When I was a sophomore in high school, I took French in room E3. Every day, between second and third periods, I walked down the thronged, noisy corridor and reached out to open the door to E3, a heavy wooden door with a round knob and a narrow window at the top.
On the first day of my senior year, I was assigned history in E3. It was only when I walked down the corridor that I realized I’d had French in this same room. My memory of the door was vivid. It was exactly the same door, in exactly the same corridor. Yet it was completely different. The difference was not anything my senses could grasp; it was not a color or a smell or a sound. But the atmosphere of feeling that surrounded those doors was different. Side by side there in front of me, they were two different doors.
Last summer, I was driving through the country past a familiar landscape of rolling hills — grassy pastures spotted with oak trees and cows. I usually see the road as the axis of the landscape, along which the scenery arranges itself. A fence runs parallel to the road, grass sprouts up at the edge, trees grow close to it or farther back, houses face it and are connected to it by driveways. The road dominates; everything else is in relation to it.
This day I saw it another way. I saw the grass and fields and trees as unbroken, continuous countryside stretching out to the horizon, and the road as something flimsy and arbitrary, painted across it like a stripe. The road was no longer the center of everything. It was more like a humble path through a great park. I was in the same place; nothing was different. But the relationship of the road to the land had changed.
What we “see” is the result of light hitting the retina and creating nerve signals that are translated by the mind into a picture. The outside world doesn’t travel directly through my eyes. All I see is an interpretation of a pattern of dots of light. I can’t know what’s really out there; I see only a kind of movie projected on the inside of my skull. It is a true-enough movie so that if I stretch out my hand I can touch the objects I see. I don’t bump into things when I walk around. But the meaning of what I see is created by my mind.
I’m ordinarily unaware that a feeling hangs like a mist around what I see and makes it look the way it does. I’m rarely aware of this because it’s always happening; I’m always looking through filters of feeling just as I’m always looking through the air. Only on rare occasions, when by chance I experience the same object in two very different ways, do I become aware of what my mind is doing.
Now I arrive at my koan: how is my Zen teacher like the door and the road? A person is not the same as a slab of wood or a strip of asphalt. Those are inanimate objects; they have no inner life, no volition, no power to move and change. And yet I sometimes think that a Zen teacher’s job is to come as close as possible to being an inanimate object disguised as a person — or maybe a person disguised as an inanimate object.
I sit across from my teacher, a motionless figure in black. Today she smiles at me. Another day she listens with a face of stone; my words hit against her and drop unnoticed to the floor. Am I doing all right? Am I getting it? Is she impatient with my lack of progress? She won’t tell me.
I struggle and struggle with my teacher. It would be more peaceful to sit before a tape recorder and listen, responding during gaps provided on the tape. Then I would know there was nothing to figure out. But when I find myself facing a person, up come all the behaviors that I direct at people. I try to please. I try to get a reaction. I get a reaction I don’t want, and I’m dismayed, or embarrassed, or hurt. What have I done wrong? What is she thinking? What does she want from me? I want to know where I am.
Hard as I try, though, I cannot find her the way I have found others in my life. Those others are clear to me: I know who I am when I’m with them. Over the years, we have edged into position with each other; we fit together a certain way and know what to expect. It’s like a choreographed dance: I’ll move here, you move there. I’ll step over this way, you step that way. We’ve mastered it.
But what if one person refuses to dance? I step back, she stays put. I move that way, she stays put. What then? Then I am dancing all by myself.
I rage at my teacher. I bang my fists against her wall. “Teacher! Where are you? What do you really think? Where is the real you?” No answer.
It didn’t occur to me to do this with the road through the hills, or the door to E3. I never said, “Door! What’s going on with you? Who are you really? Which door is the real door?” I knew the door hadn’t changed. It remained the same, and I had to see that the change was in me. “Look,” said the door, appearing to shift back and forth, “this is what your mind does.” Isn’t my teacher like this door? I see her one day this way and one day that way; I try to decide which of my hundred pictures of her is the true one. “Look,” says her unmoving presence, “this is what your mind does.”
Of course, something is going on in her. She is a person, and not a door, not a piece of the landscape. But whatever it is, I can’t get at it; it does me no good. I am forced to see finally that all I have to work with is my own rage, fear, and longing, my own trembling hands and banging heart, my own unverified picture of what stands before me in the world.
Understanding this, I may someday stop trying to make the world explain itself. I may give up on finding a hard and fast truth that I can place myself in relation to, and instead pay attention to this rising and falling and shifting and changing — which seems, I have to admit, the only fitting object of study.