Case 21 Unmon's "Kanshiketsu"
A monk asked Unmon, "What is Buddha?"
Unmon replied, "Kanshiketsu!" [A dry shit-stick.]
Unmon was too poor to prepare plain food, too busy to speak from notes.
He hurriedly took up shiketsu to support the Way.
The decline of Buddhism was thus foreshadowed.
A moment's blinking,
Note: The translations I have used of the Mumonkan, except for a few cases at the beginning of this project are by the late Zen master Katsuki Sekida (Two Zen Classics 26-137)
This week at the Monday sangha sit one of the participants read a teshio delivered by Sasaki Roshi around 2000. I practiced with Sasaki Roshi in the early 80's but I have several friends who practiced with him much more recently, in the years up to his death in 2014, and they told me that the usual theme of his talks was a teaching he had on how we manifest in this world as zero, plus or minus. It seemed an unusual teaching, like nothing I heard from other teachers or read in the literature. It also was different from what I remembered hearing from him when I practiced with him. I had become somewhat sceptical of this teaching not because I considered it wrong but because no one I spoke to seemed to understand it. But then I heard this teshio and he talked about understanding how we come into being and how we manifest as the Dharma Activity. I thought this interesting so I thought I would comment on it in this blog. And in the way that one can turn any discussion of true Zen understanding coming from one persoective into an understanding from another perspective I will comment on this koan
To begin, Zen is about our experience not about measurable physical reality. There is a relationship but we are not talking physics. Most important in Zen practice is to understand how the "I am", the concept of self and experience of having a self manifests. We can study this intellectually by reading various theories on how this happens and we can of course intuitively agree with one of these theories. In buddhism there is a lot of talk and literature on how the "I am" comes into being that goes right back to Shakyamuni with his teaching on non-atman (no self). Fundimental to Buddhism is the belief that there is no permanent enduring self, and what we think of as the self is just a temporary thought. Some people read this and they think "yes it makes sense and they become Buddhists, Not so with others. But to understand no self as an idea is not enough for a Zen practitioner. No self must be experienced and understood from this experience. A purely intellectual understanding will have little effect on one but an experienced understanding will have a great transformative effect.
Shakyamuni Buddha laid out an understanding of how the self comes into being in the Twelve Fold Chain of Interdependent Origination.
1. Ignorance(Pali: Avijjā)
2. Mental formations/volitions(Pali: Saṅkhāra Sanskrit: Saṃskāra)
3. Status consciousness(Pali: Viññāṇa)
4. "Name" and "Form"(Pali: Nāmarūpa)
5. The six senses(Pali: Saḷāyatana)
6. Contact(Pali: Phassa)
7. Feelings(Pali: Vedanā)
8. Cravings/longings/desires(Pali: Taṇhā)
9. Clinging to(Pali: Upādāna)
10. Generation of factors for rebirth(Pali: Bhava)
11. Birth(Pali: Jāti)
12. All the sufferings(Pali: Jarāmaraṇa)
Many people think this chain is a description of how reincarnation works through the individual's many lives but I think Shakyamuni was getting at something else. This is a description of how the idea of a self is reincarnated moment to moment in our thoughts. It can also be viewed as a habit of our thoughts to be again and again reforming the idea of an individual self The practice of zazen can then be seen as a way that we break the chain again and again so that the habit energy of this chain of thought is dissipated. In this way we can resolve that original ignorance and experience the Non-Dual. We can look at this and see how different forms of meditation break the chain in different places. In the very deepest meditation mental formations don't even arise. Personally in my meditation practice I often sit with a consciousness having arisen (stage 3) but then without having form or name arise (stage 4). Typical instructions for meditation often tell the practitioner to allow thoughts and feelings to arise but then not attach to these thoughts and feelings. This is cutting the chain between links 8 and 9. In general the deeper the meditation the earlier this chain is cut. In the deepest meditation not even consciousness arises. There is complete absorption and it is black. This is true Zero
In this Zen understanding we come into being again as a thought. This process is happening so fast that we cannot even be aware of it and we seem to have a continuous sense of self. We have no cognizance of no-self. This process is happening so fast and so often that we are locked into a certain understanding and it becomes very difficult to see the the world in any other way. It become very difficult to resolve that original ignorance which is the first link in the chain. If we slow down this whole process through zazen we can observe the birth of consciousness out of Zero and with this birth the whole world is born with our sense of self. The first time I had a window into this process was some 37 years ago after around 10 days of continuous meditation. I was sitting in meditation early one morning and I observed consciousness awaken with the sound of each bird call. It was like consciousness was flashing on and off. And then with one particularly loud bird call and large flash this understanding emerged that for that moment when the bird call sounded the whole Universe in consciousness was that sound and there was no "I" in it and then there was this understanding how the "I" emerged as a thought. Fundamentally there is no "I", no individuality. All that is is the One the Non-Dual in inseparable activity.
Shakyamuni made an interesting observation. He said that every time we have a thought a karmic seed is created for the repetition of that thought. In the language of modern cognitive science every thought is a pathway and that every time we repeat that thought we energetically strengthen that pathway. This is the nature of thought habits. To break our thought habits we need a prolonged period without the thought, which will drain the pathway of it's energy. This is why it is so important to practice Zazen not just for an hour or so every day but for long periods of continuous practice. Only through long periods of continuous practice will the practice really deepen. But if you put in the effort then in a single moment of awakening even a shit stick will be Buddha