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Ch'an and the Absurd

The records of Ch'an are full of examples of bizarre dialogues and incidents between masters and disciples. Frequently these seem to have a quality of absurd wit or humor. What is the origin of this quality which appears to be unique to Ch'an, not only among religions, but even within Buddhism itself?



In training disciples, Ch'an masters employ methods that are appropriate for everyday practice, as well as methods that are used only in special situations. They do not regularly employ the kung-ans that Westerners read about when they are first exposed to Ch'an. These kung-ans, which sometimes appear comical, are meant mostly for special occasions. If it were in fact true that Ch'an masters trained disciples only in ways described in these records, a stranger visiting a Ch'an monastery might gain the impression that they were in a mental asylum. In reality, life in a Ch'an monastery is a solemn affair. You would probably never see a Ch'an master burning a Buddha statue to get a point across. However, as it turns out, these unusual incidents are precisely the ones that have been recorded.
Life in a Ch'an monastery is ordinary. The daily life of the master is the same as that of the other monks and nuns. All live according to a strict and full schedule that allows few opportunities for the master to engage in dialogue with other Sangha members, especially newcomers. There are times for group gatherings, but even these are for specific purposes. The senior disciples would usually sit in front, closer to the master. If the master asked questions, only those who had some attainment in practice would dare to answer. Sometimes a dialogue might develop that would seem humorous to an outsider. 

Sometimes newcomers would arrive at a monastery and sit at the back of these gatherings. If they were experienced and confident, they might later come forward to answer questions, or raise some of their own. At those times, even beginners might come forward, seeking direct guidance from the master.

The dialogues in these circumstances were not always conclusive. They were not always resolved with a clear "true" or "false" response. If a monk made apt responses and needed further guidance, the master might grant him an interview. An exception would be the case where the master felt the monk's responses were the product of mere book-learning.
A private interview with a master has far more significance than discussions in the main hall. At the interview, the master might pitch questions at a high or low level. If the monk's mind is bright and clear, no matter what the master says, the response will be spontaneous. This indicates that the monk's mind is in correspondence with the master's.

The master may say that fish swim on mountains and birds fly in the sea. No matter what words are used, the master is interested in one thing ─ determining the disciple's level of understanding. Through this dialogue, the master may find opportunities for guiding the disciple, but not by explanation. The master will do this by using what is called the "opportune sharp action" ─ something that cannot be explained by words, or described by appearances. Still, the master uses language, sometimes gestures, to guide. If the disciple does not grasp the master's meaning, he is told to leave the room immediately.
Or the master may say, "All dharmas are reduced to one. To what is this one reduced?" The disciple may say, "I want to take a leak." What is the connection between the question and response? There doesn't seem to be any. But a master may recognize the disciple's level of experience from it. Perhaps the master may feel that the response is not genuine. The dialogue might continue with, "Who is it that wants to take a leak?" The monk may say nothing and just empty his bladder without further ado. But surely this seems insane from a conventional perspective.

If the monk appears to be feigning, the master may strike him with the incense board. The disciple may seize the board from the master, who might say, "Before you do it, tell me why you want to beat me." Or the master might say, "OK, I won't hit you now, but you owe me thirty blows." To which the disciple might say, "It's you who deserves a beating."

All those interactions would be unintelligible to a third party. But an alert master can immediately understand what's going on. A weak master may dish out punishment or make pointless remarks, and thus risk exposure to a clear-minded disciple. But this is not common. If it did happen, the master should, by all means, take instruction from the disciple.

Pai-chang (720-814) had a disciple who learned under another master, but became enlightened under Pai-chang. Once, when visiting his former master, this monk saw him reading sutras. At that moment, there was a bee trapped inside the house, dashing itself against the paper window. The monk said, "There is a wide road out there, yet all you can do is fly into old paper." Seeing the monk looking at the bee, the old master assumed the remark was directed at the bee. Later, the master was bathing and asked the monk to scrub his back. The monk said, "What a pity, in such a beautiful Buddhist temple not to have a Buddha." This surprised the old master, who wanted to know the meaning of such a strange remark. The monk said, "Master, at Pai-chang's place I found a place of entry. Now I have returned to repay my debt to you." 

The master ordered a feast to be prepared, and invited the monk to speak at the main hall. Again, the monk said, "What a pity, in such a beautiful Buddhist temple not to have a Buddha." When the old master heard this, he had an enlightenment experience. Was the monk saying the old master was not enlightened to begin with? Nobody knows, except the two people involved. But we can say that when masters recognize that they can learn from disciples, they should do so, without necessarily reversing positions. This is another one of those stories that have a humorous or witty aspect.

Ch'an is a direct method. It's impossible to use language or description to show the degree of clarity of one's mind. To say or do nothing at all are also out of the question, so you use any words or actions, directly and spontaneously, which are readily available. The words and actions are tools in the hands of the master, and their meanings cannot be ascertained from their conventional usage.  

Phrases like, "It's raining in the east but the west gets wet, " or "Mr. Li drinks, but Mr. Lo gets drunk" are easy to understand. Words, language and concepts are all man-made artifacts. If we don't stick to the conventional meanings of words, there is no reason why a "bird" could not be a fish, or a "fish" a bird. Besides, from the point of view of unified mind, there is no coming and going of things, no distinction between this and that.

How does the Ch'an master determine the disciple's level of understanding? By asking certain questions and gauging the responses. A simple question, "Have you eaten yet?" could be answered in a number of ways. The disciple could simply say, "Yes, " or, "I've never been hungry." These are completely different responses, and might indicate different levels of experience. If the master then says, "Have you done the dishes?" and the disciple says, "I just did, " it is in fact irrelevant whether the disciple actually washed the dishes. It is the response to the question that matters. The dialogue has nothing to do with "true" or "false."  

While washing rice one day, T'ung-shan (807-869) was approached by his master, who asked, "Are you using water to wash rice, or rice to wash water? When done, do you throw away water or rice?" The answer came, "I throw out both." The master said, "Then what will the monks eat?" The monk replied, "I don't care, " and he walked away. Does it sound like T'ung-shan had gone crazy? Actually, the response reveals T'ung-shan's detachment from everything around him. It reveals a certain level of attainment, though not especially high. This sort of dialogue cannot be imitated, because it arises out of the unique circumstances of the moment. An alert master can sense when an "opportune sharp action" can cut like a knife into the disciple's mind and reveal what's inside.

Things like this seldom happen in a Ch'an master's lifetime. Ch'an is the method of sudden enlightenment. As such, it depends on the occurrence of a certain moment when masters have nothing else to use. They must rely on the most direct means available, and whatever words are on the tips of their tongues. They cannot rely on logic and discrimination. When stories such as these are examined by people not familiar with the method of Ch'an, they may come across as humorous. But if there is any humor at all, it is superficial.
Ch'an is actually solemn and practical. The real Ch'an practice is the practice of daily life. The story of T'ung-shan occurred during a mundane daily activity ─ washing rice. If in daily life, you conduct yourself without attachment, which is already Ch'an practice. Practitioners do not dwell on the idea of God, Buddhas or deities, existing apart from daily life. In this sense, Ch'an is not formal religion. It is more humanistic. But in its human aspect, it is detached from the happenstance of transient moods and feelings. It is a pure life.

Once, a patriarch said to his disciples, "For thirty years I have been saying things to deceive you." One of the disciples responded, "You should have retired long ago." The next day, the patriarch dug a hole large enough for a body. He called the monk who made the remark and said, "If it is true that I should have retied, then bury me. Otherwise, I will bury you. " The monk ran away. Is the problem with the master or monk? This sounds like a crazy Ch'an story, but there is meaning in it. Let the reader contemplate it.



Zen Wisdom, Practicing Chan and another Religion Simultaneously, p.67

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