Your life can’t be squandered – the fruit is always ripe Barry Magid April 30th 2022

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Here’s a story from the Blue Cliff Record, Case 69. Once upon a time there were three monks named Nan Ch’uan, Kuei Tsung, and Ma Ku who went on a pilgrimage to visit a famous master. At least he was famous then. Only Nan Ch’uan goes on to become famous as a cat killer. The others we don’t really know anything about. In any case when this is taking place, they’re still young monks, before any of them became teachers. When they stopped along the way, all of a sudden Nan Ch’uan draws a circle on the ground and says, If either of you can say something, we will go on. Kuei Tsung immediately just sat down in the middle of the circle. Ma Ku made a bow from the waist. Nan Ch’uan said, In that case, we won’t go.

Nan Ch’uan challenges them: Can you say something? It’s often put: Can you say a word of Zen? We might remember other stories in which monks are challenged that way. The famous one includes young Gutei, when he’s sitting by himself in a hermitage. An old nun comes by, walks around the hermitage three times, and says, If you can say a word of Zen, I’ll come in. Gutei just sits there tongue-tied, and she goes away, leaving him sitting feeling very foolish. All that sitting, and he couldn’t say a word of Zen.

In this story, Nan Ch’uan’s two companions respond quickly and spontaneously. He asks them to say something, but instead they do something. It’s not an uncommon response in Zen stories. Nan Ch’uan draws a big circle and Kuei Tsung just sits down in the middle of it. The circle is the Way, the circle is life as it is, so, well, just plop yourself down right in the middle of it. That’s where we are. Ma Ku bows from the waist. We need a note to tell us that monks typically bend in a full prostration. Bowing from the waist is what a nun did, so he’s doing something that is at best ironic or perhaps sarcastic, Oh, such a holy circle, I have to bow to it, and he bows to it in a way like a nun rather than a monk so it’s kind of a mocking gesture. But in any case, it’s an immediate and spontaneous response.

Nan Ch’uan says, Well, then we’re not going to go. You can take that in one of two ways. Either you could say he’s disapproving of them: I asked you to say something and neither of you said anything so we’re not going to go. Or you can take it to mean: Well done! If you can respond that quickly and appropriately, why do we need to go see some other teacher? Everything we need is right here.

The challenge to say something, or to say a word of Zen, immediately puts us in a spotlight, where it seems like we’re supposed to do something special, when really we are only called on to be ourselves, to do something ordinary. When a nun visited Gutei in his hermitage, all he had to do was politely invite her in for tea. He didn’t have to find some special word of Zen that only a monk would know. He just had to realize this ordinary mind was the way. A polite invitation would be just fine. In his sitting, he was very comfortable just sitting alone in deep meditation, but he didn’t know how to respond to another person. He’d mastered the inside but got all tongue-tied when challenged by somebody else.

Often students today have the opposite problem. They can be very assured and masterful in their everyday life, very accomplished, used to having their way and knowing what they’re doing. But when they sit down in silence and have to confront their own mind, it may be the most uncontrollable thing they’ve ever encountered. Sitting still and sitting quietly for a half hour let alone for a whole day might get them all entangled and embarrassed and tongue-tied, not knowing how to just sit there.

In the past I’ve said zazen is something you can’t do wrong. And that’s the kind of half truth that I’ve tried to use to balance out the different way of thinking about our practice, because obviously there are all sorts of ways to do this wrong. If somebody comes and sits down in the zendo and after five minutes scratches an ear and in ten minutes picks their nose and in fifteen changes position and in twenty minutes gets up to have a drink of water, we’d say they don’t know what they’re doing. They're doing it wrong. They don’t understand what this is about.

Obviously there’s a way in which we’re expected to learn that doing zazen means sitting straight, sitting still. So there’s obviously a level at which you can do it right or wrong. The trick is to discover the level at which you can’t do it wrong. This goes back to the discussions we’ve had in the last couple of weeks about the difference between a problem and a koan. At the level of doing it right or wrong, sitting is a problem. Can I sit still? Am I going to fidget? Is my knee going to hurt so much I’m going to want to get up and move? Those are problems we have, we have to figure out how to deal with them. There’s a right way and a wrong way to deal with them.

But there’s another way to approach our sitting: As long as we just sit still and leave things alone, everything that happens is simply part of our zazen. We’re here to sit with our restlessness, sit with our pain, sit with our mind as it is. We’re not trying to change anything, not trying to fix anything. We’re really just trying to let life manifest just like this, right here, right now. Ordinary mind is the way.

But it can take years and years to arrive at something that’s that simple and accepting. We could spend a lot of time in our life and in our practice, doing it right or doing it wrong. We have trouble ever seeing that there’s another way. This too connects with the reading that we’re going to discuss later this morning about unripe fruit. What does it mean for something to be ready? If someone asks you, Are you ready? How do you answer? At the level of a problem, you can try to examine yourself: Am I prepared? Am I ready for this? Can I do it? Do I know what I’m supposed to do? Am I able to do that? Or am I going to get in over my head?

If somebody says to you: Can you give the dharma talk today? Are you ready? Most people would say, Hey, wait a minute, I haven’t prepared anything. I can’t do that. Then it’s a problem. But another kind of readiness is the readiness where you can’t miss. It’s the readiness of that willingness to simply show up to the situation and letting it go however it goes, and responding however you respond. In that sense, you can’t be anything but ready. But you have to be willing to simply take what comes, whatever that will be.

Sometimes in sesshin they would end with the admonition: “Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your life.” It can sound very fierce and very scary. If you don’t do this right, if you don’t solve your koan, if you can’t answer, What is mu, you have squandered your life. Very clearly, there’s a right and wrong way to be. The end of the Sandokai sounds like the same thing. It says, “To those who wish to be awakened, do not waste your time by night or day.”

But in both cases we can hear it differently. We can take it as a koan instead of as a problem, where being ready doesn't have to refer to any particular condition at all. Just be present. How can life be squandered? Are you supposed to get from here to there and if you don’t make it, you’re a failure? You’ve wasted your time? How can time be wasted? See, if you wish to be awakened, realize you can’t waste your time by night or day. Every moment, just as it is, regardless of its content, is displaying Buddha-nature, the reality of interconnection, impermanence, of just this. The lesson is repeating itself over and over regardless of what’s happening. If you’re awakened, you see you can’t waste any moments. Life can’t be squandered. The fruit is always ripe.

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