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Nomon Tim Burnett : Gateless Barrier 4 - Bodhidharma Has No Beard

Wednesday, January 09, 2019 8:00 PM | Nomon Tim Burnett (Administrator)

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The 4th case of the Mumonkan koan collection strips things down to the studs.

The stories so far have been sometimes brief, sometimes longer, but they've always involved some degree of interaction - a little play we can put ourselves in - but at the core they've all had a deep pointer for us around seeing things differently than we usually do.

The first case, Zhaozhou's Mu, pointing us towards our assumptions about the inherent nature of things. The second case, Baizhang's Fox, pointing us towards a deeper understanding of this web of cause and effect we live in, and the third case, Chü-chih's Finger, saying something about wholehearted practice.

And in each case layers of story around this central pointer to help invite us in. We think in terms of story so that is very helpful to us. But we can also feel that these koans - these example cases from the ancient teachers - are more than just stories. There's a deeper feeling.

The 4th case we meet tonight has all the story pretty well stripped away. We can add some back, and I notice a few translators do, but it's just a pointer to the essence of how and what we are.

Here's the whole story in Robert Aitken's translation:

Huo-an asked, "Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?"

That's it. No set up. No "later he said". No monks. No slaps or shouts. Just this question. We've talked before about practicing with a question. This sounds like an odd question though.

We met the trope of the Western Barbarian at the very end of the long Baizhang's Fox koan when the head monk asked him after everything was said and done what would have happened had the earlier Baizhang who's been punished for his arrogance about cause and effect had answered correctly. Remember how the present Baizhang asked the head monk to approach and there was a ritual slap - in this case monk slapping teacher! - which the head approved of: "I thought the barbarian had a red beard but here is a red bearded barbarian!" Approving of his student as an exemplar of Bodhidharma's practice.

And calling a great ancestor a "barbarian" is part of the charm of the koan language where these teachers were deliberately tweaking with Chinese norms as I understand it. A great ancestor would never be called a "barbarian" in Confucian society so they were messing to even use that term.

I'm not sure what the equivalent would be for us. Maybe calling George Washington a "bumpkin" or something. But a bumpkin we revere.

So what is this great ancestor, why has the Western Barbarian no beard?

Some translators do insert a bit of story - I guess we story-driven people just can't help it. Paul Reps who did early translations into English says the case is this - he uses the Japanese version of this teacher's name as was the practice in early scholarship where we were learning from the Japanese Zen teachers about this literature.

Wakun complained when he saw a picture of the bearded Bodhidharma: `Why hasn't that fellow a beard?'

But this one is short enough I can actually, with Google translate's help, and a side by side Chinese-English translation of the case make out there there is absolutely no mention of a picture or complaining in it. Here's the character by character translation and I'll the actual Chinese characters are in my notes which I'll post on the website with the talk recording.


或庵 Huo-an


西 Western

天 God (barbarian I assume)

胡 beard


因 reason (e.g. what's the reason)

甚 very (or just emphasis)

無鬚。No beard

So I think the most literal comprehensible English here is:

Huo-an said, Western Barbarian's beard missing, why NO beard?

(with emphasis on the "no" - there is really, absolutely, completely no beard there - wow!).

So in this story just what the Tibetan's call a pith expression. Just the heart of the matter.

Why are things not as they appear at first? You thought Bodhidharma had a beard - no beard! Aboslutely no beard!

You thought you were you! No you! Absolutely no you! Let these conventional, conveinient notions go!

We don't know much about this teacher but we do have what's reported to be his death verse - a little poem he wrote just before he died and it's in the same spirit as this expression:

An iron tree in bloom;

The rooster lays an egg;

Seventy-two years-

The cradle has fallen.

Of course in the conventional world iron trees don't bloom and roosters don't lay eggs.

The last line, "the cradle has fallen," Aitken interprets this way, "Only at death do we lose the human confines of our birth." We're a bit stuck in the cradle our whole lives. Zen is the path to freedom.

And death is also a an image for awakening in the Zen tradition. That might be unique to Zen in Buddhism I don't know. Dying to your limited self is being born as your unlimited interconnected self.

Here's a nice bit from the modern Chan - Chinese Zen - techer Guo Jun - that somehow speaks to this case for me.

[Essential Chan Buddhism by Chan Master Guo Jun, chapter 8, p. 26-28]

There are some lovely pieces in here that I might share with you during zazen in the next weeks actually - we'll be in Practice Period starting next week so no formal Dharma Talks on Wednesday nights for a while. Just sitting. Wonderful and it's also nice to have a little bit to chew on from time to time. Guo Jun's teachings and path are a nice kind of exploration of maturity I think which is our theme. What is it to be truly mature? Time for us all to grow up a little more.

So what is useful or helpful about a boiled down koan like "Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?"

Well maybe I'll tell what I can remember of the story of my first serious dip into what we seem in the west to be calling "koan introspection" - the deep zazen-based immersion into a key phrase or turning in a koan.

Most often such stories are held very privately mostly because it would be so easy to misunderstand, to judge, to have grasping or comparing mind; so easy for the teller of such a story to egotistical and bragging about their accomplishment. And this last point is a big deal in Buddhism.

Did you know that in the early Buddhist precepts code there were only 3 lapses of precepts that were serious enough to merit permanent expulsion from the order?

The first was killing someone; the second was having sex (these were celibate orders), and the third was bragging about spiritual accomplishments. So I hope I'm not falling into that territory even a little here.

As there is also a bit downside to secrecy. People misunderstand, misinterprent, and assume all kinds of things about these spiritual training systems in the absence of direct and straight forward information about what actually happens.

I honestly can't remember everything that happened when I studied my first koan in this Rinzai style fashion but impressions and a few highlights.

When I was on Oahu at the Palolo Zendo for an 8-day rohatsu sesshin exactly a year ago. The Palolo Zendo was founded by Robert Aitken and the Diamond Sangha in the 1990's - they were previously on Maui. The group actually started all the way back in 1959. And new fact to me is that their small residential zendos on both islands were purchased by Anne Aitken - Robert Aikten's wife - using inheritance money. So it's a little weird that I just said it was founded by him while meantime she was a serious Zen student for 40 years and backrolled the entire venture it turns out!

Anyway the teacher there now, Michael Kierran, I find very down to earth and kind. Serious about the style of practice they do which is completely orientated around koans. The Dharma Talks were all on koans and each person is assigned a koan to sit with. Everyone has dokusan every day - if you make a little effort you can often see him twice a day. And there's just one clear teacher - there were senior students and a head student like we have during practice period but doksuan was offered only with Michael and he gave all the talks.

Michael and I had met the summer before at a Zen teachers meeting in Portland which is what helped me get the idea to try sitting sesshin with him. After an initial dokusan to just get to know each other formally he agreed to assign me a koan. It wasn't the famous MU we learned about which is one of the starting koans but a 2nd one they tend to start people on:

Bassui asked, "who is the one who hears?"

Bassui was a 14th century Japanese master so this one is not from the famed golden age of Zen in China that all of the stories in our book are.

Michael gave me just a few simple instructions: turn this question over in your mind. Sit with it. Breathe with it. See where it leads you. And in our daily meetings I'll ask you about it.

Okay I said. Interested in the process but not too worked up about it. I figured the main thing I was there to do was sit sesshin and this would an interesting component.

They lead a very vigorous sesshin and very quiet. It's not a large group - maybe 25 people and most of them had known each other for many years. The wake up bell was at 4 - and there was no coffee allowed - this concerned me a little - but the neat thing was the morning routine was actually just done all together. A real "one body" approach. You were expected to be in the zendo by 4:20 but it wasn't straight to still sitting. We did fast kinhin first, then a 15 minute peroid of self-directed stretching, then there actually WAS caffiene in the form of a nice full tea cup of strong green tea - only everyone drank that down really fast. And then it was the usual routine we're used to. Sit, walk, sit, walk. Meals were oryoki - a very similar style ot ours. Daily talks in the morning. And dokusan in the afternoon. A special bell rang and we all moved from the zendo to a kind of line up for dokusan. One after the next - meetings were 5 to 10 minutes tops.

My turn came I entered the room with a prostration at the door and a kind of hop up onto the mat in front of Michael and without missing a beat he asked me, "Who is the one who hears?"

I'd been turning it over. I'd been listening a lot - listening meditaiton is wonderful and that certainly seemed relevant who can I explore the one who hears without engaging in hearing itself.

I tried going in with zero agenda at all at first. Just saying the first thing that popping into my mind. To see what came up. I don't remember all of these but one time what came out of my mouth was, "he is far away." I guess I just felt distant from the koan or something. Michael smiled and disagreed: "no, he's right here!" and rang the little bell and off I went.

Sometimes Michael would just ring the bell - just like in the books about Zen - interview OVER. Other times we would have our formal exchange about the koan and then he'd shift the tone to have a brief collegial talk about Zen and sanghas and teaching - but that never more than 5 or 10 minutes. And off I went to keep sitting, listening, wondering. Who is the one who hears.

After a few days I had the intuion that while it's really good not to force things or TRY to hard to figure out an ANSWER still I should include my regular intelligence along with a kind of intuitive from the gut feeling. A kind of meeting of the cognitive and the beyond cognitive that arises direct and fresh in the moment.

And to be honest part of my motivation was I was a bit embarrassed by some of the spontanous things that came out of my mouth….just so obviously…wrong.

I said something in this period like, "he's clear as a bell" - it wasn't those words but something with that feeling. A real feeling of clarity and openness. And Michael said, "not bad, keep exploring."

Then in the break after lunch - all I had to do was dinner dishes! No other jobs! So the breaks after breakfast and lunch felt so luxurious and peaceful - anyway I walked up the hill to an empty property at the top of this lush Hawaiian valley and lay on back and listened, listened, listened. I kind of lost myself in sound and that became my lunchtime routine. And as much as I could all the time - just hearing - listening - who is it? Who hears? Who is the one who hears?

And each day going back to explore what would come up when he'd look at me with a smile and ask "Who is the one who hears?"

Finally what came to me is something around it being about showing up but not getting in the way and the answer that arrived was, "the one who isn't trying to be someone!"

I felt that answer arrive and it just felt right. I sat with it for a bit before the next doksuan.

And Michael said, "Well…that's pretty clear." And he seemed surprised. He never said, "congratuations you passed your first koan." but that was the import of it. He enouraged me to keep with it a bit longer and see what else came up. At the next meeting we had a kind of koan dialog that was interesting - kind of like the exchanges we have here in the shuso ceremony or the shosan dialogs if you've been to those. I can't remember the whole exchange but he said something like how wide and vast it is - shooting out into space. And I said it's extends from right here beneath your feet into the heavens and then I do rememer he said, "no it's right here" tapping the top of his head and I had these kind of deep feeling about that and said, "yes but I can't reach that high." And he laughed and said that usually it takes people some years to pass their first koan but he hadn't worked with someone who already had so much zazen experience.

And I think it helped actually that I was from outside their system. Maybe that gave me a kind of freshness and openness about the whole thing. And I also was pretty non-attached. I didn't feel any need to "pass" - well maybe a little but actually not much!

I didn't have some kind of far out totally out of your body light show experience but the whole thing did I think add both depth and spaciousness to my practice for those 8 days. 8 full days there were, very rich.

So that's my story of Bassui's "Who is the one who hears? " One could practice in a very similar was with "Why has the barbarian no beard?" So it's not not about the words and content - hearing, barbarians, facial hair, gender, indentity - but it's also not really about the words. It does make sense that this process gets written about so weirdly - described as an epic battle with the intellect which is supposed to be totally defeated by these impossible puzzles.

But not the intellect is very much involved but it's intellect playing the fields of emptiness if that makes any sense. It wasn't working when I tried to let go of the intellect. There is a letting go - a softening into the mystery - but there's also a sharpening, a probing, a looking-listing-feeling deeper.

Huo-an asked, "Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?"

Thank you very much.

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