Stopping that distant temple bell: a Meditation on a traditional Zen Koan

Stopping that distant temple bell: a Meditation on a traditional Zen Koan December 28, 2016

Monk Ringing Bell

A while back someone suggested to me how the relationship between “spiritual and religious” might be a koan. My immediate reaction was no and yes, well, sort of.

No, because when people use that word “koan” they usually mean it in the sense of a paradox or, increasingly, a thorny question. And, I think that was how my friend meant it. Now, he was simply using the definition that has been put upon it in its short history as an English language word.

But this is not what koan means within the spiritual discipline that coined the term. Koan is the Japanese pronunciation of the word gongan, which literally means “public case,” as in a court document. In its technical use as a discipline within Zen Buddhism, a koan is an anecdote, a short phrase, occasionally a fragment of a poem or a fairy tale, sometimes nothing more than a word; and is always used as an expression of the relative and the absolute, the harmony of boundless emptiness and the phenomenal world. Or, perhaps more simply a koan is a theme or point in Zen to be made clear.

Koans are not thorny questions. Koans are not riddles or questions with no answer. They are not meant to startle people into some sort of “transrational” state. They are an assertion about reality and an invitation to one’s most intimate encounter. Still, sadly, the “thorny question” use is increasingly common, in fact it is the most common use for the word in common North American usage. For instance I’ve even heard Buddhist teachers use it and, for me, more startlingly, even Zen teachers who do not practice within a koan tradition, use it in the sense of “I’ve been offered a job in Albuquerque, but it means leaving my family and friends. It’s a real koan…”

So, in that sense, no, the question of the relationship of a private spirituality and a public religious is not a koan.

And, at the same time, there is a hint of something “koanic,” in the question. The squaring of the circle, the reconciliation of apparent contradictions are exercises that have something of the spirit of the koan about them. Although the emphasis would have to be on “apparent,” as no true koan is ever about contradiction. the contradiction it shatters is a deep one to the human heart, but a false one, the source of much hurt in the world.

So, here’s the yes, sort of about the koan of spiritual and religious. There are deep ways in which we have no private experience without a public one, or vice versa. Here something like a koan might be found. Sort of. But, as long as I’m ranting on the use of the word koan, I’d rather draw your attention to a real koan, one that more unambiguously takes us to the deepest points of the spiritual quest.

In the Harada/Yasutani koan curriculum, one first explores in some depth the reality of our essential openness, the fact there is no essential, but rather all that is, is. This truth of this is expressed most succinctly in the Heart Sutra and specifically in the phrase “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

Actually all koans are connected with this assertion, are informed by it, are meant to take us to understand it as our most intimate truth. Usually we have some idea of what form is. You are you. I am I. And never shall the two meet. Except in the koan world, except in our truest world.

Here we’re invited to discover the “empty,” what the emptiness or the essentiallessness might actually mean. Here we find the bottomless bottom to every thing, to every person. I would add, in regard to a few comments people make in spiritual circles about how words are only instruments: and, to every word.

You think you know? Well, if you do, here’s a little test for you. And the Zen way is very much about checking our private understanding. Here I find myself thinking of a koan one encounters early on in the Harada/Yasutani curriculum.

“Stop that distant temple bell.”

With this question every encounter that led to that moment of a bell ringing in the distance is drawn upon. Here you are, here I am. Perhaps sitting by a creek, in the shade of a tree on a lovely Summer day. And in the distance, somewhere beyond the horizon, a bell rings. Deep, lovely. Ring… A pause, perhaps. A ring…

The Zen student has to know that she is empty. The bell is empty. The sound is empty. The Zen student has to know he is here, the bell is here, the sound is here. There is no deeper spiritual meaning veiled beneath the weight of thingness. No dualism. And no reductive “one.”

When we’ve allowed every thing to drop, including self and other, what is left?

In the context of the koan, “stop that distant temple bell,” what is left? Gerard Manley Hopkins has a suggestion.

As kingfishers catch fire,
dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same.

In Zen we’re all from Missouri.

So, show me…

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