HOW ARE WE FREE? A Meditation on a Zen Koan

HOW ARE WE FREE? A Meditation on a Zen Koan October 24, 2020

HOW ARE WE FREE?

Mo Weinhardt

Empty Moon Zen

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about time, and how I experience time — particularly throughout this crazy year of 2020, but really throughout my entire life. And even though every person who has ever lived encounters it uniquely, our wildly fluctuating experience of time is a common denominator between all of us.

I’ve been thinking about time in part because of the deep storage bins of family photos I’ve been sorting through in the past week, left behind by my mom who passed away at the beginning of the year. They’re stacked haphazardly, collected in dense and disorganized piles that span decades and generations of my family’s life. Some of these photos I’ve never seen before, capturing family and friends I never even knew. And many of these photos I actually lived through myself, but had forgotten about entirely until seeing still-frames from some bygone era.

Just the other day I came across an old holiday family photo, back from when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, my parents were still married and the six of us and our golden retriever all lived under the same roof, and I had this surreal experience where it felt like I was looking at intimately familiar strangers. At this point, today, we’re all such different people compared with the folks and the world in that photograph; eternities have gone by between then and now. It has been a beautiful, stirring, intense experience to go through so many hundreds of pictures and to encounter so many earlier versions of my family and myself.

It reminds me of an excerpt from the Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi, by Dongshan Liangjie: “Facing a precious mirror, form and reflection behold each other. You are not it, but in truth, it is you.”

Sometimes these seemingly endless mountains of photos have brought out giggles, looking at hairstyles and clothing that are comical by today’s standards; sometimes they bring out memories that warm my heart, taking me back to something joyful or ridiculous; and consistently in the past week, I’ve also felt this quiet hum of sadness and longing, where my mind can’t help but travel a wild and imaginary landscape of what was, what if, or what could have been. My sister and I talk, tell stories, try to make sense of things — trying to create bridges of meaning between our past and our present, weaving narrative webs about our lives from the vantage point of who and how we are now.

“… form and reflection behold each other. You are not it, but in truth, it is you.” How deliciously human.

There are moments when time feels glacially slow, painfully drawn out, stretched like taffy across an infinite span of forever. There are also moments when time feels like it’s flashing by, when in the blink of an eye a day, week, month, or even years have passed.

My best friend, who lives in Michigan and I haven’t seen in over a year, just sent me a text the other day, saying, “I love and miss you. Our lives are busy. They always will be. And that’s why it’s really important to carve the time to connect. Time won’t carve itself. We have to prioritize it, or it will pass by.”

Though my friend doesn’t practice Zen, her text reminded me of Taego Bou, a 14th-century Korean Zen master who said, “The days and months go by like lightning: we should value the time. We pass from life to death in the time it takes to breathe in and breathe out; it’s hard to guarantee even a morning and an evening. Whether walking or standing, sitting or lying down, do not waste even a minute. Become ever braver and bolder.”

I appreciate that: “Become ever braver and bolder.” And I wonder, what does that mean for all of you? For me, at least right now, this points to more bravely and boldly facing just this moment, whatever joy and muck it might bring. It has been said that the vast, inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from, but I’ll be damned if I don’t try. Usually, if I’m honest, I notice myself turning away these days. Even with these bins of photos, I was here with my sister for over two weeks before I could bring myself to start sorting through them all. The irony of course being, that the more I turn away from things I find potentially difficult or painful, the more difficult and painful my anticipation or guilt of avoidance becomes.

What has bubbled up in reflecting on this is a koan called “Stone Crypt,” from the miscellaneous collection within the Harada-Yasutani curriculum. If you’ve never heard of koan introspection or studied koans before, the word comes from the Chinese gong-an, which translates as “public case,” as in a legal document. Koans are a variety of documented questions or interactions between Zen masters and students over the centuries that each point to something important along the Zen way. They’re typically presented as short stories or anecdotes that some understand as “particularly thorny questions.” For myself, I find I’m drawn to Robert Aitken’s suggestion that a koan is a “matter to be made clear,” helping us to see through delusion and experience the fundamental truth of form and emptiness — not one, not two.

Koan introspection, contrary to some popular beliefs, has deep roots in Soto Zen as well as the Rinzai tradition. (Thanks Dogen!) In my experience koan study is a profound complement to shikantaza, or “just sitting,” and these practices deeply enhance one another, allowing me to sit with a question or story that I find breathes within the spaciousness of zazen and my daily life, turning it around and exploring it from different angles (with guidance from teachers). In my experience, unexpected insight often comes from sitting with a question instead of trying to force some kind of answer.

So, the Stone Crypt koan. That’s what bubbled up. And here it is, delightfully short, sweet, and thorny: “You find yourself in a stone crypt. There is no window and the door is locked from the outside. How are you free?”

Now, I invite you to genuinely put yourself inside of this koan — inside of this underground stone crypt. And in that spirit, I’ll say the koan one more time: “You find yourself in a stone crypt. There is no window and the door is locked from the outside. How are you free?”

Of course the first time I heard this koan, I asked my teachers a barrage of questions. Can’t I call for help? …break the hinges off the door? …loosen the stones and dig my way out? …find a hidden path of escape? The different teachers I worked with on this koan were very patient with me. I found it nigh impossible to believe that I couldn’t somehow find a way out of this hypothetical predicament. I’m resourceful, I explained. I’m extremely capable. I’m am Irish and taurus-level stubborn. I don’t just give up. And yet, they shut down every single one of my clever ideas about how I would free myself from this imaginary stone crypt. This went on until one of my teachers took pity on me and spelled it out: There. Is. No. Escape. In this story, it didn’t matter how smart I was; how strong I was; how resourceful; how clever my plans; how many people might be looking for me; how fiercely determined I was; none of it mattered. In this story, despite anything and everything I could possibly try, there was no way out.

And that’s when the koan turned for me. When there is no way out — how am I free?

I’ve seen enlightenment portrayed in American pop-culture as some kind of mystical moment where a person is suddenly imbued with a glowing, unflappable, almost supernatural equanimity that can even make them levitate. What a misleading load of crap. Zen practice hinges on waking up to just this, just this moment — cutting through delusion, going beyond form and emptiness, and recognizing that we are not separate from all that is. “You are not it, but in truth, it is you.”

And the reality is, that sometimes the moments we awaken to aren’t that fun. What happens when just this is incredibly painful, unjust, or discouraging?

To be honest, I felt pretty discouraged yesterday on a societal level. Over 80,000 new cases of covid-19 were reported, the country’s highest daily record yet; news that the parents of 545 children whose families were forcibly separated under the current administration’s “zero tolerance” imigration policy cannot be found; outrage at the flagrant bigotry, systemic racism, and economic disparities plaguing our nation, our communities, our neighbors; our families;

Sometimes, we awaken (or just wake up in the morning) to moments of discouragement. But as awful as these things are, they are not inescapable. These problems and challenges — the pandemic, inhumane and xenophobic policies, economic hardship, fear of those who are different — and the suffering left in their wake, as overwhelming as it can all feel — and it does — they will not always be. Nothing about our current situation as a society is permanent, and these are perfect examples of where our collective intelligence, strength, resourcefulness, compassion, resolve, and resilience can and will make a positive difference.

And. And certain things in this life are inescapable. As Shakyamuni Buddha taught in the first noble truth, it is certain that as humans we will experience suffering, or unsatisfactoriness; it is certain that we will each face illness; it is certain that, if we live long enough, we will face old age; and it is absolutely certain that we will face death. And believe it or not, none of that is bad news. These are the very inevitabilities that invite us to practice.

When there is no way out — how are we free?

At some point in the future, we, our children, or our children’s children, will look back at photos from 2020. And maybe it will feel like looking at intimately familiar strangers. We’ll all be such different people by then, living in a different world; eternities will have gone by. Maybe we’ll giggle at the comical hairstyles and clothing; hopefully there will be joyful and ridiculous memories that warm the heart; and perhaps our minds will travel a wild and imaginary landscape of what was, what if, or what could have been.

We will talk; we will tell stories; we will try to make sense of things — try to create bridges of meaning between the past and the present, weaving narrative webs about our lives from the vantage point of who and how we all are at that future moment in time. I wonder how we will encounter the earlier versions of ourselves; our families; our society; and I wonder what we can do now to make our future selves proud.

The days and months go by like lightning: we should value the time. We pass from life to death in the time it takes to breathe in and breathe out; it’s hard to guarantee even a morning and an evening. Whether walking or standing, sitting or lying down, do not waste even a minute. Become ever braver and bolder.

Thank you.

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