Mujaku was widowed at 32. She couldn’t get over her grief and became a nun. She asked the teacher Bukko, “What is Zen?”
Bukko himself replied, “The heart of the one who asks is Zen; you can’t get it from someone else’s words.”
At that moment a deer at a nearby stream gave a cry. The teacher asked, “Where is that deer?”
The nun listened.
The teacher shouted and asked, “Who is hearing?”
At these words the nun had a flash of understanding and left.
~ Shonan (Kamakura) Entangling Vines, case 7, found in PZI Miscellaneous Koans
In Zen, the doorway by which we come to know “the heart of one who asks” often passes through the senses, which Linji calls “the portals of our face”. We see the unique perfection of a potted tree, smell the acrid quality of urine, taste the salt of a dried plum, or perhaps feel the many pin-pricks of a acupuncture session.
And then there is hearing. For some reason, at least for me, invitations to rediscover that we are not-two with all things comes through my hearing. And these sounds often are not as sublime as we might expect: the backfire of a car late at night, the grinding drone of wood chipper, or the roar of a motorcycle. If we allow them, these sounds all have the power to reveal our heart-mind.
A couple of years ago, our director at Pacific Zen was visiting a friend, who works as a music promoter, for a short retreat together. In the midst of a quiet redwood forest, the two sat down to meditate. At some point, the friend’s little dog, Juney, began to yap loudly, which caused a bit of anger and frustration in the host. The director turned to his friend and said, “Don’t be snobbish with sounds.” Later, the director, laughing in the friend’s podcast interview recalling the incident, added: “The little dog was trying to help the best she could.”
The message about snobbishness extends far beyond sounds: Don’t be snobbish with what the universe presents us in life. “Come to such an understanding as this,” says Linji, “and there is nothing to be disliked.” Later in the same podcast interview, the director added: “Love your life as it is. We don’t have to make our lives wrong; We don’t have to make ourselves small. What happens if we stop arguing with our lives?”
Returning to Mujaku, she understood for a moment that the cry of the deer across the creek was her own most intimate cry. For a moment, she dropped the story that her life as a young widow was wrong. A water pipe came from the stream, and she picked up a lacquered wooden bucket, filling it with water. Mujaku saw the moon’s reflection and made a poem:
The bucket catches the stream,
the pure moon through the pines
appears in the water.
After some further work with her teacher, she presented another poem:
The bottom fell out of my bucket;
now there is no water and no moon.
If there is no water, and no moon, and no Mujaku, then what is there to be snobbish about?
Hear John Tarrant’s discussion with Jason Garner on Jason’s podcast, Love4live, right here: