Case 16 When the Bell Sounds
Unmon said, "The world is vast and wide.
Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?"
In studying Zen, you should not be swayed by sounds and forms.
Even though you attain insight when hearing a voice or seeing a form, this is simply the ordinary way of things.
Don't you know that the real Zen student commands sounds, controls forms, is clear-sighted at every event and free on every occasion?
Granted you are free, just tell me: Does the sound come to the ear or does the ear go to the sound?
If both sound and silence die away, at such a juncture how could you talk of Zen?
While listening with you ear, you cannot tell. When hearing with your eye, you are truly intimate.
With realization, things make one family;
Without realization, things are separated in a thousand ways.
Without realization, things make one family;
With realization, things are separated in a thousand ways.
This koan reminds me of the Zen saying, "chop wood, carry water." What could be more fundimental to living and more pedestrian then chopping wood and carrying water. Of course in today's world few of us actually have to do these tasks. For a Zen monk putting on one's robes at the sign of the bell is also fundimental and pedestrian.
When I was a young man, early in my spiritual quest I had a keen desire to live life in it's most fundimental. I moved into a cabin deep in the woods. I had to walk a 1/2 mile in to get to my hovel, from the nearest logging road. Every morning I would wake up do about an hour of meditation then spend the rest of the morning cutting and chopping wood while I chanted a mantra. The water was collected off the roof and directed into a barrel on the side of the cabin. I only had to carry it a few feet into the house. In the afternoon I would usually take a hike and practice reciting a mantra. In the evenings I would again practice meditation then read and finally spend some time writing before I went to bed. At first it was a bit lonely but after a short amount of time I deeply enjoyed the routine and the solitude. I did occasionally have visitors and go and visit friends. It was an inspiring time.
Two of the books that inspired me the most were Lama Govinda's, Foundation of Tibetan Mysticism and Secret Oral Teachings of Tibetan Buddhist Sects by Alexandra David Neel. This was the late 1970's and there were as yet few books on Buddhism in English but I would still recommend these books today. After reading Govinda's book I started chanting the classic Tibetan mantra Om Mani Padmi Hum. He used this mantra as the key to explaining Tibetan Buddhism. I still use it as my mantra. I recite it walking down the street, working in the garden, hiking in the mountains, in all sorts of locations when I want to calm my mind and enter a state of meditation in daily activity. There was a time when I recited this mantra through much of my day though today I have to admit I infrequently use it except when I am at a meditation retreat where I practice it continuously during all times I am not at seated meditation and when I practice walking meditation for a few minutes each day between periods of daily meditation. I recommend that all serious meditators use a mantra to bring their practice off the cushion into daily life. A mantra can also function like a koan. The meaning of a mantra like Om Mani Padmi Hum, which translates as, Om the Jewel in the Lotus Hum, can seem obscure but then when the time is right can open up as a powerful insight.
The secret Oral Teachings of Tibetan Buddhist Sects is a dissertation on the Buddhist concept of Interdependent Origination, which is just cause and effect or karma. What this book allowed me to do is drop a lot of the unneeded baggage that seems to exist in many forms of Buddhism, like the belief in reincarnation which had seemed to me to be in contradiction with the non-Atman teaching of the Buddha. Ultimately we need to drop all our ideas and beliefs if we are to see the world through the eyes of Kensho.
If we are to truly dive deep into this practice then we must make all aspect of our life part of the practice. Chopping wood, carrying water, walking down the street, working at our job, putting on our robes when the bell rings, etc.. These must all become part of our practice. How do we do this? A mantra might help, but really this is only a device a tool. The real answer is in our state of mind. The advice of Dogen Zenji is more to the point, what ever we do we must "fully engage body and mind." What does it mean to fully engage body and mind? It means that what ever we are doing there should be no stray thoughts to divert our attention. We should be fully concentrated, if concentration is called for or fully open if openness is called for. When sitting just sit when chopping wood just chop wood. When meditating just meditate, when practicing mindfulness just practice mindfulness. When engaging other people engage with complete openness No thoughts of past or future, likes or dislikes, doctrine, or the self, just the present, this is samadhi. If we practice this again and again and again then the power of our preconceived ideas, the filters through which we view the world will eventually be dropped and we will be able to view the world in a whole different way.
Why do I put on my robes at the sound of the bell? Yes, this is part of the practice but to think of it this way is to hold an extra idea. I do it because I just do it and the world is vast and wide.
Mumon's Verse 頌曰
會則事同一家 With realization, things make one family;
不會萬別千差 Without realization, things are separated in a thousand ways.
不會事同一家 Without realization, things make one family;
會則萬別千差 With realization, things are separated in a thousand ways.