The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Sunday, November 13, 2011
Religion ... Spirituality ...

Just wanted to share some Zen talk today from Clear Mountain Zendo in Montclair. (Yea, Zen does involve talk, despite all the Zen talk about not talking). Our “study practice circle” today discussed the following koan:

One day, Yanguan called to his assistant, ‘Bring me the rhinoceros fan.’
The assistant said, ‘It is broken.’
Yanguan said, ‘In that case, bring me the rhinoceros.’

So, what’s this all about? OK, first off, Yanguan is some Zen teacher from a time long, long ago in a place far, far away. He has an assistant; that’s not so hard. But what’s with the “rhinoceros fan”? Is it a brand name for something, like “Gorilla Glue”? (It couldn’t be the modern political interpretation, i.e. a supporter of a “Republican In Name Only” — like a Huntsman backer.)

No, actually this is supposed to be some sort of folding hand fan, one of those little things that you wave around to create a slight breeze. I.e., like the ones that women of old used to have with them in the parlor or at the theater during the summer. This one was supposed to be a special gift from a past visitor, and was made of rhino leather and tusk. It doesn’t sound pretty, but perhaps it did the job.

But at the time of the story, it was broke. So Yanguan decides to drop a Zen-zinger on his student, one of those “what the f . . . ” head-scratchers. That’s just what Zen teachers do. News of a broken fan made of rhinoceros parts was the ultimate set-up line for a Zen master.

Fine. But what does it all mean? As always with these Zen things, it’s kind of subtle. But once you get the knack of it, it ain’t so hard. To start with, it’s about life. Here’s another Zen saying about life, perhaps it may help: a man rides a brown donkey with floppy ears, in search of a brown donkey with floppy ears.

What are we searching for in life? A popular answer is “happiness”. What Yanguan and the donkey story are both trying to say is that happiness isn’t so far away; maybe it’s in the same room with you right now. But most of the time, you just can’t see it. You’re usually concerned with other stuff, stuff that isn’t about happiness (quite necessarily, most of the time). Only in those few moments when the vision of it breaks thru for just a short time, are you really happy.

In our discussion today, various people brought up the word “joy”, and described various experiences that brought joy to them. That couldn’t help but make me think about C.S. Lewis and his autobiography, “Surprised by Joy”.

Recall that Lewis was an atheist in his early life, but was eventually won over to belief in God and later to full-fledged Christianity (Anglican style). In a nutshell, his theological conversion was grounded in his experiences and visions of joy, and his ponderings on our desire for joy. The most famous involved his brother’s little ‘toy garden’, i.e. some moss and sticks and stones in an empty biscuit box. Something about that little thing touched the young C.S. very deeply. Later hints of joy in his experiences convinced him that matter and energy weren’t enough, there was something more to reality that set the base for our feelings and our human dignity.

Well, our own Zen group on the whole isn’t seeking belief in God (although some of us are; Zen teachers generally do not discourage faith in God). But we are looking for reasons to keep on with all the Zen stuff (“Zen pressure”, as one sangha member said today); i.e. all the quiet sitting time and listening to seemingly nonsensical stories told by our teachers. We think or hope that it will make our lives better. But back to the rhino fan and the rhino – if the rhinoceros is in the room with us, why does Yanguan order his student to bring it to him? Why doesn’t he just get it himself?

Aside from being lazy or having the usual over-inflated ego of a Zen teacher (this seems to be endemic amongst them), Yanguan and everyone else has trouble seeing the beast -– meaning that something in the world stands between us and happiness. And just what is that? Well, actually, there are a lot of things — two of which are laziness and ego. Those both bring on a lot of unhappiness in life. But despite our human foibles, there’s still something inherent in the universe that makes happiness a struggle. And that is the fact that things break.

The broken rhino fan is a good metaphor for the “entropy factor”, the inherent tragedy in our physical and psychological surroundings. Things don’t last, material stuff wears out, communications are imperfect, understanding is in too short a supply. Kenny Wayne Shepherd has a song that sums it up nicely, called Everything Is Broken. E.g.,

Broken hand on broken ploughs
Broken treaties, broken vows
Broken pipes, broken tools
People bending broken rules
Broken dishes, broken parts
The streets are filled with broken hearts
Broken words never meant to be spoken
Oh yea, everything is broken

But the Zen folk say, keep on searching. Happiness is here, right here in the present moment. But so is all the broken stuff. Zen denies nothing (well, honestly, sometimes it does get a bit “la-de-dah, all is fine” in tone; e.g., the Heart Sutra with its “there is no suffering, no end to suffering” lines that we chant obliviously every week). Cancer exists, war exists, crime exists, violence exists, greed exists, natural disaster exists. But as with any other good system of faith (and YES, Zen is ultimately about FAITH, if not in exactly the same fashion as Christian faith), Zen says that there is a reason to go on, a reason to search amidst the rubble of human foible and natural disorder for hints of the true light.

The True Light of God? No, Zen doesn’t say that. NOT of God? No, didn’t say that either. Just get that rhino in here. And maybe fix the damn fan, while you’re at it.

PS – on the way home, I was listening to the 2006 John Wetton-Geof Downes album Icon, and focused on some lines from one of the songs. I thought they were quite lovely, especially for people like me who are getting older and constantly fighting against things that keep on falling apart as time marches on. To wit:

All our memories are wrote into a song
Time’s not your enemy
As long as you hear it . . .

PPS — another good rhino-related quote from Fr. James (Jeff) Behrens OCSO, from his lovely photo book Portraits of Grace:

We live in the light that is God
And yet we wait for it . . .

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:49 pm      

  1. Jim, What is that saying? Life is what happens while your planning other things. Something like that. It’s a constant complaint of mine….until I realize that whatever it is that “interrupting” my life IS my life; but I manage to forget it so often and complain about what is actually going on–again and again. This idea is similar to your guy seaching for a brown donkey while riding one.

    Interesting that your group is spending a lot of time “studying” (if that’s what one may call your discussions) when Stephen Prothero in GOD IS NOT ONE says that the main problem for Buddhism is suffering, and the solution is awakening. I guess trying to find happiness would lead to doing away with suffering.

    In the end isn’t life a search…for what specifically? The answer seems to be different for each person. The intensely overused word these days is about the “journey” this or that involves. (I recently heard someone talk about the “journey” on the TV program “Dancing with the Stars”; a minor “journey”, I’d say.) The way the word is used nowadays, in the most mundane sense, allows it to lose it’s real meaning. But I do think that in the end life IS about the search, the journey, much more than it’s about the achieving or arriving.

    Throughout my life I’ve spent years and years often trying to achieve a goal. One case: I spent 12 years working toward my second masters degree; just had to have it. Then I got the degree. Almost immediately, I looked around and tho’t: Well, so what! Somehow the process is (at least for me) always more important than the achieving the goal.

    Each person has his/her own way to live life. The individuality, the peculiarity (as in specific to that person), the specificity of the search, and even the goal, is what’s the important thing for each person. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — November 14, 2011 @ 7:14 pm

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