PZI Teacher Archives

Knock on Any Door – Daoist Masters & Zen Koans


Whatever your condition is, you can see the “I have joy.” Out of that emptiness, out of what seems unpromising—the dark material, the valley spirit, the enigma, out of the mystery, out of what I don’t understand—it just appears. The joy just appears.

Original Video from Summer Sesshin 2019


“Feeling the time,”the old-tongued thirsty poet Du Fu said. Feeling the time. And feeling there’s a kind of spreading out that happens, as we go deeper into the journey of retreat. And I suppose as we are less concerned, we have less of our small concerns – and we realize that our small concerns are kind of small. And even our big concerns are kind of small. If you look who’s here, as far as we know, these are the only people in the world – and our minds spend a lot of time elsewhere.  

Feeling the time. And walking up, there’s that great sound when someone laughs, you know –  out of nowhere there was a woman laughing, and that’s the sound of emptiness. It’s like there’s no good reason for laughing, but laughing somehow heals the world. No matter what’s happened, if you can laugh… And where does the laughter come from? We don’t know. Comes out of the vastness.  

So this is the stage of retreat for me, when it’s sometimes hard to drag myself out of the vastness to give a talk. There must be someone here who can give a talk! I want to link this great old Daoist sage with some Zen material. I don’t know why, so that’s why. 

“Great understanding is broad and unhurried. Small understanding is cramped and busy.” I don’t know if that’s true, but it kinda sounds good. “Great words are bright and open.” “Brightness”  is one of the great koans. “Small words are chip and chap,”“No other and no self, no self and no distinctions” – that’s almost it. But I don’t know what makes it this way. I think this is one of the cool things about what Daoism brought to Zen. Nobody knows what makes things this way. And we don’t pretend that. 

When the mind says, Well, before the Big Bang there was the proton firewall, and before that, what was before that? Not having to be anyone, I step forward, stepping-forward happens. Out of the vastness.  And the Zen koan says, “Abiding nowhere, the heart-mind comes forth.” Who’s heart-mind is that? Yours, mine, the Raven’s. The trees themselves are heart-mind, and you can feel we share that nature and that quality of being.

“I don’t know what makes it this way, something true seems to govern.” Yes, something’s holding us alive, and what happens when you die? It’s weird, isn’t it? Suddenly everything stops working. Bacteria stop cooperating. It’s this mysterious thing carrying us. “I can’t find the least trace of it”  – so, not knowing. It’s not a matter of ignorance, and it’s not that we haven’t done enough research. It’s just that fundamental to the experience of reality, is living in the uncertainty that’s always developing around us. And it’s a fundamental feature of the universe. Which is why, as soon as you say something’s absolutely true, your mind starts arguing against it. Have you noticed that? 

[Reads from book] “It acts – nothing could be more apparent, but we never see it’s form. It has nature but no form.” So there’s that part of it. “Suppose you and I have an argument. Suppose you win, and I lose. Does that mean you’re really right, and I’m wrong? Suppose I win, and you lose – does that mean I’m really right, and you’re wrong? Are we both right, or both wrong? Is one of us right, and the other wrong? If we can’t figure it out ourselves, others must be totally in the dark – so who can we get to settle it? We could get someone who disagrees with both of us, which of us is right and which of us is wrong – so what should we do? Wait for someone else to come along who can decide? What is meant by an accord reaching to the very limits of heaven? The voices in transformation… [indistinct] Move in the boundless and the boundless becomes your home.”

‘Boundless’ is a kind of Zen term too, it just means we don’t know the limits. We haven’t put prison walls around them. The infinite becomes your home. That’s why Zen asks, “What is the first principle of the holy teaching? Vast emptiness, nothing holy. Who are you then, standing in front of me? – I don’t know.” If someone says, What’s your credential for this? I don’t know. What’s your credential for pretending to be human? Did you get a certificate from the academy of being human? There’s no credential to be you. But you notice how the mind is always seeking it. If you say, I can’t get this, that’s believing in something, that’s making a religion. You haven’t let the emptiness into it. The emptiness comes into your confusion, your greed, your sorrow, your disapproval, your indignation and your adoration. If you’re really adoring someone, and you think, Wow, that’s so great – you can feel the sacred brightness in there, and that’s empty. And they’re also allowed not to be great. If someone is really beautiful they’re allowed not to be beautiful. They probably don’t feel that way a lot of the time. 

What does it mean to rest in the emptiness? Walking about, eating. The whole Zen thing of, ‘when you’re tired you sleep when you’re hungry you eat’. That’s the funny Zen story of the guy down the road who performs miracles. Someone asks him, “Do you perform miracles?” – “Yes, I do! What’s your miracle, master?”, “When I’m hungry I eat, when I’m tired, I sleep.” “Why is that a miracle?”, “Well, almost no one can do that!”

You lie down to sleep, and a thousand thoughts fill the mind. A thousand opinions arise with the vegetarian hot dogs. Are you hungry? Do you eat? A lot of the Zen sayings look like moral injunctions like, “The great way is not difficult if you don’t pick and choose”, but it’s actually a description of reality and how it really is. You just know whether you want more vegetarian hot dogs or not – it’s probably evident to you after you’ve had a bite. And so that’s not picking and choosing. Thinking, Oh god, I don’t like these vegetarian hot dogs but I should eat them because they’re virtuous. That’s picking and choosing. Or even thinking, I love these vegetarian hot dogs but should I eat more, or not – that’s picking and choosing. So the Zen thing is that if you can operate out of the boundless, you’ll find that the world comes back to you, and is generous and loving.  

So the gifts of the world are everywhere. In fact there’s nothing that isn’t a gift. From my room, if I pull back the curtain, (with the excuse that I’m making some dharma point), I can see the blue sky and the conifers – and there they are, they’re eternal. They’ve been there since before the start of the universe. And I can also see the grey cement wall, and you can see where the boards pressed into the forms that made it, and that’s been there since the beginning of the universe too. It’s thus, thus, thus. It steps forward, and we can prefer one to the other, but it’s sort of foolish because they’re both there, and I’m here with them. I love this life. So you can censor, I’ve got to get a printmaker to erase the cement and get CGI to put in conifers and Bambi. And that’s fine if you’re doing a photograph, but in life there’s a certain way it’s lovely to embrace it, that this is it. 

“What is this?” is a great question. “What is this?” is a better question, in a way, than an answer. But sooner or later, the world will call back when you ask, “What is this?” In the beginning of the Blue Cliff Record, there’s a great saying, “Knock on any door, someone will answer.” Kinda nice to know. Knock on the conifers, knock on the cement wall, knock on an old snaggle-toothed hunch-backed scatterment. Knock on any door.  

[Pulls out his computer to read, and there’s a message from his daughter saying, “I really miss you guys, is this being live streamed?” – “Awww, I miss you too!”]

There’s a great Zen story about a guy who was studying Zen, and he came across the saying, “What is your original face before your parents were born?” And after a while, you forget how strange that saying is – but kind of intriguing. And so he thought, Wow, that’s great. He was a scholarly person, and he went to other temples and read all the books he could find, and he couldn’t find an answer. So he went to his teacher and said, “You must tell me!  What is my original face before my parents were born?” and his teacher said, “I could tell you but you would blame me later”. Which is true, because it would be my answer, it’s not going to be any use for you. It’s a journey, not an answer.

In some way he knew that, and it’s kinda great to be desperate like that, because you’re all in. You’ve let go of the shore, and you’re in the little rowboat. So he kind of gives up. He goes away to a temple, the grave of the sixth great ancestor. And he decides he’ll be a gardener.  And that’s a sort of interesting strategy, to surrender but keep the journey going. I remember that for myself, thinking things like that when I was working very hard on a koan, and the koan was still outside of me – so I thought it was something I had to work on, rather than something doing me, and I thought, I’m not very good at this, am I? And plus – barbarians from the Southern Hemisphere…I dunno if it’s possible. Do marsupials have buddha nature? 

We think it’s self-doubt but it’s really a way of clinging to the old life and our old understanding. Your doubt which is honorable is nonetheless holding onto your ‘you’. Your anxiety is doing that, and your indignation, and even your helpless devotion might be doing that. But particularly, you’ll notice the fears, the doubt, the self recrimination. The ‘I’m not doing it right’ is a really strong way of holding onto your ‘you’. It’s sort of weird, it feels somehow honorable, at least I’m being humble, but actually there’s a kind of self-involvement.  When I think, God, only I of all beings, would be outside of the mystery. I’m pretty special actually! Only I don’t have Buddha nature. 

So this guy is working away, he ‘s working in the garden, tending this grave, this shrine. He’s doing this for some years. When you do something like that for a long time, you start to sink down into the vastness. The vastness comes and gets you. He wasn’t aware of working on that koan, but it didn’t go anywhere. He’s got a bamboo broom, and a pebble flies up and hits a big piece of bamboo, and goes ‘tok’. And he just falls apart and wakes up and starts laughing. And he has a poem that says, “One ‘tok’ and I’ve forgotten all I knew.” And what was all he knew? All he knew was, I can’t do this, I don’t have a part in the mystery… this isn’t for me… But – oh well, so much for that belief. This is used as a miscellaneous koan in some Zen traditions – the poem itself became part of the tradition. “One ‘tok” and I’ve forgotten all I knew”.

And another way of putting it here, “The great way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing.” In the Blue Cliff Record, the teacher who did the ‘dog koan was always quoting that. And he was the guy who said, “I don’t depend on clarity, do you have the courage to live like that?” The person who commented on this, another great master, quotes this other dialogue with the ‘tok’ guy. Someone came to him and asked, “What is the way?” and he said, “Dragon murmurings in a dead tree.” What is a person of the way? “There are eyes in the skull.”  

He completely confused the student, who went to another teacher and asked “What is, ‘Dragon murmurings in a dried up tree’?” and he said, “I have joy.” So the dried up tree is just the emptiness —“I have joy!” And that’s a thing to notice, there’s a great joy just in this day that we have together, in the heat and the mosquitos. These are better problems to have. And what are ‘eyes in a skull’? I have consciousness. 

The student then asked another teacher, he got a third opinion. Never hurts, it’s just like surgery, he got another opinion. He said, “Who can hear these dragon murmurings?”, and the teacher said, “There’s no one in the world who isn’t hearing it.” Not who can’t hear it, but who isn’t hearing it. And so then, this is a great question, “What book is dragon murmurings in a dried out tree from?” – and the teacher says, “I don’t know what book it’s from, but everyone who hears it dies.” It’s so great, because it’s like the emptiness appears, and the opinions and your need to know ‘is that the Chicago reference or the American Association of Science reference, what book is it from?’ – dies. That all dies. 

So out of that emptiness, out of that “no-self”—I have joy. And as you know, the joy doesn’t come from somebody saying, “You’ve done a good job today.” You might have, but it’s not that, because it’s deeper—and it’s before that. It’s from before your parents were born. It’s a good day. And before your parents were born, of course—you don’t have to be you. You don’t have to have your difficulties. So in terms of method with a koan, it’s just so nice to keep hanging out with the koan. Don’t let it be lazy, have it do some work for you. Whatever you’re working on, just assume that everything that appears is part of it. It’s with it when you’re sleeping, when you’re walking, it’s with you when you think it’s not with you. That’s the important one, right? You think it’s not with you. How do you know? Who are you to have certainty about such matters? Who do you think you are after all?  

So you start to trust. Like when you’re asleep, you don’t know who you are. You think you’re a butterfly, a rooster. Then when you wake up, you manufacture a ‘you’ again, and you think it’s probably the same ‘you’ that you had, but you don’t even know that… It’s subtly different, your mood is different. What the koan does, it just surrenders to all that. It says don’t try to work it all out, you’ll never work out how much you love this world, and how much it carries you. You can have it now, though. So whatever comes up, just touch the koan. 

What is this? Brightness. It can be darkness, that’s just another form of brightness. You don’t have to always be the prosecuting attorney for the world, and deciding whether it’s loveable today. Seems a kind of mean response to life.  

So you don’t have to work out who you are, or whether it’s right for you to be having a good time in meditation. Aren’t you supposed to be having a bad time? With medicine, there’s a better placebo effect if it tastes bad. Sure, have a bad miserable time in meditation. Suffer a lot. If you enjoy it, why not? So there’s that thing of immense, passionate unfolding happening  in your meditation. At some stage we have to surrender to ‘I’m here, I’m alive’.

When Odysseus had to go to the underworld, to interview Tiresias about the proper route to get home from Circe’s island, after that he saw some of his friends, who were in hell. Achilles was the greatest Greek warrior of all time, the shining son of a goddess – but he dies. And Odysseus said one of those dopey things, “Well, at least you’re king of the dead!” Achilles, who was not known for mincing words said, “I would rather be the servant of an indentured farmer, tilling the field in the hot sun all day, than lord of all the dead.“ Then he turned and walked off into the shadows.  

And so life is life, it’s a great thing. So, whatever your condition is, you can see the “I have joy.” Out of that emptiness, out of what seems unpromising—the dark material, the valley spirit, the enigma, out of the mystery, out of what I don’t understand—it just appears. The joy just appears. You didn’t make it or deserve it, because then it’s just a little achievement skill thing. It does not sustain us, it disappears. You can only have joy by having the universe have joy.  

Let me stop there.