a kind of curative fantasy we’ve talked about, being in some sort of personal distress and having an idea about the way practice will relieve it. So for them, the meaning of coming here is a combination of their own judgment about their psychological state and their ideas about what they can get to fix it.

But when these monks ask the question of Joshu and Kyorin, I think they're trying to ask a more fundamental question, although I suspect that even they had their own curative fantasies and secret practices. In some way they’re asking the teacher to present something of a fundamental teaching of Zen. But they ask: What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west? And it’s curious how that word “meaning” can have various different kinds of meanings to us or have different meanings in different times and places and cultures.

In many classical or traditional cultures, to ask about the meaning of something, was to ask about its place in the big picture. There was a sense of an ordered universe, perhaps a universe ordered by a god or gods, and meaning was defined in terms of the order God had given things and the commandments given to his creation.

The stoics had a picture of an ordered universe where the order was represented by logos, or reason, that the physical laws of the universe obeyed patterns of laws that were comparable to the laws of reason and logic in each human being. And the purpose of practice or philosophy was to bring our own personal logic into accord with the larger logic of reason, of the world, and our suffering occurred when we were out of sync with that.

Generally in modern times we don’t easily hold to that kind of picture of an ordered world. The fact that we don’t, is essentially what each event when Nietzsche's said God is dead, that we can’t conjure up a belief in that kind of order in which we’re going to get in sync. And yet I think it is the case that people come to this kind of practice, and certainly come to monastic practice, to literally get their life in order.

And Buddhist practice was organized, orderly; the vinaya was a set of rules to live by. And since for most people in most places, life can be a scary chaotic mess, whether looking inside at their own mind or outside at the world they live in. It’s not a trivial thing to find a structured, ordered way to live that just makes sense of it all. It’s not to be sneezed at, and in a certain way we all need to find a structure that we can live with, that will hold and contain our life.

As opposed to that seeking of meaning and a fitting into a big picture of things, Hegel somewhere suggested a very different sort or developmental picture of meaning in our lives, and he used the example of a little boy sitting at the edge of a pond throwing pebbles in and watching the ripples form. And in this picture, meaning derives from agency and impact. A child learns that he can pick up and throw pebbles, and the pebbles thrown into a pond create ripples, that his desires can be translated into actions, and the actions have an impact on the world, they can make things happen.

For most of us in our life, our sense of meaning is connected to this sense of making things happen, of having an impact, getting a response, and it’s certainly the case that our lives become to feel meaningless or empty when we think what we’re doing has no point or impact, doesn’t matter, nobody notices, nobody cares, it doesn’t have any effect. All these are ways people talk about life becoming meaningless for them.

Now again, this is am important version of meaning, yet it’s one that leads to a basically instrumentalized view of life and practice, that we do something in order to create an effect, to make something happen, and it’s probably true that most people inevitably come to practice with a view that If I do this, I’ll be able to get that, or I’ll be changed in this or that way.

That’s not a bad thing, yet it’s also another kind of meaning that is in a sense negated by the koan. The koan in a sense teases us with both kinds of possibilities: What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming here? What does it mean in the big picture? Or what impact did he have? What did he set in motion? What does it mean for me?

Joshu and Kyorin are trying to present a different kind of meaning, and it’s a presentation of meaning, not an answer, not an explanation. That’s the first thing I think that’s obvious about these koans, that they’re not answers in any traditional sense. They’re meant to be in some way presentations of the meaning. What does the oak tree and the garden present?

The first thing about that is that you don’t seem to be in the picture at all. In our usual way of thinking about meaning, is meaning for me, and what difference it makes for me. The oak tree isn’t about you, and there’s a way in which the oak tree in the garden drains everything self--centered, self-preoccupied, from this answer.

Anyone who immerses oneself in the image of the oak tree, in working with this koan, has the sense that you completely empty yourself out and in that place an oak tree is planted. Everything is taken away and there’s just this, and the “this” happens to be an oak tree. But the main thing is that this is the absence of you. It’s not an organizational experience around your subjectivity. In that sense it’s very much like Mu, where there’s one word, one syllable, everything about you is emptied out, and there’s just this sound. And this is one way of presenting the absolute, presenting just this, in a way that is not about altering your subjectivity but in some sense having you dis-identify with your own subjectivity, with a kind of thingness about it. We lose ourselves in the world, we lose ourselves in the moment.

Now since most people come to practice because something about themselves is giving them a lot of trouble, losing themselves tends to be an appealing idea, and practice that allows self-emptying through concentration that way, can provide a great sense of relief and a great sense of removal of all aspects of self that are plaguing you. To be fully present to the oak tree in the garden is for a while, to be relieved of self-clinging, as the verse says.

Now Kyorin’s answer seems to be very different. He says, of the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west, “sitting long becomes tiring.” There he seems to be getting right inside the subjectivity that the oak tree has eliminated, and that makes this koan both in some ways trickier but to my mind much more important, because it means to ground the absolute in the subjective, not just in the relative, but the subjective.

That was very much Joko’s project, in a way, in which she had people stay present to their anger, their anxiety, their tension, their restlessness. She insisted she was not having them simply work on their psychological problems that way. She was pointing to finding the absolute in the emotional: Just this! In terms of what you feel, can you take your anger, your anxiety, your tiredness, in its thingness, in its absolute quality like you’d take an oak tree. It’s just there. It’s just planted right there.

In many ways I find Kyorin to be something of the patron saint of Ordinary Mind practice, bringing us back to staying with the absolute in the midst of our mind and body as we find it in the moment. And he’s finding it in a way that is not particularly unusual, not particularly pleasant, certainly not very special. Commentaries will say he’s saying something self-evident, like the eyes are horizontal and the nose is vertical, the way Dogen said, coming back from China. What did you learn? My eyes are horizontal, my nose is vertical.

Yet we do not tend to problematize for ourselves the fact that our eyes are horizontal and our nose is vertical. We don’t spend a lot of time saying, God – If only my eyes were vertical and my nose was horizontal that would straighten out everything. I’m just put together all wrong. Yet when it comes to our minds, that’s exactly what we say: Everything is all wrong! If only this was over here, I could eliminate that, and if this piece was shifted to the other side.

We do that all the time. We don’t take the landscape of our mind as a given. The oak tree over there, pond over here, eyes horizontal, nose vertical. When we look in terms of landscapes like that, the physical, it’s much easier for us to say, Yes! That’s just the way it is! But when my back hurts or my mind wanders, when sitting long becomes tiring, can we say, it’s grounded as the oak tree in that experience?

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