A Zen Koan for a Vipassana retreat — by Doug Phillips

The talk tonight begins with a case from the Mumonkan, or Gateless Barrier, a compendium of encounters between ancient Chinese zen teachers and their students which has been used by zen practitioners right up until the present day to both break through to realization of the Truth of this moment, and to present and refine that understanding in the context of the teaching relationship and in daily living. One might wonder why base a talk during a vipassana retreat on a zen text, but the somewhat idiosyncratic form of insight meditation that is taught here has been deeply influenced by the zen tradition as well as the teachings of J. Krishnamurti and Vimala Thakar. The spirit of Koan practice has something to offer any student of the Way in that it can offer not only a different language which is both colorful and immediate, but also a challenge to come forth in the present with a personal presentation of the spontaneous, non-clinging, non-conceptual empty mind. In all of these encounters, both then and now, the answer to the problem is never found in the realm of the thinking mind because, just as in our deepest and most important encounters with Life, we can never really think our way out of these situations. The most important, even agonizing, life dilemmas we confront, by their very nature, thrust us into the position of “nothing we do will do”. The answer or solution always is beyond the grasp of the limited, conditioned thinking mind. Remember those times, those moments of extreme stuckness in grief or confusion or fear, when no matter what we did, it did not break up the problem. When nothing you do will do, what do you do? This is the dynamic tension of the koan and of the practice  life that we are invited to enter. 

In this case an outsider, someone who is not of the Buddhist persuasion, comes to the Buddha and says,” I ask neither for the spoken nor for the unspoken.” The Buddha responds by sitting still in dynamic silence. The outsider bows deeply to the Buddha and thanks him for opening his mind, clearing his confusion and setting him on the Way. He leaves and then Ananda, who is the Buddha’s close disciple and attendant and who is deeply gifted, asks the Buddha “What did that man realize that made him praise you so?” And the Buddha said, “It’s like a fine horse that runs at the shadow of the whip.”

Along with each of these cases there is an accompanying verse, which serves as a kind of commentary on the case itself. Here the verse is:

“Walking along the edge of a sword,
Running along an ice ridge,
No steps, no ladders,
Jumping from the cliff with open hands.”

In a traditional zen interview you enter the room, make your bows, recite the case and then demonstrate your understanding. It’s somewhat similar in its immediacy to when you come to see me during retreat and start to tell about something that has happened and rather than doing some technical problem solving I ask you to tell me what is it like for you right now. Go into that and speak from that place. Come forth with who you are right now, not in some stale past or imagined future but in the immediacy of this encounter between you and me. So for the next few minutes I’ll present my practice by reflecting a bit on this story, and you can present your practice of total listening. Together,in this way, we can nudge each other along the Great Way together. 

So who was this “outsider” who presented himself so directly to the Buddha? And maybe more to the point, what is an “outsider” exactly? In this case the outsider was probably someone who was not a Buddhist, maybe a Jain or a Hindu or simply a wandering ascetic. Already we have an example of a quality of the awakened mind: open availability. The Buddha was willing to meet with whoever showed up. When we hang out our sign as teacher we say we are willing to engage with whoever honestly presents themselves for encounter. As vipassana practitioners we make ourselves available to encounter whatever shows up in our mind and body with alert, interested awareness. And by extension, we commit ourselves to extending that willing availability into the world of relationships, using those relationships as a mirror to further deepen our self understanding, reveal our clinging, aversion and confusion and in turn making us increasingly available for deeper encounters with self and other.

The Buddha, or the awakened mind, makes itself available to the “outsider.” Most of us have known at some point in our lives what it feels like to be an outsider; times in childhood when we were chosen last or not at all for a playground game, not invited to a party, or even feeling like an outsider in our own family. The pain of having our nose figuratively pressed to the frosted glass looking in from the cold on everyone else enjoying the warmth of togetherness. Beyond these painful experiences, we can create “outsiderness” through the thinking mind; the mind that chooses for or against, that honors more what it likes or dislikes than being able to hold such differentiation in the context of the great spaciousness of the wholeness of Life. This is the thinking aspect of the mind that operates from the defended center of “me” and “mine”. This thinking aspect of the mind creates the split of insider and outsider internally when it seizes on a sensation in the body and spins out a story about it; the twinge in the back, the slightly elevated heart rate, the tingling in the foot or dizziness when we stand up too quickly. The cascade of thoughts that results from this simple diversion from just seeing sensation as sensation can lead us into all sorts of unwise behaviors and individually created hell-realms and is a direct and immediate source of suffering. Having thoughts is not the problem. Clinging to, believing in and hence setting up a split between the “me” having the thoughts and the thoughts themselves, however is. There is a world of difference between direct seeing of what we call fear or anger, and identifying with and being carried away by our identification with that thinking. It is the difference between freedom and bondage.

Can we watch on the cushion, during our work period and at each moment throughout the day how the mind creates inside and outside, good and bad, me and other? How it takes a sensation and by thinking about that sensation creates separation and suffering? What happens when there is “just” seeing of this process without a “see-er”? Is there an inside and an outside? What happens to the sense of conflict in this seeing? Maybe you can try it right now. When in the seeing or hearing there is just the seen or heard, what happens? Is there a “you” and a “that”? Can there be pain, discomfort, the energy called fear without suffering created by separation? What happening to the suffering when there is just seeing, hearing or sensing? If there are no words, just awareness, what is that? So can we enter into this moment, whatever it is, with an awareness that isn’t encumbered with trying to change anything at all; just simple seeing and the seeing of what happens next. This calms the mind of the conflict of one aspect of the mind trying to get rid of or eliminate another part of the mind. This is the seeing and ending of conflict.

“I ask for neither the spoken nor the unspoken.” Often when something in our life confronts us with the limits of our ability to rationally and logically think our way out of that something, our reaction is to push it away, avoid or kill it off, literally or figuratively. We feel a threat to our integrity and security and our conditioned, and often somewhat primitive, reaction is to eliminate the imagined source of our discomfort. We don’t understand why our new baby won’t stop crying and rather than dealing with our own helplessness and fear we just want him to shut up. A relationship is falling apart, or our body is falling apart, despite our best efforts, and we behave in ways to try and reduce our fear or loneliness, but find that those actions actually only serve to worsen everything.

What we are essentially running from, trying to escape from, is our own mind. And what is so obviously flawed in this is that it simply doesn’t work; whenever the mind tries to escape from itself, that from which it flees is simply there waiting for us to return. Not unlike running from one’s own shadow. So, when we are confronted with a life challenge or something challenging in our sitting practice, our job is to see what escapes we create out of reactivity and not take them. To sit still right in the face of the strong bodily sensation and the urge to move, the loneliness or fear and the urge to flee through some kind of behavior; to meet this with alert, passive attention; with dynamic and rooted “sitting.” This is what Lin Chi meant when he told his students to “Take it easy and do Nothing!” This is the dynamic stillness of the Buddha’s response to the outsider. This is how the stable, alert, awakened mind meets the demand for a response that defies the rational, discursive mind that makes distinctions and separation.

While we can suddenly discover this strong, flexible, unmovable mind, (or it finds us) there is a process of learning our way into it. This learning is found in the activity of falling down and getting up in our formal practice and in daily living; drifting away from the breath and coming back, over and over, noticing more and more how suddenly after being lost in something we are completely without effort or intention, suddenly awake right in the middle of it. This is happening all the time, both on and off the cushion. It’s very helpful to begin to notice this; to experience the mind that spontaneously wakes itself up and to really get to know the mind at that moment.  Regardless of how deeply we are mired in fear, anger or confusion, when awareness suddenly reasserts itself, that is when we take up our practice of knowing this moment exactly as we find it.  Can we take up our practice of sitting without moving right at that moment? Present, alert, receptive to whatever this is.

In answer to Ananda, the Buddha replies, “It’s like a fine horse that runs at the shadow of the whip.” The fuller rendering of this metaphor is found in the Anguttara Nikaya, and is actually related to death awareness practice and the transient and unpredictable nature of human existence. How close does death have to visit us before we are energized and motivated to not waste a single precious moment of a life in which the next breath is promised to no one? What is the ripened condition of mind that really understands the implications of the law of impermanence for living the life we have right now? When the mind is naturally alert and sensitive, not clouded by the toxins of greed, aversion and confusion, perception and action are simultaneous. This is both an extraordinary and completely ordinary occurrence. If you step off the curbing and suddenly notice that there is a car bearing down on you that you did not notice before, you don’t pause to wonder about who has the right of way or whether or not it’s environmentally responsible to drive an SUV; you immediately step out of the way. You may then react to the driver or your own prior inattention in some way or other, but at that moment perception and action are immediate, simultaneous and “you” know exactly the correct action to take. More accurately, correct action springs forth seamlessly from the clear mind when it is empty of reactivity and that which makes for separation. In fact, we always know what is correct action in any situation if the mind is clear, free of the kileasas and hindrances. There is an innate intelligence at work that increasingly is free to function both on and off the cushion. It’s not something that we can strive for or grasp, because it is truly ungraspable and its’ functioning is impeded when there is the narrowing of mind that occurs when we operate out of the restricted center of “me” and “mine”. So, we train ourselves in this way, sitting with the breath, knowing its’ nature as freely functioning, selfless and impermanent, or simply being alert to whatever occurs in the field of awareness — receptive, alert — knowing with increasing intimacy the knowing and the known which occurs without effort, without self, moment after moment, time without end. This is the edge where life and practice become the practice-life; nothing excluded, everything welcome, host and guest in complete harmony.

Lastly, we come to this wonderful verse at the end of the case.

Walking along the edge of a sword,
Running along an ice ridge,
No steps, no ladder
Jumping from the cliff with open hands.

I was out for a walk this afternoon and was coming back down the mountain, which was quite slippery and glistening after last nights’ downpour. My attention went off to something about this talk and as the mind went off ,so, suddenly did my feet. In that timeless pause when the mind is completely still, not really yet aware of the potential for disaster that awaits the body but knowing quite well that something interesting is about to occur, in that moment the body caught itself. Of course, “I” had nothing to do with all of this. Attention had separated itself from the task of paying attention to the trail, the feet had momentarily lost their way, the sudden slip brought mind and body back together just in time for the appropriate correction to be made. Having accepted nature’s invitation to rejoin my body, and very grateful for the body protecting itself, I thought, “So this is how it happens.” A moment of inattention and something happens. We‘re driving, are momentarily distracted and if we’re lucky that day, no problem. Or, there is a more disturbing outcome. We’re here, then we’re gone and when we come back our life has been slightly or dramatically changed in our absence. This life is like walking along the edge of a sword or running along an ice ridge.  At any moment slippage is possible. Pay attention! And yet the other side of this truth is that no matter how dedicated we are to our practice on and off the cushion, these slips are inevitable. Completely continuous attention is impossible. Remember the law of impermanence? Indeed, our practice can assume a compulsive, anxiety ridden quality when we try to use it as a security system to ward off the uncertain, fragile and unpredictable nature of our existence.

One of the interesting insights of our practice is that while slipping from the ice ridge happens in a discontinuous and timeless moment, so does awakening. They are often closely related. When we are separated, lost, angry, confused or fearful there is also the infinite possibility for mind and body to be re-united in the timeless moment of just seeing; simple, direct awareness. This is timeless, spontaneous, effortless and completely intimate, without any separation whatsoever. Here are actualized compassion and wisdom, though we need not call it anything at all. So, you cannot, not slip from the ice ridge or not cut your foot on the sword of life.  And yet what we discover is that in that moment of knowing the cut, the slip, the fall, we are caught again and at least momentarily held by a completely awakened mind. Do you see any steps here? Is there a need for some tool to climb back into our life, or at the moment of seeing are we already there?

Having this experience over and over can lead us to an appreciation of “jumping from the cliff with hands wide open.” As we trust this process more and more, which is really just learning to trust life itself, we can begin to step more and more into this moment of life with less and less fear and hesitation. We begin to love life and to live it without holding back. Do you remember that scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when they are chased to the cliff edge with a roaring river hundreds of feet below?  Sundance wants to fight in out in spite of the hopelessness of success and Butch finally figures out why he won’t jump off the cliff and into the river below to escape. “Why Sundance, you’re afraid.” says Butch. “I am not afraid”, replies Sundance. “I can’t swim!” Says Butch, “Why, hell, Sundance, the fall’ll probably kill ya!” And with a great yell of liberation, off into space they leap. We are conditioned to believe that really letting go into our life is just too dangerous. And it is. Really living is risky, unpredictable. But the alternative is to live a kind of half life, or shadow life.

So, this is our practice and this is our life. Completely letting go of past and future, meeting the unanswerable questions on and off the cushion. Practicing that which cannot be practiced; bearing the unbearable; loving the unlovable; living the unlivable. When nothing we do will do can we let go with hands wide open and jump right into the midst of This. This moment, this life, in what ever form it takes. 



– Questions to Ponder. (Dec 2004)

– Question and Answer. Tricycle Article
  (Sept 2003)

Anapanasati: A Brief Introduction, by
  Larry Rosenberg

Krishnamurti on Awareness

Reflections on Ikkyu

-Exploring Effort
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Having No Idea, CIMC
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– The Sutta About Bahiya, Part 1
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– The Sutta About Bahiya, Part 2
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A Clearly Enlightened Person Falls
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A Clearly Enlightened Person Falls
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A Zen Koan for a Vipassana Retreat:
 The Buddha and the Outsider. Fall
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