Yunmen asked a monk, “Where did you come from?” The monk replied, “Western Zen.” Yunmen asked, “What words and phrases are there at Western Zen these days?” The monk extended both hands. Yunmen gave him a slap.

The monk said, “I am still talking.” Yunmen then extended both hands. The monk was speechless, so Yunmen hit him again.

~The Blue Cliff Record, Case 54

It really is hard for any of us, myself included, to step out and take personal risk in life and in practice. As a Zen teacher, it is wonderful to see students, like the one above, step forward and take a chance. In fact, it is arguable that the only way we really can make progress in our practice ~ which means in our lives ~ is to expose ourselves to the possibility of failure. This week, let’s look at this koan from the monk’s point of view.

Most commentators consider the monk’s response to Yunmen as canned and a defeat. Yunmen, in his typical scolding and exhortation, himself called these kinds of monks, “ordinary thieving cowards (who) slurp up the spittle of others.” Even so, I have to admire him: Joe Schmo Monk, a visitor from the west, was challenging Yunmen, the most famous teacher in all of China in his day. At his Cloud Gate Monastery in southern China, Yunmen was leading a community of 900 students and enjoyed the patronage of the Southern Han king. But Joe climbed into the dragon’s cave willingly, and though he suffered a few bruises for it, it was a marvelous effort.

Ironically, not taking risk can get us in trouble. For some years, I worked in the investment field, and in that business there is much talk about the appetite for risk and risk management. The fact is, on Wall Street, most people don’t want to take risk with their careers and their own money ~ though they may take risk with yours. Like other large, fat and comfortable mammals, the majority of analysts (as I was) and investors feel safest when running with the herd. Their sense of safety is misplaced: by not taking risk they add little value, and in the end are fired for that. And then there were those who want to reduce their risk to zero, seeking to “know tomorrow’s headlines today” by trading on insider information. They are often caught and sent to jail.

So how does this Joe Schmo Teacher take risk? I think it is mostly by being brave enough to not impose my own hopes and fears and judgments on my students. It is in meeting students right where they are, right in this moment, resisting a desire to improve, enlighten, or save them. And how do I do that? I extend both my hands.