Case 22 Kashyapa's "Knock Down the Flagpole"
Ananda asked Kashyapa, "The World-honored One gave you the golden robe; did he give you anything else.
"Ananda!" cried Kashyapa.
"Yes, sir!" answered Ananda.
"Knock down the flagpole at the gate," said Kashyapa.
If you can give a turning word at this point, you will see that the meeting at Mount Grdhrakuta is still solemnly continuing.
If not, then this is what Vipasyin Buddha worried about from remote ages; up to now he has still not acquired the essence.
Tell me—question or answer—which was more intimate?
Many have knit their brows over this;
Elder brother calls, younger brother answers, and they betray the family secret.
They had a special spring, not one of yin and yang.
Ananda was a younger cousin of the Buddha who joined the sangha some years after the Buddha started teaching. The Buddha recognized that Ananda had a remarkable memory and could repeat word for word everything that he had heard. Because of this the Buddha made Ananda his attendant so that he would be present at all the Buddha's talks and privately even repeated the old talks to him. When the Buddha died after 50 years of teaching Ananda had in his memory all the talks the Buddha gave during his whole teaching career.
After the Buddha's death the elders of the Sangha who were recognized as enlightened gathered for a conference to determind how the Buddha's sangha which already spread across Northern India was to move forward. They wanted to compile his teachings to make sure they were not lost but the problem was Ananda who had all the teachings in his head was not invited to the conference because he was not enlightened.
Ananda understood this and resolved to become enlightened so he sat down in meditation. The story goes that he sat a day and a night and then in the morning he encountered Maha Kashyapa and the exchange we read hear occurred. After Kashyapa told Ananda "Knock down the flagpole at the gate," Ananda had a deep enlightenment experience and was then invited to the Conference of Elders.
Why did this simple statement "Knock down the flagpole at the gate," have such a profound effect? I have many Zen friends who have studied with one or more of that wave of Japanese Zen teachers who came here in the 1960-70's and now have been practicing for many many years but few have had a true enlightenment experience. Why? In some cases I think it is because they revered their teacher so much that they have developed a case of guru adoration and this adoration is used to give themselves a feeling of specialness. In others words it was used to strengthen the individual's ego. Sometimes this reverence extends to written or recorded words which are then studied as though if they the students could only grasp the deep meaning of the words then the wisdom of the teacher will be conferred upon them. I can imagine that Ananda was similarly attached to the Buddha and was filled with pride that he had been the Buddha's attendant and confidant, and nobody else knew as much of the Buddha's teachings. It was this attachment and pride that had become Ananda's barrier. This was Ananda's flagpole and it needed to come down.
We all have a flag pole of sorts in front of our senses. We call it our "ego" but what does that really mean. I usually tell people it is our idea of an individual self. This is true, but it is not just a simple idea but rather a cluster of thoughts and feelings that effects our whole way of thinking and feeling. When we react to perceived insult that is our ego. The deep emotional scars that we carry with us are part of our ego. The drive we feel for self gratification and pride is also part of ego. The stories we are constantly telling of ourselves and others, in our heads, are part of ego. Even the way we see the world as divided into individual things and beings, likes and dislikes, holy and profane, is part of ego. The ego is a huge mass of thoughts conscious and subconscious interconnected into a whole way of thinking and perceiving,and not easy to transcend. But, slowly we chip away at this mass through sitting and other practices. Through sitting we bring to the surface subconscious components and deal with them. Through sitting and other practices such as mantra recitation we de-energize the habit energy of this mass. And then when we are ready with it will take just a little something, maybe something our teacher tells us, or the sound of a stone hitting a larger rock, or a bird chirp, or hit with the kiosaku stick, just about anything and we will wake up and see everything clearly for what it is and what we are.
The Dharma gate is nothing but our six senses, the sixth being our ability to understand. This gate is usually closed to us because our mind is so filled with that huge mass of ego thought that we never perceive anything clearly for what it is. I know you are rebelling when you read this and thinking something like, "When I see a tree I see a tree. What more is there for me to see." My response to this is that to see a tree as a tree is not to see completely clearly. It is to carry the assumption of multiplicity, and individuality into perception. It is to add thought onto perception by adding name and much more. It is to see things through the lens of subject-object dualism. We are usually thinking so much as we perceive things that we actually dull our perceptions a bit. If a person really quiets the mind through meditation then perceptions will actually be experienced as brighter and clearer.
If we don't carry the assumption of our own individuality into perception then the observer disappears, the lens of subject-object dualism is gone, and the perception in that moment becomes the whole universe. With a quiet mind if our eyes focus on an individual thing then that thing is simply empty. It is form it is phenomena it is nothing else. If we open our eyes wide with a quiet mind there is no differentiation. All that is in the realm of perception becomes a single thing. No longer do we see trees and houses and people as separate things separated by empty space but rather as a single thing with the space around it all as the body of that single thing. And then in a moment of insight we recognize that we are not separate from that single thing but rather contained within that single body and that is our True Self.
This insight into the True Self doesn't necessarily happen exactly like this. And even though our meditation might at times have sufficient depth, deep attachment to dualistic understanding of things often prevents insight into our True Self. But when we finally recognize the True Self there is no going back. Our understanding of everything changes. For Ananda after almost 50 years of practice that flagpole of ego still stood in the way of insight but then with one moment of letting it drop he stepped through the gate and everything changed.