Shenshan was mending clothes with a needle and thread. “What are you doing?” asked Dongshan
“How is that?”
“One stitch is like the next,” said Shenshan.
“We’ve been traveling together for twenty years, and you still talk like that! How can this be?” exclaimed Dongshan.
“How do you mend?” asked Shenshan.
“The whole earth is spewing flames,” said Dongshan.
~ The Record of Dongshan, 30
Working with friends on koans never ceases to take both of us in directions unexpected. Recently, I was sharing the above koan with a friend, as part of the regular curriculum. The whole earth is spewing flames. The koan seems appropriate, almost obvious, for the times, and I expected a good discussion of the wildfires and their impact in our lives. But kind of waving aside the main point of this foundational koan, she said, “Of course the whole earth is spewing flames. It always has been thus.” And we moved on.
Instead, she wanted to visit Shenshan’s mending; she questioned the notion that anything at all was worn, rent or torn. “Mending what? There is nothing to mend. It is just a word, “ she said. Then she shared a story from when she was a child. “One day, when I was little, I was looking at a table. But instead of calling it a table, I decided to call it a radio.” I laughed. “So from then on,” she said, that table was, for her, was “radio.” “Mending is just a name,” she added. “We can call it anything.” Mending is a table, mending is radio, a stitch.
In the world of Indra’s net, where every knot has a jewel of many facets which reflects the light of all other jewels, she seemed to be making two wonderful points. The first was: “not one thing is out of place.” The world is perfect and complete, just as it is, so how could we possibly fix it? There is nothing to mend. The second was, “before words.” Words, in Zen, are not that helpful; most of this note is just a bent finger pointing at the moon. If we are to demonstrate the truth of the universe, we must experience it directly. We must show, not tell. The first lines of the Tao Te Ching are: “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao; the Word that can be mentioned, is not the true word.”
Fundamentally, all things are unnamed until we attach ideas to them. And in putting a name on things, we diminish their possibilities. Only in a world before names may a table become a radio.
Then my friend seemed to head off on another direction: “I want to have a conversation about kensho (seeing the nature).” I could see that Dongshan had lit a match. Talking about “enlightenment” as a “thing”, as something outside of her everyday life, made her very anxious. Smoke clouds begin to gather. She said of the confusion, “I wrote and rewrote many emails about it, but did not send them…I could not sleep.” I began to see Dongshan’s flames usher forth.