Every other week, Aido brings us a wonderful koan to chew on that then flows into the stream of dharma we are cultivating here at ZenWest. When she and I were talking about coordinating for this period of studying the Heart Sutra, we realized any koan would do. Every single one distills down into this Zen paradox of form and emptiness – how we clarify this experience of appearances – cars, bills, global warming, you and me – and the truth of emptiness – the absence of permanence, separation, self, or we could say, this constantly changing completely interdependent world – in a way that serves. We might think then, Well, if that’s all it is, why so many koans?!
The dharma is easy, the practice, endlessly subtle.
The koan Aido offered two weeks ago was one from the title of her teacher’s book, Bring Me the Rhinoceros, by John Tarrant. It’s a very advanced koan, from the Book of Serenity, that would be given to a student who’s maybe passed a couple of hundred koans already and had some experience with a teacher who knows them, so it’s not so transparent. What it lacks in transparency however, it makes up for in vividness! You simply can’t misplace a rhinoceros.
It goes like so:
One day Yuanguan called to his attendant: “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”
The attendant said: “The fan is broken.”
Yuanguan said: “If the fan is broken, then bring me back the rhinoceros.”
The attendant made no reply.
Zifu drew a circle and wrote the word rhinoceros in it.
The fan is broken. What does that mean? In our first group reflection, we focused on this sense of things that are broken in our lives – sometimes seemingly beyond repair, and all of our protest and compulsions to fix and try to return things to the way they were before. But really, as we examined these things we want to fix – relationships, our bodies, our minds, we discovered the Aha! – the liberation that comes from letting go of the view of the world in terms of fixed or broken, and we’re free to behold things as they are and respond with what’s needed. There was a felt sense in the group that to bring the rhinoceros was to bring out the real living thing, this inconceivable life as it is, not the concept of “broken” or “working,” but an embodied whole lived life.
So this is one dimension of this koan where the rhioceros serves as emptiness, something we can’t grasp but can awaken to. In terms of the Heart Sutra, we could say that in the world of form, when we are attached, things are either broken or fixed, here or there. In the world of emptiness, ungraspable constant change, everything is perfect in its own position, its own manifestation. The key is in our integration of these views of emptiness and form in our response to life.
How do we mend something that isn’t broken? Our attendant in this koan, though, couldn’t respond. He was stuck like most of us a lot of the time – so at least he has some company! There is a line in the old commentaries that says, “Try to make him present it face to face and he won’t be able to bring it out in the wind.” Bring me the rhinoceros? Ummmmm, hmm, let’s see, where did I put that thing, it was right here a minute ago……we shouldn’t feel bad about being the attendant – sometimes, that’s just the way it is. We’re stumped.
It is one thing to have some awareness of this rhinoceros our teacher wants us to show them (what we’re calling “the real thing” and we might say “emptiness” or “the inconceivable”) and it’s another to move freely with this truth. How do you grab the wind? What do you do with this ever present truth in plain view if someone asks you for it? Like a rhinoceros, it won’t be coaxed into performance! It’s powerful and has a mind of its own. Buddha mind. I remember many an exchange where I went to my teacher excitedly after some study saying “I totally get this!” and nonplussed, he would reply something like, “Now live it” and walk away. Ah, such a blow for Seido’s hope for validation, but such good instruction!
Because koans are like dreams and contain multiple layers of meaning, I’d like to tease out another dimension of the rhino from the point of view of what it means to be a Zen student. There is a traditional dedication used at my temple on Founder’s Day where we celebrate and honor the deceased founders of the temple. Here are a few phrases from this:
That our teachers could lead all seekers of the Way they were, at times, as the bright moon; and again, at times, as the voice of thunder. When the rhinoceros tried to reach the reflection of the moon in the water, the moonlight remained upon his horns; when the elephant was alarmed by thunder, flowers suddenly blossomed upon her tusks.
The primal instinctual energies embodied in animals in koans often inform us students as to how we practice. My teacher likes to refer to the “instinct for awakening,” and I like that – something we’re called to release, not add to life, but like the homing pigeon, something we return to.
In practice, sometimes we’re the rhinoceros, sometimes the elephant. The rhinoceros tries aggressively and stubbornly to get the moon, to get enlightenment, yet there it is, on his horn, always just out of reach. How familiar that is to us in practice – we can feel so close to a breakthrough, an understanding, a surrender, and yet every motion we make towards it, it recedes. We chase and chase. We can see this in zazen, when we notice a quiet peaceful moment, and then it’s gone as soon as we try to make it stay.
Sometimes our practice is like the elephant, receptive, just absorbing things, not hurrying about – until, crack! some thunderous direct truth, sometimes from our teachers, really wakes us up. Oh! It’s right here! That’s when flowers bloom. Is it better to be a rhinoceros, or an elephant? Or maybe a rhelephant or a eloceros? Which one is your modus operandi? Let’s go back to the koan….
There is some more of the old commentary on this koan that speaks to the intimacy of the teacher student relationship. When the teacher asks for the fan the first time “this is talk about ordinary reality between father and son” and when he asks for the rhinoceros, the commentary says, “this going into the weeds with his whole body, in a relationship with an adopted child.” How touching and beautiful. The teacher isn’t asking for his student’s saintly side – the part of us that wants to be seen doing everything right when being watched!
The teacher wants you to bring him/her the rhinoceros, the unadorned uncontrived you in the world of weeds, the world of delusion. Going into the weeds with the whole body, heart, eyes, feelings, gut….everything, a whole life meeting a whole life. This is what our teachers do for us in bearing witness to our lives as they are without anything left out. Adopted is this relationship we have, a second upbringing into another kind of truth. It is this stubborn mind, this resistance we have to the truth, that is the prima matera that is transformed in practice. What we think of as the things we want to get rid of to awaken is exactly the stuff we need to bring. Our delusions are not supplanted by another more saintly awakened mind, but relaxed into awakening so that the moon gains the rhino. (If we look honestly, most of us want to wake up, but really, on our own terms and preferably without any discomfort! )
Zifu is a mature practitioner. The moon gains the rhino is one way to understand Zifu’s response. In the old commentary, it says, “the word in the circle has a reason.” In Zen and many other spiritual traditions for that matter, the circle, or enso, is a symbol of wholeness, oneness, and for us, Buddha Mind – pure, bright, reflective, serene. The commentary goes on, “According to this bunch of old guys’ empty explanations of the principle, the fan and the rhino ultimately can’t be brought out. Only Zifu drew a circle and wrote the character for such a beast: the fan, the rhino, are utterly new, immutable.” Sometimes broken, never broken. Not one, not two.
How does Zifu hit the mark? How is it this rhinoceros mind is the very mind of Buddha? How is the inconceivable your mind in this very moment? What is the shift that shows the attendant utterly new, immutable? At some point, we just need to find our way in to this truth in practice, moment to moment. Look the rhinoceros squarely in the eye, and bow deeply, and see your own reflection.
Gate gate paragate parasamgate, bodhi svaha.