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The Insentient 1 - Talk 1 Loon Lake Sesshin 2010

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 07, 2010
Location: Loon Lake
In topic: Koan Studies
This is a substitution talk given at the Headlands Institute of the first talk given at the Loon Lake Sesshin 2010 on The Insentient koan.
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The Insentient

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | November 7, 2010

Abridged and edited by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum

What a beautiful day today!  And such a quiet day!  It was kind of startling coming in, because it was so quiet and everybody was here.  I mean, it is always quiet, but every month for all these years there has been a little bit of shuffling and people coming and going.  Maybe I was just later than usual.  Maybe that was it!  [Laughter]  That's a good idea.  Maybe I will come later from now on. 

I'm always trying to figure out how to talk about koans, these Zen stories, and how to present them in a way that is useful.  But let me begin by mentioning a little historical, cultural note.  There is a big difference between the Buddhist view in India, the Buddhist view in China, and in all the countries in the Far East that were influenced by China.  In Chinese Buddhism, and Far Eastern Buddhism in general, there is a very strong emphasis on Buddha-nature, what in Buddhism is called the Tathāgatagarbha teaching - the idea that all beings are the Buddha and that all beings have buddha-nature.  All beings without exception: human beings, animals, plants, inanimate objects.  All beings are a manifestation of Buddha-consciousness and are sacred buddha-nature. 

This was not so much the case in early Indian Buddhism, which privileged human life above other forms of life.  I don't think the idea was that human life was superior to other forms of life, but that the most important thing in life is spiritual cultivation.  And the privilege of human life is that it is the most advantageous situation for this cultivation, and, therefore, it is the most desired form of birth.   There wasn't quite the sense of that in China and the Far East, because of Taoism, which was in their culture before the arrival of Buddhism.  Buddhism was always understood in terms of pre-existing Taoist ideas, so in the Far East the idea of sentient beings and the idea of buddha-nature extended to everything.  Everything was a sentient being.  Dogen always says, "Sentient beings like walls, fences, roof tiles, and pebbles." 

This is a really good teaching for our time, when we see the whole earth as a living organism, whose volcanoes, oceans, glaciers, and winds are just as valuable and worthy of salvation as you and I.  So this view of Far East Asian Buddhism, I think, really resonates with us.   It's even possible that in the Far East there was a feeling that oceans, winds, roof tiles, pebbles, trees, insects, birds, and fish are even superior to human beings in some way. We are always so confused and shooting ourselves in the foot, but those creatures don't seem to have that problem.  There is a sense in which we emulate them and try to practice like them. 

There are expressions in Zen like, "Be like a withered branch.  Sit like a stone."  It might give you the impression that the goal of our practice is to get as far away as possible from being human in this lifetime.  I think this is a little misleading, because one of the main things about our practice is just returning to the level of just being, a level which we are completely sharing with plants, animals, and other creatures.  At that level of being, we are not so different from a stone or a roof tile. 

So that is where the story I want to share with you today comes in. 

            Dongshan: "Who hears the teaching of the insentient?" 

            Yunyan: "The insentient hear it." 

            Dongshan: "Do you hear it?"

            Yunyan: "If I heard it, you would not hear my teaching."

            Dongshan: "Well, if that's so, then I don't hear your teaching."

            Yunyan: "If you don't even hear my teaching, how much less will you be able to hear the teaching of the insentient?"

At these words of Yunyan, Dongshan was changed and understood something new.  He composed a verse:

            How wondrous the teaching of the insentient is inconceivable.

            If you listen with your ears, you won't get it.

            If you hear it with your eyes, then you will understand.

So that is the story.  Although this dialogue can seem a bit philosophical or heady, I don't think that Dongshan's question was theoretical.  He had studied Buddhist thought and had done Buddhist practice.  It must have occurred to him that the most profound understanding of the teachings, the most profound understanding of life - of his life, of our lives - must come from a place in us beyond thinking and beyond perception.  Since he had a deep faith in universal buddha-nature, but felt as if the possibilities of his thinking were exhausted, he felt sure that only a kind of trans-human or beyond-human teaching could satisfy his spiritual needs. 

He took it on faith that he would be capable of hearing this more than human teaching, so he went to Yunyan to find out how to hear it.  "How do I hear the teachings of the insentient?"  But Yunyan said that you can't hear them.  Only insentient beings can hear them.  Insentient beings are teaching all the time.  Their teachings are eloquent and perfect; it is just that we human beings cannot hear them.   Dongshan couldn't accept this.  He thought that there must be a way to hear these teachings.  So he said to Yunyan, "Do you hear them?"  In other words, "Maybe I can't hear them, but can you hear them?  You are a great adept, a great Zen master.  Can you hear them?"  And Yunyan said, "No!  If I could hear them, then I would not be what I am - a human being speaking to other human beings.  I would not be able to teach you if I could hear these teachings." 

Dongshan couldn't accept this.  He thought, "No, we have to be able to do better than this.  Surely we human beings are capable of full awakening, just like non-human creatures."  He didn't want to settle for less.  So when he says to Yunyan, "If you don't hear the teachings of the insentient beings, then I don't hear your teachings," He's saying, "Well, okay, if that is as far as you are willing to go, forget it."  Yunyan then said, "But wait a minute.  If you can't hear my teachings, how do you ever expect to hear the teachings of the insentient beings?"  At this point Dongshan gets it.  Yes, he could hear the teachings of the insentient beings, but not in the usual way that he desired or in the way that he was expecting. 

In this case "hearing" the teachings means understanding and taking in the teachings.  How do we understand something?  How do we take something in?  How are we transformed by something?  We understand by mental effort and by insight, and we understand by experience.  We verify with our mind and with our experience that something is true.  This is the way that human beings do it, right?  This is the way of subject and object.  That's how we acknowledge something.  We remove ourselves from the world in order to understand it.  We remove ourselves from others in order to understand others.  And we remove ourselves from ourselves, in order to understand ourselves.  That's how we know things.  That's how we hear teachings.  But that's not how insentient beings practice.  They accept everything just as it is, with perfect acquiescence.  They do not remove themselves from anything, and they don't understand anything.  For insentient beings there is nothing to understand.  And there is no one standing outside to understand anything.  Insentient beings just are.  Also, we just are.  In this level of just being, we are very close to insentient beings, and we can learn from them at that level. 

This is so fundamental to our practice.  When we pick up a teacup with love, we can hear the teachings of the teacup.  When we look at a tree or the water with love, the tree or the water is offering us its wisdom.  This is not only true for trees, teacups, and the ocean.  It is also true of each one of us.  Once you stop thinking that you understand yourself, or someone else, then you yourself and others become as wise as a teacup.  As wise as a tree or an ocean.  Once you stop trying to understand yourself or others, you can hear the dharma.  You can hear the dharma watching your dharma sister sit down on her zafu.  Watching that with full awareness and love, you can hear deep, insentient teachings.  You can hear the teachings of the insentient in a cough or a sneeze.  You can even hear the teachings of the insentient in your own confused heart. 

So maybe when Dongshan says, "No, I can't hear them," he means hearing them in this special sense.  But then Yunyan says, "But don't forget, Dongshan, human teachings are important too.  Human teachings are given in human language."  But language is more than cognitive bits and pieces of information.  All language contains, and is contained by, human relationship.  That is actually the foundation of all language.  We all learn to speak in the first place because we love our mother, and we want to reach out to her.  That is why we can do such a prodigious job of learning a language in such a short amount of time, from zero.  It's because of love. 

So human teaching is conveyed not only in sensible language, but in this foundational aspect of language, which is deep human connection.  Beyond the words, beneath the meaning, dharma is being conveyed.  There is a music to what we say, a human music that is different from - and yet, in some way, the same as - the music of teacups and bowls and trees and oceans.  Even in our anger, even in our confusion, when we speak to one another, the music of the truth is there. 

Some commentators, when speaking about Dongshan's poem, "I can't hear the teachings, but I can hear them through my eyes.  I can't hear them through my ears, but I can hear them through my eyes," refer to synesthesia as an interpretation of those lines.  Often in mystical experience in religion, people will report synesthetic experiences - hearing colors and seeing sounds.  Maybe that is what Dongshan had in mind, but I don't think so.  To me that is too simple-minded and too one-dimensional.  I think he means that we can hear the teachings of the insentient through the activity of the senses and the mind, but not in the usual way.  Yes, we can see, hear, taste, and touch this profound level of being.   It's there, actually, in our acts of perception and in our thought; but it is not there in the usual way that we function with our senses and thought.  It's not there as hearing or tasting or seeing something.  You cannot see God the way you see a tree.  Yet when you see a tree, you can also see or hear or taste God. 

The teaching of the insentient is in all our acts of body, speech, and mind, and that is what Yunyan is trying to say, I think.  But it is not there in the way we are looking for it to be there.  It is not there as something graspable or something definite or something concrete. At first Dongshan is pressing, "No, I want it to be concrete.  I want to know this; I want to be able to understand this; I want to able to grasp this; I want to be able to have this."  Like us, he is looking for something, in his practice or in his life.  So he doesn't like hearing from Yunyan that that's not possible.  But by the end of the conversation, he has come to see that, although we cannot hear it with our ears or see it through our eyes, we do hear it through our ears and through our eyes.

So, when you think about this a little more deeply, it's obvious that it doesn't have anything to do with sentient or insentient.  The profound insentient teaching is not limited to insentient beings.  It is in everything.  And everything is both sentient and insentient.  Mostly we practice in Zen with our bodies.  Our bodies, in some fundamental way, are insentient.  Our minds are, in some fundamental way, insentient.  Our language is insentient.  Underneath the sense that we make of things, there is another sense of things.  We come to practice seeking this other sense, this deeper sense, and I think we find it. 

Dogen actually discusses this story in Shobogenzo.  He sees an unexpected meaning when Dongshan says, "I don't hear your teaching."  I interpreted that as Dongshan saying, "Forget about it.  I'm not going to pay attention to you."  But Dogen, of course, understands it differently.  Instead of seeing it as disagreement, he sees it as a profound accord.  Here is what Dogen has to say: 

When Dongshan says, "I don't hear your teachings," what he means is, "I hear beyond hearing."  At this moment Dongshan not only became part of the audience, but he also revealed his towering determination to speak dharma for insentient beings.  He not only experienced insentient beings speaking dharma, but he thoroughly took hold of hearing and not hearing insentient beings speak dharma.  From there he experienced sentient beings speaking, not speaking, already having spoken, now speaking, and just about to speak dharma.  Actually, hearing dharma is not limited to ear sense and ear consciousness.  You hear dharma with complete power, complete mind, complete body, and complete way, from before your parents were born, before the empty eon, through the entire future, the unlimited future.  You can hear dharma with your body first and your mind last. 

So teachings don't come from the outside.  They don't come from someone else.  But they don't come from within either.  The teachings are beyond outside and inside.  To hear them or not hear them, to understand them or not understand them, is just too limited a scope for us.  This will never satisfy our need.  And yet, the teachings are with us wherever we go.  Your body contains all the teachings.  Your ears, your eyes, your nose, your tongue, your mind contain all the teachings.  They are you, even though you are not them. 

There is a little coda to the story of Dongshan and Yunyan.  After the dialogue that I reported, Dongshan goes on his way, and as he leaves Yunyan, he's not entirely satisfied, even though he had a tremendous understanding.  He is not entirely satisfied with what he understood.  He walks away in an uneasy frame of mind.  He comes to a stream, he looks into the stream, and he sees the reflection of his own face in the stream.  Seeing his own face reflected, he then realizes further, and he writes another poem:

            Looking outside, I lost myself,

            And so now I go on alone.

            Everywhere I see him.  

            He is now me, though I am not now him.

            This is the way to understand if you want to join with being.  

As you know, Dongshan is the founding ancestor of the Soto school of Zen, our way of practice.  So this story of Dongshan is a really an important family story.  It is important for us to remember it and to discuss it many, many times, and try to appreciate its meaning.  Maybe we can see the meaning of this story pervading everything in the way that we practice Zen.