Whether you practice Zen or not, you probably know a Zen koan (in Chinese, kong-an) or two already. At least one—“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”—has appeared on The Simpsons. Some of the more famous ones are questions, like that one and “What was your face before your parents were born?” But many are just stories, exchanges or encounters for us to observe. They don’t ask something, so it isn’t obvious that we’re supposed to answer something, either. They just hang there, leaving us wondering what to do with them.
One of my favorites is from a collection called the Gateless Gate (Wumenkuan, or Mumonkan in Japanese). It’s the twelfth case, and it goes like this:
Every day, the priest Ruiyan called out to himself, “Master!” to which he responded (to himself) “Yes!”
Then he would say, “Be aware!” And again, he would respond, “Yes, yes!”
Last, he would say, “Don’t be deceived!” and respond, “No, I won’t!”
How do you see it in your head? As a person of this age, my first image is of him standing in front of a mirror. But this was a thousand years ago, so probably not. Is this the first thing he says before he gets out of bed? Is it on a walk? Is he whispering this so no one can hear, or is he shouting it (which is what it feels like)? In any case, instead of a dialogue between teacher and student—kind of the standard koan setup—we have a dialogue between Ruiyan and, well, Ruiyan.
Ruiyan understands two sides of himself. One side—the one initiating this “conversation”—knows exactly what he needs to hear, and the other side—the one saying yes—is the one that needs to hear it. Or is it the reverse? The yes! and no! are so confident, so immediate, that maybe that version of Ruiyan is the one who already knows; maybe the one calling out is the one who still needs the dialogue in the first place. Either way, he’s playing both guest and host here, the one who encourages and the one who is encouraged, the one who is sure and the one who wants a little reassurance.
For myself, I have a fascination with the part of us that knows. The precepts form a wonderful manual for ethical living, but they come out of something we already intuitively understand. We have a sense of right and wrong, but maybe we can’t really articulate it; the precepts give language and shape to that knowing. It’s the same for something like vow—the vows are words we put to something that’s way too big to express with just words. The words are a starting place for a way of being that comes from who we already are.
So when I read this koan, my first thought is of the aspect of Ruiyan that already knows. He knows he needs to be awake; he knows not to be deceived. But he doesn’t rest in that knowing. It’s there—and clearly he knows it—but he doesn’t let it make him complacent. Instead, he makes it almost into a character: the one who knows but who also knows that knowing isn’t enough. He takes that deep spiritual confidence and presents it—to himself—as humility. He forces himself, every single day, to put it into words that even he can understand.
What do we do with this? The response to a koan should never be imitation; that’s not the point. So tomorrow, if you brush your teeth and then have this exact exchange with yourself in the mirror, something isn’t quite genuine about that (though let’s admit, there’s nothing wrong with telling ourselves to be awake and not be deceived). The real questions are (a) what do you already know, and (b) of what you know, what is the thing you most need to hear? Where do you trust yourself? And where do you think you might be prone to slip? Be honest about it—really do look yourself in the mirror for this. Tomorrow morning, when you wake up, what words will put you on the right path, face you in the right direction? You know what they are—somewhere in your mind, you already know. So figure that out, and then, with every new day, say them, whisper them, shout them. It’s that simple.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.