Walls Falling Down at Midnight
Rostov felt both frightened and elated to be riding alone with three hussars into that mysterious and dangerous misty distance, where no one had been before him. Bagration shouted to him from above not to go beyond the brook, but Rostov pretended not hear his words, and, without stopping, rode further and further on, constantly making mistakes, taking bushes for trees and hollows for people, and constantly explaining his mistakes to himself.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (Trans. Pevear & Volokhonsky) p.268
When I was in grade school and the teacher asked a question, I would wave my hand and say, “I know! I know!” Later I learned to hide my eagerness, but whenever a guest arrives, whether it’s a beautiful stranger at the door or a phone call late at night, my mind still goes into action without asking for permission. It begins to rank, jostle, acquire, flee, assess, call up memories and form plans. The mind also gives reviews of itself, checking how it is doing with the stranger or the late night phone calls, or swerving away to the argument earlier in the day at the office. We like our minds to give us positive reviews and to feel good about us, to tell us that we are important and right and on top of our game. For this reason, we spend a lot of time justifying our apparent errors and explaining them away.
Meditation goes the other way. It doesn’t necessarily stop the assessments and justifications from arising, it undermines them if they do. They come to seem ghostly and evanescent. At some stage we stop worrying about our attitude to our experience. The mind offers opinions and reviews about us but we are not compelled to subscribe to them. And if we do subscribe to them, we don’t have to subscribe to that. Eventually the crowding in the mind is reduced too—less jostling and assessing goes on, though the crucial thing is not the crowding in the mind but the identification with the thoughts and feelings.
Some koans show you the way the assessments rise and how the mind makes a world of them and tries to live there, explaining its mistakes to itself, and trying to fit the world to its mistakes.
This week’s koan shows the process of inventing suffering and it gives an image of what it might be like when you don’t live in the world of jostling and painful assessments.
This week’s koan:
The teacher said to the gathering, “If you get it the first time you hear it, you will teach the buddhas and ancestors. If you get it the second time you hear it, you will teach gods and humans. If you don’t get it till the third time you hear it, you won’t even be able to save yourself.”
A student asked, “When did you get it?”
The teacher said, “The moon sets at midnight, I walk alone through the town.”
This koan shows the mind scrambling around to think well of itself. How quickly we learn is something we have little control over but everyone wants to be in the first two categories. We explain ourselves to ourselves, ‘I am doing OK and my world makes sense.’ To this end we might even shift around the data. ‘Surely I got it the second time I heard it?’ is a thought that might appear. Once upon a time, when I was fishing for something middle sized and delicious out on the Barrier Reef, I caught a tiger shark by mistake, and I catch that shark again from time to time in memory and have seen it trying to get bigger in my mind.
I’ve noticed that people’s enlightenment experiences also get bigger with the telling. Editing and adjusting is everywhere.
Some people have an aversion to President Obama. But he is the president and thought to deserve respect. Some of these people address their discomfort by telling a story that he was born in Kenya and that’s why he shouldn’t be president.
The first thing this koan does is to show you which prisons your mind habitually walks into. It might do this by evoking them, so that you feel what it’s like to live in them. If that happens, you might think that the koan isn’t working very well because your meditation has become hard to bear, but from another point of view the koan is giving the flavor of your life with all your striving and explaining. And so it’s working very well.
It doesn’t matter what thought the mind provides. If I take up residence in any thought world, I have fallen among ghosts, and in the end I will suffer—trying to explain how I really do understand when I don’t, trying to explain that the president was born in Africa. When we suffer we are barking up the wrong tree, trying to fix the wrong problem. For us at that moment of course the tree we are barking up is the only tree there is and so we are stuck, and can’t stop being unhappy unless there is some change in the way we deal with our minds.
The koan shows an enormous life changing possibility, which is that we might be making fine decisions and the universe might be carrying us along very nicely if we are not jostling and worrying and striving. Enlightenment is here now so it doesn’t matter what size it was, it doesn’t matter when you get it, this guy really is the president and he really is black and so on. The stories fall away, the moon sets at midnight, and I walk alone through the town.
Here are two stories that bear on this possibility.
A woman became godmother to eight kids from her roughish neighborhood. They turned out to have talents, became gymnasts and got scholarships, but despite her heroic efforts they fell into gangs and pregnancies and she wondered if she could have done more. Then she told this story about her own mom who was a toy designer:
One day when I was a kid my mother was stuffing toys on the porch and saw that a bird was starting to use the bits of stuffing in her nest. So my mom started putting all the most beautiful and colorful and sparkly threads she could find outside, on the porch, draped over the fence. And the bird of course used them too, and the nest was amazing.
That’s an answer to the impossible questions about parenting. The way she remembered the thread and the bird all these years later, how she told about it, how she offers things, how we all offer things to our kids. That is walking in the beautiful dark.
Here is another story along the same lines—that a quiet movement in darkness might be effective:
In one of my early experiences at retreat, I had been given an ‘easy’ koan, one in a series of miscellaneous koans given in our school to follow-up and help the student to integrate an opening. But it was not easy for me! Every time I went to the teacher to demonstrate the koan he’d say, “That’s not it,” or something like that. This went on for a couple of days, and I was quite frustrated. Eventually, I got caught up in a great fantasy story about the koan and a way to demonstrate it that used my whole body and all my belongings. I carried my cushions and shoes and sweater and jacket down to the teacher’s interview room and made a big production of throwing them all into the room and making a mountain out of them and then sitting on them. I was convinced, absolutely convinced, that I had demonstrated the koan. My teacher looked at me and shook his head and asked, “What are you doing?” I told him my little story about the koan and he said, “That’s not it.” I was completely incredulous! “Yes, it is,” I said. “No it’s not,” he said. “Yes, it is,” I said. “No, it’s not,” he said. Suddenly, all my conviction was gone. I sat there dumbfounded and disoriented, then began to open up to just not knowing what was going on. My teacher then asked me a leading question, and the gesture in response came naturally before thinking. He said softly, “That’s it.” It was very strange. Both because the question and response were so simple and I had been looking for something ‘profound,’ and because I had no awareness of doing it or no identification with doing it—the doing just happened. So, I continued to sit there for awhile and I can’t describe what happened very well. But I suppose it could be described as realizing what the non-thinking mind is, neither thinking nor not-thinking. This wasn’t a blow-out kensho experience. Very subtle and quiet. I hadn’t really thought about this much since it happened a few years ago. For me, it illustrates that opening where the teacher appears when conviction falls away. It’s like call and response in a song or a chant—there is no separation, just the natural rhythm and flow where one thing follows another, back and forth like that.
Sometimes when I have a problem with someone and I worry at it, it lightens a bit but it doesn’t really change. Then I forget what I know and it’s not as if I forgave the person, it’s more that the problem doesn’t exist any more and, even more strange, that there never was a problem. There is a velvety richness to walking alone in the warm dark. Sitting down to meditate is like that. I step into a darkness that looks after me.
Questions just in case:
- What was it like sitting with the koan? Which part of it did you mind rest on or attach to? What feelings did the koan generate in you?
- What in your life would you like to get the first time around? Are there things that you despair of ever getting or understanding? Are you quick or slow? What affect does this have on your life?
- In what areas do you assess yourself or others? When do you not assess?
- What is evoked for you by “I walk alone through the town”? What do you do that has that feeling?
The koan is from The Book of Serenity Case 76, trans. Joan Sutherland and John Tarrant. The teacher is Shoushan.