Deshan one day descended to the dining hall, bowls in hand. Xuefeng asked him, “Where are you going with your bowls in hand, Old Teacher? The bell has not yet rung, and the drum has not yet sounded.” Deshan turned and went back to his room.

~ Gateless Barrier, Case 13

I thought it might be useful to revisit this koan for a second week, in a slightly different, perhaps more clinical, light: as an example of the fluidity and liveliness of koan practice. The source of awakening, the source of the very play of the universe, is a mystery, and ultimately, perhaps unknowable. But in working with koans, one thing we can experience and know, time and again, are their qualities of spontaneity, dynamism, and freedom. Rather than painting by numbers, we join in the free-hand expression of world.

When I read this koan to the Zoom group last week, it seized me in a way I had not anticipated. I have probably read the koan 200 times, but this time, rather than being about “An Invitation”, as it had been only days before, it was about “The bell has not yet rung, and the drum has not yet sounded.” Of course, of course! The bell has not yet rung, and the drum has not yet sounded! Isn’t this how the world is? In the Tao Te Ching, the first lines are, “The Way that can be spoken of is not the true Way; The Word that can be mentioned, is not the true Word.” Before the bell and the drum have sounded is a vast world of possibility.

In chatting with a friend earlier this week, we talked about the invitation that life gives us, without definition and without measure. Being an acoustical guitar maker, he said, that moment before the bell rings is always present, and “You wonder what the next move will be. You sit in that spot, and all of a sudden, the next move is there.” Laughing, he added, “Sometimes it is a disaster, because once a piece of wood is sawdust…” Going on, he said, “In music it is so obvious; how is this next note going to be placed, is it going here, or here? A lot of times, I’m sitting there, as I play, watching what is going to show up next, like everyone else.”

We moved onto a specific koan in the curriculum that he had taken up: “When the rain beats on the pear blossoms, a butterfly flies up.” He said, “I had the koan in my head this past week, and then today, I looked it up, and it was completely different.” The koan had morphed to: “When the rain falls, the peach blossoms rise up.” But that quickly just became for him “peach blossoms.” He said, “My mind has this tendency to want to find something profound. I get out of bed every morning, and it is peach blossoms; the sunrise is peach blossoms.” He added, “But I was driving over a bridge the other day, it was a beautiful day, and all of a sudden, it was just peach blossoms. I can’t explain it.” What came with that feeling was a deep sense of joy and peace. “The peach blossoms allowed me to create space where I could be a bit more open. Those moments are cracks that emerge in the walls, in the tomb. For me, at a certain point in life, there was no light at all. Those cracks happen, and you realize, there is light out there. And it shines on me too.”

Art: Lucky Direction, by Mayumi Oda