We generally value answers more than we do questions but what if the bigger treasure in the pursuit of answers is to be found in the question itself? In this podcast episode I will share my thoughts regarding the koan: Open Your Own Treasure House.
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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 105. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today, I am talking about another zen koan. This one is called open your treasure house. Keep in mind, you don’t need to use what you learned from Buddhism to be a Buddhist and use it to learn to be a better whatever you already are. I’ve been reading through some of my favorite zen koans recently, and I thought it would be fun to occasionally pick some and talk about them in the podcast. Today, I’m going to talk about one of these koans called open your own treasure house.
A quick reminder, the point of a koan comes from zen Buddhism is it’s a riddle or a story that’s meant to make you think. Perhaps you can say meant to make you stop thinking. Sometimes, it’s presented as a riddle that tries to set you free from the habitual reactivity of the mind. Something that would normally make sense suddenly doesn’t make sense. In that chaos or in that unsolvable riddle, there could be a moment of awareness or enlightenment. There are all kinds of koans. There are hundreds of them and you can find books that talk about them and share these stories.
I have one. That’s what I was reading tonight. I thought it would be fun to talk about this specific koan. The story goes that Daiju visited the master Baso in China, and Baso asked, “What do you seek?” “Enlightenment,” replied Daiju. “You have your own treasure house. Why do you search outside?” Baso asked. Daiju asked, “Where’s my treasure house?” Baso answered, “What you are asking is your treasure house.” Daiju was enlightened. Ever after, he urged his friends, “Open your own treasure house and use those treasures.”
That’s it, another quick little story that presents a concept. Then this one, to me, the key phrase here is what you are asking is your treasure house. To me, this is an invitation to compare the difference between the questions that I have and the answers that I seek, and to notice that the treasure that I have inside is the question itself is essentially a greater treasure for me than the answers that I’m seeking because the answers come from the outside. The questions come from the inside. This reminds me somewhat of that phrase that I’ve mentioned on the podcast before that what you are seeking is who is seeking.
To me, again, this is an invitation to go inward and to find in ourselves our own treasure house and then more importantly to open that treasure house, to open up the questions. This has been a fun process for me in my own personal practice to see the treasure of the question as a more valuable treasure than the value I was assigning to the answer that I thought I was looking for. I’ve mentioned this before how my personal journey or my spiritual quest of wanting to understand these big things evolved from prioritizing those answers, what the answers could be, to just seen value in the question itself.
Why do I want to know? Why does the question matter so much to me? The more I’ve come to understand the questions that I have, the less interested I’ve become in the answers. The answer almost doesn’t matter anymore. I don’t even know that I would care to hear an answer because the question itself has given me so much to work with and so much to digest and to understand about myself that I have found in that process of analyzing the question something that seems much more valuable to me than the answer could have been. I think that’s at the heart of what this specific koan is trying to get at.
I like to think of this in terms of the skillful art of asking questions, maybe not asking questions, the skillful art of being introspective about our questions. I feel like it’s common for us in our western way of thinking to be inquisitive and to focus a lot on answers. I mean, in school, we’re taught this from a young age, right? We have questions and then here are answers and here are the formulas that you follow to go from the question to the answer. You get the answer, and it’s like, “Hurray!” You get awards and you get graded over it. All the emphasis is put on the answers. I think that’s great.
I mean, the fact that we can answer difficult questions has led us out of the stone age, so to speak, and into this digital age that we live in, because of our ability to answer difficult questions and to focus a lot of attention on the answers. I do feel like on an inner spiritual trajectory, we’re paying a price for having the mindset that sees the treasure and all of this as the answer rather than seeing the treasure of the question. In my personal experience, again, with these big deep questions about life or questions I have about myself, about others, I have found that the question itself is the treasure.
What I mean by that is when I’m confronted with a scenario where questions arise, it can be at times satisfying and skillful and useful to find those answers, but oftentimes, like I said before, it’s the question itself that really ends up being the treasure at the end of the quest. For example, this morning, my wife went to… Well, I guess I should go back. My wife was taking a trip today to go back to Utah to do some business work with her dance studio auditions that they have. Her plan was to leave for a couple of days and then she’ll be back on Friday this week. I’m home with the kids alone.
In preparation for this trip, we’ve been trying to sort out the steps required for her to leave because I’m a Mexican citizen, but she’s not. She’s an American citizen, and she’s here under a temporary residency visa. Once you obtain that and you’re in the country, while it’s pending, you can’t just leave the country without having a letter that authorizes you to leave the country. She booked her ticket to go back home to the US and then started this process at the immigration office to be able to get her letter of permission to leave the country.
We thought about that ahead of time. We did all the paperwork necessary to do it, and she received the email a couple days ago that said, “It’s been approved. Now, you just have to stop by the immigration office to pick it up because you have to have that letter.” Last night, she’s packing her bags, and around 10:00 or 11:00 PM, as we’re talking about the next morning, it occurs to her that she never went to pick up the letter. She just, as you can imagine, gets really stressed and freaked out about it.
I did too because I thought, “Oh, well, you can’t leave. If you leave, it’s guaranteed that they will close down your immigration case and you have to start all over.” This was a process that she had started back when we were in Utah. She went to the Mexican consulate to start the whole visa process. It’s like, “Oh, this is just going to really complicate things and it’s probably not worth risking this.” We started trying to find solutions to this because she had to wake up early and go straight to the airport, and the immigration office doesn’t open until 9:00, and there was no way to be able to squeeze that in on the way to the airport.
We started looking at other flights. Of course to leave the very next day, when you’re looking at flights, they’re really expensive. The cheapest solution was to just get another flight, but that’s $1,600. It just wasn’t a feasible option. What we were facing at this point was the decision of just canceling the trip and her not going. She was really stressed about that. Her tendency, when she’s stressed about stuff, she goes very hard on herself. She’s talking about how she’s such a failure, and, “Why didn’t I see this coming, and why am I so disorganized?” Just being really harsh on herself.
I was reminding her, “I know what that’s like too. I’ve done that and I didn’t think about it. I missed out on this too. We both dropped the ball.” That’s where it started. Then the solution ended up being that she called the airline and the airline said they could delay, or not delay, they could put her on a later flight. That worked out well. It’s totally a surprised. It was JetBlue, and she’s become a JetBlue fan for life because of this, because they only charged her $75 to get on the later flight and made it super easy. Within minutes, they had emailed her the new itinerary, and she would be on a later flight allowing her to have time in the morning to run to the immigration office to get the letter that she needed.
We wake up this morning. She goes to pick up that letter, and then I’m waiting outside. She finally gets it. That process was stressful for her because she was counting down the minutes. We needed to leave by 9:15 in order to make it to the airport in time. The office opened at nine and she was running out at 9:15. You can imagine how stressed she was while she was up there waiting to do all that. She was already on edge, gets in the car. We start driving. Again, she’s just going off being really upset and down on herself.
At this point, it’s becoming difficult for me because I’m thinking, “I don’t want her to feel so bad.” I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m also stressed about this whole ticket situation and this whole letter situation and everything that we’re dealing with, and now we’re stuck in traffic, and I’m racing to try to get her to the airport on time.” I finally get there just a couple minutes past the deadline of when you’re supposed to be there a couple hours early when you’re flying on an international flight.
I dropped her off and then I turned around, and I started going. This whole time, our youngest is three. She’s sitting in the back. She’s really upset because she hasn’t eaten and she’s crying, and she’s like, “I just want to go eat.” I said, “Okay, we’re going to go. I’m going to pull over, and we’ll find something.” Then doing all this as I get back on the highway and my wife calls me and she says, “My passport’s not here.” At that point, I just immediately pulled over, and I was like, “Are you serious?” We start looking around the backseat, and no, it’s not there.
Then I looked in the front seat and there it is on the floor. It slipped out of her backpack where she had all of her documents. When she opened the backpack to verify she had all the documents, the backpack had tipped over or something and the passport fell out. Suddenly, I’m racing back to the airport to give her the passport. Long story short, she made the flight. It was stressful, but it all worked out. By the end of that whole ordeal on the drive back as my daughter’s just really upset and crying and really hungry, and I was feeling flustered and just feeling all these emotions arise, and that was a moment where I had this opportunity to exercise the skillful art of analyzing these questions that arise in me.
Why do I feel this way? In that moment, it occurred to me how much more skillful it was that I’m asking myself, “Why does this bother me?” It all worked out. It may not have worked out, and had it not worked out, then the trip would have not happened. I mean, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but as I’m sitting there thinking about this, I thought that’s cool that the habitual question that arises now is more along the lines of, “Why am I feeling this way?” Instead of what could have been the older version of me in the past that would have been thinking, “How can I get rid of this feeling?”
Because I’m feeling really uncomfortable with circumstances at the moment, and I would have been thinking, “How can I get rid of this so I can distract her? I can do this. I can say something rude like, ‘Oh, you need to get your stuff together.'” I don’t know, anything that would have made me think how do I get rid of the feeling would have been different than the train of thought that arose out of the question of, “Why am I feeling this way? Why does this bother me, and the introspection that took place on the drive home with regards to the feeling that arose in me?
That was, for me, a fun moment to recognize the treasure, the opening your own treasure house and saying, “This is the deal. This is what we just went through. This is how I’m feeling. It’s an unpleasant feeling,” and then to sit with that and say, “Why am I feeling this?” For me, this moment was actually a very powerful moment because I was able to get several layers deeper. It’s not about the passport. No, it’s not about the letter. It’s not about the what is it really about? I got to something deeper, which was in this specific case, it was recognizing that the discomfort I’m feeling with this whole situation as it’s unfolding.
It’s sad for me to see my wife be so harsh on herself. She texted me once she got through security and she was apologizing profusely and said something along the lines of, “I always mess up like this and make dumb decisions that cause stress, and it makes me hate myself inside and out.” That really stood out to me thinking that, “Wow, how could you hate yourself over something simple that anybody could have done?” My response was, “Your only flaw is thinking that you have a flaw or thinking that you’re flawed.”
That’s what I said. Your only flaw is that you think your flawed, and reminded her just of other instances in our lives where chaos ensued after a mistake or a poor decision. It reminded me of how I felt on our wedding day. We went to get married, and I forgot to bring the marriage license. We were getting married in a religious ceremony where you have to present the marriage license. It was scheduled. We had a room set apart. Everybody was there waiting. The wedding was suddenly on hold because I forgot. I didn’t realize I had to have the marriage license.
Everything got delayed, but at the end, it all worked out, but I’ll never forget how I felt that day. It’s like, “Oh, welcome to day one of marriage with the most stressful events up until that moment.” I reminded my wife of that. What I’m trying to get at with this, again, pointing it all back to this koan, open your own treasure house. To me, that’s a direct invitation to compare and to find the treasure that we assign, the value that we assign to the questions that we have versus the answers that we seek, because no doubt, you have your own sets of questions and you have your own sets of answers that you’re looking for.
How do you weigh those on the scale? Are the answers more important to you than the questions? If so, what would happen if you tried to focus a little bit of that attention and to see some of the value of the question? This is where Buddhism kicks in again where the non-duality aspect of this like, “How could the answer be so important and the question not be so important when you cannot have the answer without the question?” You can’t have one without the other. I love that way of thinking that just puts things… the way of oneness that puts things into perspective, that, “Well, the question is as important as the answer.”
What happens when the question becomes your treasure? Hopefully as I continue to practice that in my own life and the different aspects of life where questions arise, I hope that just as it did with the big existential questions, suddenly, the question became, the question is more valuable to me than the answer. I’m not even interested in the answer because the question tells me more about me, which is the inside than the answer could ever tell me considering the answer’s always on the outside, something from the outside. That’s what I wanted to share with you with this specific koan, open your own treasure house.
Now, I thought it would be fun to end this podcast with one more koan, but instead of deconstructing it and telling you my opinion of what that koan means to me, this time, I’m just going to share the koan directly as it is and not say anything about it, and let you stew over it for the next week and see what it means to you. I probably won’t mention it in a future podcast. It’ll just be a koan. Here it is. It’s called no water, no moon. When the nun Chiyono studied zen under Bukko, she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time.
At last, one moonlit night, she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment, Chiyono was set free. In commemoration, she wrote a poem. The poem says, “In this way and that I tried to save the old pail. Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break until at last the bottom fell out. No more water in the pail. No more moon in the water.” That is the poem. That is the koan, now water, no moon. Have fun with that one this week.
Thank you for taking the time to listen to this podcast episode. I enjoy being able to share my thoughts and ideas with you guys. I really appreciate you being a part of this fun journey with me. If you want to learn more about Buddhism and mindfulness, you can always check out my books. I have them listed on noahrasheta.com. As always, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, feel free to share it with others. Write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, and if you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, feel free to visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the donate button.
That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. May you open your own treasure house and see the value of the questions. Until next time.