The teacher asked a student, ‘Chi’en and her soul are separated, which one is the true Chi’en?’

~ The Gateless Barrier, Case 35

A few weeks ago, several friends were driving the north of San Francisco to a retreat. As they crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, with the vast Pacific to the west and the crowded Bay to the right, one passenger asked another, Don’t you have a story about the bridge towers and the two Ch’iens? She laughed, and said indeed, she did have a story.

The koan above refers to an old folk tale in which two lovers in ancient China eloped, married, and had children. After six years, the daughter was lonely and regretful for the way she left her parents and returned home with her husband, only to find that a likeness of her had been ill in bed all these years. When they met again, the two Ch’iens merged into one person.

‘It was about 10 years ago’, the friend began her story. ‘I was driving up 19th Ave to a retreat and stopped at a light. I turned to the right and my eyes were drawn to the driver of a trolley car waiting in traffic. I recognized that she was Ch’ien. She was middle-aged woman, with long bleach-blonde hair, wearing a midnight-blue uniform. The moment I saw her face, I could see it was hardened with a dark despair, a despair that was killing her. At that moment, my own body was pierced with pain and sorrow. Her life became my life: the two Ch’iens joined.’

‘Further north, I gazed up at the sky, seeing the uppermost sections of the two vermillion-colored towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rising above the trees. There they were, the two Ch’iens, elegant, gracious, full of nobility and beauty. I entered the bridge and as I drove through the two great towers I was moving into and through the bodies of the two Ch’iens. Filled with a tremendous joy, I begin to simultaneously laugh out loud and cry. There were not two Ch’iens, but only one, I realized, threaded and woven together with steel cables. I looked at the myriad people walking, jogging, and biking across the bridge and they have all become Ch’ien. This seemed very funny and right. My gaze expanded to take in the city beyond, seeing that it too, and all that it contained, had also become Ch’ien. All things~rocks, stars, redwoods, and all beings who ever felt alone, separate and divided~merged and were blessed.’

Recalling the trolley-car driver, our friend finished, ‘Some people come to Zen hoping to find a way to avoid the pains, sorrows, losses and grief that are a part of every human life, no matter how well planned and insulated. But Zen does not offer protection in that way. It goes the other direction. We enter into life fully, welcoming every particle of the universe without reserve or discrimination, letting life have us completely, Through that act of deeply attending~a form of love~the separated beings, the two Ch’iens, become whole.’