In this podcast episode, I discuss three more Zen Koans: Joshu’s Zen, The Gates of Paradise, and Learning to be Silent. I will share what these koans mean to me and how I interpret the lessons of these koans in my own day-to-day life.
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Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 107. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. And today I’m going to share a few words more Zen koans and talk about what they mean for me. As always, keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use it to learn to be a better whatever you already are.
Noah Rasheta: Earlier this week, I had an experience with one of our neighbors. We live in Mexico now, and we live in a gated community. And inside of our little complex of homes, there are about 30 homes here. We’re lucky that there are a lot of kids. They ride their bikes, and it’s been great for us to have our kids outside playing, and making friends, and learning Spanish through playing and interacting with the other kids.
Noah Rasheta: Well, one of the kids was riding by on his bicycle, and his steering wheel or the handlebars were loose. So I asked him if he wanted me to adjust them or to tighten them, and he said, “Yes, I would love that.” So he came over, and there in our little a garage kind of area I took out my tools. I have a lot of tools that I brought down with me that are tools that I use specifically for maintaining my paramotor. So I took out some of the tools from this little bag. I adjusted his steering wheel. Or I’m sorry, his handlebars. He said, “Thank you very much.” And then over the course of the next 10 to 15 minutes, he kept coming back and asking me to adjust the pegs, to tighten the chain, to adjust the brakes, to tweak little things on his bike. And I kept adjusting everything for him. I adjusted the height of the seat.
Noah Rasheta: So when all of this was done and his bike was just the way he wanted it, he said, “Thank you so much.” He said, “I’ve never met someone who is such an expert mechanic.” I laughed, and I said, “Oh, I’m not an expert mechanic, but I can fix bikes.” And that was the end of that. He left and was riding his bike, and I started thinking how funny that he would consider me an expert mechanic. Because one of the things I’ve always been known for in my circle of friends is the opposite, not being mechanically inclined, and I have to get help from people to do anything that’s mechanical. Now, if it’s on a computer, yeah, I’m the one that they go to. IT and tech stuff, that’s something that I’m good at. But when it’s a mechanical or just general repairs around the house, that’s not me. It’s never been me.
Noah Rasheta: Now, I must say that that’s changed a lot since I got into paramotoring because I have become more mechanically inclined to maintain and tinker with the motor that I use to fly. That’s why I even have the tools to be able to help Misael with his bicycle. But what I thought was funny about that whole interaction, I thought, “The rest of his life he’ll have this memory of a neighbor, this American guy who was an expert mechanic who fixed my bike.” There’s a new image in this kid’s head of someone that’s not, in a lot of ways, is not a real … It’s not an accurate image. It made me think of interactions that I’ve had in my life and my youth with people, somebody, a one-time interaction, or limited interactions with someone, and boom. I established in that moment an image of who that person was, or something that they were known for, or something that they were good at, or maybe something that they were not good at, and that’s it. That’s the accurate picture in my head of that person.
Noah Rasheta: Then, I started thinking, “How many of those pictures were entirely off the mark?” And I’m thinking not just the images, the inaccurate images of someone being better than they are at something, but also the reverse, somebody who maybe one or two limited interactions and I thought, “Oh, that’s a really mean person,” or, “That guy is awful,” or rude or whatever it is. Had I known or had more interactions to realize how off my assessment or my image was of that person. I’m sure that happens to us all the time, whether it’s images or assessments that we’re making of other people or of situations in life or backwards, that other people are making of us. I imagine how many people out there have such an erroneous mental picture of who I am because they do it based off of limited interactions.
Noah Rasheta: The podcast is a good example, right? Anyone who has interactions with me through the podcast only knows that side of me, hasn’t seen me in other aspects of my life and how I am. I thought about this when we did our first … No, our second trip to Uganda. One of the participants of the trip that we did in Africa mentioned, once we were there in person, how different it was to see me in person and to hear my sense of humor. I have a very dry, I think is the word, a dry sense of humor. But I very much have a sense of humor. I’m always witty about things. That was a side that doesn’t come out a lot in the podcast because it doesn’t lend itself to that. But interacting in person, it was like, “Wow! I didn’t know this about you. It’s funny to see the side of you.”
Noah Rasheta: That’s how we all are, right? We all have certain sides about us that we present in different contexts, how we are at school, how we are at work, somebody who only knows you at work and then later sees you at the park, I don’t know, in a family setting, or the you that you are when things are going well, and the you that you are when you’re scared and you’re panicked. I experienced that first time with a cousin. I know my cousins really well. We grew up together. This particular cousin is terrified of, well, everything. But, we were out riding the banana that they pull you behind on a boat when you go to the beach. We were on one of those, and she’s just deathly afraid of sharks. It was her and her husband, and then my brother, my twin brother and I, and probably a few more people. I can’t remember who else was there.
Noah Rasheta: But, we were riding the banana. They ride those in a way where at some point they try to make you flip, and that’s exactly what happened out in the ocean. We rocked the banana, and the banana fell or tipped to the side. Then, we were in the water. And man, there was this other side of her that I had never seen before, and I essentially grew up with her. And here we are as adults, and she is just … It’s all out of fear, too. In her moment of fear was just screaming at us, and screaming at her husband, and, “This is all your fault.” It was very interesting. It was comical. We were laughing and trying to not laugh, because we could tell she was deathly afraid that a shark was going to come get her. But anyway, what I’m getting at is the person that she was under extreme fear is absolutely not the person that she is when she’s not in fear. I don’t think it’s fair to paint one picture of someone and say, “Oh, that’s who they are.” It’s like, “Well, that’s who they are in what context?”
Noah Rasheta: So with that as the background of my experience this week of someone calling me an expert mechanic, which I thought was kind of comical, I wanted to share a few more Zen koans. One of the ones I want to share is called Joshu’s Zen. This is how it goes.
Noah Rasheta: Joshu began the study of Zen when he was 60 years old and continued until he was 80 when he realized Zen. He taught from the age of 80 until he was 120. A student once asked him, “If I haven’t anything in my mind, what shall I do?” Joshu replied, “Throw it out.” But if I haven’t anything, how can I throw it out?” continued the questioner. “Well,” said, Joshu, “then carry it out.”
Noah Rasheta: And that’s it. That’s the end of that koan. That’s one that I enjoy. It alludes to what we talk about with the koan of empty your tea cup, the idea of getting rid of the concepts, and the beliefs, and the ideas in our mind that may be blinding us or preventing us from seeing reality a little bit more clearly. And in this case, what I like about Joshu’s response where he’s saying, “Throw it out,” and someone who’s saying, “Well, if there’s nothing there in the first place, how do I throw it out?” he says, “Oh, well, in that case, carry it out,” to me, it’s two important messages there. One, throwing something out is a little bit more aggressive than kindly carrying it out. And to me, that’s an invitation of saying, “Well, if I can’t get rid of a concept that’s in my mind, how can I carry it out rather than aggressively throw it out?” Sometimes that may mean study the topic more, read more, understand it more. Then, my view starts to shift because I carry it out by opening up in a kinder way than being aggressive. That’s one way that I sometimes interpret it.
Noah Rasheta: But the other way that I interpret this koan is that he doesn’t give up the central message of getting rid of it. To me, that is important to understand. Because the person who’s saying, “Well, if I don’t have anything in my mind, what shall I do?” what Joshu is trying to tell him is you do have something in your mind. That if I don’t have anything in my mind, that is something in your mind. So again, it’s the same answer in different words as a way of telling this question or that but you do have something in your mind. As long as you’re asking that question, then you have that idea in your mind.
Noah Rasheta: Or like Thich Nhat Hanh’s talked about with the concept of nothing, right? I have nothing in my mind. Well, he would say, “Well, is nothing something?” And if we analyze that, we understand that yes. Nothing is something. To have the idea in my head of what nothing is is something. And that is the something that you can throw out or you can carry it out.
Noah Rasheta: So for me, this koan is a constant invitation to carry out whatever thought I have in my head, idea or belief I have in my mind, even if that is the idea of nothingness. I think that’s a really important one when we’re talking about Buddhist concepts because there are big concepts in Buddhism like the idea of emptiness or like the idea nothingness. The moment I have an idea of what nothingness is, I’ve just given it another idea. So I’m constantly battling with the emptying of the mind versus the thought of emptying the mind because those are different things. And the thought of emptying the mind is still a thought, and there we are stuck in this situation that is kind of a spiral.
Noah Rasheta: So you may be listening thinking, “Oh, well then what is the point?’ And the answer is, well, the same thing as Joshu said, throw it out. And if you really honestly think, well, but there’s nothing to throw out, then take a second answer. Then carry it out, and I’ll leave you with that. That’s the end of that koan. That’s a fun one to work with.
Noah Rasheta: I thought that related in some ways to what I was sharing this week with the interaction I had with our neighbor, Misael, who thought I am a mechanical expert. For me to throw things out when I’m thinking of it in that context, I like to imagine what are the views or the beliefs that I have of everyone around me. Perhaps more importantly, the ones that are closer to me, too, not just the neighbor that I occasionally interact with. I mean, I don’t know anything about that person based on a couple of interactions. So I definitely want to throw out any mental picture that I may have there.
Noah Rasheta: But, we do this with our closest people, right? Our spouse, our kids, our parents, our siblings. We have this idea, oh, this is how they are. And Joshu would say, “Throw it out. And if you can’t throw it out, carry it out.” To me, that’s an invitation to stay open, to not get caught up in attaching to the story that I have of who this person is, or how this situation is, or how life is.
Noah Rasheta: I’m going to move on to the next koan. This one is called The Gates of Paradise. I know that I have talked about this one in previous podcasts before, but it’s been a while so I’m going to share it again. The Gates of Paradise.
Noah Rasheta: A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin and asked, “Is there really a paradise and a hell?” “Who are you?” inquired Hakuin. “I’m a samurai,” the warrior replied. “You a soldier?” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looked like that of a beggar.” Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued. “Ooh, so you have a sword. Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.” As Nobushige drew his sword, Hakuin remarked, “Here, open the gates of hell.” At these words, the samurai perceived the masters discipline, sheathed his sword, and bowed. “Here, open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.
Noah Rasheta: This is a koan that I’ve always enjoyed because this gets at the heart of one of those Buddhist concepts that I think really speaks to me and really gets at something important, which is the concept of heaven and hell, of paradise being something that is accessible and available in the here and now. That’s exactly what’s happening in this koan. You have Hakuin, who’s the Zen master there, and then you have Nobushige, who’s the samurai soldier who appears, and he’s wanting to learn about these concepts of paradise and hell or heaven and hell.
Noah Rasheta: The Zen master does this incredible job of teaching them in that moment by questioning him back or ridiculing him and invoking in him this strong sense of being angered, and upset, and helping him realize that right there, those are the gates of hell. There you are. You’re in it right now. Then when he realizes that, flips it on him, because now he’s feeling gratitude for having learned. And he’s saying, “That sense of gratitude, that bowing like everything that you’re doing for how you perceive me now, boom, those are the gates of paradise,” and really helping them to understand that they’re both accessible in the here and now. I really like that.
Noah Rasheta: That is a very powerful koan to think about and to recognize that sometimes we go through life, and we’re trying to arrive at this state of heaven or this state of hell. Some people believe that it’s something that you ultimately arrive at, right? Like if you were good enough in life, you go to one. If you’re not good enough in life, you go to the other. But I love how Buddhism is just trying to say, “Well, wait a second. Whether or not that is the case, we can actually experience the states right now in the present moment. And perhaps that should concern us more.” Because rather than worrying about where we’re going to go, we should ask, “Well, where am I now? Am I in heaven, in paradise or am I in hell? And am I there from my own doing, my own thoughts, and actions, and deeds?”
Noah Rasheta: I’m sure all of you listening to this can relate that at some point in your life and some stages of your life you have felt like you are in there at the gates of hell, right? Experiencing regret, or notions of anger, or frustration, or whatever it is, something so unpleasant that you may as well be in hell because of how unpleasant the current moment is. And you’ve probably experienced the flip side, too, moments where nothing else matters. Everything could be going wrong, but the way I’m feeling in this moment is so pleasant that this may as well be heaven. I know I’ve experienced both of those at different stages of my life. And I love how Buddhism is inviting me to assess these through the lens of the present moment, through the lens of here and now. Where am I? Which of these gates am I experiencing?
Noah Rasheta: And more importantly, the deeper analysis there would be why. Nobushige could say, “Well, why did that offend me so much when you started questioning my ability to be a samurai? Now, not only am I learning about the gates of hell for me, but I’m learning the causes of arriving at the gates of hell. And that’s probably an even deeper lesson than I would hope.” I like to imagine that Nobushige went home and he thought about that and started doing more work to understand the causes of the gates of hell and the causes of the gates of paradise for him particularly in his own life. So that is the second koan I wanted to share, The Gates of Paradise.
Noah Rasheta: Now I’m going to jump to the third one, which is called Learning to Be Silent. That is the title of this podcast episode today, Learning to Be Silent. This is a fun one. It kind of made me laugh out loud, but I want to discuss it a little bit. Learning to Be Silent.
Noah Rasheta: The pupils of the Tendai school used to study meditation before Zen entered Japan. Four of them who were intimate friends promised one another to observe seven days of silence. On the first day, all were silent. Their meditation had begun auspiciously. But when the night came and the oil lamps were growing dim, one of the pupils could not help exclaiming to a servant, “Fix those lamps!” The second pupil was surprised to hear the first one talk. “We’re not supposed to say a word,” he remarked. “You two are stupid. Why did you talk?” asked the third. “I’m the only one who has not talked,” concluded the fourth.
Noah Rasheta: I love that because in that one moment you have the spiraling of the end of silence, right? The first one who breaks the silence, the second one who rebukes the first one for having spoken, the third one who says both of the ones who have spoken are idiots, and then there’s the fourth one who needs to make sure. It’s so important for this fourth one to make sure that they that he wasn’t the one who talked, but in that act of wanting them to know breaks the silence as well.
Noah Rasheta: What I like about this one, aside from it being pretty comical, is looking at the archetypes of the people that we’re talking about here. The first one sees a situation. In this case, the lamps needed to be fixed because they were going out. And despite the vow of being silent, it’s so important to fix this scenario here that I’m going to have to break my silence to say something over something that arguably shouldn’t have mattered. So what if the lights go out, right? I decided I’m going to sit here and be quiet. I didn’t decide I’m going to sit here and be quiet only if the light stay on. So that’s the first student who, sorry, I cannot stay silent about this thing that’s bothering me, so, boom, I broke my vow of silence. That’s one personality.
Noah Rasheta: Then, you have the student number two. And try to see yourself in these students or people that you know in these personalities. Pupil number two is the one who when they hear somebody speaking, they’re going to make sure that they can rebuke them. You’re not supposed to do that. Well, in the act of making sure that you know that I know that you’re not supposed to do that, now I just broke the rule. But it’s that important for me to tell you that you’re not supposed to do that. We all have been that probably at one point or another or we for sure know someone who’s been that. We’ve all been pupil one at some point, and we’ve probably all been pupil two at some point.
Noah Rasheta: And then you’ve got pupil three. Pupil three is so smart, right? I mentioned this in a previous podcast episode with the Facebook personalities. This is the smart aleck, erudite person who’s so smart. Now pupil three’s got to come out and make sure pupil one and two know how dumb they are for what they did. Now sure, I could stay there silently and just be like, “You know what? These guys are dumb, but I’m not going to say anything.” No, not when pupil three kicks in. I’ve got to make sure that you know that I know how dumb you are. And in that process of doing so, there goes the silence. So that’s pupil number three.
Noah Rasheta: And then of course pupil number four. This is kind of the holier than thou one, right? Pupil four was doing it all perfect. He could’ve just sat there. He or she could have just sat there quietly and watched all of this chaos and maybe just kind of chuckled inside and maintained on the path of silence. But no, pupil four has got to make sure that pupils one, two, and three know that pupil four was not the one who was going to talk. And in the process of saying, “I’m the only one who has not talked,” breaks the silence.
Noah Rasheta: I love that. I love deconstructing some of these personalities that are implied in pupils one, two, three, and four and asking myself, “When and how often am I one of those four?” The example given here is silence, learning to be silenced. But I think you can get this in other things. If [inaudible 00:22:20] said, “I’m going to be kind.” “Oh, okay. Yeah, we all agree. I’m going to be kind.” And there goes the first person who does something that’s not very kind, and there goes the second person who rebukes the unkind person for not being kind but does it in an unkind way. And then we spiral on. Pupil number three is going to jump in and call the first two morons for not being kind. Then you’ve got the self-righteous number four who’s going to unkindly tell everyone how kind they are, right?
Noah Rasheta: That’s a fun one to work with, a fun one to think about, learning to be silent. I may talk about another Buddhist concept called noble silence, but I think I’ll leave that for another podcast episode to build off of this one a little bit. But, those are the three that I wanted to share with you today. The names of those three koans, the first one is called Joshu’s Zen. Joshu is the old man who studied Zen. Then, you have The Gates of Paradise. And this third one I just shared is called Learning to Be Silent. You can probably google those if you want to find the sources. Or if you happen to have a book of koans, I’m sure you’ll find them in there because these are all common ones.
Noah Rasheta: I’ll share more in a future episode. It’s been fun exploring these koans. And as I go through my koan book, I’ve highlighted all the ones that I would like to bring up in the podcast. I have a few more I’m going to share before I’m done with this stretch of koan series that I’ve been sharing. So again, thank you for taking the time to listen, for being a part of this journey with me. If you enjoyed the podcast episode, feel free to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. And if you want to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com. Click the donate button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you. Until next time.