The pivotal point is the second part of the koan of Shitou’s.
Daowu said, “Going beyond, is there a further pivotal expression?”
“This means that when a pivotal expression is actualized, ‘going-beyond’ is actualized. A pivotal expression refers to skillful means; skillful means refers to all buddhas and ancestors. In expressing this, it must be that “there is something further.” However, even though there is something further (u-buddha-nature, form), do not neglect the truth that there is nothing further (mu-buddha-nature, emptiness.) we should express this.”
The pivotal point is involved in the question of how we express both u and mu, form and emptiness in this very moment. This is what practice-realization is. We don’t ignore either side, form or negation, but let both sides inform our skillful means- that which we do in response to this very moment.
The expression “the pivotal point” is beautifully unpacked by Shohaku Okumura Roshi when he broke down the translation. Kaz Tanahashi translated this word, “Kan Rei Su,” as the turning point. Okumura Roshi talks about the translation in a way that really illuminated for me what the pivotal point is and how obvious it is, yet subtle; how hard to do, yet surprisingly simple.
“Kan” is translated as a barrier or a joint. it is the same kanji as used in the word “mumonKAN”, which is often translated “the gateless gate.” Kan is often found in a compound with ki, “ki kan,” which in modern Chinese and Japanese means engine, mechanism or machine. In the case of a machine, the machine is made from more than one part. The thing that connects each part is the joint or the kan. There are independent parts of a machine, but because of the joints it functions as one machine. So, Kan can imply a connection or a relationship.
Kan can also be translated as a barrier. A barrier between two countries can be closed or open. It can be a point of connection or it can be a point where the connection is shut off. Barriers separate things and yet, at the same time, they connect things. So both functions, connection and separation are seen in a barrier.
Moving to the translation of Rei; it could be a handle, pedal or a switch. It is something that turns something on. And Su refers to a child or something very small. Something very small can make a connection between two things and then it can start the entire mechanism working.
According to the dictionary, kan rei su could be used in three ways. Kan rei su could mean the key to opening a barrier or a gate. Another dictionary said that kan rei su is the hinge part of a door. It is the round rod of the hinge that goes into the hinge and allows the door to swing back and forth. It could also mean a switch, a small handle, a pedal which when pushed moves the entire machine. Like an electric switch which turns on the lights.
So this section asked the question: what is the small switch that starts all the interconnections moving? The pivotal point is something that allows ourselves to being opened to the interconnection and to know it, not just intellectually, not just through discriminative knowing. Our practice is not separated from, but intimately connected with the rest of the world. This small switch opens the gate or door and we can go out and work together with other beings.
Dogen called this kan rei su – our zazen. Zazen allows us to go beyond ourselves without pre-conceived knowing. If we don’t have this kan rei su, all our study and meditation is just part of the gaining world of samsara. This small pivot of connection happens in the present moment and we are then connected with the whole mechanism of constantly changing life.
“The pivotal point of going beyond is unfailingly actualized when we cultivate genuine practice.”
This means for me that in all our moments, mundane and profound, we find the small pivotal adjustment that connects us to all the world, the ancestors, and the people in our life. It is simple. Just now, there is a switch, why not turn it on? This small adjustment in our mind, heart and body is our practice. It happens continuously, moment after moment. Dogen criticizes many former teachers and masters who he thought didn’t realize this essential and simple truth of the moment’s interconnection. “The ten ranks of the sages and three ranks of the wise” are the last 13 stages in the 52 stages of the development of a Bodhisattva. Even in these last stages, if you do not know the kan rei su, you don’t understand enlightenment. He writes:
“Other people in the ten ranks of the sages and three ranks of the wise, never know the pivotal point of going beyond. How can they open or close the pivotal point of going beyond? This essential meaning is the gist of study and practice. Those who know the pivotal point of going beyond are the people who go beyond buddha; such people have fully attained the matter of going beyond Buddha.”