At the end of summer training, the teacher Tsui Yen said to the community: “All summer long I’ve been rambling on for your benefit. Did my eyebrows fall out (Did I fail in my teaching?).”

Pao Fu said, “This thief has a guilty heart!” Ch’ang Ch’ong replied, “They’re getting bushier!” Yunmen shouted, “Barrier!”

~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 8

Recently reading this koan I thought of one of my most difficult, but also most meaningful retreats as a teacher in recent years. It was two years ago, and I was scheduled to give a talk. It was a fiery, passionate time: a new president had been elected and emotions were inflamed. In my talk, I somehow mistakenly said that I was a registered Republican, which I was not. In the question period following, one of the people in the audience shouted with emotion, “And when you said you were a Republican, I just want to say: “F**k you!” I shouted back, “No, f**k you! But I love you.” This person’s response was, “I can never love you!”

The exchange was probably not a typical exchange in teisho, but there was a kind of rough, unplanned purity to it, so I was fine with it. Then a few mixed reviews came in and personal doubts about my “eyebrows” began to creep in for me. Retreats, for me, can become non-linear and emotional, and I swirled down into a kind of darkness. I became deliciously unhinged, with “F**k you!, but I love you.” becoming my koan. I owned those lines as I sat, walked, ate and slept with them.

On the last night, I was scheduled to give the closing words, and still burning with my new-found koan, I went to another (more sensible teacher) and told her I thinking of giving the closing words as: “F**ck you, but I love you!” She looked as if her cat had come in and coughed up a hairball at her feet. “JJ,”, she said kindly, “The closing words are used to send the bodhisattvas off to bed and sleep. I don’t think those words would be proper.” Still in my fever, I agreed, and ran out. Going upstairs, I picked up a book of koans, and it immediately fell open to these beautiful, evocative lines from Tungshan. These were the lines I gave:

For whom do we bath and apply make-up?/The call of the cuckoo follows me home/A hundred flowers fall, and the sound is not stilled/I go into the craggy and dark peaks, and the cuckoo call follows me there.

What that retreat taught me is that with our community, in our practice, and in our retreats, it is essential that we bring our whole humanity into the mix, whatever it might be at that moment. And stay with it. Feeling unhinged for a few days? Excellent, have all of it, and more. And when we do that, there are no eyebrows to fall, no barriers to stand against. There is only our true self.