Grasses & Trees, Fences & Walls, Tiles & Pebbles #8

Who is doing the talking and hearing in this koan and in this fascicle and what do they hear?

The great Master Dongshan (or Tozan) once said to his assembly:  “If you have fully attained the matter of going beyond buddha, You will have the capacity to talk a bit about it.”

A Monk asked:  What is this talking like?

The great Master said:  When talking acharya, you don’t hear it.

The monk said: Teacher do you hear it?

The great master said:  When I am not talking, I can hear it.

In the previous blog, we have established that in the True Reality prior to division, there is no subject and object.  The truth is not really expressed by saying that there is someone who is hearing and someone who is talking.  Or that talking obliterates hearing.  Or that not-talking is somehow better than talking.  Or that when you stop talking, you can hear it.  What is it that you hear and who is it that hears?

Zen has a long history with the contemplation of interdependence or who or what is talking and what is being heard.  Dongshan’s lineage of teachers in particular has studied this koan with different iterations of it and different teachers have expounded on it.  The whole interdependent world is talking to us at all times but are we able to hear it?   Sometimes I feel this connection with the interdependent universe, or a power greater then my so-called self.  This is the side of feeling supported by everything.  When I lose this feeling of connection, all my selfish interests burst forth.   My addictions seek to compensate for my loss of a sense of wholeness and I lose my spiritual perspective.  This is the difficult predicament we find ourselves in as human beings.  There is always a conversational edge between the universe and myself, between feeling isolated and feeling supported.  When we cling to our 5 skandhas we feel like an isolated unit.  Sometimes we get a glimpse of oneness.  But what I understand now as “maturity” is our ability to hold both these aspects of being human without conflict.

In actuality, insentient beings, sentient beings, and all the sense gates are talking and listening and dynamically moving together.  This is what we hear if we can pause, calm our minds down and clear out the clogged nature of our five skandhas.  If we cling to our 5 skandhas and our sense gates as “ours”, we clog them up and cannot hear “other” or the “truth”.  If we let go of our clinging to self, let go of our need for intellectual understanding, then we can hear “it” with all of our sense gates, and realize that this dynamic unity is happening all of the time.

Dogen writes:

The acharya is not hearing as she is penetrated by the illumination of her eyes and is clogged by her body-mind.

Dongshan says, “When I am not talking, I can hear it”.  In the quiet of meditation and when our minds are quieted down, we can begin to hear the vital conversation of everything with everything.  Even in the silence, there is a lot of communication and dialogue.   During session, our body and mind is talking to the room, our fellow-practitioners, and beyond the room.  All of this “other” is mutually talking to us.  Even larger than our small view of self, is the conversation of the birds, the room, the universe – talking and receiving.  All of us including in everything.

In the lineage of Dongshan, there has been many teachers working with this issue of talking and hearing.  Particularly, Nanyang Huizhong or Nan’yo Echu in Japanese who died in 775.  He is the teacher that coined the phrase:

Grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles all expound the dharma.

This illumination of where to find “true reality” is subtly different than other teachers or at least how many people interpret the teaching.  Nanyang Huizhong, Dongshan, and Dogen are of a different school of thought than Mazu or in Japanese Baso.  Nanyang Huizhong subtly criticized Mazu.   Mazu taught that enlightenment is stopping the waves of thinking or discrimination and restoring the original mind.  Somehow it gets interpreted that the original mind is inside of us and that when we stop thinking, when we are doing nothing, the original mind will appear.  We restore the original mind by stopping thinking.  In this interpretation, there is no connection with things outside.  With Nanyang Huizhong, this one mind is all things and lives in relationship – talking and hearing. There is a constant conversation between inside and outside, thus interdependent.  It’s not something inside of ourselves but includes everything with nothing special or particularly valuable.  It is not something that sentient beings “have” and insentient beings do not have because insentient beings do not have “awareness”.  All things have this mind- fences, walls, tiles and pebbles all expound the dharma.

Dogen writes in the Jijiyu Zanmai:

“All the dharmas intimately and imperceptibly assist each other.  Grasses and trees, fences and walls demonstrate and exalt the deep, wondrous dharma for the sake of living beings, both ordinary and sage;  And in turn, living beings, both ordinary and sage, express and unfold it for the sake of grasses and trees, fences and walls.

At this time, because earth, grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles, all things in the dharma realm in ten directions, carry out Buddha work, therefore everyone receives the benefit of wind and water movement caused by this functioning, and all are imperceptibly helped by the wondrous and incomprehensible influence of Buddha to actualize the enlightenment at hand.”

Our practice is based on Indra’s Net or interdependence.  We exist because we are supported by all beings.  The point of practice is in how we understand this and the reciprocity of talking and listening.  Our energy goes out and comes in, synchronized with everything else that is doing the same.  We breathe out and the trees absorb our carbon dioxide.  We breathe in and we absorb the oxygen made by the trees.  This kind of mutual assistance is going on everywhere we look, see, feel and smell.

All of our five skandhas are talking when we talk. Our ears can talk.  All six sense organs are involved in our talking.  The entire network is talking and listening.  In the Zen literature, there are often references to talking with our eyes or our ears or our eyebrows.  We can see from our ears and hear from our eyes.  Raise your eyebrows if you understand.

Dongashan wrote a verse:

How incredible, how incredible,

Inanimate things proclaiming dharma is inconceivable

It cannot be known if the ears try to hear it

But when the eyes hear it then it may be known.

There is also a beautiful poem by Su Shi:

The murmuring brook is the buddha’s long broad tongue

And is not the shapely mountain the body of the dharmakaya

The sounds of night, 18,000 gathas

When dawn breaks, how will I explain it to the others.

This little poem is having the capacity to talk a bit about it.