You Know Nothing (of Zen) – The Woman at the Inn

Description

You can trust that the thing that you are doing is going to work. It’s underground. There’s a growth happening in the dark. You don’t even have to see it. But, after a while, you start to notice it. It’s kind of a cool thing, actually. You think, “God, even me! Even I have some part in this.”

John: 

Tonight I’d like to show a completely different approach to koans. I’ll do it by reading a story that most of you are familiar with. Yesterday we talked about the “Hua Tou”—the head of the koan—the concise jewel that, in a way, contains the universe. “Does the dog have Buddha nature or not? —No!” “What is the original face before your parents were born?” That sort of thing, that is a little tiny package you can carry around.  

This is a shaggy-dog koan. This is a story about how one of Hakuin’s students—yesterday we talked about how Dahui and Miaozong in a way invented the concise form, and Hakuin carried that on—but he also was a great shaggy-dog story teller. Here’s one of those stories, “The Woman at the Inn”:

[reads]

“There was a woman who kept the pilgrims’ inn at Hara under Mount Fuji. She called on Hakuin and was greatly enlightened. Her name is unknown, and it is not known when she was born or died. She went to hear a talk by Hakuin, who said, 

‘They say there’s a Pure Land of mind only, and a Buddha of light in your own body. Once that Buddha of light appears, mountains, rivers, earth, grass, trees and forests suddenly glow with a great light. To see this, you have to look inside your own heart. Then, what should you be looking for, when you look inside your own heart? If you’re looking for mind only, what kind of special features would it have? If you’re looking for the Buddha of Infinite Light in your own body, how would you recognize it?’ 

When she heard this, the woman said, ‘This isn’t so hard.’ She meditated day and night, while she was awake and during her sleep. One day, as she was washing a pot, she had a sudden breakthrough. She threw the pot aside and rushed to see Hakuin. She said, ‘I’ve met Buddha in my own body, and everything on earth is shining with a great light—it’s wonderful!’  And she danced for joy. ‘Is that so?’ said Hakuin. ‘But what about a pile of shit? Does that also shine with a great light?’ 

The woman ran up and slapped him, and said, ‘You still don’t get it, you old fart!’ [laughter] 

Hakuin roared with laughter.”

So if you have a notebook, just look inside, and write down what part of the story touched you. It’s a story, it’s got a lot of different things. What part stuck to you? See if you can descend into the realm of form, enough to have something, and write it down. The first question is, “What part touched you?” If you can’t find paper, it’s all right. Just do it in your [points to head]. Write it on your heart. And that’s part one. Part two is, “What in your life rises to meet that image, that part of the story? What in your life appears, to meet that part of the story?” Have you got it? Need more time? Got it? Good. 

You’ll notice that when you hear a story, a piece touches you. When you hear a fairy tale, when you hear a myth—and that’s why one of the things we do in our school is that we—we care about stories, that imagination—that stories are sometimes truer than non-stories, and the imagination is part of koan work. And you’ll notice that part of the koan is, that something in your life meets it—it meets something in your life. That’s why we expose you to a variety of different koans, because different koans touch different parts of your life, right? And you notice that. 

One of the things we do, that describes what we do, is that we’re a “mystery school”. A “mystery” just means that you step into something, and you change. You come out different, but not in a way you’d planned—it’s not plumbing school! There’s something mysterious about the process, and the whole universe starts to present things to you, and what it’s doing in this story, is presenting something from your own life. It can be kind of scary, because you think, “Oh my god, I don’t know what I’m going to get, I don’t think I’ll do this exercise.” Like that, that can happen. 

I used to do—I still do, but I used to do a lot of dream work at one period in my life. I noticed, that if I was at a party, and somebody asked me what I did, sometimes I’d say, “Zen. Koans.”  And so, then I had to explain that—and so I’d say, “I work with dreams.” And people would invariably move away from me. [laughter] I thought that was kind of interesting. Good way to get privacy at a party, for an introvert. What I figured was, a dream tells something about you that you don’t necessarily know what it even means. What is it saying about you, your dream?  It’s something that you hadn’t chosen to say. It’s involuntary. Whereas if you do a true-life confession about your sex life, it’s something you’ve chosen to say. In a way, it’s not mysterious, or probably interesting—compared to dreams which are mysterious and strange.  It’s the same as a koan, in that what the koan evokes from you is mysterious, and you don’t consent to it. 

So I’m just showing you a piece of the process. It’s involuntary, and the universe is showing you a piece of the koan. You see this clearly in shaggy-dog story kind of koans. And so that’s why I like the shaggy-dog story sort of koans—as well as the nice concentrated form. And you know, we have to step into something that’s mysterious and unknown to us—because if enlightenment were not in that territory, we’d already be there, right? If it were the same as walking to the corner store, we would have gone there. Walking to the corner store is great— if you still have a corner store—but stepping into mystery is a way of being supported by the universe, being blessed, really, by the universe. And also, you’ve just got to take the gift you get, that comes out of your own heart. So you have to trust your life.

A couple of other things to say about this koan. I like it, too, because she’s somebody who’s just in the world. You know, she’s serving, she’s helping, she’s raising kids, she’s running an inn, she’s having to throw out drunken soldiers, you know—all that stuff. She’s got to make sure that the farmers bring her the food, you know. And so she has a life that’s in the world. And that was one of the attractions to me about the whole notion of Zen, you know, that there’s a monastery, and it’s in your own heart—you carry it with you everywhere. Wherever you are, it can be. And so, there’s not that pure-impure thing in Zen. And that’s a sort of false thing.  

I remember that, when I first taught in Australia, I had a young kid, and the first time I took her, [sic] she was ten months old. And I said, “Well, we’ve got to provide childcare, because I’ve got a kid.” And so, people grumbled, but said, “Well, I guess we’ve got to do that.” And so people tried to keep her completely out of the retreat, so that the retreat was pure, and child care was this other task, and then became a burdensome task—which couldn’t be right. It was sort of interesting who did the childcare. In those days, people were trying to wear black kimono in Australia, in the bush [laughter], like, walking around like this [hands folded at waist] and the kimono snagging on the bush, and somehow it didn’t seem very integrated. I also noticed that when people try to do childcare and hold their meditation, the kid doesn’t like to be with you!

Nakagawa, a poet in our lineage in the Hakuin line, he said, “When you are doing something, just do it, and that’s the koan.” If you’re chopping vegetables, chop vegetables, if you’re walking—if you’re doing childcare, do childcare. If you’re with somebody, be with somebody.  And so that spirit informed Zen, that’s the koan, that full reality of life without protecting yourself.  

And the people who volunteered for it— actually, the first people who volunteered for it were women whose kids were grown up and they wanted another hit of kids, and gay guys who in those days couldn’t have kids—and they all seemed to be making marvelous progress in their practice. And the people who were sitting in the dojo were, “Keep the children away from me!” And when people realized that, everything relaxed. And the kids were running in and out of the dojo. I remember the kids were coming in for sutras and singing, and things like that in the dojo, and they were pretty young. And other people were bringing their kids and sneaking dogs in, and other people were disapproving and at war with them—and it was so funny.  Just temple stuff, retreat stuff.

I was sitting in a leaders meeting, and we were planning the retreat, and I remember seeing my daughter—I didn’t know she was there—and she said, “Well, I want to come in and sit in the meditation hall.” I said, “You’ve got to sit for like at least 25 or 30 minutes, I don’t know. I haven’t seen you sit still for more than, like a minute.” She said, “I can do it,” and I said, “Well, okay,” and I went back to my meeting, and the meeting lasted 40 minutes, and then she said, “See?” (she’d sat in the meditation hall), and I said, “You can sit in the meditation hall whenever you want.” She used the opportunity about twice, but the kids would run into the meditation hall, and that was good, and so that’s the “Woman at the Inn” story, she was one of our teachers. She was washing pots and having her life. And I also like—it’s very poignant for me—that we don’t know when she was born or died, and it was not known what her name was. “What was her name?” That’s the first question—anybody want to say?  

Participant: [inaudible] Jan. Michael.

John: Yeah, her name was Michael. [laughter] Her name was Anna Brown. So who is the woman at the inn? The first time I used this koan—it’s not in the traditional curriculum—the first time I used it, was at a koan seminar with a bunch of roshis there, and it seemed like the hot thing, and so I said, “Well, there’s a question that goes with this koan—what was her name?” And Robert Aitken saying, “Bob!” [laughter]. So, yeah, so she’s kind of a culture heroine, really. It’s kind of good to have people like her. 

And last time we could see this interesting woman Miaozong, who studied with Dahui—who we talked about yesterday, but we only have sketches of her—that she was the collaborator in this great project, and she was the laboratory, she offered herself—she came over from an old school, was an advanced person, left her importance at this other temple and came over to him, because she wanted to get enlightened—and she did. She became one of the initiators of this tradition. But I like the “Woman at the Inn” because we have more of the texture of her life. It’s a good story.

So what else? I’m always thinking of that thing—so we’re always asking, “What kind of features? I don’t know, how do I know I’m on the right track?” And there’s that listening thing—what part of the story does touch me? There’s this fairly simple thing, I do it with the leadership: “What’s your favorite color, quick?” [inaudible responses] And, tomorrow it might be different. But if you look inside, something arises. And that‘s it—that’s the voice of the Buddha, that’s the infinite Buddha of light, the Buddha of infinite light. Because—and you’re starting to listen to what’s in your own heart. And then you say, “Oh, it’s not so hard, not so hard.”

And what else? What features does it have? He trusts her; he pushes on her enlightenment.  He doesn’t think she’s a fragile flower. He thinks she’s robust, so he says, “What about a pile of shit—you think everything’s got a great light? What about this—you can smell it from here!”  And she trusts him, and she goes up and does [slap gesture]. She physically engages him. [laughter] And he thinks it’s great. He just roars with laughter. Oh yes, it’s real. And that is a Hakuin line, “Singing and dancing are the voice of the way—how do you recognize it?” 

And the other thing is, there’s a kind of trust. You know, she just started working with it, hanging out with it.—she just stepped into the story. She said, “I can’t do it other than in the life I have. I’m in the inn; I’m working at the inn.” I’m in meetings all day, whatever I’m doing. And so, I’ll just —like I’ll be in it. I’ll find a way to be in it. You know, there’s no right way to do that; what’s the right way to become one with the koan? You’ll notice it’s not to stand outside, and try to make the koan still and perfect. Because, you know, something happens then —you do need to concentrate your mind. You know if you have an antidote to suffering, you’ll need an antidote to the antidote! So, the Zen thing is, you just cut straight to the chase—straight to the Buddha of infinite light in your own body. But it’s all right. You can trust that the thing that you are doing is going to work. It’s underground. There’s a growth happening in the dark. You don’t even have to see it. But, after a while, you start to notice it. It’s kind of a cool thing, actually. You think, “God, even me! Even I have some part in this.”

So there’s that about her. Yeah. It’s in your body. And it’s also—everywhere. Look at somebody in the room, apart from me, anybody. And look at them—don’t be chicken shit. And if you meet their eyes, don’t shy away. Just look at somebody. It’s kind of a nice thing. And if they look back at you, don’t act like you’re caught out. You’re allowed to enjoy them! And you’ll see that the Buddha of infinite light is there, too. It’s here; it’s there, and they’re beautiful. Everyone becomes beautiful. Look at someone else. Very good! Enough of that!  [laughter] 

Participant: “You old fart.”

You can see why we might like Hakuin! He’s sort of robust. And he’s kind of lunatic—like, he’s incredibly excessive. But we kind of like that, like he never made an hyperbole that he didn’t like. “I’ve had ninety great enlightenment experiences, and countless smaller ones.”  [laughter] Or, “Those people who practice without koans, in the silent illumination tradition, they live in the deepest hells after they die.” It’s kind of fun, you know! “Excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” as William Blake said. 

So, whatever your style will be, it’s going to be okay. Your style can’t be any nuttier than Hakuin’s, that’s for sure! You can tell, like he was teaching, that she learned to trust her own moves, and her own life. You could tell she was trusting… She’d gone to see him, perhaps a few times—we don’t know, really. But when she heard him say this, she said, “This isn’t so hard.” She’d gone to the lecture, to the local temple really. You can tell that he must have taught her to trust her own life—or she already knew to—and she found a teacher who taught her that—and she did—and she became famous. So, what’s her name again? [inaudible responses]. Come on, shout it out!  [inaudible responses] So, as you know, she’s famous!

[reads] 

“There was a woman who kept the pilgrims’ inn at Hara under Mount Fuji. She called on Hakuin and was greatly enlightened. Her name is unknown, and it is not known when she was born or died. She went to hear a talk by Hakuin, who said, 

‘They say there’s a Pure Land of mind only, and a Buddha of light in your own body. Once that Buddha of light appears, mountains, rivers, earth, grass, trees and forests suddenly glow with a great light. To see this, you have to look inside your own heart. Then, what should you be looking for, when you look inside your own heart? If you’re looking for mind only, what kind of special features would it have? If you’re looking for the Buddha of infinite light in your own body, how would you recognize it?’ 

When she heard this, the woman said, ‘This isn’t so hard.’ She meditated day and night, while she was awake and during her sleep. One day, as she was washing a pot, she had a sudden breakthrough. She threw the pot aside and rushed to see Hakuin. She said, ‘I’ve met Buddha in my own body, and everything on earth is shining with a great light—it’s wonderful!’  And she danced for joy. ‘Is that so?’ said Hakuin. ‘But what about a pile of shit? Does that also shine with a great light?’ 

The woman ran up and slapped him, and said, ‘You still don’t get it, you old fart!’ 

Hakuin roared with laughter.”

Link to Video: You Know Nothing of (Zen) – ‘The Woman at the Inn’