There is a true person with no rank who is constantly coming in and out through the gates of your face.

~ The Record of Linji, Discourses, III

There is something magical and mysterious about koan work that allows us to break beyond the expected bounds of our lives. One great example are some lines from a Tony Hoagland poem, Cement Truck, which I quoted last week, about how he found his poem too narrow for its subject:

I knew I might have to make the center of the poem wider

When the cement truck had to turn a corner…

Some weeks ago, I was working with a friend on this above Linji koan, and as often happens, she took just a piece of the koan to make her own. Any piece of a koan, of course, is all of a koan. So instead of focusing on the qualities of people and ranks, she found her mind grabbing onto just the one word true. She became saturated in true, but not a true with meaning, a true without any meaning whatsoever. She realized, in the most physical way, that she was true. Laughing, and feeling both full and light, she asked, “Is that it? What about all the explanations? All the books? All the writings?” I gave her the only answer I could: “True.”

My first Zen teacher, who I had known since high school, passed away in June, and in his will I was named to receive all his Buddhist and Taoist books and relics, several boxes of which now sit in my office. He had apparently ordered a couple copies of many books, including old, hard covers, because he had already given me copies of these over the years. So I began giving way the duplicates to friends. One friend wrote back in thanks: “Looking through the marvelous books today. Did you know they smell like incense? ahhh…such a wonderful gift.” My first thought was, I wonder what they taste like? I asked her to chew on them a bit and let me know.

That, of course, is the best way to appreciate Zen books: smell them, taste them, listen to the sound they make as you knock on them with your knuckles, or look at them as they lay next the cat in a patch of sunshine on the floor. Only by experiencing them directly ~ through the gates of your face ~ can you know their true rank, which is no rank. Oh my. I just said too much. Let me just say this: True.