So what to make of this koan? It asks a question that all of us who practice for a long or even a short time must surely ask sometimes: Why? Maybe you’re asking it about yourself. Why am I not realized? Why am I not getting it? Or maybe you’re asking it about somebody else. Why him? Why her? There’s a lot of talk and wondering in sanghas, especially when someone gets transmitted. Why?
This question brings up other questions about just what is the process by which realization comes to us. What does it consist of? And how do we know whether it has arrived or not? Mainly what the koan tells us is how it doesn’t happen. Just time on the cushion all by itself doesn’t do it, this koan says. It tells us he sat for a kalpa, for a very, very long time. Realization never happens just by putting in a lot of time on the cushion. Occasionally it happens without putting any time on the cushion but not usually. Generally hours of zazen are necessary but not always sufficient. Sometimes there are very conscientious practitioners and they think that if they just put in the time, attend enough sesshins, sit long and hard enough, they’ll be realized, but what they don’t realize sometimes is that they’re actually avoiding real engagement with the practice, and that way realization doesn’t come, and the monk in this koan wants to know why not. If zazen is the most important teaching method of Zen, and the most frequent locus of insight, most people have a breakthrough when they’re doing zazen.
So if this is the case, especially in the Soto school, which emphasizes sittings above all other things, then it is reasonable to ask, as Priest Jo says, why zazen does not always work all by itself. One reason might be that the pursuit of realization in zazen is too goal-oriented. Zazen is nothing if it’s not a process. When we’re focused on the product, realization, we tend to miss the teachings of the process. Ironically, when we do this, we also miss the goal.
It’s generally when we finally give up our ideas about what zazen will do for us, and just sit, that we actually clear a space for realization. That’s because realization is not a thing. It’s not a permanent state that we can hold onto. In fact, it’s not even about us. It’s about other people. So what is realization? It’s that qui ne sait pas -- we don’t know. We can’t define it. Zen teachers don’t know how to teach it. It’s maybe something like becoming an artist. You can learn how to be a painter, you can study the techniques step by step, you can gather knowledge about the old masters, but to be an artist, that takes something more, and that’s an indefinable quality. Art schools don’t know how to teach that either. And artists don’t know how to get there by willing it, by trying.
Jo says, to the question: Your question is reasonable. And it is reasonable. It makes sense. For most things in this world you take steps one, two and three and you arrive at the desired goal. That’s how it works in much of life. But Zen is not logical in that way. It’s not reasonable. If you want to be a doctor you go to medical school. You study hard, you’re an intern, you get no sleep, you become a resident, and voila, finally you’re a doctor. That’s reasonable. It could be argued, however, that to be a real doctor, to be filled with the spirit of service and healing, to be empathetic and able to communicate well with patients, maybe that requires something more, and that something more has to do with qualities that are unquantifiable.
That something more has to with spirit, and that’s exactly these crucial qualities of spirit, of character, that we don’t know how to teach in all endeavors, even in Buddhism. We do know how to teach Buddhism to a certain extent: how to sit, the posture, the history, the ancestors and their words, the mental stance, liturgy. We know how to teach all that. But we don’t know how to guide students and give them that final shove into realization. And students don’t know how to do it for themselves either. In fact, the long practice is usually a long series of errors and readjustments. That’s how we learn. We try to open the gate and we fail, and then we try again.
The monk in this koan doesn’t let go of the question. He really wants to know, and he asks again somewhat desperately, But he sat zazen in the meditation hall! Why did he not attain Buddhahood? He’s insisting on an answer. Priest Jo’s final answer gives us another way of looking at this koan. He says, Because he is a non-attained Buddha. So to analyze this answer, we have to look carefully at the words attained and non-attained. To attain something suggests that we’re getting something we didn’t have before, that we’re adding something on. But what Buddhism teaches is that all sentient beings have Buddha nature from the beginning. So in a way we’re all running after something that we already have. That we already have it is another reason why setting up realization as a goal, as something to attain, will never work. Because it’s not out there. It’s in here. Inside each one of us.
The reason we don’t realize that we already have it is because each of us brings a lot of negative psychological baggage, a lot of emotional wounds with us into our practice. It’s inevitable. You can’t grow up without a lot of this stuff. Some people have more than others but we all have some. And it’s a long process to work these things through in our practice so that we can finally come to believe that all these wonderful things that we think of as so pure and spiritual are already ours. It takes a long time to feel that we are complete, that we’re worthy, that we don’t need anything. Nothing needs to be added. To sit in the confidence that we are already realized is the best, the truest attitude for our zazen. But that is hard for most of us to believe. And this kind of failure, despite his long sitting, might have been at the bottom of Daitsu Chisho’s failure to realize who he was. Perhaps he didn’t really grapple with the baggage he brought to his practice.
Despite what we think, it isn’t really that we add anything, that we get anything out of practice. Quite the contrary. The process is getting rid of stuff. We have to shed off all this stuff that is blocking us from seeing who we are, from letting us embody this Buddha nature that we already have. When we can accept ourself, warts and all, as a Buddha, as a human, some of the anxiety, the striving, the competitiveness, the goal-oriented behavior drop out of our practice.
Again, perhaps a comparison to how people become an artist is useful. Generally when someone is trying to be an artist and feels that they are remaining just a painter, they begin to feel discouraged, depressed, and they will often feel at that point that the qualities necessary to be an artist are inborn and that they just weren’t born that way, that they’re inborn in somebody else. For some artists this inborn quality is definitely there, and for Buddhists it is definitely true that what we’re seeking is inborn, but that’s not the whole story for either group. Inborn artistic genius seems to exist, but the person who has it still has to learn the skills necessary to express that genius. And in Buddhism, it’s similar. We are all Buddhas, but not all of us have realized it, and the way we realize it is through practice. Yet zazen practice does not guarantee that we will realize it. We can’t will ourselves into realization. We can’t control whether it arrives, when it arrives, how it arrives.
There’s a way in which insights in Zen just burst forth. We don’t know how, we don’t know when. The last line of the four vows gives us both sides of this: Attained, non-attained, the Buddha way is unattainable, unattainable because we already have it, it’s not something we get, but I vow to attain it. In order to realize that I already have it, I have to practice. We have to vow to attain it, we have to work for it. The Buddha way is unattainable, but I vow to attain it. Although long hours of zazen and hard practice don’t guarantee anything, they are how we put ourselves in the way of realization. Once we have realized it, to once claim that we have attained it, is to misunderstand the process. Rather than attaining anything, we have uncovered what is already there.
The Commentary of this koan is interesting. It says, If an ordinary person realizes it, he is a sage. If a sage understands it, she is an ordinary person. When we do realize it, we don’t have anything special or different than anybody else, something that other people don’t have. They’re Buddhists too. And this is what the Commentary is getting at. The verse makes the same point. It says, When body and mind are fully realized, the sage declines to become special, not special, this is why we say ordinary mind, not special mind zendo. Ordinary mind. So we’re all Buddhas, either non-attained or attained, whether we realize it or not. And how many of us are content to then not be special, decline to become special, because most of us spend our entire lives trying to become special.
So think about that for a while.