Tesshin used this week’s talk to discuss the Mumonkan (Gateless Gate) case number 8 – also known as Keichu the cart maker. The koan, as usual, is short but loaded with a punch …
Keichu, the first wheelmaker, made a cart whose wheels had a hundred spokes.
Now, suppose you took a cart and removed both the wheels and the axle. What would you have?
When the spiritual wheels turn,
Even the master fails to follow them.
They travel in all directions, above and below,
North, south, east, and west.
As a bit of background, according to legend Keichu invented the wheel and the Chinese cart. So, for our purposes, it is safe to assume that he coined the word “cart” and assigned it to the device he crafted. It is also reasonable to assume that others started using the word when referring to this same class of objects.
The koan asks us what happens if we take off the wheels and axle – what do we have now? Is it still a cart? The pieces of wood are still present? Were these pieces of wood ever a cart? In one moment, a person assigns a label “cart” and in the next moment they assign the words “pile of junk” – did something change? What was this pile of molecules before we put the label cart on it? So, did Kitschu even invent the cart? Did the concept of cart exist before Kitschu?
Tesshin mentioned at this point that the koan is asking us to distinguish mere words from reality. Language allows us to communicate person to person, but it has the disadvantage that it puts reality into a box. “This is a cart!” Ok, but everything else it could possibly be is suddenly foreclosed. We have limited ourselves in a very basic way. This is what our practice is trying to avoid. We walk through life labeling everything, judging everything, and putting everything into neat little boxes. While this is very useful in the day to day world, we lose so much of the wonder and beauty. A good way to think about this would be to ask whether a chemical analysis of the scents and color frequencies of a flower capture the lived experience of a flower?
So how do we turn off our “labeling mind?” Tesshin explained that he was a young monk when studying this koan. He tried and failed many times to present the correct answer. What was interesting, however, is that when he finally broke through, he was in a state of total exhaustion. Why is exhaustion important here? Why did it help Tesshin crack this koan? There is a reoccurring theme in Zen where we are told that the key to practice is simply “chopping wood and carrying water.” Tesshin mentioned that as a monk you wake up early, prepare breakfast, perform work practice, meditate throughout the day, and study. It is a packed day! By the end of the day, a monk falls into bed and quickly goes to sleep. The key here is that the mind is not given time to wander and ruminate.
Keichu makes carts until exhausted. A monk practices until exhausted. Tesshin was clear here – we should do the same, as our nature is living – not contemplating!! This koan is asking us not to get tied up in words and ideas. How do we do this – we do it by living life until exhausted. You must experience your life – not over think it. We say in the west that you cannot learn the secret of life from a book. This is the exact same sentiment. Tesshin mentions that he judges the quality of his day by how tired he is at night.
So, stop thinking and labeling your life and live it already!! Moment to moment.