Nelson Mandela Raises his Fist: A Meditation on a Zen Koan

Nelson Mandela Raises his Fist: A Meditation on a Zen Koan March 29, 2023

Nelson Mandela Raises his Fist: A Meditation on a Zen Koan

James Ishmael Ford

The Case

Zhaozhou Congshen went to a hermit’s cottage. At the entrance he called out, “Anybody in? Anybody in?” The hermit appeared in the doorway and lifted up his fist. Zhaozhou replied, “The water is too shallow for a ship to anchor.” And he left. Later, he went to a hermit’s cottage and at the entrance asked, “Anybody in? Anybody in?” This hermit lifted up his fist, as well. Zhaozhou said, “Freely you give, freely you take away, freely you kill, freely you give life.” And he made his bows.

Gateless Gate, Case 11

I’ve always loved this case. For several reasons. One, of course, is how it builds in a bit of ambiguity. Is Zhaozhou visiting different hermits, or is he revisiting the same hermit?

Also, for me, at least, it echoes other koans. In the same collection, Case 26, where Fayen asks two monks to roll up blinds, and case 42, where Mansusri and the Bodhisattva of Delusive wisdom meet a young woman meditating, come to mind.

Or, for my money, one of the most interesting of the whole collection, case 2. While Wumen claims the koans in his anthology are just randomly collected, I notice the first case is the great invitation into the koan of not knowing, the very next deals with the matter of how we meet the world. Kind of the whole matter of the koan way in two koans. For which the rest can be read as commentary.

Well, except when we’re invited to look at the matter once again. Here the case invites us into the meeting of the great mystery and our very lives. Perhaps presented in a bit lower stakes than with the fox. But, then, maybe not.

I’m not sure when I first realized the power of raising a clenched fist.

Maybe my first sense of it as a child was being yelled at to “Get off my lawn,” by a fist waving old man. Which may be an actual memory. Or, one that attached itself to me, somewhere along the line from cartoons and television shows.

I can see that hermit, or those hermits telling Zhaozhou to stop bothering them, and to be on his way. I like that image, for sure.

And there are others, that linger in the heart. My heart. In 1913, silk mill workers went on strike in Patterson, New Jersey. Their demands centered on an eight-hour work-day. The strike was savagely broken, and along the way two of the strikers were killed. There’s that.

But also, in the middle of the strike, one of the organizers, Wobbly William Dudley Haywood, known best as “Bill Bill” Haywood gave a speech. He held up his hand and told the audience they were like fingers. He then gathered the fingers into a fist saying this is how the sum can become greater than the parts. Possibly it was used in Europe a year before. But this is the earliest attestation to the use of a fist, at least in the US, that I find.

Later, during the Spanish Civil War the clinched fist became an answer to the Fascist flat hand salute. In the 1960s it became identified with the Black Power movement, and in the 1970s it became a symbol of the rising women’s consciousness and the Feminist movement.

For me a raised fist evokes images of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1978 Summer Olympics. And of Nelson Mandela as he left the Victor Verster Prison in 1990.

Raised fists. Lots of different raised fists.

Returning to the koan as koan. As a presentation of an intimate truth bound up together with an invitation. Like fingers folded into a fist. Aitken Roshi reminds us that the cottage or hut for an hermit isn’t going to be very big. And it’s unlikely Zhaozhou is unclear about whether someone is present, or not. For the roshi it reminds him of one of his teachers, using the Japanese “Ariya?” Or, maybe it’s a shout, “Ariya!” “Are you there?” Are you there!” As Aitken Roshi notes, old Zhaozhou liked to test the depth of the water.

Me, I also find an invitation here. The old school yard call, “Olly, olly, oxen free.” Come home, come home!

Maybe even, come home, all is forgiven. Come home. Many shades here.

The Rinzai master Zenkei Shibayama offers as comment a verse from an unnamed worthy.

Whether to call it crazy or rude
I leave it to someone else to judge.
Peach blossoms are by nature pink;
Pear blossoms by nature white.

A reminder of where and how to look. It’s like encountering a semi-feral cat. You can’t reach out, you have to wait, and allow it to present. Pink. White. The fragrance alone instructs, invites.

If we are willing to bow into the koan as a huatou or a koan, the Chan master Guo Gu offers some pointers.

“The way to try to get a handle on this case is to keep questioning it. If you meditate like this, you will generate the sense of great questioning. If you rely on logic, you will get nowhere. If you think one hermit is better than the other, you don’t have what it takes to investigate Chan. If you think they’re equal, you also don’t have what it takes to investigate Chan.”

Old advice. And the best advice. We need to bring our deep curiosity. In some settings it can be that burning coal lodged in the esophagus. But in most of our lives, these ordinary lives with jobs or careers and rent or mortgage, with many things pulling at our hearts and calling for our attention; just being curious. A wonderful thing curiosity. It may kill a cat on occasion, but it also invites mysteries. And, here, one in particular.

What happens when we have two things that seem no different, but one is shallow and the other deep?

With that Guo Gu reminds us of Wumen’s gift in this collection and in this case. “He forces you to have nowhere to advance, nowhere to retreat.”

In the conundrum of our lives, our real lives, mixed up, of course, with our imaginal lives; what is presenting? How is the ordinary and the mystery the same and different?

Here’s my offering. Like with those other pointers to that meeting of the mystery and our individual lives, it takes many shapes. Protest. Solidarity. I love Big Bill’s words about fingers and fists. Are they one? Or are they two?

Or are we being invited into something rather wonderful? Something as shallow as a puddle in the street, something as deep as the Mariana Trench.

Our whole lives presented. Get off my lawn. Nelson Mandela walking out of prison.

Now this. Now that.

Songs of the world.

Songs of the great empty…

One? Two?

Or simply a clenched fist?

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