Case 37 Jõshû's Oak Tree
A monk asked Jõshû, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming to China?"
Jõshû said, "The oak tree in the garden."
If you understand Jõshû's answer intimately, there is no Shakya before you, no Maitreya to come.
Words cannot express things;
Speech does not convey the spirit.
Swayed by words, one is lost;
Blocked by phrases, one is belwildered.
This is one of many koans where a deep profound question is is answered with a seemingly mundane and simple answer. This is not a simple koan. There is a reason it is near the end of this koan collection. If you truly come to understand this answer your dharma eye is fully open.
In ancient China when a person asked the question what is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming to China, he was in fact asking what is the deepest truth of Buddhism? Such a simple answer as " the oak tree in the garden" often encourages a simple interpretation of Zen such as there is not much to Zen accept the simple living of our prosaic lives, "carry water chop wood." Maybe if I can only reduce my desires and calm my mind through meditation I can be happy simply living. There is something to be said for this position and this is the goal of many meditators. But this is only a partial understanding which has little to do with the deep understanding of the Buddhas enlightenment. When the dharma eye is open the profound appears within the mundane.
I was educated as a physicist many years ago. For a while I taught high school level physics. The understanding of physics is also of a hidden understanding underlying the prosaic world. It is an understanding slowly pieced together over many centuries by dedicated individuals through reason and experiment. It tells of a world of atoms and smaller, forces, fields, and energy, space and time, that exists within and around everything we see. It is a hidden reality, but if we are educated in this reality then it can come alive even in everyday observation.
The Buddha lived in a time before science but still he was an explorer into the profound mysteries of our existence. His tool was zazen and his method was to strip perception of all preconceived concepts and then view the world clearly for what it is. His discovery was anything but mundane. The Buddha couched his discovery in terms of how to be happy and this is usually how Buddhism is approached. He preached the Four Noble Truths: 1, Life contains much suffering; 2, There is a reason why we suffer; 3, There is a state of mind and a way of viewing life without suffering; 4, There is the Eight Fold Path that leads to a life without suffering. Most of us emphasize in our practice and understanding Truths 2 and 4. We learn that suffering is caused by ego and desire and we try to eliminate ego and desire through practicing the eight fold path. We might think that the Third Noble Truth is simply a state without desire and ego but that is not quite it. The Buddha talked about everything being in constant change. He talked about how the temporary appearance of things resulted from cause and effect and lastly he said that we as humans have no atman (soul) which is somehow beyond the every changing and causal nature of reality. We humans are thoroughly natural creatures without even a little bit that is divine (unless you expand the meaning of the word divine). And like everything else being under constant change it is hard to say that we even exist except as a fleeting form. In that sense we are empty of permanent reality as is everything else. These ideas are fine and may be even perfectly acceptable to you but they are not yet experiential. They are not yet life changing nor will they make you particularly happy. The key is in the idea of no atman. Even if we totally accept the idea of our total naturalness we find ourselves still attached to our own individuality, we still see the world as a multitude of individual things. We do not yet understand the third noble truth. This is where meditation comes in.
I have met two people who have had spontaneous enlightenment experiences which they described the same way as a prolonged period without any internal dialogue while awake. In both cases it caused a massive perceptual shift and effected them so deeply that they went in search of some way to understand what happened to them. In both cases they came to Zen and meditation because they recognized their experiences as being akin to the descriptions of the enlightenment experience in Zen literature. I have also had this experience but it was not spontaneous. It was the result of years of meditation practice, both a daily practice and several times a year doing intensive retreats. And because for me it resulted from meditation, now through many years of meditation I have been able not only to repeat the experience but it is now available to me to some degree all the time. I can sit in meditation and experience prolonged periods of quiet or I can take a few breaths give my stomach a squeeze and lift the chi from my hara ( The hara is the energy center located just below the navel.) and my mind will quiet and the perceptual shift will take place. But it is not really me the individual Ed who is doing this or having this experience. It is not my mind that becomes quiet because in that perceptual shift we experience the world without individuality and yet the individual does not disappear. Emptiness within form, the Universal within the individual, non-duality within duality, the oak tree in the garden becomes the whole universe, it is the True Self.
One time at sesshin Harada Roshi tells us, "If you can just stop thinking for 30 seconds it will change your life." later in the sesshin - I suspect he was frustrated with us - he tells us that 15 seconds without thought will change our lives. It is always a powerful experience for the mind to quiet but to stop thinking for 15 or 30 seconds is just the beginning. Just as likely as not there might not be any huge transformation of thought with a single experience of no thought but if we return to this place again and again then undoubtedly there will be a huge transformation in the way we think and understand the world. And then this perceptual shift is available whenever thought stops.