Zen students are like dogs chasing fire trucks Barry Magid October 4th 2013

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The Blue Cliff Record, Case 17 Sitting Long Becomes Tiring

A monk asked Master Korin, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the west?"
Master Korin replied, "Sitting a long time is very tiring."

Now, in a sense, sesshin day in particular, most of you I assume will have no trouble agreeing with Kyorin’s statement: Sitting a long time is tiring. What is harder for us to really grasp is the way in which it’s an answer to the monk’s question.

We can say that this koan illustrates something from Dogen which I’ll paraphrase as “Those who are enlightened about the nature of delusion are Buddhas; those who are deluded about the nature of enlightenment are mired in suffering.” The question, What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west? It’s a stock question. In many koans and many stories, a monk asks it to prompt the teacher to give some kind of expression, some kind of teaching, but it’s a particular kind of prompt that seems to be asking for the essence of the teaching. What’s the core? What’s it really come down to? What’s the meaning of his coming? Sometimes it’s phrased, Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?

If you ask about the meaning, or why did he come, in each case it’s framed to hook into our tendency to want there to be a certain kind of answer, something that is the essential teaching that we can grasp. And Kyorin’s response, which is completely true, completely matter-of-fact, something everybody knows, just undercuts our expectations about what an answer to that question ought to look like.

In one sense, we can say his answer exemplifies what we might call post-enlightenment, post-kensho practice. It’s not about the attainment of some special state, but what’s supposed to happen the day after that special state. What’s that going to look like? How’s that going to be any different?

It’s a companion piece, a companion koan, in a way, to the koan about the fireboy seeking fire. In that one, a monk comes to a new teacher who asks him where he’s been and what he’s studied in the past, and he says, I was with so-and-so for many years, and he says, while there I finally grasped the meaning of the fire boy seeking fire. The new teacher cocks an eyebrow and says, Oh? What did you understand? And the monk says, The fire boy has been seeking the very thing he’s made of all this time. And the teacher says, Uh, I’m afraid you really didn’t get it, which throws the monk into a great state of confusion, a little bit of anger. What do you mean I didn’t get it? Then the bell rings and the monk goes back to the zendo for a while, and he’s just a mess because he thinks he’s finally really understood something, that the thing he’s been looking for is the essence all along. Would could be wrong with that? He comes back into the dokusan room the next day and he’s just in a complete tizzy, and he says, Master, I just do not get it. What possibly was wrong with my answer? How could I have been wrong? The Master says, The fire boy seeking fire.

With that, the monk gets something else. So what’s the difference the second time around? I actually gave a brief teisho on this koan in my sleep. It’s an interesting experience. Earlier, my friend Susan Moon was talking to me and she said, We should do something about koans in the next teachers’ meeting. What do you think we should say about them? We said a few things back and forth but we didn’t arrive at anything. That night I went to sleep and in my dream I was saying to her, the important thing about koans is that people think the big difference is between their initial state of feeling like, This isn’t it, and finally getting a moment of experience when they say, This is it! They think that’s what a koan is supposed to do: Give them the experience of This is it! And I said, but that’s really superficial. This is all in my dream. What’s really important is that they see that the mind that says This isn’t it, is it!

And that’s the fire boy seeking fire. The fire boy needs to see that the mind that is thrown into anger and confusion is also the fire, not just some idealized essence that he thinks he’s achieving by giving it. That’s what’s really important about this practice. It’s not so much about getting it, but what are we like when we don’t get it? How does it transform the experience of mistakes, of not getting it?

We hear some laughter from the jikido who has some experience in this department! See? It’s hard to be a jikido because there’s a lot to get right, but the point about being a jikido is not just to get things right, it’s to model how you deal with getting things wrong. Because that’s really the business of our everyday life, where we face being wrong, not getting it right, feeling shame or humiliation in front of other people. I finally made it to be jikido, they gave me all this responsibility, and what do I do? I get the whole order of service wrong! But she can laugh. This is all we ask.

So with this koan, again if we come back to that sitting long becomes tiring -- being tired is rarely what we think of as an expression of realization. And yet, what is being modeled here is just complete entering into full acceptance of how the mind-body is, moment after moment, regardless of its content, regardless of all the ways it deviates from our sense of what we’re expecting from our practice.

I had the funny idea this morning, as I was sitting, that our usual kind of practice is sort of like how we start out practicing the way a dog chases a fire truck. We’ve got the idea of something big and shiny and important and it’s going down the street and we go tearing off after the damn thing and we go after that fire truck. That dog just will never give up. It chases that fire truck. It’s wonderful! Of course there’s always the question, what would a dog do if he ever caught the fire truck, but I guess it must happen sometime. And maybe some dogs get run over by the fire truck in the process, and there is a certain casualty rate in this business. But maybe someday that dog caught that truck, and leaped up on it, and the firemen all applauded and they took it to the firehouse and gave it a big bowl of chili or whatever and the dog, he finally made it. And his master was so proud, he got him a special bowl, and on the bowl it said, The Dog That Caught the Fire Truck. And so the dog goes home, he has this special bowl, and then he just sits around and gets fat and lazy and all the little dogs come around to him, and he just spends the rest of his days talking about the time I caught the fire truck. The puppies all say, Tell us one more time, Grampa, about the time you caught the fire truck.

Well, we can do that with our practice. We can get something, we can think we’re proud of it, we can think we’re special because we did, but then what are we supposed to do? What’s supposed to happen the next day? You could say the dog conveyed the wisdom to the pups. But, well, you know, catching the fire truck is really not all that special. You don’t want dogs to stop chasing fire trucks, exactly. It’s so doggy to do that. It’s what dogs do. They chase fire trucks! What we want from that old dog, in some sense, is an understanding that the whole point is the excitement of the chase, of throwing yourself wholeheartedly into something. It’s not now I finally got it, I can sit back and tell stories about my great day. Not, well I got it, but it didn’t turn out to be so special. I won’t bother to chase trucks anymore. But when the little pups come around, you say, Hey kids, a truck is coming! Let’s go get it!

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Pat Jikyo George November 2nd 2013 Uncovering what is already there

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