The teacher asked a monk, “The woman and her spirit separated. Which is the true Ch’ien?”

~ The Gateless Barrier, Case 35

In Buddhism, it is a feeling of separation ~ between self and other, heart and mind, spirit and body ~ that is the source of human suffering. This koan has been calling to me in recent weeks, beckoning me to revisit a time of feeling a deep sense of separation in my own life. The True Ch’ien referred to in the above koan, is a longer folk tale of a young woman, who since childhood has been mutually in love with her cousin. From an early age, they always knew they would marry. When Ch’ien gets older, her father gives her away to a wealthy suitor, and the boy runs away, crushed. Taking a boat upriver, he sees Ch’ien running along the shore, following him. They go off to a village for six years, wed and have children. Finally, the couple returns to their home village to ask forgiveness of their parents. There they find that Ch’ien’s spirit has lain in her bed these many years, in a coma-like state. When the runaway Ch’ien comes back, the spirit rises out of bed and the two merge. The koan question is: which is the true Ch’ien, the spirit left behind or the physical person who went away?

Last week I wrote about how I struggled with my early koan practice and how I felt deeply disappointed at not getting approved on the koan No. I had come to feel that if it took more effort than what I had already exhibited, then perhaps I would never pass the foundational koan. This feeling of incompleteness dogged me for about six years, including four years of intensive lay practice in Japan. In that time, I sat in graveyards at night, did extra retreats, and did weekend retreats on my own. But try as I might, I could not pass through “the barrier set up by the ancestral teachers.” So, when I returned to the U.S. for graduate school, I soon went down to do a long retreat at the same Zen center in Los Angeles where I had earlier failed to pass the koan. Going into dokusan with one of the teachers, he shouted, “You must be ready to die!” And I responded, “Are you ready to die with me?”, grabbed his bell, and snapped it in two. It must have been a favorite, because he cradled the two pieces in his hands with great remorse. My next move was to shove him out the window, but instead he started peppering me with questions, which I answered. Then he gave me a new koan.

It is not hard, with practice and further koan work to see how my own two Ch’iens were separated. But I am slow to tie this story up in too neat a bow; that Ch’ien and I both had unfinished business to complete. For me, the Ch’ien story is more an affirmation of the wonder, magic, and beauty in our separation, in our delusion. One Ch’ien in bed, one Ch’ien upriver living with her family; even for those six years, there was not one thing out of place. In that same way, it was quite alright that for many years my own two Ch’iens to struggled to find each other. From the beginning, how could they ever be separated?