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It’s all come to this Barry Magid November 4th 2023

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Book of Equanimity Case 81

Master Gensha arrived at Hoden Province and was received with many kinds of entertainment. The next day he asked Venerable Shoto, “Where did all of yesterday’s festivities go?” and Shoto lifted a corner of his robe. Gensha remarked, “There’s no relation between them at all.”

The point of that little story may not be very clear on first reading so it’s very helpful that the commentary in this Gerry Wick edition provides some details on Gensha’s earlier life. I’ll just read from his commentary:

“Before he became a monk, Gensha was a fisherman, as was his father. Once when they were out fishing together, they had an accident and his father fell into the sea. Gensha tried to save him but couldn’t. After his father drowned, in his remorse and despair, Gensha decided to become a monk and to practice Zen. Compared to other novice monks, he was at an advanced age – in his thirties! – and perhaps his life experience helped him understand his practice and the meaning of life and death.

“Many years later on a pilgrimage Gensha painfully stubbed his toe on a rock and cried out in pain. He had an enlightenment experience as he thought to himself, ‘If everything is empty, where does this pain come from?’ Then he went back to see his teacher, Seppo, who said, ‘Did you go on your pilgrimage just to cut your foot and have a hard time?’ Gensha said, ‘Please don’t kid me!’ Seppo was pleased, and said, ‘What you just said should be spoken by everyone, but they lack your sincerity. Why don’t you continue to visit other masters?’ Gensha said, ‘Bodhidharma did not come to China, and the Second Patriarch did not go to India.’”

If we think about how Gensha came to practice as a result of this terrible accident in which his father died, while he was helpless to save him, we imagine that he hoped his practice in some way would relieve him of his guilt, or just the pain of that terrible loss. But anyone who has suffered that kind of tragedy knows that it never goes away. So what is practice supposed to do?

His dilemma crystallized for him on pilgrimage, when he had an accident and, they say, stubbed his toe. I gather he really painfully cut his toe, broke it perhaps, so that he cried out in pain, and a whole contradiction of what he was seeking in practice became alive to him at that moment. If everything is empty, why am I in so much pain? We can see that that must have been the core curative fantasy in his practice, that somehow entering into emptiness, into samadhi, would wipe out his pain, maybe even wipe out his memory, wipe out his guilt.

But the pain didn’t go away, and yet at that moment something collapsed and this dichotomy between the pain and the emptiness dissolved. When he went back to tell his teacher about it, the teacher was testing him. Did you go on a pilgrimage just to hurt yourself like that? What did that accomplish? Gensha said, ”Master, don’t kid me!” Seppo was very pleased with the immediacy and sincerity of that remark. There’s no stink of Zen about it at all.

Further on in the commentary, we’re told that when Gensha himself later became a teacher, his style was very direct, and if a student came to him and asked, Master, how can I encounter the dharma? He might say, Do you hear the sound of the stream outside? And the student said, “Yes.” And Gensha would say, “Enter there”. When the student came, and Gensha would just call out his name and the student would respond, ”Yes!” Gensha would say, “Enter there!”

Now I think we have to be very careful in thinking about those stories because in a way they seem to point simply to immediacy. Everything is just this present moment: The sound of the stream, the sound of your name, the pain in your cut foot. Enter there!

But that doesn’t mean that by answering There! everything else is wiped out once and for all. The koan takes us back to the story that forms the case. When Gensha arrives he’s greeted with great festivities. The next day he asks his hosts: Where did it all go? What’s the relationship between yesterday and today? Once we know Gensha’s back story, that his yesterday contained the death of his father for which he felt responsible, Where did yesterday go? is not an idle question. And his host makes this gesture of lifting up a corner of his robe, saying, in effect, it’s right here! It’s intimately still present, and Gensha replies, It has no relation at all.

Now I think that that is supposed to set up for us this dichotomy of the past is never left, and the past is completely gone. When Gensha became a monk, the past was something that he couldn’t shake off, that tormented him. But his fantasy of practice – that there would just be immediacy, nothing but the present moment, and everything else would be wiped away, a clean slate – that’s a one-sided fantasy as well. We don’t want to be stuck with a past that never lets us go and we don’t want to be stuck in the present, thinking dissociation or repression of everything that’s gone before is enlightenment.

I’ve said that problems don’t disappear from our life as the result of practice – they disappear into our life. They become seamlessly part of our life. It’s just our life. It’s not life and problems and why can’t we get rid of our problems? But it’s our life, the sum of everything that’s happened before. This is our challenge in this practice. When we sit with concentration, with immediacy, not make that something that we’re supposed to push aside to make us forget for a while who we are and how we got here, but to see the present, as I said in my opening remarks, as the sum, the result of everything that’s gone before. What is the present? It’s all come to this.

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