Can your nose be made any more vertical? Barry Magid April 12th 2008

The Blue Cliff Record, Case 17 Sitting Long Becomes Tiring


Only if you can cut through nails and shear through iron can you be a genuine Zen master; if you duck arrows and shrink from swords, how can you be a competent adept? Leaving aside for now the point where not even a needle can penetrate, what about when waves fill the skies?

The Main Case

A monk asked Korin, "What is the meaning of the Zen founder's coming from the West?" Korin said, " Sitting long becomes tiring."


One, two, a thousand, a myriad
Strip off the blinders, unload the saddle bags.
Turning left, turning right, following up from behind;
Shiko had to hit Iron Grindstone Ryu.

All of us come to practice with basic questions we're trying to answer. Perhaps we want to know how we should live our life; perhaps, we are trying to understand how to deal with suffering or loss or problems in our relationships. We want to ask, "What is the meaning of life?" Or, "Who wrote the book of Love?" Nowadays, it would be strange for a student to ask, "What is the meaning of the Zen founder's coming from the West?" But with this question, the monk is asking his teacher to show him what we are all asking for, to be shown some fundamental truth we can grasp onto. What's the very essence of our practice? It sounds like a lofty question that deserves a lofty answer, but Korin says simply, "Sitting long becomes tiring."

How does that response answer the monk's question? Everyone knows sitting is painful and tiring. He's not telling the monk something the monk doesn't already know. But the monk is still looking for answer beyond his own simple everyday experience of this moment. When Dogen returned from China, having received Dharma Transmission from his teacher, he was asked what he learned. He replied that he had learned that his eyes are horizontal and his nose vertical. Who doesn't know that? But how many of us recognize that it is the answer to our most basic questions?

The introduction to this case declares that we must be able to shear through iron and not be afraid to face arrows and swords if we are to be masters of Zen. Yet all that heroic effort comes down to sitting and becoming tired. Even though our sitting may sometimes take you a to a place "where not even a needle can penetrate" - a place of total absorption or samadhi, we must still return and face the vicissitudes of everyday life. What do you do when "foaming waves fill the skies?" Or we might ask, "How will you handle yourself when the shit hits the fan? "

Iron Grindstone Ryu was a famous Buddhist nun who got her nickname because of her reputation for grinding up monks in Dharma combat. The verse refers to a story where master Shiko challenges her with the question, "Does your grindstone turn to the left or the right?" Can he force her into some dualistic answer? She replied, "You're the one turning the crank!" I like her answer - he's the one stirring up all the dust while she minds her own business; But Shiko hits her, allegedly demonstrating action beyond all words and conceptioneedle can't penetrate. But Setcho, who added this verse to the case, wants to warn us against turning, "long sitting becomes tiring" into a clever answer. As soon as we turn a simple truth into a Big Zen Truth, we've loaded up our saddle bags and put our blinders back on. "No cleverness allowed!" Setcho warns us. When Dogen said all he learned was that his eyes were horizontal, his nose vertical, he must have astonished his listeners, the way Korin's response here, no doubt, wasn't at all what the monk was expecting. But if we go around repeating their words, they become cliches that blind us to our own immediate experience. In our daily practice, we must discover and express for ourselves the fundamental truth that this mind, this body, this moment is all that we have, is all that there is. We come to practice believing that our minds as they are, our bodies as they are, are the problem. Who wants a wandering mind or aching knees, let alone a body that is growing old or has a serious illness? But practice will never teach us to exchange this mind for another one or to substitute this body for someone else's. Nor are we here to train our body and mind, to turn them into new, improved versions of what we already have. Maybe your mind will quiet down or your legs will get more flexible, but can your nose become any more vertical? Listen to Korin: this tired old body is not the problem; it's the answer.

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