Since this will be my last talk for 2020 I thought I would comment on a story from the Blue Cliff Record in which the teacher, Suigan, addresses the assembly at the end of an ango, a practice period, and he says to them, For all these weeks and months I’ve been giving one talk after another. Tell me, have my eyebrows fallen out or not? And the reference is to the idea that if a teacher preaches a false Dharma or betrays the Dharma in his teaching, his eyebrows will fall out. So Suigan is asking the monks to evaluate his teaching. But how can they do that?
Three of his senior students stepped forward to give their answer, and the first one says, The eyebrows are still there, and you might imagine him doing a bit of a Groucho Marx imitation, arching his eyebrows dramatically as he says it. The second student comes up and says, A thief is always nervous about being caught. And there the idea is that a teacher is like a thief who robs people of their delusions, leaves them empty-handed. But to do that, the teacher must descend to the perspective of there being such things as enlightenment and delusion. Already it frames things in terms of this dualistic perspective of something you need to rid people of. So even though that may seem like a useful occupation, at some level the teacher should always be nervous about descending into the relative even if that’s a temporary skillful means. The third monk, the one who becomes famous, is Ummon, and he replies with just one word and it’s a one-syllable word. In Chinese it’s Kan, and it means barrier.
What do we make of that response? In a certain sense this kind of one-syllable explanation functions like Mu. It is a presentation of the absolute but because it’s a word that means barrier, because it’s a word that has a meaning, I think his response has an interesting two-sided aspect to it. In his original question Suigan asks if all his teaching, if all his words have been appropriate or not. Are words useful and necessary or are words fundamentally barriers? Suigan is supposed to be teaching outside the scriptures, not relying on words or concepts. Teachers give one talk after another but talking itself seems to miss the point. Only a few teachers in the history of Zen are said to have the courage to teach completely without words.
Think of a teacher like Gutei who, whenever anyone asked him a question, just held up one finger. Or a teacher named Roso, whenever anyone asked him a question he turned around and faced the wall. And with that it was said he was modeling himself after Boddhidharma who sat facing the wall and wouldn’t even respond or acknowledge the existence of his students. In some sense that kind of total refusal to descend into the relative is presented as the purest teaching. Probably of course it’s a teaching that would be completely useless to 99 out of 100 students or more. They just wouldn’t know what to make of it.
So words, teachings, commentaries are all necessary. But Ummon saying “Kan” straddles that line between words and silence, between something with a meaning and something that is just a pure sound, just this, just this. And in doing that he reminds me of the line in the Sandokai that says, “Hearing words you should grasp the great reality.” I don’t think that means we should understand the words as pointing to the great reality or use words as a skillful means to help comprehend what the great reality means. I think, rather, words and the great reality are set up as being typically in opposition to each other, that reality is what is formless and wordless, but words, if you don’t get caught up in their content, are just Dharmas in themselves, just sound events, just something happening, just one more thing of this moment. Mu…. Kan….. Whatever it is, just a sound, just as expression. They themselves are the great reality.
Barrier, I think, has another kind of significance, because it alludes to the notion of a gate and a gateless gate. Sometimes that’s translated as the gateless barrier, and there, what we’re presented with, is the idea that we have to face what appears like an impenetrable barrier, a barrier, say, of Mu, where the teacher asks you over and over again, What is Mu? What is Mu? And whatever you present as an answer always seems to be wrong. The barrier seems to be impenetrable. Yet the revelation of Mu and of this practice, is of a gateless gate that this very place that we experience as a barrier blocking our way, is the entryway. It’s not that there’s no place to enter. Rather, you can enter anywhere. But as they say, you have to know an entrance when you see one.
A lot of what Joko taught over the years was learning to take what we think to be barriers and to use them as entry-points. So often our ordinary reaction to our thoughts and our emotions, especially so-called negative emotions like anger or anxiety, or things like longing, grief, attachment, all the things that bring us to practice in search of some alternative, of calm, clarity, invulnerability, and we try to cultivate sittings where our mind is free of thought, free of emotion, free of attachment, and if we sit still and concentrate, there will be times when we can do it. But inevitably thoughts will arise again, feelings will arise again, pain and restlessness in the body will arise again. And our first response is to treat each one of those things as barriers that are getting in our way. Joko’s basic teaching was, They’re not getting in your way. They are your way. The way a word, a sound, can manifest the great reality, so can your physical pain, so can your thoughts, so can your feelings, everything is just this, moment after moment.
When we dissolve that distinction between the way and barriers to the way, then truly every moment is that gateless gate you enter anywhere. I think it’s particularly fitting this year to talk about barriers because of our experience with the pandemic, and having to close the zendo and practice like this online. I think for everyone initially this felt like a very big barrier indeed. So much of what we call the practice was sitting and being together, being in one another’s presence. Teaching meant addressing people directly, seeing them up close, knee to knee in dokusan. The pandemic seemed to present a terrible barrier to what we thought of as our practice. And yet I think the lesson of these last few months has been that that barrier has genuinely been a gate opening into something that we did not realize was there, that we did not know how to access until we were forced to.
The sangha has more than doubled in size and I’m getting to meet and teach students from around the world who I’ve rarely seen before. In a way, zoom or skype or something like that has always been available. Last year we did a little bit of this kind of online teaching but until we were really forced to do it full-time we really had no idea of its potential. We had no idea how well it could function to bring us together as a sangha instead of feeling like there were all these scattered students who once in a while would touch base with me individually, but for whom their connection to each other and to the sangha was very tenuous.
I think as we look forward to the new year, as we said in our sangha meeting last week, many people don’t want to go back to what we were doing before. We realized that our ordinary way of doing things was far more limited than we thought. What we took for normal was actually very circumscribed. And so what we endeavor to do is to find a way to keep this kind of online connection, this kind of openness going even when it’s possible to just go back to a dozen or so of us sitting in person on 74th Street in Manhattan. I think this is a very good metaphor for the whole of our practice which opens up possibilities that we didn’t even know we were looking for.
As we come to the end of this year together, I want to thank you all for helping to transform a barrier into a gate.