Creatures of Pain and Joy: A Meditation on a Zen Koan and the Abiding Reality of Human Hunger

Creatures of Pain and Joy: A Meditation on a Zen Koan and the Abiding Reality of Human Hunger September 5, 2017

Dorothy Day




A student of the way asked master Zhaozhou, “I have just entered this monastery. Please, teacher, instruct me.” Zhaozhou responded, “Have you eaten your breakfast?” The student replied, “Yes, sir, I have.” Zhaozhou responded, “Wash your bowls.”

Gateless Gate, Case Seven, Book of Serenity, Case Thirty-Nine.

Zhaozhou Congshen was born in the last decades of the eighth century China and flourished and taught there throughout the larger part of ninth century. One of Zen history’s great teachers, he was a successor to the equally renowned Nanquan Puyan. According to tradition he didn’t begin teaching until he was eighty, but then once embarked proceeded to guide others on the great way for forty more years.

Anecdotes featuring him within the koan literature are quite common. He appears twelve times in the Twelfth century Chinese text the the Blue Cliff Record. And with the two Thirteenth century anthologies five times in Gateless Gate and three in the Book of Serenity. Plus another eight times in the Eighteenth century Japanese volume, Entangling Vines. He is as important a teacher for me as any whom I’ve known in the flesh. I sometimes dream of Zhaozhou, his blunt invitations into the farther reaches of my heart have been seeds taken root and flowering as a life. His was, really, is a life that I remain endlessly grateful for.

An amazing teacher and easily misunderstood. I particularly recall talking with another Zen teacher who was of the opinion that that Zhaozhou’s response to that monastic was the equivalent of “Go wipe your butt.” That is he the teacher thought the conversation was a rebuke. A rebuke of what is not clear. Perhaps for having the temerity to present himself and ask for instruction. Frankly, I was surprised a mature Zen practitioner and one who was supposed to be intimate with the koan tradition could think this. Several lessons followed for me.

However, for this reflection, what I want to assert is that koans are never about rebuke. Even when a koan seems like it might be, such as when Guishan kicked over that water bottle or when Qingshui asks for those alms and is told he’d long since been given three glasses of the finest wine. No rebuke, no insult. And, it is never a dismissal. Rather it is always an invitation.

The invitation of this koan is to an immediacy of experience that allows no separation. With this specific koan we’re pointed to the reality that there is in fact no disconnect between an act and its consequence, even if in our ordinary ways of perceiving, or rather analyzing, leads us to think there are two different things. Here eating and washing bowls. In a fundamental sense, not two. Of course in the realm of life and death, not one, either. But that’s another point which we find elsewhere. There is no escape on the koan way. Our whole lives are explored, all facets of the real. And our experience of it, now every thing is holy, now no thing is holy.

However, while there is a primary pointing within the practice of koan introspection, and so with this case, that encounter of no boundary, there are often other things that happen. Koans, after all, are rich, and evocative. And our encounter is almost always within a context of vulnerability. We undertake the discipline to learn. Of course there are superficial approaches and there can be throwing our whole hearts into the project. While there isn’t a one to one equation between our efforts and what we find, one is more likely to be enriched if one is truly engaged. And, with that koans can be genuinely powerful and sometimes helpful in many ways, sometimes even “off label,” if you will.

So, if one uses the formulation “No” rather than “Mu” in the famous koan involving that dog and the same central figure here, the remarkable Zhaozhou. For some people with whom I’ve worked that “No” can be a major invitation into the deeper parts of our lives. So many people live with slight and deep wounds that come from a hundred, perhaps a thousand “no’s” scattered through their lives. For many that no can be an invitation into a profound encounter with the shape of our personalities. And dealing with who we are and where we are hurt can be incredibly important. And, I’ve seen people engage the wounds of their lives with courage and tenacity before turning to that other, “koanic” encounter that the anecdote in fact is pointing us toward. Actually at some point it can be impossible to discern a difference.

I did Mu as Mu. And, my encounter with that case was a more straight forward push into the principal pointing it offers. However, I’ve had a similar experience to those who use No when working with Zhaozhou’s bowl. Although it wasn’t as a preamble to engagement. This “secondary” or perhaps better, “personal” encounter with the koan might not happen at all, might happen before, might happen in the middle, or, might happen after that more universal engagement. For me with this case, Zhaozhou’s bowl, it was after dealing with the astonishing intimacy that this koan called me into that I found some residual, some hint of something, a dislocation, a point where the two things didn’t meet perfectly. I’ve come to name that thing hunger.

Hunger. I have friends who speak of being poor as children. Some were. At least by our American standards of that word, “poor.” Most, however, were not. What they meant was that they didn’t have a lot of money. The circles I mostly move in are inhabited by the well educated and well fed. And this was true of their childhoods, as well. Some grew up working class, and that has its own wounds. But, I was brought up poor. And that’s a different thing.

I have no actual memory of going hungry. What I remember are a lot of boxed macaroni and cheese, boiled hot dogs, and things made with cheap hamburger. However. There was something more going on. One of my most vivid early memories is being invited to a friend’s home for dinner. I’m not sure how old I was, I believe it had to be somewhere in the vicinity of pre-adolescent. There was quite the spread. And I commented with unabashed surprise how I’d never seen so much food at one time. I quickly picked up the discomfort those words triggered among the adults. And not exactly being sure of why, I felt a wave of shame. And, as I said, I’ve never forgotten it.

I remember hating the Honeymooners, a situation comedy staring Jackie Gleason. The bare set that portrayed their home was painfully reminiscent of how we lived. As I became aware of the differences of class my growing sense of shame with our poverty and the social isolation it engendered became a wound I would live with. It focused for me on a fear of hunger. I find this sense of a fear of hunger so compelling that I consider it a minor evidence of past lives. I don’t believe in such, there is no compelling evidence of a mechanism to collect and transmit the collection of causes and conditions that I call “me.” But. There are these complexes that we all live with that seem deep, something more than the specific circumstances of our lives would seem to call for. For me hunger is atavistic, it is ancient.

I know poverty. I recall having Christmas because of the Firemen. I know I rarely went to a department store to buy clothing. But, at the same time I don’t actually recall being hungry. It is like a lacuna in my heart. It is a black hole around so much of who I am. And hunger is an obsession of mine. I can feel an easy connection between this anxiety, this discomfort and my later and life-long problem with weight. Even today I worry about not getting enough food. Although today, fortunately, it is a distant thought, more a gentle dis-ease. But, that said, it has never completely gone away.

In Buddhism there’s a simple, even simplistic assertion about human personality. It suggests we’re woven out of three demons, greed, hatred, and ignorance. All of them, of course. But, we lead with one. Mine is obvious. Hunger. Desire. Wanting. Greed. Of course these things can turn, ignorance can be curiosity, hatred clarity, and hunger generosity. So, an interesting and sometimes beautiful range of possibilities. Although, again that lesson, its all dynamic, nothing remains constant.

I worry about people on the streets getting food. I’m a particularly easy touch. If I have a few dollars on me, I happily pass them on to most anyone who asks. (Yes, there are complex priorities. At the top of my list are old people, and at the head of that list old women. But, it extends all the way to include young men. Complexities, even for someone who finds the term “deserving poor” an insult to our common humanity.)

And it is a part of the background of my feeling that poverty is as much a situation people find themselves in as a consequence of any particular choice or action. And with that my body sense we all need to be cared for. My deep sense that the community itself bears some genuine responsibility to make sure that people don’t go hungry. And more. But beyond the limits of this reflection. When people say that in a place like America no one has to go hungry, I challenge the assertion. I see homeless people. And I don’t see the network of social service agencies that it would require to care for them beyond their willingness or unwillingess to receive help. Poverty, and with it the ever present possibility of hunger, real hunger, is a fact on our common ground. This drives my sense of political engagement, my politics, and how I judge society.

Greed and generosity.

Okay. So, what does this mean? Particularly what does this mean in a comment on a Zen koan, notoriously not about politics, or our social circumstances, but rather is focused on the contours of the human heart, and specifically examining our sense of interrelatedness, the fact no one among us has something within our being that is immune to the play of cause and effect, there is no special thing about us untouched by that play of conditions and circumstances.

Well, for me, the particular with which I encounter that great boundless is touched profoundly by poverty and a fear of hunger. So, that’s me. At least up to a point. I am a coalescence of some particular experiences of the great play of reality. And while poverty and the fear of hunger is part of that, I am not chained by it. Thanks at least in part to years of a spiritual practice that allows me to let go of “me” in substantial ways. But that said, genuinely, truly, that particular is nonetheless very important.

We are boundless, we are empty, we have no abiding substance. This I know down to the play of my bones and marrow.

And we are particular, some specific coalescence of particulars, of genes and history. We are creatures of pain and joy. For as long as we live this is it. You. Me. In all our specificity.

And so, how about you? What wounds create you? What joys gather to become your soul? How does this come together into this moment? How does it play when you’ve received a meal and are invited to wash the bowl? You know, right now.

Knowing this intimately, intimately, is as critical as knowing the great empty. It is the great empty. It is our liberation.

Nothing less.


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