This is a deceptively simple koan. Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of another, tell me who is that other? On the surface, it looks like the koan is simply pointing to having to rely on yourself instead of any other -- that the servant of Shakyamuni and Maitreya and the one that they are the servants to, is none other than yourself.
And that is a half truth. That interpretation of the koan addresses the dilemma of everyone who comes to practice with the idea, they've got it and I don't; that there's something that Shakyamuni attained that I want to attain, something that I don't have. At one level, practice does function that way; we do make an effort to attain what Shakyamuni attained. And it's certainly true that when we start our practice, we haven't attained it yet, right? That much as we can talk about no gain or Buddha Nature, there is a difference between the student and the teacher. But we can keep that gap open forever, like an open sore, if you're not able to truly occupy your own experience, and see that the path of attainment is not a matter of becoming more and more like somebody else, but settling more and more into who you are, you yourself. And the part of the gap between you and Shakyamuni is the separation which you create around the whole notion of attainment.
So we do have to practice by fully occupying our own life, our own skin, not putting anybody else's head on top of our own. That is what the verse is pointing to by saying don't ride someone else's horse, don't draw someone else's bow. You have to have your own experience.
However, I think that we end up in a very superficial place if we simply make our personal experience the be all and end all of practice, if we simply say Shakyamuni and Maitreya are my servants, and think that we've gotten the answer.
The point of the practice is not simply to be come more self-confident, more grounded in our own personal experience though it may indeed result in those things along the way. Sometimes when I'm out in the morning walking the dog with my son, out in Riverside Park, I make a point of picking up a stray bit of trash and throwing it away as we walk. And one time Sam said to me, Why are you picking that up, we didn't throw that there, that's not ours. And I try to explain to him that it's our park and we're taking care of it. And if it's our park, it's also our trash, right?
We all want to have the experience of the park but we don't necessarily want the experience of cleaning it up, of having the trash. But it's all ours, the park and the trash.
What we have to be able to do is say that it is, in fact, our piece of garbage. It's all our garbage, right? Similarly, my experience is not my personal experience any more than the park is my park, privately, individually.
When I take responsibility for the park what I'm doing is recognizing that the park belongs to everybody. I'm one of the people it belongs to, not individually but collectively. And I think we have to understand our own life and our own practice the same way -- that it's not ours personally, it doesn't belong to us, in fact it would be truer to say we belong to it.
There may come a moment in practice where we feel the exhilaration of, I've got it or: I've spent all these years thinking that there's something missing and now I see there's nothing missing at all. And when we have that kind of experience or realization, we almost always fall into the trap of thinking that we've gotten something, that we, we personally, have had an experience, an opening. Then we set ourselves off from who we were before that experience and all the other people who, we imagine, may not have had “it”. But any realization we've had is simply a matter of seeing the way things already are. It's not something you discover, not something you invented. You're not going to find out anything that anyone else hasn't found out before you. In the end, you could say, all we find out is that we're going to die, and lots of people found that out before you, no mystery there.
We're not here to cultivate our individual experience, our individual realizations, so much as we are here to simply allow ourselves to be part of a common humanity, a common life, a common shared practice that we all take responsibility for maintaining, the way we do the park. Whatever happens to us individually in the zendo only happens because everyone else is there alongside us, because we're all together making a sesshin happen, because thousands of monks over many, many centuries maintained a practice, that we now maintain and transmit in turn. We're not inventing or discovering anything. We're breathing the common air, sharing a common life, trying to take responsibility for the parks that we all enjoy together.
So when this koan asks, who are Maitreya and Shakyamuni servants of, the answer is not simply a matter of trust your own experience. They are serving, they are manifesting, life itself. We chant, “life as it is, the only teacher,” and that's the teacher that we're all servants of.
See, whatever ideal we have, whatever we set up in our imagination and think of as Buddha, if it's anything other than the whole of life itself, we have diminished Buddha. Buddha is life seen from a certain perspective, a perspective of non-separation, non-dualism, apart from have or have not, just as it is. Buddha is just another word for life just as it is.
Wu-Men comments, “If you really see this, it is like seeing your father.” You don't need anyone to tell you if you're right or not. Or, it's like looking into the mirror and seeing your own face, and being able to say, that's me. But can you also look outside the window, and say, that's me too?