Thursday, March 5, 2009
The Living Act Of One Moment
Most people on the path eventually encounter Zen Buddhism and its tradition of koans as what one might call an "expedient means" of enlightenment.
Generally speaking, we run into five or ten of the most famous koans, such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?", or "Does a dog have Buddha nature?", and that's about it. But there are literally hundreds of koans, the vast majority of which do not consist of a single strange and unanswerable question like these two.
I recently picked up a copy of Dogen's koans, as collected in "The True Dharma eye: Zen Master Dogen's 300 Koans," edited by John Daido Loori. For the most part, the koans consist of exchanges in the moment between masters and pupils. It's true that the majority of them contain questions, but some of the questions are actually rather straightforward, and, to the discerning ear, appear to be susceptible to a straight answer.
Nonetheless, every straight answer is met with a morphology that seems to bear no relationship to the origin of the organism.
What characterizes every single koan ultimately has nothing to do with the form of the words it contains. In a certain sense, it is impossible to answer a koan with words. In an even greater sense, it is impossible to explain the koan with words, which, I ought to point out, is slightly different than responding to it with words.
Nonetheless, it is possible to describe the conceptual framework, and that's what I will attempt to do here.
The essence of every koan is revealed by the common thread that runs through them all. Each one represents a moment of relationship. Now, when relationship is dominated by the mind, regulated by facts, and interpreted by association, relationship has adopted a form. And in order to understand what this means in relationship to koans, we will need to take a brief look at form itself.
I often find myself critiquing a particular form. For example, I might say that Christianity in the form of the Church is too limited, and has lost its essence. Or I might say that the Gurdjieff work isn't open enough to the public. I might say that the people I spend time with have become stale, that I'm tired of my job, and so on.
In each case, I fail to see that the question is global. It is not just one part of my life -- one particular form, for example, the path I am following -- that is stale, uninteresting, boring, and so on. In fact, I meet this problem at various points in my day in every area of my life. So while I focus on a tree: the path I am on, and what's wrong with either it or the other people in it, I overlook the forest, which, if I ever saw it, I would see is my whole life.
What I am getting at is that our entire life is the form. For every single individual, everything is the form. We each create a unique and complete form within ourselves. Thus, there isn't "a form" called Christianity, or Buddhism, or the Gurdjieff work. These are all just labels that various people agree to adopt for their apparently similar, but in fact entirely different and unique, forms. The forms touch in some specific places, true, and this is what makes it possible for the labels to be applied, but they touch in no greater sense than two cells touch, where a few molecules enable them to connect with one another. 99.9% of the other molecules on the cell membrane don't have much of anything in common. They can't form a connection.
Anyone who doubts this in the least need only look at the acrimonious debates that arise within forms, where (to cite a common example) adherents who thought they were members of the same religion suddenly decide it's necessary to split up and form different sects... and then perhaps kill each other.
This brings us back to a recurring theme in these essays: that which is inwardly formed.
As I come to my path and walk it, I walk that path completely within my own form. Every response I make is dictated by that form. So every answer, every explanation, every observation I make springs directly from habit. And it's not the habit of the label of my form; it's the habit, the form, of my entire life itself.
The Zen Master leaps over this obstacle. In the complete and absolute abandonment of form, every potential response arising from habit has been abandoned. Within the moment of exchange, there is no presumption of response. Response is absolutely liberated from the shackles that contain it. This means that any response whatsoever becomes the "correct" response to the koan, as long as the state that the response comes from is a state of liberation.
Hence the frequently absurd, obscure, or even impossible responses. It is not the nature of the question that they point to; they point to the nature of relationship, which is creative, lies only within the moment itself, and is not subject to interpretation. It is to be lived within this life, not analyzed and redacted.
In a perverse and ironic development, the record of a koan itself becomes the exact embodiment of everything that it is not. Even this, of course, could be overcome if one was truly liberated, but I am not. My nature automatically grasps the idea of not grasping.
I referred to the "organism" and "morphology" earlier in this essay because every Zen koan is a living organism in the midst of development. We are not examining philosophy, psychology, or religion here: we are examining biology and physiology. We are examining the evolution of Being within the context of relationship.
This examination cannot be done the mind. It must be studied within the living act of one moment, and if, within the living act of one moment, I am able to transcend my habitual nature -- abandon my presumptions -- for even just one second, I will see that this moment is absolutely unknown, supremely unexpected, unpredictable, inexplicable, and completely liberated from everything I think I am and everything I think I know.
This, of course, is a formulation, but before he lets his arrow fly, the archer must first take a look in the direction of the target.
May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.