(NB – This talk was originally delivered at a Pacific Zen Institute retreat. It has been lightly edited for readability.)
Tonight I want to talk about a boring koan– “Count the stars in the sky.” There are some passages in life that are like airports. You’re there not because you want to be there but because you’re on your way to somewhere else. They’re antechambers or vestibules. And there are some passages in meditation that seem like that, too. They seem to not have particular value, but somehow you need to get through them to get somewhere else. People have their different lists of what these occasions are, but being in a traffic jam might be one, or waiting in line for the DMV might be another.
I had to renew my driver’s license about six months ago and I called up the DMV, and they said, “Oh yes, you can come in and wait.” I said, “Well what would be a good day?” And they said, “Monday wouldn’t be good.” I said, “How long would the wait be on Monday?” And they said, “If you came in on Monday you might get in on Tuesday if you waited all day.” I said, “Okay, what about Tuesday?” “No, I wouldn’t advise Tuesday.” And I said. “What about Friday, then?” I leapt to the end of the week, and they said, “Friday is bad because it’s before the weekend.” That’s how I found out that it’s a permanent vestibule, the DMV. I was going up to Yosemite and I found that the little town of Mariposa has a whole DMV for nobody. So I went there, no waiting, a nice smile, a photo, done.
Waiting for someone else to do something, waiting for someone else to change their mind, waiting for someone else to be impressed by you, waiting for someone else to die, waiting for someone else to fall in love with you, waiting for someone else to pass sentence on you, there’s a whole list. But they’re all times when you might think this is a time between other times.
Tibetans have an idea about betweens–that, really, that’s all you get in life. Their term for it is bardo. I was originally introduced to a bardo in terms of the meditations on the after-death realm, and the imagination there is that after you die it’s crucial how you handle yourself, because you might make a mistake and be reborn as a kangaroo. But if you don’t make a mistake, you’ll either get a very favorable rebirth and get enlightened, or you’ll just get enlightened right there on the spot, as you die. The idea is that you are in a between realm, because you are between births. But then after you get born, that’s a between realm, too, because it’s between deaths. There’s a bardo of waking, and then there’s a bardo of sleeping and dreaming. There’s a bardo of dying, because it’s between living and death, and then there’s a bardo of after death, and so it goes. It’s always a between.
I noticed that something good about being in plain or boring places in my own practice is that it could give me the appreciation of simplicity, and it wasn’t always a bad thing. For example, there’s a plain, anonymous brown bird, whose name I have managed not to learn, who hops around under my orange tree and makes the whole garden alive. It’s not an interesting bird like a hummingbird, it doesn’t swear at you like hawks do, but the whole garden comes alive with it. So it can be good, those plain moments. They can give you an appreciation for the thusness of things and the way whatever you look at, you’re just there, wherever you think you should be. You’re where you are and that’s that.
I did the koan “Count the stars in the sky,” a long time ago now, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that’s easy,’ and I just did it. The way koans are set up, there are two ways to do it, there’s the orthodox Hakuin response–Hakuin was a medieval Japanese master who set down a whole list of suggested responses that came down the oral tradition, and that’s interesting, because you can test what your own inner feel is. But since we’re reimagining koans in a different culture, what your own inner feel is and where the koan might be leading you is actually more important. It’s like the brown bird in the garden, it makes it alive for you. So anyway, I just sort of walked outside and there were the stars and it was kind of fun. I started counting them and it was sort of impossible, but not in a very interesting way. It was impossible, but not wildly so, to count the stars in the sky, because counting is such a familiar idea, and numbering the stars is something you do.
So I just went into my teacher, and my teacher had said that he hadn’t himself had an enlightenment experience, but he had this recipe that had come down from Hakuin. So he could compare what you said, and decide how you were doing. It seemed so weird it was sort of fine and he got points for candor. And so he compared my response with his recipe and said ‘good oh,’ and gave me the next koan. I just counted the stars for him. But it didn’t change my life, it wasn’t one of those things I wrote home about.
Then when I became a teacher, I noticed that everybody would sort of do the same thing with this koan, that it was mildly boring-for me. People would come through and have a very simple, quick relationship to this koan, and it would pass by them. It was a venerable koan, and I thought, well, it came in the curriculum fairly soon after people’s hearts have started to open, and minds have started to change, and I thought further, well everybody’s floating on the ceiling at that time, and they can’t tell the difference between themselves and the redwood tree because they’re so in the vastness, and so what’s wrong with counting? You know, taxes, interest rates, it’s very concrete. It’s sort of like, stock prices… the whole of civilization is there, the first cuneiform scratches in clay tablets saying who owed how much to whom, an so maybe it’s grounding, and this is my little story about it. I didn’t think much about it the koan. But because we are adapting and feeling our way I revise the curriculum every few years and each every time I would revise the curriculum I’d look at this koan and wonder.
Over the years, my big question was ‘What are koans for?’ I don’t know why, but I was the only person I ever knew in my own training situation who was interested in that question. I’m still interested in it. What do they do, anyway? Which means, what do koans do in terms other than internally, in the koan system? And as far as I can tell, they do two things. One is that they get you in touch with the vast background, they take away everything else, and they do that by making all your stories about who you are and what the world is like irrelevant. All your stories get thrown overboard.
You may think it’s important to be John or Sally or whatever your name is, but the universe doesn’t, and after awhile you don’t, either. It’s more fun to be the universe than to have opinions about being John or Sally. And then you realize, all this stuff I worry about – which between am I in? Am I dying, am I alive, whatever-is all a kind of foreground thing, but I’m resting in the vast background. I am the vast background. The tradition waves at this discovery, speaking of it as emptiness, or your true nature or our original face. And koans are super at uncovering that realm. I notice that when the heart opens in that way, then a generous feel for life comes with it. There’s a kindness, a love, an awareness of the beauty of things, and this kindness is just everywhere. You’re not limited.
So that’s one thing koans are for, and then there’s another, perhaps even weirder, thing that koans do, which is, that when you’re keeping company with a koan, when you’re in the field of a koan, the delusion that for you is attached to that koan will come up and seize you. I notice, for example, if you’re into comparison or envy in any way, I can think of a couple of koans that would bring them up a lot. In one of those examples, a great teacher went up to give a talk and pointed to the blinds. There are two blinds, and two people go and roll them both up exactly the same way, and he says, “One’s right, one’s wrong.” Some people just go insane with that koan. If you’re into being right and wrong, any right and wrong program you’ve got will get hooked. You think, I hate this koan, it’s wrong. Or I hate this koan, I can’t understand it, I’m wrong. Or I hate this whole Zen scene, its completely wrong. Meanwhile the old teacher is just laughing.
Another example is “The great way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing.” If you don’t pick and choose, every part of you that picks and chooses will start quivering, shaking, salivating and thinking, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be picking and choosing, maybe I shouldn’t want things, but I do want things and what wrong with that? Maybe picking something wholeheartedly without thought is not picking and choosing, maybe I’m hopeless at this’ and so on. And you’ll pick and choose about whether or not you pick and choose, and you’ll lie to yourself about how you do it, and all that.
I think from the point of the view of the transformation process of the koan, this struggle is just as valuable as connecting with the great background, the vastness. Because you get to see how you do things. You get to see the delusions of your mind and the interesting ways they work, and from the koan’s point of view, it doesn’t mind, there’s nothing wrong with your delusions, they’re just life. That’s called you. Your delusions are what you call you. Nothing wrong with that. However, if you find that you suffer, then you might want to investigate those delusions and you might want to throw a few of them overboard.
So far so good. To return to this koan about counting the stars: One day I give this guy the koan and he doesn’t know it’s a boring koan. So he goes off with it and it’s foggy so he can’t count the stars and then, so he counts the stars and he finds it’s kind of cool counting stars. You’re just involved in life. So far, so good. And he just keeps going and he’s counting the stars when he’s driving and he’s counting the stars at work during the day, and he just treats it like one of the great koans. He’s counting the stars and then he comes in to me with this wonderful thing. I’d forgotten what koan he was on, which I always do, and he just starts pointing at things:
“That’s it, that’s it!”
“That’s a star,”
and he points at me and he points at the flowers and he points at the table and he points at the redwood tree. “That’s a star and that’s a star and that’s a star!” And he says, “I’m all those things. That’s why I can’t die.” And I said, “Wow!” And then I thought that my thing about the boring koan was the delusion field for me about that koan. And I was excited, thrilled. The koan came alive for me in that way, it was great.
So, to recapitulate, first I thought I found a boring koan, I thought maybe this is good, maybe I should feature it and advertise it: ‘Boring koans offered here.’ But basically I didn’t think about it much, until I realized that while it’s true that it’s good to get used to the plain qualities of your mind, and it’s good to get used to the moments when things are flat because it’s good to get used to every kind of state of mind you might have and not be afraid of it, so you can tolerate and embrace everything that your mind or your heart gives you, while it’s good to be able to do that, it’s nonsense, too, because if it’s really flat and boring, that’s a delusion state. You’re resisting something. And that’s fine, but the vastness is so big that we tend to resist it, because we think in order to be John or Sally, we need to make things boring and to close them down just a little. And if we don’t close things down a bit, we’re frightened. It’s as if we might disappear. It’d be so exciting and we’d be so vast”it’s not that I would be an idiot, well yes I would, but I’m an idiot anyway, so that’s not the problem–the problem is that we are afraid that we couldn’t contain ourselves.
And here’s another thing: In the history of koans, you read about a kind of cowboy culture in which somebody goes off and meditates really hard and ignores his, usually it’s a him, body, and is pushed to the edge of breaking and suddenly breaks through a koan. It can happen that way and it’s not a bad thing when it does, yet it’s not the only way. The way of the cowboy is a way of high drama, it’s also the way of the diva, and if it’s prescribed for everyone it’s authoritarian. People learn in many different ways and the cowboy mode is one of the approaches to an infinitely varied path.
Something else that is present in the old stories and that I find in our universe too, is that endless conversations are going on, and that these conversations are always really about connection and linkage and love and kindness. There are endless ways in which a collaboration is going on right now, and that’s how you make a tradition live in a new culture, and e something beautiful. We learn from each other, we collaborate and hold hands.
I was touched to learn something from a bloke who wasn’t deluded enough to realize that he shouldn’t have got anything out of that koan. Or not that he shouldn’t have got anything, but he should have got a small thing. And instead of getting a small thing, he got this huge thing. So I was thrilled. I can now safely call it a boring koan because I know it isn’t.
Then I started remembering things myself. I remembered a certain stage in my life when counting opened my life. I was living with my grandparents when I was about four. It was spring, there was an old gentleman walking up the street called Mr. Rolands and I waylaid him at his gate. I’d never met him before, and I asked him would he teach me to count, because he was standing by the gate, and it seemed the obvious thing to do. So he did, he taught me to count to one thousand. I remember we were standing by snapdragons and he told me that there were no more numbers after that. Perhaps he was tired of teaching me, but I was quite happy with that answer, it was nice to know. Numbers can be beautiful, numbers can be alive. There’s nothing boring about numbers. “Count the stars in the sky.”
I remember my grandfather would take me outside at night on the black tarmac of the street, and his house was above the public hospital in town, with its black chimney burning the bits that were left over from the healing process, and he had an antique sextant that had been given to him when he was a boy. It was made around 1830 and it was teak and ivory and brass and smoky glass and you could take a sighting from a star and find your latitude, just in case. Very helpful if you’re standing by the public hospital. He thought it was important to know the names of the stars, and he advised me that it would give me a sense of the largeness of life to be close to the stars. In fact, he advised pacing the bridge on night-watch at sea as a way to have a spiritual practice. So in other words, I had plenty of information myself about counting and stars, and had happily missed it.
When a koan starts coming alive for you, it will make parts of your life alive that, previously, were not. It will make parts of you alive that may not have been before. A small thing, an interesting thing. And so then you’ll find that there really isn’t any DMV line, or airport security line where life isn’t happening. We might often think that there is, but that’s our own way of making ourselves small. I think one reason people are so shocked when something goes wrong on an airliner is that we have the fantasy that nothing ever happens on an airliner, really. An airliner is a vessel in which you get from San Francisco to Sydney without anything happening.
But really there isn’t a place in life where nothing happens, and there isn’t a place in life where the beauty and power of the great background doesn’t come through like light, a fountain of light pouring through everything, through your own heart and through everything you see and hear and touch.