It Speaks in Silence
It speaks in silence;
in speech you hear its silence.
The great way opens and there are no obstacles.
If someone asks, What is your school
and how do you understand it?
I reply, The power of great wisdom.
~ The Song of Enlightenment, Yongjia Xuanjue
It speaks in silence. Luxurious silence. When I heard the theme of our just-finished winter retreat ~ Winter and Silver, Moonlight and Snow ~ the first koan that arose for me was one we are all familiar with: A monk asked Baling, “What is the School of Zen (Kanadeva)?” Baling replied: ”Snow piled in a silver bowl.” The question for me, however, is not just what is Zen, but what is our Pacific Zen School? What is the school of me? Who am I?
This koan is part of a triptych from Baling (Snake Land), who was also known as “Mouthy Chien.” When he succeeded Yunmen (Cloud Gate), Baling refused the scroll that is customarily given by the teacher, and instead gave these three “turning phrases” to Yunmen. Yunmen enjoyed them so much he asked Baling to read them to the assembly every anniversary after his death.
The first: What is the way? The clearly enlightened person falls into a well. In the last months of his life, my dying father was extremely difficult to work with, often verbally abusing the very caregivers who were most helpful to him. I felt in dealing with him I was falling into a well of despair and anger. But then, after a full-throated, shouting incident in the hospital (“Dad, can’t you be nicer to these people?” “Oh, f**k you! “No, f**k you!” and etc.), I let the well fall into me. It was very freeing for me: my gift to my father was to allow him to be anyone he wished in his last months, rather than who I wanted him to be. My guess is, allowing the well to fall into me also made conditions easier for him.
The second: What is the blown-hair sword (a sword so sharp, dropping a hair on it cuts the hair in half)? Each branch of coral holds up the moon. When I hold my hands palm up and out, each fingertip seems to me to be a branch of coral, radiating the light of the new moon.
The third: What is Zen? Snow piled in a silver bowl. I love to luxuriate in the imagery of this koan, and the poetic metaphors in Zen are many:
A white horse enters the white field of flowers…
The heron hides in the moonlight…
The golden duck sensor dissolves into the golden brocade…
A black raven flies through a dark and moonless sky.
Luxurious silence. When I was in my late teens, my dream was not to go to college, but to go adventuring in Alaska, find a place in the wilds to build a log cabin, and live in the woods by myself. I did just that: After we rafted the Yukon River for 800 miles, I started a solo hitchhike down the Alaska Highway, and was picked up by a van outside of Anchorage. The driver had a friend who needed help building a log cabin. Starving as I was, I happily worked for food and ended up living alone in that cabin over the winter with my friend’s white dog, Chena. That winter, I mushed sled dogs in training for the second year of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, did some rabbit trapping for food, and we shot a moose, dividing the meat among our distant neighbors.
It was utterly beautiful to see the snow falling on the face of Sheep Mountain, where the cabin was located. Sometimes the deep quiet of the night was punctuated with the howls of wolves far across the Matanuska River. During the day, I did zazen for several hours; I carried water and chopped firewood. In the woods was everything I thought I wanted: adventure, natural beauty, and solitude. But I discovered something else: the noise in my head came with me into the still wilds. Living in the wilderness, as beautiful as it was, did not bring the peace and deep silence I had hoped for. That summer, I returned south to California.
We have clear ideas about awakening, including the need to achieve perfection before we can realize it. So we seek a perfect practice, community, and state of mind. We seek our metaphoric “cabin the woods.” But in giving up ideas of perfection, we can find a grander, larger beauty. And it is surprising and fresh when we find it. Further in The Song of Enlightenment:
The moon shines on the river,
The wind blows through the pines.
Whose providence is this long and beautiful evening?