Our Broken Song: A Thanksgiving Meditation on the Koan of our Lives

Our Broken Song: A Thanksgiving Meditation on the Koan of our Lives November 22, 2018




“Yunmen asked his assembly, ‘I don’t ask you about before the 15th of the month. Tell me something about after the 15th.’ No one spoke, so he responded himself, ‘Every day is a good day.’”

Blue Cliff Record, Case 6

The 22nd of November is one of those all too rich dates.

This year the 22nd marks our American Thanksgiving. According to Wikipedia this is actually the earliest possible date for this movable feast. For years I’ve found it complicated, having an unalloyed good thing, a time simply to celebrate the good of life, to just be thankful, but attached to an extremely problematic story.

Of course this day today is also the fifty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I was fifteen and that little horror stands as one of the signal events in my losing my childhood innocence about what the world is. There is problematic in another dimension.

And. It is always personal.

This morning while taking our morning walk we stopped by the local 7-Eleven convenience store. Sitting outside the door wrapped in a blanket was a disheveled middle-aged man. He asked for some money. There was more than the usual desperation in his voice. I’m one of those who don’t particularly care about the idea of “deserving poor,” and am often good for a buck or two. But we honestly had no cash on us. Then he asked for some food. We walked into the store and in addition to picking up the small package of gallon sized heavy duty storage bags that caused our pause on our walk, found a pre-packaged sandwich (turkey and cheese) and a small container of orange juice.

We gave it to him. He muttered a half thanks and immediately opened the sandwich. Then as we walked away I noticed two other people standing in the shadows, each keeping away from the other. They watched us with hungry eyes.  Whatever might be a right thing in that moment, and I honestly don’t know; I chose to continue on our walk.

But, certainly any sense of feeling “good” for that small act of a single meal for one person was deeply mitigated by the immensity of the problems of poverty, both right there in that parking lot in front of a 7-Eleven, and, of course, beyond.

I thought briefly of the famous star fish story. I also thought Dom Helder Camera. Dom Camera is most famous for a sentence. “Quando dou comida aos pobres, chamam-me de santo. Quando pergunto por que eles são pobres, chamam-me de comunista.” It is usually translated into English as “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

I think of that why question a lot.

And with that I immediately thought of that case from the Blue Cliff Record about every day and good days.

“Yunmen asked his assembly, ‘I don’t ask you about before the 15th of the month. Tell me something about after the 15th.’ No one spoke, so he responded himself, ‘Every day is a good day.’”

This isn’t a complete non sequitur. The 15th is the time of the full moon, and is a common metaphor in East Asia for the moment of awakening. Also, it probably doesn’t hurt to note that Yunmen lived in harsh, politically unstable times, where armies were on the march and famine and hunger and danger the common currency of the day.

So it would be very hard to find the phrase “every day is a good day” as meaning “don’t worry, be happy.” This good day carries with it the possibility of ending very badly. It wasn’t all that different than this day of complicated Thanksgiving, of assassination, of hungry men and women and children standing in the shadows.

In some communities of the Zen tradition people who’ve been acknowledged as teachers, after a ceremony that takes place in private at midnight, the next day they’re often expected to give a talk on this koan.

Perhaps I should pause and say just a little on that word koan. It’s two syllables, ko and an, meaning public case, as in a legal document. It is a term of art in Zen having to do with an object for meditation and encounter with a teacher. And, just to muddy the waters, the word koan has also entered popular use within our English language usually meaning a thorny problem, or, for those a little more familiar with it as a spiritual thing, as a question that has no answer, a non sequitur. Neither use is what koan really means, at least within the context of a traditional Zen spiritual discipline. In that primary sense a koan is a statement about reality, and is an invitation into presence. Or, another way to say it, a koan is a pointer to the real, the deepest real, and with that an invitation to come and stand in that place.

So, all these things. A very problematic story attached to a communal call to give thanks for what is good. A terrible memory of the possibility of evil, and its actual manifestations. And the sense of powerlessness while also wishing for some reconciliation among people and this little planet upon which we live and breath and from which we take our being.

The problem, it seems to me, it is the calling of the tradition to which I’ve given my life: the problem lies with our sense of separation.

And the solution, at least within our Zen world, is said to be rooted in not turning away, in the practice of presence. Presence to Thanksgiving. Presence to the betrayals upon which many a feast is founded. Presence to political chaos and even assassination. Presence to hunger. Presence to questions of why. Presence to our own hearts.


This is most important. It is within presence we find our awakening, our waking up from the slumber of a life that has been distracted from the most important matters. We slumber with our apparently endless desires. We slumber with our anger and hatred. We slumber as we figure something out as true and defend, fiercely that idea of that true, sometimes even to the death. Sometimes our own, too often someone else’s.

Waking up is waking up from all this grasping at wanting and resenting and hating, and knowing for sure, into something else. And, and this is most important: this waking up is also our common human experience. Here the action and the questions collapse into one thing.

And what does that look like?

Well, I suggest we can find a hint of the way forward in another koan in that same Twelfth century anthology, the Blue Cliff Record, this time in case 89.

Yunyan asked Daowu, ‘How does the Bodhisattva Guanyin use those many hands and eyes?’ Daowu answered, ‘It is like someone in the middle of the night reaching behind her head for the pillow.’ Yunyan said, ‘I understand.’ Daowu asked, ‘How do you understand it?’ Yunyan said, ‘All over the body are hands and eyes.’ Daowu said, ‘That is very well expressed, but it is only eight-tenths of the answer.’ Yunyan said, ‘How would you say it, Elder Brother?’ Daowu said, ‘Throughout the body are hands and eyes.’

Both Yunyan and Daowu were students of the same teacher and would themselves each become famous teachers. According to some traditions they were actually brothers, but for various reasons this seems unlikely. More interesting to me is how Zen is organized in lineages; that is my teacher had a teacher who had a teacher, in a line that historically goes to early medieval China and mythically all the way back to the Buddha. For me a really interesting thing is how Yunyan is my teacher’s teacher’s teacher in an unbroken line running from my life back to the beginning of the ninth century.

But the really important thing for us is that both these monks had their ideas of self and other collapse and saw deeply into authentic interconnectedness. At the time this story takes place Daowu perhaps sees a bit deeper than his dharma brother. Although perhaps not. In the great way we play a lot, each of us taking different parts in turn, and play is in fact one of the primary spiritual disciplines. That noted, in this conversation we get a sense of what it means to move from the interdependent web as a really good idea, to where it describes who we actually are.

Here Thanksgiving. False thanksgiving. Assassination. Hunger. Hurt. Joy. Gratitude. Actions, small and great. Wanting something better. Acting on that. All of it. Reaching out, reaching out knowing we’re all in this together.

Reaching out is the body of awakening.

Reaching out to the beggar and finding Buddha, finding Christ, finding our true selves…

And Daowu says of this need to act, that it comes not through an interpretation of the image of the interdependent web, not through reading the Wealth of Nations, not through solid Marxist analysis, not actually through an investigation of Mary’s hymn in the Gospel According to Luke (And, yes, I do believe Mary is Guanyin and that Guanyin is Mary), not through righteousness of any sort, certainly not righteous anger, a dreadful seducer beckoning us to a confusion of ends and means: but rather like someone turning in her sleep and reaching a hand behind her head to adjust her pillow.

Just this. Ends and means, one thing; our interdependence and you and I, one thing.

It becomes our broken song. It acknowledges fully and without hesitation the cracks in everything. It remembers the call to thanksgiving, and missing it at the very same time. It recalls the horrors of days. And endless failures. And it sees something else. In the very same place. At the very same time.

The meeting of the month before and after the fifteenth. And with that the light that shines through those wounds. The promise of our saving ourselves and each other.

A real Thanksgiving.

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