BOS. 25 Yanguan’s Rhinoceros Fan

Bos. Koan 25 from the Book of Serenity

One day Yanguan called to his attendant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”
The attendant said, “The fan is broken.”
Yanguan said, “If the fan is broken, then bring me back the rhinoceros!”
The attendant had no reply.

Zifu drew a circle and wrote the word ‘rhino’ inside it.

This is one of my favorite instructions for Zen. At first read, the koans are somewhat obscure but as you work with them, and as they get unpacked by a teacher, I find that they become images of instructions stronger than words.

Let’s start with the first two sentences. A teacher asked the Jisha, or attendant, to bring him his fan. The attendant replied, “the fan is broken.” The teacher’s request cannot be satisfied.  “The fan is broken” has become for me a strong image of the first Noble Truth — that life has dissatisfaction or suffering built into it. This is what I understand about Samsara — the wandering-in-circles world or the world of form and appearance. In the world of Samsara, everything is inherently broken. “Inherently” means that because of birth, there is always death. Because of gain, there is always loss. We cannot escape pain, loss, failure and blame. Each dharma or each moment, has built into it, its decline and loss. So, Samsara is ALWAYS broken. We cannot grapple with life and end up satisfied. We have to face our death, one way or the other.

I first became aware of this idea through Pema Chodron’s teaching in the ‘90’s. I learned through her what Trungpa Rinpoche used to say — that “ unrequited love is the heart of the world.” That was the last thing I wanted to hear. I really wanted to hear that through spiritual life I could transcend the pain and dissatisfaction of my life. I began to practice digesting the teaching that form life is inherently broken. The fan is broken.

If the fan is broken, how can we successfully live our life? How can we successfully fan ourselves and perform life’s functions? That is the deep question of practice.

The teacher answered, “Then bring me the rhinoceros!”

What does this mean? Of course, the attendant can’t bring him the “real” rhinoceros! That rhinoceros was killed in the process of obtaining the tusk. In the twenty-first century, killing animals for their tusks is illegal and unacceptable. But in the 800’s, when this story was told, this was quite common place. People had ivory fans or ivory holders for fans. To explore this koan, I think we have to go underneath the difference in our cultures, and allow the mind to digest the metaphor of bring me the rhinoceros.

Bring me the rhinoceros, for me, is an image for bring me that which created the tusk, bring me the source of life. Are you in contact with the mystery of life and its wholeness and completeness, which is expressed in each moment? This dynamic wholeness is anything but broken. It is life itself, including birth and death, coming and going etc. Through meditation and practice we can begin to discover that which dynamically works with form, but is also empty of formed existence.

In the introduction to the koan it says:

Oceans of lands without bound are not apart from right here: the events of infinite aeons past are all in the immediate present.

These oceans of lands without bound are simultaneously arising with all the forms that are whole or broken. This is called co-arising in Buddhist vernacular. It means to be connected even in the midst of the events of our life and the appearance of each moment, with the whole dynamic working of the universe and life.

Thich Nhat Hanh suggest that this understanding goes beyond our concepts of life.

Beyond the Eight concepts:

Birth and death
Permanence and dissolution
Coming and going

One and many

And allows our understand to grapple and experience the Eight No’s:

No birth, no death
No permanence, no dissolution
No coming, no going

No one, no many.

With this understanding of the source, are we able to express that vitality in each moment of our activity. Can we bring forth the rhinoceros or the source of life?

We don’t know if the attendant’s silence was an alive silence like Vimalakirti’s silence of interconnection with the whole, or if his silence was the dumbfounded response of a student trying to answer from his discriminative thinking?  Maybe that’s a question we can ask ourselves in our everyday life. Is this action connected to the whole dynamism of life or am I lost in the routine of my life and somewhat dead?

I love Zifu’s response. He responded in an action. This is one of the most important of our practices. As Dogen would say, “Just do it”. Bring your practice to life in your actions. I wanted to feel what it would be like to draw a circle and write “rhino” in the center. So I did it.

This was a very alive action. It was a “doing” of the coming together of the thought or word and the action of dynamism.

I also found it ironic that he uses a “word” “rhino” inside his circle. If we do not understand that every form, every thought, every dharma is included in the mystery, we have a tendency to say that thought or word is not “it”. That words and the mind take us away from suchness or the source. We might consider them a blocking hindrance. But this is again an example that EVERYTHING is Buddha, including our discriminative thought, our language and our actions as human being.

I like that all the essential instructions for a zen life are included in this koan.

  • Understand the suffering of human life, the first noble truth
  • Find the suchness or source in each moment
  • Take an action that is dynamic and appropriate to the moment.

I put a capping verse together:

Teardrops of brokenness
For our thoughtful expectations of wholeness
Destruction inherent in each moment’s arising
Feel the source in the circle of talk
No coming, no going.