To get to this life, how my steps did it take?

“How many steps does it take to get to this room?”

This koan, from our Miscellaneous collection, is utterly simple, and that is its grand beauty, its infinite generosity.

The koan is not just about getting to the dokusan (private interview) room. It is also about the miracle of how we arrived, at this place and this time, in this life. To get to this life, how my steps did it take? How much effort expended?

It is said that Harada Sogaku Roshi, our ancestor a few generations back, could know a student’s state of mind just by the sound of their footsteps approaching the dokusan room. Often, he would ring his bell, signaling dokusan was over, even before the student entered the room.

One of the great stories I remember about sesshin dokusan involved Susan Murphy, who leads several Pacific Zen affiliates in Australia and recently joined our Zen Luminaries series. When an ardent student, stiving mightily for enlightenment, rushed into the room, she looked at him kindly and said: “I can see you are working extremely hard…now please work just half as hard.”

Master Linji may have advised us to not even work that hard:

“Followers of the Way, right now the resolute person knows full well that from the beginning there is nothing to do. Only because your faith is insufficient do you ceaselessly chase about; having thrown away your head you go on and on looking for it, unable to stop yourself. (Record of Linji, XII)

Linji often spoke of “The person with nothing to do (無事人).” The literal translation of the Chinese characters is “the no-circumstance person” or “the no-thing person.” What an exceedingly clear translation!.

I recently visited the above lede koan with a friend. He said; “The koan took me on a journey thinking about how many steps literally led to my being here. And how it took no effort at all to take those steps; every step of my life led to me to this dokusan room, right now. I stand up, I sit down, I’m here. Yet it literally took zero steps: Zero effort to get here and zero steps to arrive. My life just led me here.”

He continued: “That notion broadened out to include all the struggles in my life. I could have put in an infinite amount of effort to get here, but it would not have changed a thing; the million steps all fall away.” He concluded: “This is just my natural life expressing myself; there is really no effort required whatsoever.” That is a no-thing person speaking.

“Followers of the Way, as I see it we are no different from Śhakyamuni. What do we lack for our manifold activities today? The six-rayed divine light never ceases to shine. See it this way, and you’ll be a person who has nothing to do their whole life long
(Linji, Discourses X)