As a Soto Zen student I had successfully steered clear of koans for almost my full twenty-five years of practice. They were considered more a part of the fierce Rinzai Zen training and seemed enigmatic and scary. How would I know what the sound of one hand clapping was, as one famous koan asked. Koans were meant to be illogical and stump the student, to kick her into another way of thinking—or not thinking—so that she could have insight into the nature of the universe.
My old Soto teacher said, “Soto is more like the not-so-bright, kindly elder uncle.” He admired Rinzai and indicated it was for sharper types.
Despite my reservations, in 1998 I moved up to St. Paul, Minnesota, for two months to dive into koans. I would study of The Book of Serenity, an ancient Chinese Zen text of one hundred koans (or cases) depicting situations and dialogues between teacher and student, teacher and teacher, student and student.
Driving in the car through Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, crossing one state border after another, I repeated to myself, “Yes, I can do it.”
My old friend Phil Willkie and I were going to trade homes for this mid-October through mid-December period. We didn’t know who was getting the better deal. I would live in his three-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up flat on MacKuben in St. Paul, and he would inhabit my solar beer-can-and-tire house on the mesa six miles outside of Taos.
Phil’s apartment was replete with photos of his family, including one of his grandfather, Wendell Willkie, the 1940 contender for the presidency against F.D.R., and another of an aunt sitting in the backseat of a convertible with Dwight Eisenhower. Best of all, a former boyfriend of Phil’s lived in the back bedroom. He too was studying Zen at the time. At night we’d often share a simple dinner of steamed broccoli and rice. He was a modest fellow, saving all the plastic yogurt containers and calling them his fine Tupperware collection. We had known each other years before, when he and Phil visited me in the Southwest.
During the day, I had little to do but wrestle with these Chinese ancestors who embodied the koans. I wanted to understand what was meant by their interchanges.
Luoshan runs into Yantou and asks: “When arising and vanishing go on unceasingly, what then?”
A perfectly good question, if you were thinking about the nature of the universe. We often ask, “What should I do with my life?” Usually it’s asked in despair: I’m lost. Help me. We want a concrete answer: Become a dentist and everything will be all right. But there is a deeper cry in the question. How should I live knowing the world is a confusing place?
First, Luoshan asked Shishuang his question: “When arising and vanishing go on unceasingly, what then?”
Shishuang replied: “You must be cold ashes, a dead tree, one thought for ten thousand years, box and lid joining, pure and spotlessly clear.”
Luoshan didn’t get it. Too complicated an answer. He only became more confused trying to figure it out. He went seeking Yantou and asked his question again: “When arising and vanishing go on unceasingly, what then?”
Yantou shouted and said, “Whose arising and vanishing is it?”
Maybe the shout would have been enough. Imagine that you’re an earnest student going from teacher to teacher, saying, “Please clarify this,” and one of the renowned, respected ones screams in your face. Maybe then you’d step back and see yourself. But Yantou offers more than his shout. He asks, exactly who are you that is experiencing this coming and going? This time Luoshan is enfolded into his own question. Engulfed in radical non-separation, he wakes up.
I understood what was happening to Luoshan. But my understanding wasn’t good enough. The koan wouldn’t come alive until I demonstrated that understanding. There is an old adage in writing: don’t tell, but show. I could tell you what happened in the koan, but to show it, I had to become Luoshan and exhibit his—and my—insight. That’s how I would pay true homage to the lineage of old Chinese practitioners I’d come to love, by making their work and effort alive and vital in me right now. To stay Natalie Goldberg from Brooklyn, with her usual collection of needs and desires, pains and complaints, wouldn’t work. Becoming some idea of Chinese—or Japanese—wouldn’t work either. These koans might have come through a particular culture but what they are aiming at is the core of human nature. Who are we really? What is this life about? I had to learn to become a fool, a barbarian, the moon, a lamppost, a fallen leaf—any angle necessary to answer the questions posed by these ancient fellows. But I couldn’t get stuck, not even as a single, perfect plum blossom. My mind had to become greased in its skull, a pearl rolling in a silver bowl. No settling; no abiding; no fixed residence. The koan mind does not dwell; instead it is alive—and empty—like a dust mote in a ray of sun. In other words, I had to let go and to see fresh, like a blind donkey. Tell me, how can something sightless see?
I paced St. Paul’s streets, past Scott Fitzgerald’s old home on Summit, the vast houses on Crocus Hill, the River Gallery, and the Harvest Bread Bakery. I crossed the bridge on the mighty Mississippi; reveling in the long, slow display of burnt leaves that marked the coming of the dark season. I wanted to know who these Chinese brothers—and the occasional Chinese sister, such as Iron-Grinder Lui, the woman of Taishan, and the teacake seller—were. I was used to studying Western literature, full of elaborate stories, subplots, metaphor, and flashbacks. These Chinese tales were so digested that only a few lines were enough.
Leaning over our supper plates one evening, Phil’s old boyfriend from the backroom beseeched me, “So Aunt Natalie, tell me a bedtime koan before we drop off.” It was his second year of practice, and his early enthusiasm met my old determination.
I lunged into the koan about Luoshan. I described the rough road, the jagged mountain where I imagined the interchange had taken place. I fleshed out the two men’s ragged dress, their recent meal—“For sure, it was not hot dogs on a bun.” I wanted to plant a deep impression in my faux nephew’s mind so he would never forget these crazy, wild ancestors. I made faces, with lips turned out, eyes raised to the ceiling; I howled, groaned, drooled, clawed at Yantou. I demanded a response to rising and vanishing. We both went to bed tired and giddy that night to wake at 4:30 a.m. and drive the mile and a half to the zendo.
Later that morning I unfolded on my bedroom floor a glossy map of the whole Zen lineage from 532 C.E. to 1260 C.E. and knelt over it, running my finger from Matsu to Pai-Chang to Kuei-shan. These were all characters in the Book of Serenity. I relished the link between teacher and student and how the student of the next generation became the teacher in the next. Below all the dates and Chinese names was a drawing of an immense fork-tongued dragon sprouting out of the clouds. He was a feral force in the orderly map of connections.
The original Book of Serenity was lost after it was first compiled by Wansong in northern China, but it was reconstructed by Wansong at the urging of one of his disciples, Yelu Chucai, who was a statesman. He was one of a group of Chinese desperate to save their provinces from destruction by the ravaging army of Genghis Khan, and they wanted to study the text as a way to illuminate their minds and come up with a fresh solution. Through their work they eventually softened the harshness of the Mongol ruler.
Studying these cases brings one more fully and deeply into the structures that underlie conventional life. The cases were not created to help people disappear into a mist high on a mountain. The terrible truth, which is rarely mentioned, is that meditation doesn’t directly lead us to some vaporous, glazed-eyed peace. It drops us right into the personal meat of human suffering. No distant, abstract idea of distress; instead we get to taste the bitter pain between our own twin eyes. With practice we settle right down into the barbed-wire nest, and this changes us. Working with koans creates a bigger heart, a tender, closer existence, a deeper seeing.
Near the end of November, I turned to page one hundred and eight, case number twenty-five. “Rhinoceros Fan” was the title. My mind froze. That’s my usual tactic: when anything new comes along, I brake, clutch, and stop dead. What do I know about a rhinoceros? Aren’t they African? I later found out that China did have rhinos, and that their horns were carved into fans.
What stumped me more was the juxtaposition of these two words: “rhinoceros,” that huge, forceful animal, probably as close to a dinosaur as we are going to find now on earth, placed beside the word “fan,” something light, used to create a breeze, a stirring of wind to refresh court ladies or Southern belles.
I moved on from the title to the actual case:
One day Yanguan called to his attendant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”
The attendant said, “The fan is broken.”
Yanguan said, “If the fan is broken, then bring me back the rhinoceros!”
The attendant had no reply.
Zifu drew a circle and wrote the word “rhino” inside it.
Yanguan was an illustrious disciple of Matsu. After his teacher’s death, he had wandered until he became the abbot of Fayao Temple. This was a monastery situation. The attendant was not paid staff but was Yanguan’s student. As an attendant, the student had the great opportunity of extra time with his teacher. In this particular story the student is anonymous. All the better; he could be any of us—John or Sue or Sally, you or me.
I was not sure who Zifu was who appears at the end. I would look him up later. But for now I’d stay with the teacher-and-student interaction.
More than likely, their interchange takes place in a quiet moment when Yanguan has a little time to put his attention on this monk. He’s going to test him, poke him: Are you there? Yanguan and the attendant are in kinship. They had both probably lived in the monastery for many years, but Yanguan couldn’t turn around to the attendant and say something simple like, “Do you love me?” or “Are you happy here?” Instead, there is decorum. One person is made the attendant, the other the Zen Master. Of course, one has been practicing longer than the other. Out of time we create hierarchy, levels, positions. In the large space of this true book, we eventually let go of these criteria, but we also play along.
So Yanguan asks for a fan. The fan is the excuse for an exchange, though it could also have been one of those unbearable hot summer days. Bring me some relief. Where’s the fan?
The attendant replies that the fan is broken.
He can’t find another one? I’m thinking. What was going on here?
That evening after I read this case I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned.
The night became a deep and endless thing. My mind wandered over much terrain: a particular apple orchard, a young boy who died. I remembered an old friendship I once had. This line ran through my head: the relationship is broken.
Broken! I sat up in bed. That is the word the attendant used. I jumped up, ran to the shelf, and opened the book. I took a leap: the attendant was saying he himself was broken, even if he referred to a fan. He was the fan.
But that doesn’t stop Yanguan, his teacher. Hell, if the fan—the product—was shattered, then bring back the whole rhinoceros. What a stunning concept! If the paper is torn, bring the enormous tree into the living room.
Yanguan was asking this of his student (and of us): Take a tremendous step—not forwards but backwards—into your essential nature. Manifest your original face. Don’t get stuck on something broken—a heart, a wish. Become the rhinoceros—reveal your full self, go to the source, nothing hidden.
And this is what I loved the most: “The attendant had no reply.” What do we do when a rhino is charging us, when a bear of a teacher is storming us? We run for our lives. In no other case that I had studied so far was there such an abrupt stop. No action, nothing. The attendant had already given his all when he said the fan was broken, when he revealed he was not whole.
It’s a naked thing to show we are fractured, that we do not have it all together. Broken all the way through to the bottom. What freedom that is, to be what we are in the moment, even if it’s unacceptable. Then we are already the rhinoceros.
Think about it: We are always doing a dance—I’m good, I’m bad, I’m this, I’m that. Rather than the truth: I don’t know who I am. Instead, we scurry to figure it out. We write another book, buy another blouse, exhaust ourselves. Imagine the freedom to let it be, this not knowing. How vulnerable. This is why I love the attendant. He said who he was—a broken man, a shattered fan derived from the concentrated point of a fierce beast. When his teacher asked for more, the monk didn’t do a jig to win him over. There was no more. Usually we will do anything to cover up a reality so naked.
I know the relief, and ensuing shame or terror, of making that kind of simple statement. When I was in the middle of a divorce, I visited my parents in Florida. My father was on the first day of a new diet. He was looking forward to dinner. We were going out to a steakhouse for the early bird special. My father made fun of my huarache sandals when I stepped out of the bedroom, ready to go.
“What are those, horse hooves?”
I was touchy and tired of his putdowns. I twirled around and marched back into the bedroom. “I’m leaving,” I screamed. I threw clothes into a suitcase and charged out the front door and onto the nearby turnpike. I was walking on the divider line, headed for the airport fifteen miles away. A car pulled up beside me and drove the speed of my walking pace. I looked straight ahead.
“Nat,” my father pulled down his window.
I burst out crying.
“Wait, stay here. I’ll go get your mother. Do you promise not to move?”
I nodded, leaning against the rail guard.
Moments later my parents pulled up together. My mother ran out of the car. “Natli, what’s the matter?”
I uttered three words: “I am lost.” I had no energy for a cover-up. Those words came from my core.
Everything halted. My mother stood with her hands at her sides. My father looked straight ahead, his face frozen, his arm hanging over the door of the car.
Nothing was to be done. It was a huge, unbearable opening between us. My parents became embarrassed. So did I. We’d never been so naked with each other.
After a long, excruciating time my father’s head turned. “Now can we go eat? I’m starving.”
The monk did not have this distraction. No restaurant for him. My experience was that the monk stood his ground for all time. He did not reply after he showed his naked face. But like the rabbis making commentary on the Torah, later Zen teachers responded to koans, and in this case disagreed over the monk’s state of mind. Maybe the attendant in his silence had emptied his depths, so that the rhinoceros, the source, stood there radiantly, painfully alive in his no reply. Or maybe he was just dumbfounded and petrified, thinking, what should I do now in front of my teacher?
In the next sentence, in steps Zifu. He draws a circle and writes the word “rhino” inside it. I imagine that he picked up a nearby stick and drew the circle in the dirt or in the air and then wrote the Chinese character boldly in the center.
I found out that Zifu was a Zen master who lived at least a hundred years after the interchange between Yanguan and the monk. These stories, passed on generation to generation, were kept splendidly alive. Sitting in his monastery, Zifu hears the situation and plunges in. Zifu’s dust circle is a stamp of approval. His response radiates back through a century and screams forward to us now.
Attendant I see you, Zifu calls out.
Yes, Zifu is saying, this exchange between student and teacher is complete. Nothing is left out. Even if the attendant was immobilized rather than inexpressively present, Zifu catches the whole thing and brings it to completion, enlightening the attendant, the rhino, the teacher, folding us all into the great circle.
I spent the autumn of my fiftieth year roaming through these Chinese minds. I began to see everything as a koan. The news announced that bread burned in someone’s kitchen in Blue Earth and the house went down in flames. Everything now was related. The house, the bread, the town in southern Minnesota presented a koan. How could I step into those flames and burn too? Life became a revolving story. No matter from what age or country, it met me where I was.
I watched my friend Wendy, an old practitioner and the gardener for twenty years at Green Gulch, a Zen farm outside of San Francisco, answer questions after a reading from her forthcoming book, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate.
“How big is your garden?” one of my students queried.
Wendy was struck silent for a full minute. The audience fidgeted in their seats. I realized what was happening.
“Wendy,” I leaned over, “this is not a koan—she’s not challenging your whole being. She just wants to know in feet the area you garden.”
Wendy snapped back. “Many feet are cultivated.” Then she went on to speak of once putting a dead deer in the compost heap and a month later nothing was left but hooves and bones.
In the Book of Serenity, Guishan asks Yangshan where he comes from, and Yangshan replies, the fields. There are many fields to come from—playing fields, plowing fields, the upper or lower field, or the dharma field spread out before us.
Soon after I returned home to Taos, I had a week of teaching with my good friend Rob Wilder. He is sharp and has a generous heart. Little goes by him. We sat together at dinner the second night of the workshop. I was eager to share where I had been. I told him about koans, then I told him about the last one I worked on. I laid out the case, how I entered it, what I understood. He was listening intently, the way only a writer can from years of developing an attunement to story and sound. He nodded often. I felt encouraged.
I went to bed that night happy. I had been afraid, coming home from St. Paul, that no one would understand where I had been.
The next morning was a silent breakfast. Almost everyone had already cleared out of the dining room when Rob sidled up next to me. “Nat,” he said in a low voice, “I was thinking how amazing it is. We can know each other so well. We can be such good friends, and I had no idea what you were talking about last night.”
My head snapped back. What’s going on here? The fan of our communication was fractured? A student walked in and we shut up.
I gulped down some water to swallow the ball of cornflakes that sat in my mouth. I felt almost lonely, walked to the brink of isolation. Rob was on one side of the old adobe dining room and I on another. Suddenly something in front of my eyes shattered. The rhino emerged glistening. I abruptly started to laugh, big eruptions through my entire body. This was one whole world. Rob Wilder was my relation. We had plunged right into the lineage together. No one left out. The water glass, the spoon, the flowers in the vase, all glimmered and shook. Who was laughing? Hours melted in my hand. The walls of the building dissolved. Everyone and no one lifted the spoon to take the next bite of cereal.
This essay was included in The Great Spring: Writing, Zen and This Zigzag Life by Natalie Goldberg (Shambhala 2016).