Elder Ding asked Linji, “What is the great meaning in Buddhism?”
Linji came down from his seat and grabbed him. Then he pushed him away with one hand.
Ding stood rooted to the spot.
A student nearby asked, “Elder Ding, why don’t you bow?”
Suddenly, great awakening.
~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 32
Several times in recent weeks, the notion of “permissioning” ourselves to enter the world of awakening, to experience freedom, came up for me. A few days ago, a friend brought up the subject: “Every day, I walk out the door and give myself permission to ‘not-know’; not-know where I am going, or what I’m doing.” For her, permissioning is an act of freedom. Yesterday, surfing the internet, I came across an “est-like” Zen program that I had read about many years ago. In the program, you must first admit you are a jerk (I awakened to that long ago), and then give yourself permission to open your heart. During a week-long sesshin a bunch of years ago, I did just that. To my surprise, it kind of worked.
It certainly worked for Elder Ding. Scholars often cite the above koan as a wonderful example of Linji’s dynamic teaching style. After the encounter, Elder Ding himself hit the road, carrying Linji’s forceful style with him. Ding was crossing a bridge over a deep river when a monk approached and asked: “What is the meaning of ‘Where the river of Chan is deep, you must plumb the very bottom?’” The monk’s question was too good to be true: Ding grabbed the monk and almost threw him into the water. When I first read this koan, I was riveted by Ding’s position after getting shoved away by his teacher. Ding came to a dead stop: he couldn’t go forward, backward, up or down. Then a fellow monk told him: should you wish, you may lean into a world of vast freedom. With that, Ding bowed.
When my mother was dying, she had been in the hospital for a few weeks. Mom struggled with a MRSA infection she got in several falls. That Saturday evening in November, I remember, was clear and cool. The stars were out.
The previous weekend, my father had died, just down the hallway in the same hospital. Their relationship had a rich karmic thread: my folks were married for over 30 years, but did not speak for 20 years after they separated; they finally died seven days and 100 feet apart. So, on that Saturday morning, their six children and many grandkids traveled to San Andreas, in the Sierra foothills, to lay my father to rest. We buried him in his U.S. Marine uniform from WW II. When we arrived, we found an honor guard of three Marines atop that lonely hill overlooking the small Gold Country town. They played taps, while we all stood silently around the grave. Their trumpet was the whole of the burial ceremony.
Shortly after, my cousin, who was at the hospital, called to say my mother was fading, and we quickly drove the two hours back. Her children arrived in her room, and we all stood around her bed. I laid in bed next to her, and said, “Mom, we just had a memorial service for Dad. We are all here now. You can go, if you need to.” A few minutes later, the lighted numbers on the beside monitor showing her heart and breath rates were slowing. Her children gave her permission to return to the vast silence. With that, she left us.