Tesshin used his talk this week to cover case 14 from the Blue Cliff Record. This entire koan is stated in two lines – which is a teaching in and of itself!
A monk asked Yun Men, “What are the teachings of a whole lifetime?”
Yun Men said, “An appropriate response.”
Tesshin first told us that the “teaching of a whole lifetime” refers to the Dharma taught by the historical Buddha during his entire life. It is interesting to note that the Buddha did not just teach the same thing over and over again, rather the teachings changed as his students matured, progressed, and changed.
Yun Men is getting at this which his phrase “An appropriate response.” In some sense, reality is very easy to teach. It simply exists throughout all space and time. What is there to say? This unending abiding also makes it very difficult to explain. How do you explain something when any words one may add really subtracts from the true answer? This is why the Buddha was such a great teacher. No only did he provide teaching and guidance, he customized it for each student and never did anything which would pull the student away from the chance to realize their true nature.
Tesshin then mentioned that if all this koan was talking about is “skillful teaching” it would not really be a koan. This koan is really pointing at what happens between a student and a teacher in Zen. When a teacher teaches, what is transferred? In a relative sense – nothing! A teacher will never provide knowledge – how could they – there is nothing new to teach! So, what are we doing here? This is the koan. Historically, this koan is portrayed in the moment when Shakyamuni passed the Dharma to Mahakasyapa. He raised a flower and Mahakasyapa smiled – nothing happened but the wheel of the Dharma was set in motion for all time. A lifetime of teaching answered with an appropriate response.
Tesshin next took this concept and applied it to our modern life. He asked how do we deal with the frustrations and conflicts in day-to-day life. He gave an example of confronting a person in a grocery store with an inflammatory political t-shirt. How should one react? What is the lesson here? Tesshin called these moments “Hot Karma” because it is in these moments when one really finds out about themselves. What is the correct response to this teacher with the t-shirt? They know what they are doing – they are looking for a response – so what do we do?
Tesshin noted that everyone is looking for safety and security. Everyone is looking to belong and be appreciated. However, we also take a vow to save all beings – so how do we save the person who we disagree with? Tesshin mentioned that arguing and fighting with them is probably not skillful. That would only to make us feel better. It is moments like this when “hot karma” comes alive as there is a real collision between the karma of ourselves and the other. How do we resolve it?
Tesshin reminded us, first and foremost, of our practice. Namely observing without ego, judgement, or discrimination. This does not mean to simply agree or to be passive – it means to really observe and understand the other person and their karma, motivations, and background. This other person is as much a part of absolute reality as you are! Why are they wearing that t-shirt and what are you going to do about it? How are your actions going to save all beings? There are no simple answers here – if there were, we would not have a koan! One does not meet Hitler on the road and sit down and share a coffee with him as he explains genocide. However, is it skillful to confront every t-shirt wearing person in every grocery store? What is our intention? What is going on in our mind? These hot karma moments are the teachings of a lifetime which Yun Men is getting at. We begin to understand that it is not the t-shirt, but what is in our mind and how we emotionally react to it. What are we attached to which is driving us? What are you clinging to which that t-shirt threatens?
Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that practice itself comprises the teachings of a lifetime and that the great teachers of history simply are there to remind us of this with an appropriate word or action to prevent us from straying. In the end, it is really our journey and nobody else’s. Will you respond appropriately?