Subverting Words: Impasse and Breakthrough in Zen Koan Practice by Ruben L. F. Habito
Koans are not about doctrinal content, nor are they moral guidelines or ritual performance. Rather, they are to be taken as configurations of words whose entire function is to overturn the conventional use of words and lead a spiritual seeker toward a transformative experience.
The Zen (Ch., chan) literature handed down through centuries of tradition includes collections of koans (Ch., gong an, literally, "public document or record") used in the practice of seated meditation. A koan can consist of a story, verbal exchange, anecdote, short statement, or simple question meant to bring about an intellectual impasse and lead a practitioner to an experiential breakthrough in the spiritual path. (For a masterly treatment of the subject, I recommend the essay by G. Victor Sogen Hori, "Koan and Kensho in the Rinzai Zen Curriculum," in The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism, ed. Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright [[[Oxford University Press]], 2000], pp. 280-315.) Koans are not about doctrinal content, nor are they moral guidelines or ritual performance. Rather, they are to be taken as configurations of words whose entire function is to overturn the conventional use of words and lead a spiritual seeker toward a transformative experience ushered in by subverting the power of the words themselves.
Let us consider a well-known case or story of Bodhidharma meeting with the emperor Wu in imperial audience upon his arrival in China, the opening case of the collection Hekiganroku (Ch., Piyenlu, "Blue Cliff Record").
Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma, "What is the first principle of the holy teaching?" Bodhidharma said, "Vast emptiness, nothing holy." The Emperor asked, "Who is this before me?" Bodhidharma said, "I don't know." The Emperor did not understand. Bodhidharma then crossed the Yangtze River and went on to the kingdom of Wei. Later, the Emperor took up this matter with Duke Chi. Chi said, "Your Majesty, do you know who that was?" The Emperor said, "I don't know."
Chi said, "That was the Great Guanyin, conveying the mind-seal of the Buddha." The Emperor felt regretful, and wanted to send an emissary to invite Bodhidharma to return. Chi said, "Your Majesty, don't say you will send someone to bring him back. Even if everyone in the whole country were to go after him, he would not return." (Translated by Robert Aitken, with adaptations) The emperor Wu is said to have been a devout follower of this religion of Buddhism that came from India and took root and received wide support in China after several centuries of its transplantation. A generous benefactor who lavished financial support for the construction of temples, endowments for monastic communities, and other Buddhist projects, he was apparently asking an earnest question of this reputed sage who came from the western parts. "Tell me please, sir, what is the ultimate teaching of the Buddhist religion?"
In asking the question, the emperor seemed to be conscious of his own status as ruler of this empire that this sage had come to settle in, presumably to spread the holy teaching of Buddhism. An undertone of this exchange was that he was seeking affirmation of his meritorious deeds in supporting this religion, which would earn him a good rebirth in the next life and auspicious blessings in this one. In any case, he had an open mind seeking to learn from a wise teacher, perhaps with the thought that he might provide him with support in the latter's endeavors in spreading his Buddhist teaching.
But Bodhidharma's response takes him aback. "Vast emptiness, nothing holy." What is this? This is one of the subverting words among those found in this koan. Bodhidharma throws the emperor off his guard entirely with such an unusual response. Contrary to what the emperor had been taught to believe, it seems he is being told that all of his good deeds, all of his meritorious acts, are all a "vast emptiness," that there is no such thing as can be called "holy." All the money gone to the temples and the support of the monks in his domain: down the drain. His whole worldview and belief system is challenged, subverted, by this response. He stands at an impasse and now does not know what to do with this "holy" man who was before him in privileged imperial audience.
He is led to question the very identity of this purported sage in speaking to him like this. "Who is this before me?" Who are you, saying such things to me, ruler of this great empire, who has the authority over your fate as long as you are in this land?
Koan practice takes us beyond discourse about historicity or related matters. Whether this is about an actual historical person or not, and whether, if indeed there was a ruler called Emperor Wu of the kingdom of Liang, that ruler had such an encounter with a sage from India named Bodhidharma, is beside the point insofar as koan practice is concerned. The story is presented in the context of the practice of seated meditation (zazen) to one engaging in this practice motivated by nothing less than the resolution of the Great Matter of Life and Death. The practitioner is to put him- or herself in the place of the emperor, asking, "What is the highest principle of the holy teaching?" In other words, the practitioner "merges" with the emperor, asking in earnest, "What is the Matter of Great Importance?" "What is the point of it all?" Ultimately, "Who am I?"
Being confronted by such a question is likened to having one's hair on fire. One cannot find peace unless this fire is quenched. We are not dealing with an abstract philosophical theme calling for a conceptual answer but with an existential question of ultimate import - indeed, a matter of life and death. In being confronted with such a question, one is called to engage it with no less than the totality of one's being, toward its resolution.
Bodhidharma's response goes right to the heart of the matter: "Vast emptiness, nothing holy." This is no academic discourse about "the first principle of the holy teaching." It is a subverting word pointing directly to the Matter of Great Importance.
Vast emptiness, nothing holy. What? Is this telling me that my entire life, my whole purpose of being, is just vast emptiness, that there is nothing holy at all in this life, or in any life, here or hereafter? Impasse upon impasse. Our intellectual quest is stopped in its tracks. We are disappointed. We are dumbfounded. All becomes vast emptiness, no holiness.
The only viable way to take this response of Bodhidharma's is to continue sitting in stillness, paying attention with each breath, in and out, and letting the mind come to a point of stillness and letting it resonate in that stillness. The question looms in the horizon of one's mind: "Who am I?" Bodhidharma's answer to the emperor's second question jumps to the fore. "I don't know."
The koan has the emperor asking, "Who is this before me?" Seated in stillness, paying full attention, the practitioner is now asking: "Who is this that is breathing in and breathing out and paying attention, hearing that sound from outside the window, feeling a pain in the knee, an itch on the back?"
Bodhidharma's "I don't know" resonates in the silence. His response to the emperor's first question reverberates throughout. "Vast emptiness, nothing holy." As these two responses merge into one, a breakthrough can occur, opening up to a boundless horizon, setting everything in the universe in luminous clarity. What is the Matter of Great Importance? Who am I? I don't know! Vast emptiness, nothing holy!
Let us go back to the story. After the departure of Bodhidharma, the emperor is approached by a confidant, Duke Chi. "Your Majesty, did you realize who that person was who just left from our midst?" The emperor gives an honest and forthright answer. "I don't know." This again leads to an impasse. The emperor gives an answer from the heart. It comes from a place of humility, of total openness, of willingness to receive the Dharma. A seeker who is able to say, from the heart, "I don't know," is now ripe for a breakthrough.
The wise Duke Chi tells the emperor, and us, that is no other than the great Compassionate One, Guanyin, who embodies the heart and mind of the Buddha. Here again an important hint is offered. That one who, when asked, "Who is this before me?" replied, "I don't know," and the one being asked about, to whom the emperor (qua the practitioner) refers in saying "I don't know" - that is the same One. Subject and object merge, and the entire universe of vast emptiness, nothing holy merges with I don't know!
Who is Guanyin? The characters for Guanyin mean "hearer of the sounds of the world." Guanyin is one who sees and hears freely and without restriction in space and time across the entire universe, with eyes and ears of compassion (in Sanskrit, Guanyin is Avalokitesvara, meaning literally, "the sovereign who gazes down [at the world])." In Buddhist iconography, Guanyin is portrayed as having eleven faces that enable her to see in all directions and a thousand arms that extend throughout all the regions of the universe, offering a hand in response to every situation of need. To the hungry, food; to the thirsty, drink; to the lonely, companionship; to the grieving, comfort; and so on. To be Guanyin is to embody the dynamic activity of compassion itself in one's very being.
The emperor is told: no matter how hard you try, no matter if everyone in this country went after Guanyin, there is no way she would come within your grasp. The more you try to grasp, all the more will she flee from you. All that is left is vast emptiness, nothing holy!
In proclaiming "no reliance on words or letters," Zen, through centuries of tradition, has developed skillful ways of using words that subvert those very words themselves in a way that may trigger a breakthrough in a practitioner's way of seeing. Koans are ways of using words that overturn the conventional meaning of those words, leading to an impasse, whereby there is no way to move forward as long as one remains caught in the web of meaning or conceptual content of those words. What we have referred to as subverting words are also called turning words in Zen discourse.
In this case we have considered, every word of the emperor, every word of Bodhidharma, as well as the words of Duke Chi, can become a turning word. Overturning conventional meanings of the words used, and having sapped them of their intellectually enchanting power, the koan creates a conceptual impasse. The seeker is stumped, left facing a blank wall of meaninglessness, and with nothing to hold on to. It is this impasse that can thereby usher an earnest seeker into a wide and open horizon that is beyond the boundaries of time and space, the realm of vast emptiness, nothing holy.
The koan could have ended right there, with Bodhidharma's response to the first question, and would have done its work. But it goes a step further and, with grandfatherly kindness, gives an added hint, using Duke Chi as a ploy. "Who is this before me?" The one you seek with all your heart, that is, Guanyin, Hearer of the Sounds of the World. Beyond the impasse, the floodgates open out to the Ocean of Compassion.
Ruben L. F. Habito teaches world religions and spirituality at the Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and serves as Guiding Teacher of the Maria Kannon Zen Center, both in Dallas, Texas. This article was originally published in the October-December 2014 issue of Dharma World.