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The difference between an answer and a response Barry Magid February 3rd 2024

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Book of Equanimity

Roso Faces the Wall

Preface to the Assembly
Bodhidharma’s nine years are known as wall gazing. Shinko’s three prostrations are outflowings of heavenly activity. How can the traces be swept away, the footprints be eliminated?

Main Case
Whenever Roso saw a monk coming, he would face the wall. Hearing of this, Nansen remarked, “I always tell others to receive directly, even before the empty kalpa, and to realize themselves even before the Buddha came into the world. But still, I haven’t found half a man, let alone a whole man. If he is thus, he will be stuck in the year of the donkey.”

The Verse
Plain water has flavor, subtly transcending the senses.
It precedes forms, though seeming endlessly to exist.
The Way is precious, though seeming massively to be foolish.
Inscribe designs on a jewel and its glory is lost;
a pearl even from an abyss naturally beckons.
Plenty of bracing air purely burnishes autumn’s swelter;
far away a single tranquil cloud divides sky and water.

Whenever Roso saw a monk coming, he would face the wall. When we hear this, it’s easy to think that Roso was refusing to answer the monk’s questions. But rather than think of what he’s doing as a refusal of some kind, perhaps we should see it as a response. I think in many koans we can see this distinction: a monk comes looking for an answer, but what he gets is a response, and this is fundamentally a very different thing.

I thought of this koan in light of our recent discussions of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, and the question arises: Is Roso refusing an encounter or offering one? If a monk comes with a mere question, something that can have an explanation or an answer, in a way he’s trying to enter into an I-It kind of relation. He’s looking for a piece of knowledge. He’s looking for a fact, looking for something that solves a riddle or solves a problem. Perhaps Roso is offering a radical response. We see it in so many cases, where a monk asks in all earnestness, Does a dog have Buddha-nature? When Joshu says, Mu, he’s giving a response, not an answer. When a monk gets hit or shouted at, he’s getting a response, when he was looking for an answer. Gutei holds up one finger. Roso faces the wall.

What does a response do that an answer doesn’t? As a kind of I and Thou encounter, there’s a different kind of immediacy, reality, and finality to a response. This is it! The question is not answered but the whole foundation of the question, the premises of the question, are undercut. This is our experience of practice over the years. We come with all sorts of questions, but we don’t get answers to those questions. What then happens to them? We’re told we must solve the great problem of life and death, the great matter. What exactly is the problem of life and death? Is there an answer to it? What would that even mean? It’s not that the problem is unreal or that its resolution is the dissolving, but its resolution is in dissolving rather than answering. Why is there birth and suffering and death? There is birth. There is suffering. There is death.

Responses turn us back on ourselves, turn us back to the reality of this moment. Yet it’s also a mistake to think that Roso’s turning his back on the student and facing the wall is leaving the student alone with the problem. As I said in my opening remarks, we’re mistaken if we think that practice is something we’re doing alone. The whole idea of a practice entails the idea of participation in something. We’re partaking of a tradition, a form of life, a kind of disciplined activity that we are invited to join, invited to train ourselves within this practice. Like the practice of medicine, it’s bringing us into a whole body of knowledge, a whole way of being, a whole system of thinking and doing and engaging with others.

I’ve had an ongoing debate with a number of my students and others over the years about the question of whether there’s such a thing as pure awareness, the idea that in meditation we go through a process of continual subtraction, so we no longer are our body, our thoughts, our emotions, our sensations, and when we look at what’s behind those things, we see just awareness without content. While I think it’s probably the case that people can induce all sorts of strange kinds of consciousness in themselves through various practices, the idea of pure awareness is ultimately extremely dualistic. We have this inner, pristine awareness, and then there’s the world out there that will somehow make its imprint on our consciousness.

When we think that awareness is always intentional, always awareness of something, what we realize is that there is no awareness apart from the world. There’s no inner apart from an outer. There’s no self apart from relation. And this, to me, is the fundamental antidote to that delusion of aloneness or separateness, that everything that we are and everything we do is fundamentally and inescapably a participation. We do not precede the act of participation. Instead, we’re constituted by it.

If we don’t have a sense of that participation, where Roso turns his back and faces the wall, we can see it simply as a rejection, a refusal. We don’t experience it as an encounter unless we are participating in a whole way of being together in this practice, where we can then see it as a response. We have to be part of a language and form in order to see Gutei’s raising one finger as a response rather than an empty gesture. So much of what we do in life is going around looking for answers. Sometimes we can find them and sometimes we can’t. But practice has the potential for turning that around and allowing us to see the world as responding rather than answering or refusing to act and answer. What are the questions you still have? What would count as an answer? What would be an appropriate response?

I would just say one more thing about that idea of an appropriate response. Roso’s name is not very familiar to us. We have many more stories about Joshu and Ummon and Rinzai. We remember their words. And it’s not that Roso’s response was in some sense wrong, but one wonders how attuned that response was to the monks who came to him. Because, again, if we think in the spirit of I and Thou, part of the teacher’s responsibility is not just to be right, but in some way to be compassionately helpful, to meet the student in a place where the student can actually be transformed.

The danger, of course, in a one-size-fits-all response, is that it substitutes some absolute sense of correctness for any empathy or understanding of where the student is coming from, and this is where some skillful means have to come in, and the skillful means most of the time use some words. In the preface and the verse, there’s a way in which we’re asked to see the perfection of this kind of presentation of the absolute. The preface asks, how can the traces be swept away, the footprints eliminated? It’s as if any elaboration, let alone explanation, of the meaning of Roso’s response, is a contamination of its clarity and its purity.

But the reality is that usually we have to be willing to walk through the mud and leave lots of traces if we’re going to meet people where they are. So when you come to dokusan, I will not just face the wall. Maybe someone somewhere would make a response like that, but for most of us we need some mixture of an answer and responsiveness. This is how we come down into the real world and engage one another in a compassionate activity rather than simply respond with the purity of the absolute. But when we get too caught up in our questions, too entangled in our search for answers, it’s good once in a while to be reminded of the pure response of Mu, of one finger, of Roso facing the wall.

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