The priest Shoushan held up his teacher’s stick before the assembly and said, “You monks, if you call this a staff, you’re entangled. If you don’t call this a staff, you ignore the fact. Tell me, what do you call it?”

—Gateless Gate Case 43

Whenever I read this koan, I think fondly of Koun Yamada. Yamada, who ran SanUn Zendo in Kamakura, Japan, had several favorite devices he used in his teisho over the years. One was holding up his hand and comparing the back to gensho no sakai, “the world of form,” and the palm to hombun no sakai, “the world of emptiness,” while rotating his wrist back and forth. He would also sometimes hold up a single index finger.

But his favorite gesture seemed to be grabbing his small teacher’s stick, called a kotsu, and striking it loudly on the wooden dais that held the koan book and his notes before him (I sometimes wondered how many dents were in that stick from forty years of whacking). He would say, “Just this!” or perhaps nothing at all.

“Speak, speak!” implores Shoushan. How might we answer? How might a teacher’s stick answer?

Recently, I took up this koan with a friend and we chatted about how words and explanations somehow entangle us and rob us of directly experiencing life. Our ideas separate ourselves from ourselves and others. In koan work, we call that attachment to words “telling” rather than “showing.” There is no freedom in telling; it makes our lives smaller, less than. Buddhists have a name for “telling”—dukkha, suffering, and attachment; “showing” is bodhi, awakening.

The novelist Ruth Ozeki suffered from an episode of mental illness as a teenager and spent some time in a psychiatric ward. The experience brought verity to the character Benny Oh in The Book of Form and Emptiness. Ruth’s condition was never fully diagnosed, never given a name. “I have been forever grateful for that,” she recently said. The label-less nature of her illness somehow made it easier for her to “learn to make a friend of my mind.”

There is a bit more in the above koan, a bit more “showing”:

Then, the monk Guishan snatched the stick from Shoushan, threw it on the floor and cried out, “What is this?”
Shoushan shouted, “Blind!”
With this, Guishan was enlightened.

What breathtaking play! It’s alive! The universe, at the same time both blind and filled with light.

Two months ago, a long-time member of my friend’s men’s group died of lung cancer. Last week, a second member was found to have a metastatic lesion in his lung. As we spoke, my friend did not put a label on it, he was just deeply saddened. But somehow, within a few minutes, we went from near weeping to laughing loudly at our own infirmities and the greater tragi-comedy of human existence. Were our tears ones of sadness or of laughter? It did not matter. We did not call it anything at all.