teisho 1056 (2006)
One of the main errors people make when working on ‘Who am I?’ or ‘Mu’ or ‘the sound of one hand clapping’ is that they try to know Mu, or to know who they are, or to know the sound of one hand clapping. As soon as one puts it in those terms one sees there is a dualism: me the knower and that which is known. It is precisely this which is the cause of our suffering.
We have koans because it is impossible to talk about the truth, about reality, about what you are. Even the statement ‘about what you are’ throws up a separation, a division. The whole difficulty of practice lies in this. For example, to say ‘just be’, which is as near to the truth as one is likely to get, the word just seems to imply a put down, or that that is all there is. But on the contrary, to open oneself is to take in it all. And this all is not an abstract all, it is not referring to a total universe with all the stars and galaxies. Words create a whole universe, but at the same time they stifle, freeze, separate. When we ask ‘who am I?’ we look for that which corresponds to the word who. How can words approximate the great mystery? Break your faith, your belief in words. Break your belief, your conviction, your certainty of there being an independent, objective world.
When you ask ‘who am I?’ ‘what is Mu?’ ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ do not look for an answer. Any answer will enclose, will freeze or box in the truth. You are asked to demonstrate a koan because in the demonstration it is possible to keep the fluidity, the flexibility, the livingness of the situation. Unfortunately many people try to convey with the demonstration something they have already conceived of in words or thoughts. Then the demonstration becomes a kind of semaphore or sign language conveying ‘this is what the koan means.’ But the koan doesn’t mean anything.
When you ask ‘Mu?’ it is like a blow torch with which you melt down. It negates it all. It is no thing. What is thingness? What do we mean by a thing? No thing is not nothing. What is there beyond something and nothing? Beyond life and death? This is the great question. How does one work with this question? It is only by the struggle to stay between, and not to slip to one or the other. When Hakuin says ‘true self is no self’ this ‘no self’ is not an absence, but neither is it a way of talking about self. So what is it? If you were not already the answer, you could not raise the question. The question that has an answer is the one where the answer lays outside. The question that has no answer is the question to which you are the answer. In other words, to work with the question ‘who am I?’ you must start from the truth: that you are. The question then becomes: ‘how can I enrich my appreciation of that I am?’ The only way to do this is to enrich the question. And the question must be a natural, authentic, original question. It must be your question. To struggle to find the answer just nullifies the whole practice. How can you find the question is much more to the point. The question has been buried under all kinds of projects, dreams, opinions and prejudices, because the question is painful, uncomfortable, irritating and disturbing. Sometimes it is frightening. We are talking about your question, not a Zen question. A Zen question is neutral, it has no emotive content. This is why people say ‘I am not getting anywhere with my practice.’
How can you come home to the question, because ultimately this is coming home to yourself. Coming home to being. Hakuin said ‘To practice Zen one needs great faith.’ One is great faith. He says one needs great doubt; one’s whole life is doubt. He says we need great perseverance; life is perseverance. We are so used to looking outside our self; we are taught that this is the way to live, to be. To be objective, to face up to things. To live a life in society we need to be like that. We need language, words, thoughts and concepts. We have been seduced into believing that this is all there is. It is all out there. There is no Oneness.
We are conditioned to believing we are something, this is a given. When it says in the Diamond Sutra “Arouse the mind without resting it on anything” it is inviting you to let go of that fixed thought of something. It is this which is so utterly certain, that you are resting on constantly, that has to be questioned. I am something, you are something, the world is something. What is that something? This is Mu. See into Mu. Mu is the challenge of that something.
You can point, but you cannot give. You can say, and then unsay it, and that is all. There is no awakening, no knowing, no being, no truth, no reality, no thing. This is the Prajna Paramita. Whatever is given in your mind is simply what is taken for granted by you. Nothing is given. It is because nothing is given that there is no fundamental security out there. But you are free.
What is it then? If it is not an experience, if it cannot be known, cannot be felt, touched, what are we talking about? You cannot isolate it. It is like one in water crying ‘I thirst.’
The way to truth lies through the destruction of the false, of the illusory, of that which has been taken for granted. One cannot do this with a hammer, one must do it with a scalpel, one must do it intimately, gently, lovingly. One must be patient and approach it with humility. One must question one’s most inveterate beliefs.