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Phrases & Spaces 

Zen practitioners don’t "work on" koans. Koans work on them. NORMAN FISCHER offers a poet’s take on the phrases and spaces of Zen practice, including his favorite: “Who is sick?”

The special genius of Zen practice is its technique of working with phrases. This practice consists of living with, being with, and sitting with phrases, until they become very large and very strange, and reveal themselves to us. That is to say, through them we are revealed to ourselves.

By “phrases” I mean literally phrases—some words with meanings; something identifiable, explainable, and conceptual. But “phrases” also means the silence, the larger, ineffable space that we find in the middle of and surrounding all words and concepts if we sit with them long and deeply enough.

In Zen meditation, zazen, we have a method for this. We learn how to breathe with phrases, inquire of them, take them beyond conventional styles of understanding. We practice, as Zen Master Dogen puts it, “think not thinking.” We allow thought to arise, but not grasping thought, not being caught up in thought, not driving thought with our fear, desire, our smallness, as we usually do. So that instead of interpreting or explaining the phrases, trying to gain mastery over them, we allow ourselves to feel the phrases deeply, below the level of our conceptual mind. Feeling them from the gut, letting them work on us, instead of us working on them.

In Zen there are various traditions and methodologies for working with phrases, some more organized than others. In contemporary Zen, as practiced in the West, there are several koan traditions, all influenced by Rinzai Zen. These traditions are very well organized, with koan curricula and proscribed ways of responding to koans in a fairly regimented format. In the Soto Zen that I practice, working with phrases is practiced in a fuzzy and somewhat disorganized way. There is no curriculum and no particular format. This has always suited me, because I find I resist things that are too well organized; real life, it has always seemed to me, is fuzzy, and spiritual approaches that seem organized (they never really are organized; they just seem to be) and therefore suggest progress and development, strike me as less honest than disorganized approaches that admit progress is a problematic concept to begin with. Though I have always been fascinated with religious systems, organized or not, I have a hard time taking them literally. But I realize that for many people, maybe most people, organized approaches are good, because they provide a map and a way of checking yourself.

I have said that the Zen practice of phrases involves actual phrases—word clusters—but also the silence that’s always inside and all around the words. Like the vast spaces inside atoms, without which what we call the “solid” world could not exist, silence makes words possible. In Soto Zen there’s a way of practicing with phrases without any words. This is Zen mindfulness, which is not mindfulness of something, but mindfulness of silence, spaciousness, or emptiness. This is practiced using the breath or whatever is in front of you—a person, a task, a physical object—as the phrase, the koan. Life becomes the phrase, not in the abstract but as it appears uniquely, wherever and whenever you are. You pay close attention to it, avoid pegging it down to an explanation or an evaluation, and you wait with intense inquiry to see what it will reveal to you.

The idea, the hope, is that everything will illuminate you. Everything will open you up; everything will surprise you. Although in real practice this doesn’t always happen, it is a direction, an aspiration, a way we keep coming back to. It doesn’t matter how it turns out; the main thing is to keep up a continuity of practice.

It doesn’t make much difference whether you are practicing with whatever’s in front of you; or whether you are using a literal phrase, like “Who is this?” or “What is love?” that may have arisen from the issues of your life; or whether you are using something classical in Zen, like Zhaozho’s “mu” or “cypress tree in the courtyard.” The more you sit with the phrase, and maintain your sitting with it through your activity (because, like phrases, which are more than phrases, sitting is more than literal sitting), the more your practice can be continuous and the more will be revealed.

I remember many years ago when I was living with Bernie Glassman, we’d often practice koans in the Greyston bakery, which was at that time the main project of Bernie’s Zen Center. The bakery was a crazy place; we had more business than we could handle, and it was always a special time for breakneck effort: Halloween cookies, Christmas cakes, Thanksgiving pies, Valentine’s Day cookies. It was always something.

We were working very hard from morning till night. Bernie is tireless and expects that everyone else will be tireless too. And we were not professional bakers; in fact, we didn’t know how to bake and we were learning as we went along. So it was exhausting work, going very quickly all the time, trying to fill rush orders, to do things right, and of course making many mistakes and having constantly to do things over again. In the middle of all this, Bernie would open up shop for dokusan, a traditional Zen interview in which the teacher examines the student’s understanding of his or her koan. He’d sit in his manager’s office at his desk while you—in your baker’s whites, covered with flour—sat in the outer room on a chair taking a few moments to quickly come back into touch with your koan, which had to be right there at your fingertips, easily brought back into consciousness. When Bernie rang the bell rang you’d go in and respond to your koan and he would respond back and then he’d ring the bell and you’d go back downstairs to the assembly line as the next person came in. Such things are possible.

One of my favorite phrases is “Who is sick?”, which comes from the koan collection Shoyoroku, the Book of Serenity. It’s from a story about Daowu, an old Chinese Zen teacher who, as it happens, figures in three other stories that are among the most important in all of Zen. Daowu was the dharma brother of Yunyan, who was Tungshan’s teacher. Tungshan is one of the founding teachers of the Soto lineage.

Two of these three stories are dialogues between Daowu and Yunyan. In one, Yunyan asks, “Why does the bodhisattva Kuanyin have so many hands and eyes?”

Dauwu says, “It’s like reaching back for your pillow in the dark.”

Yunyan says, “I understand,” and Wu asks him what he understands.

Yunyan says, “The whole body is covered with hands and eyes.”

Wu says, “Almost.”

Yan says, “Then what do you say?”

Wu replies, “There’s nothing but hands and eyes.” Which means, all of reality is love, love that accepts suffering. To say that love or compassion is something extra, something particular, some admirable feeling or impulse, is good, but it misses this crucial point about life.

In the second story, Wu is sweeping the ground and Yan says, “Too busy!”

Wu replies, “You should know there’s one who’s not busy.”

Yan says, “Oh, you mean there are two moons.”

Wu holds up the broom and says, “Which moon is this?”

This story is telling us that when we think we are busy, that’s just on the surface. The stress we complain about is conceptual and superficial. We can run around and do plenty of things, but when we know who we are and what is actually going on, we don’t need to be stressed out about anything.

The third story is about the nature of life and death. Yuan, a disciple of Daowu, knocks on a coffin at a funeral and asks, “Alive or dead?”

Wu says, “I won’t say, I won’t say.” That is, I can’t say what is life and what is death. They’re certainly not what we think they are.

To be willing to enter into the silence that surrounds and pervades all phrases (those made of words and those not made of words) is to be willing to die—to die to knowledge, control, desire. To know and embrace death, to be willing to die to every moment—that is what it takes to actually live. This is why people want to go rock climbing or jump out of airplanes, or go to war. In spiritual practice, we are trying to live with full passion without doing all these risky things. Being alive is risky enough, and also completely safe.

These three stories about Daowu are famous, often repeated, tales of Zen. This is the most common thing in the world: to repeat old stories that we already know perfectly well. We do it in religion, in national cultures, and in families too; we tell the old stories over and over again. That way we have them in our minds and they will appear spontaneously and unbidden, as our own experience, in response to things that happen to us. Something will happen that allows us to see personally “the one who’s not busy,” or to know that everything before us is nothing other than love. We hear the stories over and over again, and over time we understand them better, and differently, and eventually we become them. We know them from the inside, because they happened to us. This is true of all the old stories and phrases of all spiritual traditions—and of families, cultures, and clans too. Where we would we be without a story?

Now let me now get back to the phrase, “Who is sick?” Here’s the whole story:

Guishan asked Daowu, “Where are you coming from?”

Daowu said, “I’ve come from tending the sick.”

Shan said “How many people were sick?”

Wu said, “There were the sick and the not sick.”

“Isn’t the one not sick you?” Guishan said.

Daowu said, “Being sick and not being sick have nothing to do with the True Person. Speak quickly! Speak quickly!”

Guishan said. “Even if I could say anything, it wouldn’t relate.” Later Tiantong commented on this, saying, “Say something anyway!”

It seems as though Daowu had the practice of visiting the sick, one of the greatest of all spiritual practices. I recommend this. It is a practice I do and have done, but regretfully I don’t do it nearly as much as I would like to. I seem to have many others things to do, but actually I would like to do nothing else but visit the sick, like Walt Whitman did during the Civil War.

It is also possible that Daowu was not visiting the sick. “Where are you coming from?” is a Zen question meant to evoke a more profound response than the mundane facts. When Daowu said he had come from tending the sick, he could have meant anything or everything by it. This is an answer we could give on any occasion: What are you doing? I am tending the sick. What else are we ever doing? This is the first noble truth of Buddhism: sentient beings are by their nature sick. To be alive is to have a terminal illness. The whole world is a hospital ward.

But then Daowu says, “There are the sick and the not sick.” Who are the sick? The ones who have forgotten the stories of suffering and pain, who think that they themselves are not sick. These are the sick ones; these are the ones who suffer a lot. Who are the ones not sick? These are the ones who know the stories, who know that they are sick, that we all are sick, and who have sympathy. They know the world is a hospital ward and we are doing nothing but tending the sick, ourselves included. Knowing this from inside, in the guts, the breath, the thoughts, perceptions, and deeds, we are not sick.

In the end, though, as Daowu tells us, the True Person is beyond sick and not sick. The True Person simply “is,” and in this “is” is living and dying both, sickness and health both. So there’s no point, really, in speaking of life or death, or sickness or health.

In the face of this, Daowu asks Guishan to speak, and he does. Guishan was a great Zen master and he understood Daowu perfectly. Saying something won’t explain anything, he says in so many words. Which is surely true. It’s like asking someone, “Please explain your life to me, I would like to understand it.” It’s not possible to explain even a moment of life. But, as Tiantong chimes in, “That may be true, but still you have to say something.” That’s true too. Not saying anything is not an option. We have to tell our story of pain and the impulse, coming out of that pain, to do good.

I know that some stories seem not to be like this. They seem to involve pain, and the reflex of fear and anger, that causes someone to do much harm. This is very common. Sad though it may be, this is the world. But when you hear the stories through, and see their multi-generational vectors, you see that when we suffer pain we always find—however long it takes—the impulse to do good, and we finally act on that impulse. This is the point of practice—to confront the first truth, the truth of suffering, and to find our way to the fourth truth, the truth of the path, of doing good with a heart of love to benefit others.


Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Zen teacher. His book is Sailing Home: Using The Odyssey to Chart Your Life’s Journey, forthcoming in June 2008 from Free Press.


Phrases & Spaces
, Norman Fischer, Shambhala Sun, March 2008.






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