Here’s a koan:
One day at Nanquan’s monastery, students of the eastern and western halls were arguing over a cat. When he saw this, Nanquan held up the cat and said, “If someone can say a true word, I won’t kill it.” No one could respond, so Nanquan cut the cat in two.
Recently, I was with friends for Christmas. They have a young child, a happy, bright boy about one-and-a-half years old. From among his many presents, they carefully chose one in particular for him to open on Christmas Eve. That night, the grandparents came over for dinner. Through some misunderstanding or miscommunication or some peculiarity of human will, the grandmother brought her own gift for the boy, one that she had chosen especially for him to open on Christmas Eve. Not long after she had walked in the door, the parents noticed this and a power struggle ensued. The parents were angry that the grandmother had not respected their wishes. The grandmother claimed ignorance and protested that the parents were too controlling. The argument went on in this way for some time. Meanwhile, the child stood between them, looking confusedly back and forth between parents, grandmother, and the offending gift. In their desire to have their way, both parties had forgotten about the child altogether.
You can see the effects of human will struggling against itself everywhere: politics, relationships, work, family gatherings, in ourselves. When politicians impose their own wills against each other, the nation suffers; when partners impose their own wills against each other, the relationship suffers; volunteers called court appointed special advocates are needed all over the country to ensure that foster children don’t become victims of the very systems created to protect them.
It’s not hard to find someone who is willing to fight to defend a position. (The progressive rock band Tool wrote a song about this called Right in Two.) When we get lost in our own will like this, we cut the universe in half. We split ourselves into pieces that shout at each other from opposite ends of a vast schism. How can we hear each other like this, let alone touch one another? It is easy to get trapped in stances of right and wrong–defending loot, pride, beliefs–but Nanquan asks for something even easier than that: is there anyone who can put the universe back together again? Although this was difficult for the monks, it doesn’t have to be for us.
If we just keep company with a koan, it will begin to show up in our life. We might notice it in our relationship with our partner, at work, at the grocery store, or watching the news. Even when we think we’ve lost it, we can trust that is working hard for us all the time.
The koan is always offering us the fundamental aliveness in our situation, and yet we can cleverly find ways to avoid it. Perhaps we ignore the aliveness because we think it’s in the wrong place. Maybe we think we need to figure out the situation before we respond or that we have no power. Either way, the cat dies. But it seems that we can become less and less adept at ignoring our suffering, at playing dumb, and we can fess up to what is required of us: to invest something real of ourselves. And while it likely won’t involve anything as dramatic as saving a cherished pet from being dismembered, in a way our very life hangs in the balance.
Koans can help us to fall out of the character we usually play, which can fortunately also mean forgetting our strategies for avoiding life. They shuffle our scripts around so that we can no longer be sure of who we are going to be in any given moment. This might be unnerving at first, but sometimes freedom is like that. When you have fallen out of character, whoever you already are might be the right you. As the koan presents itself in your life, you might suddenly find yourself inhabiting the role of various characters in the story. Perhaps you are a monk of the east or west hall, or Nanquan, or the cat, or even the blade that cleaves precious things in half. Perhaps you are the room where all this took place. Wherever you are invited to enter can be the right place.
Here’s another favorite koan that has been echoing around as I write this post:
One day when Dongshan and a monk were washing their bowls, they saw two crows fighting over a frog.
The monk asked, “Why does it always have to be like that?”
Dongshan replied, “It’s only for your benefit, honored one.”
In this situation too, you might be anyone–the monk, the crows, the frog, even the bowls being washed. Being the frog might be interesting because it can easily be overlooked as a supporting actor whose only role is to set up the punchline. But if you are the frog, you might find out what it’s like to be fought over or pulled apart by something in your life. Maybe you are a live frog and it’s terrifying, or maybe you are a dead frog and so you don’t mind. But even in that case, what is it like to be a dead frog in your own life? In this way, we can enter anywhere.
This process of falling into a koan happens naturally as a byproduct of spending time with it. We do not need to decide who we are, because we are already. We can feel our way into who we are like trying on a new coat (where are the pockets? What happens when I move my arms this way?). We can become intimate with it and discover something. We can ask, “What is it like to fully inhabit this role, in my life?” As the cat in the koan, I notice that my allegiance is not to the east or west hall, but to the warmest lap. As the child in the story, I don’t care whose gift I open first because everything already belongs to me. As one of the monks, when Nanquan holds up the cat I feel a great shouting desperation well up in my chest and I forget all about laying claim to anything.
There is a second koan that wraps up the cat story and offers us an intriguing role model:
That evening, Zhaozhou returned from a trip and Nanquan questioned him about what had happened. Zhaozhou took off a sandal, put it on top of his head, and walked out. Nanquan said, “If you’d been here, you’d have saved the cat.”
Someone told me that putting a sandal on top of one’s head used to be a sign of mourning in China. (Poor, poor kitty.) Others claim he’s saying something about turning things upside-down or that he’s just making a silly gesture to point out the absurdity of the situation. Either way, Zhaozhou’s response comes from outside the tug-o-war of human wills that began this episode and Nanquan seems to approve of it. But the fact that Nanquan approves of it doesn’t mean that we have to, and our task is to discover our own true response to whatever situation we find ourselves in.