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Killing and giving life. The dual role of the teacher in zen training. Barry Magid March 13th 2021

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The Blue Cliff Record, Case 16 Kyosei's Picking and Pecking

A monk asked Kyosei, "I, your student, am picking from inside the shell. I beg you, Master, please peck from outside."
Kyosei said, "But will you be alive or not?"
The monk said, "If I were not alive, people would all laugh."
Kyosei said, "You fool in the weeds!"

You may notice that I have a different background today. I'm talking from my apartment in Manhattan after a year of Covid exile upstate. We’ve gotten our two doses of vaccine. We’re not ready to move back yet, but we are starting to spend some weekends here, so the transition is finally happening, I’m happy to say.

I didn’t speak on a koan during sesshin last week so I thought I would make up for that and give you one today. Here’s something from the Blue Cliff Record:

A monk asked Kyosei, I am your student and I am pecking from inside the shell. I beg you, Master, please peck from the outside. Kyosei said, Will you be alive or not? The monk said, If I were not alive people would all laugh. Kyosei said, You fool in the weeds. You fool in the weeds.

I thought this koan might dovetail nicely with our discussion later this morning on the section from Provision to Mutuality, because it describes a monk as a chick hatching. And ordinarily we think of the mother hen simply sitting on the egg, keeping it warm, until it’s ready to hatch. We could say that’s a picture of provision, the mother simply provides whatever it takes, as long as it takes, for the egg to come to maturity for the chick to hatch.

But in this koan we get a different picture, where the chick itself is an agent in its own birth. When it’s ready to be born, the chick starts pecking at the shell from the inside, and the mother hen, sensing that, pecks at exactly the same spot on the shell where the chick is pecking from the inside. And when they hit the same spot on the shell, that’s when it cracks and the chick is born. So that gives us a view of mutuality, agency of both parts. The chick has to do something in order to be born. It doesn’t simply receive provision from the mother.

Traditionally Zen teachers are said to wield two metaphorical swords: The sword that gives death, the sword that gives life. The sword that gives death is the one that gives the Great Death, that kills all delusion, kills the ego, cuts the ground out from under us so that we have nothing left, and then we drop into realization. In a way those are the dominant stories that we tend to remember. They’re the stories like Bodhidharma meeting the Emperor, where the Emperor thinks of himself as a Buddhist because of the good works he’s been doing, and asks what merit he’s accumulated. Bohdidharma says, No merit whatsoever. Who are you? the Emperor asks. I don’t know, replies Bodhidharma. It takes away everything the Emperor imagines would be a suitable or even sane answer to his questions. Likewise, when Rinzai responds to a student’s question, What is Buddha? by hitting upside the head, or a teacher who whenever a student asks him a question, simply turns around and faces the wall.

All these are wielding the death-giving sword. They cut away all extraneous conceptualization and thought and leave the student with nothing whatsoever. But there’s also the life-giving sword, and in a way that’s what the student here is asking for. He says, Master, I’m just on the brink of realization. Please do something. Make that last gesture. Give me that last word that’s going to let me break out into realization, come alive.

When we’re confronted with the gateless gate, we initially feel that we’re up against a gate with no entrance, there’s no way in, no way through. That’s the sword that kills, we’re completely blocked. Yet we may suddenly realize we can enter anywhere. The gateless gate means everything is a gate. That’s the sword that gives life. When Dogen tells you that practice and realization are identical, he’s opening the gate wide open. Where you are is the very thing you’ve been looking for, the sword that gives life.

This koan, however, has a subtle twist to it. I remember when I was first starting out many years ago, I heard Bernie Glassman talk about this koan, and he said, when everyone hears it for the first time, they assume that they, the student, are the baby chick inside the egg. But that’s not right. You’re not the chick. You’re the shell. What does that mean?

See, the koan actually has all these dualisms built into the question, into the imagery. The student feels he’s stuck inside and wants to get outside. What’s the difference between inside and outside? What is there to get? Where is he trying to go? How’s he going to be different if he’s outside? The Master plays with that a little bit, gives him some room, and says, Will you be alive or not? It’s another kind or dichotomy. Alive or dead?

The student says, Well, if I’m not alive, if you do your best to awaken me and I don’t come out alive, people will laugh, presumably laugh at you, the teacher. You haven’t done a very good job if that’s the best you can do and I don’t come to realization -- boy! -- you’ve failed at your job! And Keosei justs shakes his head and says, You’re a fool in the weeds, you’re completely stuck in delusion, and the delusion has to do with these dichotomies of inside and outside, alive and dead, as if there’s something to gain, some place to get.

To see ourselves as the shell is to say that our ego, our self, is the thing that sets up a false boundary, a false dichotomy between inside and outside, between alive and dead. The ego is this brittle structure that creates a division where we think we’re being excluded from something, where we think we have to become something other than what we already are. So it’s when that cracks, when the shell drops off, then there’s no separation between the chick and the hen, they’re both out in the world together, which is really the state we’ve been in all along. We’ve not been separate from our Buddha-nature, we’ve not been separate from life. We’ve created in our mind a kind of false sense of individuality or separation, cut ourselves off from the wholeness of things, imagining that we have this shell, a solid permanent shell of ego around us. It’s really empty, like everything else.

But I think for our purposes it’s also useful to think about the dual role of the teacher with these two swords, and what is the role of the student in eliciting the teacher’s action, and what is the agency of the student? I think that when we emphasize the one side of that, you get these stories of heroic effort on the part of the student. You get stories of the student who cuts off his arm in order to prove his sincerity, or sitting sesshin morning to night, never getting off the cushion, not budging at all for seven days, pushing themselves to extremes in order to finally break through. And there you have the sense that the effort is almost entirely on the student’s part. The teacher just sort of creates the setting for practice to happen, is mostly there just to say, Nope, not yet. Not yet. Keep going. Try harder. This isn’t it yet, Keep going. The student does all the work.

On the other hand you get stories, more typically from the Soto perspective, when you hear stories, say, of Shunryu Suzuki, you hear these stories that emphasize presence and gentleness and acceptance. But the student comes all caught up in effort and anxiety, in every way feeling like this isn’t it. I’ve got to get something. Please give me something. And Suzuki’s whole manner was one to display, There’s nothing lacking. There’s nothing hidden. There’s nothing missing. Just sit. Everything is already here. And his whole presence conveyed that to the student, a kind of Oh -- this really IS it. Right? A kind of being able to trust and rest in something right here that you thought was far off.

Part of what we will be discussing in the paper later this morning is this question: What is the role of the student versus the role of a patient in analytic treatment? What is the role of the analyst versus the role of the teacher? See, in a traditional medical model, where you use words like treatment, it makes it seem like the patient is the passive recipient of the analyst’s empathy or interpretation or activity. There it’s as if the patient is the egg that the hen is just sitting on and all the egg has to do is sit there and absorb the warmth of the hen for as long as it takes to come to maturity. The chick or the egg doesn't have any agentic role. It’s just the recipient.

When we think that way we think of treatment in terms of provision, providing empathy, providing interpretation, and if they’re the right things, they go in and the egg hatches. But when we talk about mutuality, we talk more about there being agency on both sides. What is it that the patient as well as the student has to do? What kind of commitment is involved? Certainly in both practices, the most basic thing is just showing up, and that’s non-trivial, making a commitment to show up every day to practice, or analysis, or to do some kind of commitment, just stick with something day in and day out, week in and week out, year in, year out. Just showing up. It’s no small thing. But what do we expect of ourselves beyond that?

Often I say that the main requirement of a student is emotional honesty, a kind of willingness to admit what they see in the mirror, to not use practice as a way to simply buff up their image to try to feel special or intact, but to allow practice to be a place where vulnerability emerges. On the other side, sometimes, it means being able to admit not just your vulnerability but your strength and your agency, not just what’s been done to me. But where do I find myself? What am I going to do now? What am I going to do differently? How am I the co-creator of the situation I find myself in?

See, I think in some ways what used to be thought of as treatment is becoming more and more like a practice, with agency on both sides of the equation, but on the other hand, what in Zen is considered just the practice, also is taking on more aspects of the treatment in the sense that the teacher is seen as having a wider range of responsibility, that what we provide is care and containing and holding, a sword that gives life, not just the word that’s cutting through delusion. Zen practice is not just about the student making a superhuman effort, but the teacher has a different level of responsibility as well, including an expanded sense of their ability to do harm, not just through ethical violation but through a kind of misattunement that just runs roughshod over people’s differences and vulnerabilities.

Typically when a new student comes to the zendo, the first thing I will ask them is, What are you doing here? I want them to ask themselves: What do they think they’re looking for? What’s the problem? Why would you do this practice in the first place? And also, what is it you think practice is? What are you literally doing here when you sit on the cushion? Are you trying to quiet your mind? Trying to concentrate? Do you feel just buffeted about? What are you actually doing? I think this koan, and our talk about provisions of mutuality, gives us a chance to also turn that question around and ask, What is it you think I’m doing here?

Next Talk

Barry Magid April 11th 2021 Am I a Buddhist?

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