156 - Hansen

What can account for their jocular mood? Housework is not entertaining. Yet these two can hardly contain themselves. Something delights them immensely. Their faces radiate the happiness of children at play.


Zen is a religion for adults, although even adults have a hard time getting the hang of it. Children don’t need to understand it because they live it. That’s a paradox — a Zen paradox. In the perfect world of logic, paradoxes can’t exist. But in real life, they flourish. And Zen is, more than most religions, here-and-now oriented. It has to be: for Zen, there is no hereafter.

There is also no transcendent God. (After all, lacking a hereafter, where would He live?) With no There and no Him up There, there is also no need to go to “the House of the Lord” in order to be near the not-There not-Him. Of course, there are Zen temples, but our concept of church-going is alien to Zen. It is not an institutionalized religion; it has no dogmas. It is not a revealed religion whose members consider themselves “God’s chosen.”

Lacking these characteristics so central to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Zen hardly seems to be a religion at all. Yet unlike Judaism and Christianity, Zen offers an overwhelming sense of life as a spiritual journey, and a belief that the unfolding journey itself — and not its unseen end — is sacred.

Zen has something else that other religions lack: a flair for the comic. It pokes fun at our lamentable ignorance of the obvious to jar us into forgetting what we know, so that we can relearn what we intuitively understood when we were children. That’s another Zen paradox — the kind I couldn’t comprehend as a college student studying Zen for the first time, or as a young teacher in my late twenties, or as a not-so-young teacher in my late thirties.

Then something happened: I turned forty. Things outside and inside began changing.

Though I had never heard the old Chinese saying, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher will come,” the pupil was ready. And the teacher did come — in the form of an ancient Japanese drawing.

Reading Sallie Nichols’s book Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey, I turned a page and saw it for the first time: “Kanzan and Jittoku,” a drawing by Shubun of two well-known, eccentric Zen masters. Nichols called the drawing “Zen Hermits Jocularly Performing Household Tasks.” That wonderful title is what first got me hooked.

Later I learned that Kanzan is often drawn with a broom, as he is in this drawing. He sweeps the air around people’s heads to clear away cobwebs that have been accumulating there. In other drawings, Jittoku is usually carrying his famous sacred scroll of the true doctrine. Legend says that when he unrolls the scroll to reveal its secret to seekers of The True Way, all they ever see is a blank scroll.

“Kanzan and Jittoku” is a drawing of two little fat men standing in what appears to be empty space; there are no walls around them and no floor beneath them. The viewer might assume they are sweeping the floor inside or the walkway outside their hermitage, somewhere in the mountains or forests of Japan, far away from civilization. Their robes, tied at their ample waists, come down to the ground. Their long hair is unkempt. Their faces are radiant — not with serenity or enlightenment or grace or anything else suggestive of religion, but with childlike delight. Their large eyes twinkle. Their mouths are wide open. They seem to be laughing at something, but since the artist has drawn them standing in empty space, the viewer has no idea what they find so amusing. The more the viewer looks and wonders, the more puzzling the drawing becomes.

They are, after all, religious hermits — people who have retired from the busyness of everyday life so they can ignore distractions and confront essentials. In ancient China and Japan, it was customary for a middle-aged man, whose children would by then be old enough to fend for themselves, to turn his means of livelihood and his worldly goods over to others. He would then wander alone — or with his wife, if she, too, chose this new way of life. They had devoted the first third of their lives to growing up and becoming independent, the second third to bearing and raising children. The last third was a turning away from others, a turning inward toward self, a time of contemplation and integration. For this, solitude was needed.

So why, in this drawing, are these two comical figures doing household chores? Why retire to a mountain hermitage or a forest monastery in order to do what you would be doing if you had stayed home? And what can account for their jocular mood? Housework is not entertaining. Yet these two can hardly contain themselves. Something delights them immensely. Their faces radiate the happiness of children at play.

Then there is their size. Religious hermits are supposed to be more concerned with the spirit than the flesh. That doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy the simple pleasures of life, but these two seem to enjoy eating as much as housework. They are fat and funny-looking, yet they are revered Zen masters. What have they mastered? What is their profound teaching?

I read that Kanzan wore tattered clothing, a birch-bark bird’s nest for a hat, and shoes that were too large. When Jittoku was a servant in a monastery, he was once discovered in the sacred Buddha hall, sitting next to the statue of the Buddha and chatting with it — while he casually helped himself to the meal the monks had left for the Buddha. According to one account, both hermits were retarded. The more I read, the less I understood.

This comedy of confusion is essential to Zen. In other religions, students expect and get “straight” answers to their questions. But in Zen, the teachers seem to amuse themselves by making their students stumble through the dark.

When one ancient master was asked how enlightenment might be attained, he responded by slapping the face of his questioner.

Another master was asked if there was an afterlife and if we would be punished there for our sins. He replied, “Why not enjoy your mangoes? What need have you to calculate about the afterlife? Eat your mangoes. You need mangoes.”

A third master was approached by a monk who said, “I have just come to this monastery. Would you kindly give me some instruction?” The master replied by asking, “Have you eaten yet?” When the monk said that he had, the master told him, “Then go wash your bowl.” All at once, the monk understood. The meaning of Zen was clear to him.

It wasn’t clear to me. The face-slapping seemed cruel. The insistence on eating mangoes didn’t make sense; it seemed to favor the simple pleasure of eating over a contemplation of higher things. And “go wash your bowl” was just too clever. The notion that it was serious religious instruction that could lead the monk to enlightenment was absurd. I began to suspect Zen of being fraudulent. But how could it be? It had been around too long to have fooled so many people so much of the time. There had to be something to it. But what? I decided to do more reading.

I read about the master who, when asked, “What is the nature of Buddha?” replied, “Go wash out your mouth and never speak that dirty word again.”

I read that master Jo-Ju once said, “Even mentioning Buddha is like dumping shit on your head.”

I read about the student who asked, “Where is the Buddha’s present abode?” His master replied, “The Buddha is in the outhouse.”

I started to understand how dangerous Zen humor really is. “The Buddha is in the outhouse” doesn’t mean the Buddha is relieving himself. It means the Buddha is rank, stinking outhouse shit. There is a twisted logic to that: the outhouse is always the “present abode:” of the shit. It lives there. If Buddha lives there, too, then Buddha is outhouse shit. Ancient master Un-Mun seemed to think so. Asked, “What is Buddha?” Un-Mun replied, “Dry shit on a stick.”

In those days, there was no toilet paper — only wiping sticks. One of the dubious pleasures of going to the outhouse was finding someone else’s shit dried on the end of the wiping stick. That shit, says Un-Mun, is Buddha.

As an explanation of Un-Mun’s puzzling words, a contemporary master sent this enigmatic little poem to one of his students:

What is Buddha?
“Three pounds of flax.”
“Dry shit on a stick.”
I don’t understand these words.
The infant is sucking his toes.

“What is Buddha?” is the kind of question students searching for ultimate answers often ask. “ ‘Three pounds of flax’ ” is Dong Sahn’s answer, a disarming non sequitur so typical of Zen masters. “ ‘Dry shit on a stick’ ” is Un-Mun’s answer. “I don’t understand these words” is probably spoken by the student who asked the question in the first line. The final line is spoken by the master. It is an insult. The master tells the student that if he can’t understand Dong Sahn’s and Un-Mun’s answers, then he is only an infant sucking his toes.

About this time, I began to wonder how many more books about Zen I would have to read before I stopped sucking my own toes. Then it occurred to me that reading books was a lot like sucking toes: a way of babying oneself, of looking for easy answers — the kind that Zen masters refuse to give their students.

Still, I wasn’t really asking for much. I didn’t want to know how to attain enlightenment. I didn’t want to know The True Way. (Seung Sahn told one of his American students that Route 95, from Providence to Boston, was The True Way.) All I wanted to know was why two hermits performed their boring household tasks so jocularly.

Then I remembered Houston Smith’s classic, The Religions of Man, in which he briefly discusses the student-teacher relationship in Zen:

For there is not a Zen problem whose answer, once discovered, does not make good sense within its own frame of reference, not an experience which the masters are unwilling to try to describe or explain, given the proper circumstance.

Here, at last, was straightforward information with none of those slippery Zen evasions. And it said that Zen masters’ answers made sense — good sense, even.

Of course, they didn’t make sense to me — not yet, anyway. I read Smith’s sentence over a few times. With each reading, my attention was drawn farther away from what it first appeared to say and closer to what it actually said. Those three qualifiers (“once discovered,” “within its own frame of reference,” and “given the proper circumstance”), at first hardly noticeable, seemed to grow in importance until they changed everything.

Words are cheap. When wisdom is free, it’s not earned — and then it’s not wisdom. So in order to help their students struggle toward their own hard-earned wisdom, Zen masters deliberately withhold. They speak in riddles and non sequiturs. Yet even in the act of withholding, they give.

A Zen answer makes good sense once discovered. That sounds logical enough. It seems to say that once you discover the answer, you can see its good sense. I thought about that, but not for long. Either Smith was wrong or he meant something else. After all, I already knew the answer. It was in the outhouse, on Route 95, three pounds of flax, dried shit on a stick — none of which made any sense. I moved on.

A Zen answer makes good sense within its own frame of reference. That, too, sounds logical. Things ought to make sense within their own frame of reference. My problem was simple ignorance: I was trying to understand Zen from my own obviously inadequate frame of reference. I needed to enter the Zen frame. But that’s why I had turned to Smith, from whom I learned that you can’t understand Zen unless you can understand Zen (get inside its frame of reference). That seemed hopeless.

Zen masters are willing to describe and explain an experience given the proper circumstance. Smith never says what that circumstance is. I tried imagining it.

It was night. The students were lost in a great thunderstorm but had found their way to the temple where the masters lived. Blessing their good fortune, the students knocked on the door. Safe inside, the masters heard their knocking and were willing to open the door and let the students come in given the proper circumstance. What was the proper circumstance? How many hours or days or weeks did the students have to stand out there in the wind and the rain?

Cold and wet and miserable, I stood there with them. We knocked, but no one opened. We asked and never received. We knew, then, how hard Zen could be. It gave no comfort and offered no escape. It left us out in the cold.

“O great One, what must I do to find true enlightenment?”

“Go stand out in the rain and freeze your ass off.”

Good advice. Makes a lot of sense.

And nine months later, the grateful student returns to bless his master for the wisdom to which those words have led him.

We stood there in the storm outside the temple of fraud. How lucky we were: we had not been given what we had asked for. All along we had been knocking on the door, looking for shelter from the elements, but now we saw that the storm was to be our refuge from the temple. Wind and rain were real. They were the world — the only home anybody ever had.

A few weeks later, this passage seemed to rise from the pages of another book, Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn:

Deep in the mountains, the great temple bell is struck. You hear it reverberating in the morning air, and all thoughts disappear from your mind. There is nothing that is you; there is nothing that is not you. There is only the sound of the bell, filling the whole universe.

Springtime comes. You see the flowers blossoming, the butterflies flitting about; you hear the birds singing, you breathe in the warm weather. And your mind is only springtime. It is nothing at all.

You visit Niagara and take a boat to the bottom of the Falls. The downpouring of the water is in front of you and around you and inside you, and suddenly you are shouting: YAAAAAA!

In all these experiences, outside and inside have become one. This is Zen mind.

It was that simple.

You cease to exist. There is no “you” having the experience: absorbing it, observing it, standing apart from it. Instead, the distinction between what is happening and the person to whom it is happening is obliterated. You become your experience: “outside and inside . . . become one.”

If this is Zen mind, then Zen mind is no mind. It is the state of being so totally in the moment that you cease to exist as something separate. This is what Master Shung Suzuki meant when he said, “When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.”

Adults have to be told this. Children already know it. Until they are ten or so, children have no real sense of time. They live almost totally in the eternal present. Not yet burdened with self-reflective consciousness, they live as if there were no tomorrow — which, of course, there isn’t. There is only now.

This is what Jesus meant when he said of children, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven.” They are what heaven is. They are already there, but not for long. The inevitable fall into darkness, the descent into time-bound adult consciousness, waits for them. In our culture there is no avoiding it.

Jesus also said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” That sounds like heaven is not a transcendent place “up there,” but an immanent state “in here.” We have it in us, so it must be of us. But we can’t find it, because we abandoned it long ago. When we became adults, we put away our childish things.

In spite of Jesus, the Church’s position has always been that the lost kingdom is attainable only after death and, even then, only by those who are worthy of it. In Zen, the lost kingdom can be recovered by anyone — here and now. “There is another world,” French poet Paul Éluard said, “but it is in this one.” There is eternal life, but it belongs to those who live in the present.

This is the great secret of the Zen masters. It may be the most important thing they teach their students. But words are cheap. When wisdom is free, it’s not earned — and then it’s not wisdom. So in order to help their students struggle toward their own hard-earned wisdom, Zen masters deliberately withhold. They speak in riddles and non sequiturs. Yet even in the act of withholding, they give. Every one of their puzzling responses is intended to point the student in the right direction.

But the way is hard. The student must trust what he cannot understand. Only after months, sometimes years, will he comprehend the purpose of his master’s bizarre “teachings”: to bring the student down out of his mind and back into his body, so that he can live in the world. Over and over, the simple secret: be here now.

A student is told to go wash his bowl. He has received his instruction: live this life now. Don’t neglect the “lesser” or the “lower” in your pursuit of the “greater” or the “higher.” “Lesser” and “lower” and “greater” and “higher” are all in your head. Get out of your head and start living in the world — where things are only what they are.

Another student, asking if there is an afterlife, is repeatedly told to eat mangoes. He has received his instruction: no, there is no afterlife. There is no “after” or “before” at all. These distinctions exist only in your mind. The more you stay there, thinking about the afterlife, the less you are here in this life. Move out of your mind and into the world.

A third student asks how to attain enlightenment. His master could have told him to eat mangoes and then wash his bowl. Instead, he answers him by slapping his face. The student has received his instruction by being suddenly and painfully brought down out of his mind and into his body: too physically and emotionally right here now to pursue that phantom abstraction known as enlightenment. Ironically, he has achieved it — or is beginning to — with the help of a slap on the face.

A fourth student learns that Route 95 to Boston is The True Way. It could be, but not if he expects to see an exit sign bearing the message: “Nirvana 4 miles.” Still, he has received his instruction: The True Way is not found by turning away from the world. It is found by living in the world. It is living in the world.

A fifth student is told that Buddha is dried shit on a stick. He, too, is brought down to earth. The secret, the “Buddha,” is here, not there. You will sooner find it at the end of a wiping stick than in some vague, faraway dream.

The lesson is simple, but cannot be taught. It must be earned. As knowledge, it is useless; as wisdom, it is priceless. To live it is everything.

Because living in the world is everything, the masters’ greatest teachings are in their living, and in their dying.

In The Wheel of Death, Philip Kapleau shows what it means to be fully alive, even at the moment of dying:

As Roshi Taji, a contemporary Zen master, approached his death, his senior disciples assembled at his bedside. One of them, remembering the roshi was fond of a certain kind of rice cake, had spent half a day searching the pastry shops of Tokyo for this confection, which he now presented to Roshi Taji. With a wan smile, the dying roshi accepted a piece of the cake and slowly began munching it. As the roshi grew weaker, his disciples leaned close and inquired whether he had any final words for them.

“Yes,” the roshi replied.

The disciples leaned forward eagerly.

“Please tell us!”

“My, but this cake is delicious.” And with that he died.

And that’s why the Zen hermits Kanzan and Jittoku perform their household tasks so jocularly day after day after day. They have never done those tasks before. They will never do them again. Each moment is new. As Huang Po said, “The material thing which is before you, that is IT.” There is another world, but it is in this one. To find it, you have to be here now.

This is it — all there is. More than enough. Once you learn this, everything happens at once. You quit sucking your toes. And stretch and yawn. And then the sleeper wakes.