Taking Refuge in a Coffin: Is This Life One or Two? And Who Knows?

One of the themes that’s been coming up lately for practitioners in these parts (yes, both for Wild Fox in-the-fleshers and newly rolling Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training) has been the role of witness consciousness in practice.

When arousing the way seeking heart by contemplating impermanence (like I suggested in this recent post) of both the things of the world and the self, it becomes clear that there seems to be somebody watching this process – as if from outside.

Who is that? How to watch the watcher? Does the watcher also change? Is our life one or two? And, yes, who knows?

An old koan from The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi (in Japanese, Rinzai roku) addresses just this point … in what might seem to be a round about, peripheral way, I suppose.

P’u-hua (Poo-hwah) one day went about the streets asking people he met for a one-piece gown. They all offered him one, but P’u-hua declined them all.

Lin-chi had the temple steward buy a coffin and when P’u-hua came back the Master said: “I’ve fixed up a one-piece gown for you.”

P’u-hua put the coffin on his shoulders and went around the streets calling out: “Lin-chi fixed me up a one-piece gown. I’m going to the East Gate to depart this life.” All the townspeople scrambled after him to watch.

“No, not today,” said P’u-hua, “but tomorrow I’ll go to the South Gate to depart this life.” After he had done the same thing for three days no one believed him any more.

On the fourth day not a single person followed him to watch. He went outside the town walls all by himself, got in his coffin, and asked a passerby to nail it up.

The news immediately got about. The townspeople all came scrambling; on opening up the coffin, they saw he had vanished, body and all. They could just catch the echo of his hand bell sounding sharp and clear in the sky before it faded away, tinkle … tinkle … tinkle ….  (translation mostly from an old Tricycle’s “Parting Words,” by Clark Strand with a little tweaking at the end by Burton Watson)

P’u-hua is a famous wild holy man who was a lineage holder and Ch’an master who hung around Lin-chi’s community. What a pair!

Clark notes, “P’u-hua was a lunatic. Or else he was a wise man in disguise. In such cases it is sometimes impossible to tell.”

In the koan, P’u-hua invites the townspeople to demonstrate wholeness. They are all of one piece and yet their presentations are not accepted by P’u-hua.

What if you are there now and the guy portrayed above suddenly asks you for a one-piece gown, what will you bring forth?

As a fellow dharma-master and drama-king, Lin-chi goes to great lengths, even dragging the temple steward into the show, to make a seamless presentation, being born and dying the same as P’u-hua.

Even the great P’u-hua can’t seem to do it alone. Lin-chi just sets up the final act but none of the towns people show up. Fortunately, a passer-by, the lone witness, needs to put the nails in the coffin. Certainly, s/he should be regarded with love and appreciation. Not the enemy at all.

Tinkle … tinkle … tinkle….

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