An ordinary bridge lets horses and asses pass Pat Jikyo George November 21st 2009

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The Blue Cliff Record, Case 52 Chao Chou's Stone Bridge

A monk asked Chao Chou, "For a long time I’ve heard of the stone bridge of Chao Chou, but now that I've come here I just see a simple log bridge."
Chou said, "You just see the log bridge; but you don’t see the stone bridge."
The monk said, "What is the stone bridge?"
Chou said, "It lets asses cross, it lets horses cross."

Hi Everybody. After all these days of silence. I have a koan for you today. I very much appreciated Barry’s talk, which was so apropos to the moment, and I have another one that I think also has perhaps some special meaning for this occasion. It’s one that maybe you are not familiar with. It comes from the Blue Cliff Record, which is a special Soto collection of koans. It’s the 52nd case that involves the famous Joshu or Chau Chou, as he’s known in Chinese. Here’s the koan:

A monk asked Chao Chou, “For a long time I’ve heard of this stone bridge of Chao Chou, but now that I’ve come here I just see a simple log bridge.”
Chou said, “You just see the log bridge; you don’t see the stone bridge.”
The monk said, “What is the stone bridge?”
Chou said, “It lets asses cross, it lets horses cross.”

So I think we need a little decoding here so that you’ll know what’s going on. First, I think we should deal with the metaphor of the bridge. You know, most koans are read better as poetry than as prose. They don’t make a lot of sense as simple straight-forward explanation. You know, you need to ask yourself, OK, what does a bridge do? That’s pretty simple. It goes from one shore to the other, right? Does that remind you of anything? It’s maybe used here similarly to that usual Zen metaphor, the raft, which helps you to cross over from one shore to the other. So you can keep that in mind as these guys are bandying bridges back and forth.

The situation here is that the monk is a traveling monk. Back in ancient times the monk only stayed at the monasteries for intensive training periods and then they would leave after the 90 days were up and they would either go back to their native village or more often wander about the country-side encountering other teachers and visiting monasteries, perhaps, meeting one of those occasional famous Zen hermits up in the mountains somewhere. And how they learned was they would have dialogs with the Zen adepts that they met. So that’s what this monk is doing.

He arrives at a little village and the name of the village is Chau Chou. The Zen masters often took their names from the place where they lived, so the village and the person had the same name. And indeed there was a famous stone bridge there. It may be comparable to the Brooklyn Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a famous bridge. Everybody knew about it. So he goes there and he uses this bridge to challenge Joshu. Joshu was one of the greatest masters ever, so it takes a little nerve, either the most naive or brave, and so to challenge, he says, I heard about this famous stone bridge, but now that I’ve come here, I just see a simple log bridge. What he’s basically saying is, I’m not impressed.

So this is kind of interesting. It maybe has a lesson for us about how we should judge Zen teachers. You know? Some of them are very flashy and famous and rightly so. They just are brilliant personages. And some are flashy and famous and maybe that’s covering up a lot of problems underneath. The height, actually, of being a Zen person is often to be quite unassuming, to be ordinary. That’s the name of our school, after all, Ordinary Mind. So sometimes this isn’t too impressive. You’re expecting something great and you just meet this ordinary person. So beware and make sure you know what you're getting when you sign up with a teacher.

So the monk has proposed this challenge to Joshu and this is Joshu’s reply. He says, You just see the log bridge. You don’t see the stone bridge. We could take this several different ways. It could be Joshu’s ability to just become the student, to put himself totally in the student’s point of view. You don’t see it. You don’t get it. All right? I understand that. It could be Joshu putting the student down a little bit. You know, if you emphasize the You, You don’t see the stone bridge. You just see the wood bridge. In other words, it’s there, but you are not seeing it. It can just be a total acceptance of the student as he is. My first teacher, Daido Loori, used to say to people, they would have these outrageous criticisms and attacks and so forth, and sometimes he would sit there, and he would say, If you say so. And that was that.

At any rate, you have to put yourself in Joshu’s position to see what a remarkable answer it is, because, you know, if someone comes up and attacks you or puts you done the way this monk has just done, a normal, average reaction would be to be defensive or to be angry, to attack back. But Joshu is completely level and has no response at this point. It takes a great person to do that. Then the monk replies back again. He says, What is the stone bridge? So it’s here that the monk kind of climbs down a little bit from his attack and decides that Oh, well maybe there is something I don’t know here. Maybe I could learn something from this situation, from this person. And he asks, What is the bridge? Maybe he’s asking to Joshu, Who are you? What is the path? How can I cross over? What should I do? He’s asking at this point a sincere question. He wants to learn.

And Joshu replies, It lets asses cross, it lets horses cross. Again, another very remarkable answer. It’s so appropriate on every single level. It’s amazing that he could come up with it on the spur like that. And on the absolutely practical everyday level, it fits the metaphor of the bridge and the actual bridge which is there. You know, it’s a bridge that has traffic. It goes back and forth. In those days it would not be Toyotas and BMWs. It would have been horses and asses. So it’s completely appropriate on that level. It’s also completely appropriate on the level of dharma, from the absolute point of view. Dharma doesn’t care if you’re a horse or an ass. In fact, it sees no difference between a horse and an ass. Same thing. Horses and asses are one. It’s like, I’m not you and you’re not me, but you and I are the same thing. That’s from the point of view of the absolute and dharma, and that’s another way in which the reply is quite appropriate.

Also it’s a little funny. It’s kind of a little bit sarcastic put-down of the monk, maybe. He just twits him a little bit, he doesn’t get mean. He’s kind of saying, OK you're an ass, or maybe an asshole, and it doesn’t matter, because you see the situation is that the monk has come there attacking this great teacher. He clearly wants to be a hero. He clearly thinks that in Zen you have to win, that you have to be right. And what Joshu’s message to him and to us is, that it doesn’t matter. We don’t have to be a hero to succeed in Zen. We can just be a person who makes mistakes, who doesn’t know everything, who maybe even has some quite unattractive personal characteristics. You know, you can be who you are, whatever you are, and the good news is you can cross over anyway.

At this point I think maybe it would be a good idea for all of us to pause and give a little homage to Joko, the founder of our school. You know, Joko always claimed that she set up her Zen shop at the bottom of the cliff, and this goes with the Zen story where the lion mother sits at the top of the cliff and she pushes all the cubs off, and those who crawl up again, she teaches, she mothers and nurtures. And those who don’t, you know, are stranded at the bottom of the cliff with no help. And so Joko said that these are the students she wants. [Barry: I thought that was my story!] We can have this copyright argument later. At any rate, our teacher, Barry, said this too. It’s not that we’re all wimps. It’s just that our school is the unheroic or quietly heroic school of Zen.

You know, we all come in to practice, and when we hear this koan, we all want to be the horse, right? No one wants to be the ass. And we enter this Zen practice because we want to be this horse, and we secretly fear that we’re the ass. And there are a few Zen students who are pretty convinced that they are the horse, and an important moment in the practice with somebody like that is to actually see, Oh my God, in that instant I was a real ass. That’s a practice maturing. And for the person who thinks they're nothing but the ass, an important moment in practice is seeing, Oh my goodness! You know? I actually was the horse in that situation. I have great horse potential.

In Zen, who’s the horse and who's the ass, it depends on what point of view you’re looking from, and that’s why it’s not such a good idea to make judgments about yourself. It depends on your point of view. Someone like Bernie Madoff, for example, I’m sure he was feeling that he was a sleek horse for quite a while but what about now? Someone like a gang leader, you know, from the point of view of his gang members, he’s the horse. From someone looking from the outside, he looks like an ass. You know, his values look very distorted, and the end doesn’t look good. So different values dictate who we think is which one. Part of our Zen practice is to sort through those ideas we have about what makes a horse and what makes an ass and what makes us think we’re one or the other.

According to Zen values, the horse is the person who lets go of self, who has great compassion, and what we often think is that in our practice that’s going to happen to us in a flash, you know? Some great enlightenment experience. And when we come out the other end, No-self. And we’ll be this Lady Bountiful bestowing compassion throughout the world. But here’s what I have to tell you about that: That self that you’re trying to let go of, you let go of day by day, any ordinary day, hundreds of decisions, little decisions. You can decide, you can choose to act for self or to act for others. And because these decisions are often so small and multiple, they’re hard to see sometimes. The same is true of compassion. Day by day we can choose, we can act from compassion or act selfishly. Each time we choose, we advance our ability to choose again. But because we’re human, sometimes we choose self and sometimes we choose no-self. Sometimes we choose compassion and sometimes we don’t.

And so what we need to see here, from this koan, is that the horse and the ass are not these two totally separate kinds of people but that the horse and the ass reside in each of us, the same person. Sometimes we’re one, sometimes we’re the other. To quote our Heart Sutra, this is the truth, not a lie. So . . . hee-haw!

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