What is this? What will happen to me? What will happen to the world? The current pandemic is stirring up big questions in us all. Kwan Um School of Zen teacher Colin Beavan shares what to do with these questions, and why not knowing is often the best answer.
Ko Bong’s Three Gates
- 1. The sun in the sky shines everywhere. Why does a cloud obscure it?
2. Everyone has a shadow following them. How can you not step on your shadow?
3. The whole universe is on fire. Through what kind of samadhi can you escape being burned?
I’m sitting at my computer in Long Island where we’ve been sheltering in place for about five weeks. It’s Wednesday. It’s raining. There is a blue and yellow lawn chair outside the sliding glass door. A bird is chirping. A shushing sound comes from the heating system.
I’m sheltering with my ex-wife Michelle and her girlfriend Maryanne. Michelle has driven back into Brooklyn because there is important mail she needs to pick up. Maryanne, a journalist, is in bed asleep after staying up all night reporting a story.
Why would I begin an article about Zen and coronavirus with a description of my current situation? There are two reasons: One is that in my actual moment I find little to be afraid of, and describing my moment helps me to ground myself in it. Two is that I find myself having a desire to connect and be intimate, with my experience, yes, but also with you. I want to tell other people what life is like right now — to share. I want to hear and understand your life right now in return.
If it isn’t all permanent, what is it for?
Most of the time, I live like Prince Siddhartha in his father’s luxuriant palace. So much is fun and joyful, and what isn’t fun and joyful seems to be outside the palace walls. Then, life thrusts me outside the palace and I witness and experience sickness, old age, and death. Big questions about life appear. What is this? What will happen to me? What will happen to the people I love? What will happen to the world? If it isn’t all joy, if it isn’t all permanent, what is it for? What do I do? What is my job? What am I?
Earlier in life, I tried to escape from these questions by making futile efforts to build the illusory palace walls taller. In these days of coronavirus, I often cannot find the palace walls. Their illusion is more transparent. It all comes and goes. There is no boundary with which to stop it.
I’ve been taught that you, I, and the universe are not two. But also, my experience is that joy, awe, sadness, loneliness, sickness, old age, and death are not two, either. What does this mean? Good question!
A squirrel with a big acorn in its mouth has just run up to the sliding glass door by me and sat up and looked at me. He or she seems to be looking for more food, which is funny, because the acorn is as big as his head. What more could fit in his or her mouth?
Anyway, it’s nice that the squirrel said hi.
We’re not used to sitting with our questions.
Life contains big questions, many of which I can sometimes ignore, but that is like living inside Siddhartha’s palace. Then something happens — like a pandemic — that forces the questions into consciousness. These are questions to which we are sometimes told there is no answer.
What am I? Don’t know.
Our culture often offers answers based in science or religion. Or, it distracts us from the questions through busyness, materialism, and the drive to be “productive.” Human nature itself distracts us from the questions through attachment to the desire for sex, food, stature, sleep, and money.
We’re not used to sitting with our questions, sitting with the discomfort of not knowing, being with mystery. When we’re thrust into not knowing, we get scared and struggle to close down the questions. We swat at ghosts, harming our lives and others.
In the Kwan Um School of Zen, we have a practice which deliberately thrusts us into not knowing. This is called kong-an (or koan) practice. In kong-an practice, a teacher usually tells the story of a conversation between two Zen practitioners in history during a one-on-one conversation. Then, the teacher asks the student questions about the story.
Usually, the answers to the questions cannot be reasoned out. You either have an intuitive understanding of the story and know how to answer or you don’t. Attachment to opinions, judgements, and cognition, like attaching to the storytelling in your mind, trip you up during a kong-an interview rather than assist you. This is like life.
Sometimes we have big questions and get stuck in trying to make up an answer. All our thinking and internal storytelling actually gets in the way or our ability to respond appropriately. It’s like when a friend gets angry at you and your thinking tells you that you should start to verbally defend yourself — when you do, you just have a fight. Later, you realize that if you had been still, you would have known to give your friend a hug instead.
In kong-an practice, if we don’t know the answer, we’re encouraged to stay with that not knowing and simply say “Don’t know.” Often, teachers will praise you for that answer. They praise you because you had the courage to stay with the truth in that moment instead of making up a story.
One of my favorite kong-ans at the moment is this one: “The whole universe is on fire. Through what kind of samadhi [meditation practice] can you escape being burned?” It reminds me of our entire species’ real-life kong-an — the coronavirus conundrum.
If you can’t find a way to totally and finally save yourself and your loved ones from all the suffering, what should you do?
When I sit with a teacher, facing their questions, all sorts of motivations can arise. I can want to get the answers right. I can want to prove what a good student I am. I can want to get it over with so I don’t have to give it any more attention. I can want to get the right answer, escaping the embarrassment of being wrong. But these motivations obscure the clarity of mind it takes to see through the question to the appropriate response.
The other day, I actually did almost argue with a friend. The friend said something that hurt me, but also made me question if I had done something wrong. I did not know what to say. I felt defensiveness arise within me. I knew I didn’t want to answer from that place, but I otherwise did not know how to respond. I was stumped, so I said so.
My friend asked, “What does stumped mean?”
I said stumped is like when your thoughts swim like a thousand minnows to the front of your brain, but all of them turn back before any of them swim out of your mouth. You have a million thoughts but none of them seem right. You don’t know.
Sometimes when I am stumped, I talk, or act, or wrestle in ways that are more about wanting to get away from the discomfort of being stumped than taking the correct action. It’s like being blind-folded and trying to hit the piñata with a big stick — you’re so intent on hitting it, even though you don’t know where it is, that you swing the stick, breaking things and hurting people.
When kong-an teachers ask a question, they encourage us not to try to escape from but to sit with the not-knowing. The famous Taoist teacher Lao Tzu wrote: “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?”
One time, I was sitting retreat at Cambridge Zen Center. I went for an interview with Zen Master Bon Haeng (Mark Houghton). He said to me, “Our practice is about becoming comfortable not knowing.”
Here is the kong-an or conundrum with which we are all grappling:
“Coronavirus infects the entire species. Through what kind of action can we escape?”
Of course, the question doesn’t appear in that form. It sounds more like, “What do I do about my finances?” “When can I go back to work?” “How do I deal with the grief over lost loved ones?” “When will this lonely feeling go away?” And on and on.
What makes these questions a kong-an right now is that we can’t find real answers. We are stumped. The school of thought-minnows in our brain swim around but none of them seem right.
So, we can swing the piñata stick around or we can stand still.
If you can’t find a way to totally and finally save yourself and your loved ones from all the suffering, what should you do? What should I do?
There is no right way out of this.
It’s been a few days since I first started writing this piece. The squirrel is, of course, gone. My body is uncomfortable with tension I can’t find a way to relieve. Instead, the purpose of this tension seems to be this: it tells me some of what you feel.
There is a story, in our tradition, of a monk who is tied down naked to the ground by long grass wrapped around his ankles and wrists. Someone stands over him with a sword, about to behead him. The monk says, “Please, before you kill me, will you untie me? I worry that I will struggle and kill the grass tying me down.”
I used to hate this story. It seemed pious and earnest. Like, who cares more about some blades of grass than their own life? But it wasn’t that he didn’t care for his life. It was that when it came to saving his own life, he was stumped. He didn’t know. He accepted he was stumped and didn’t know and was able not to struggle against the fact that he could see no way out. Without attaching to the struggle, he could feel his compassion for the blades of grass. He could see clearly into the actual power he had in his situation.
How do I get out of this coronavirus world?
I don’t know how to get out of my discomfort, but it tells me about your discomfort. So I’m writing this article. It seems that the dishes need to be done, so I will do them. I have a friend who is sick and naps all day but is awake all night. I can stay up late and text with them. Someone else needs a little money. I have really uncomfortable feelings, I let them come and go. I get angry, I forgive myself. Someone else gets angry, I forgive them. (Sometimes I stew. Stewing is also Truth.) Last weekend, I cried for an hour.
My friend Matt Keeler is a Kwan Um teacher and drummer. He told me that drummers aren’t hired for their great solos, but for their ability to support the rest of the band. Zen Master Wu Kwang (Richard Shrobe), who plays piano, told me that even the best musicians sometimes never come to understand this. We are not here for our solos. We are here to support the band.
How do I get out of this coronavirus world?
There is no right way out of this that I can find. The only way seems not to try to get out of it, but to let myself get more into it. I find myself having the desire to be seen and to connect. To be intimate with my experience, yes, but also with you. To tell other people what life is like right now. To tell you what it is like. To share. And to hear and understand your life, right now, in return.