Today’s Koan: “Manjushri Enters the Gate” – The Iron Flute, Case 1
One day as Manjushri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, “Manjushri, Manjushri, why do you not enter?”
Manjushri relied, “I do not see myself outside. Why enter?”
Some background: In Buddhist mythology, Manjushri is the bodhisattva representing wisdom. A “bodhisattva” (“Bodhi” from the Sanskrit means an enlightened or awakened understanding and “sattva” means a being or spirit) can be roughly translated as a person who is focused on reaching the goal of enlightenment or whose very essence is enlightenment.
This koan describes how the Buddha was testing Manjushri’s understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. But what was he testing? Remember, a koan is a problem that can’t be solved by the intellect or our typical classifications or conceptualizations. The Buddha was not testing Manjushri’s ability to enter a gate, nor the fact that there was a gate to perceived by the senses.
Before digging deeper into Manjushri’s answer, let’s pause and consider what Manjushri represents. He represents wisdom. Wisdom is very different than intellect. I’m sure your life experiences have clearly demonstrated the difference between intellect and wisdom, as you observe your own thinking and the thinking of others. Like the old story goes about a child-turned-adult remarking how much smarter her parents seemed to have gotten.
Manjushri, representing wisdom, answers without even mentioning a gate. This is clearly not an answer of intellect alone, but one of wisdom. It would seem that he must have made the Buddha happy with that answer. He answered from wisdom, from seeing without duality: He did not discriminate between inside the gate and outside the gate.
Rev. Gyomay Kubose’s comment expresses that wisdom this way:
Manjushri replied, in effect, that there is no gate in the world of Truth. Truth is everywhere; he was not outside it. But still, [we feel] that there is a gate. But it is a gateless gate and hard to enter, even though it stand wide open all the time! The gateless gates are numerous—as many as there are people. Each must enter through his own gate.
That is how Rev. Gyomay Kubose helped us work with this koan, but each person must bring his own wisdom to it. How can you use this koan in everyday life? How can you use this koan to break free from thinking ruts, hardened concepts, and judgments?
You can begin by asking yourself where do you see gates? Is it a promotion or other title you’d like to be considered for, but not sure you’d be seen as perfect? Is it another industry or job entirely? Or is it the other way around? Do you see yourself as inside the gate and who outside have you not invited in? And why?
Ask yourself where have you discriminated between inside and outside? What represents “the inside” to you? Money? Position? Security? Being Liked?
What represents the outside? Have you thought to step inside or outside to see what it looks like? Have you really imagined in full detail how it would be to be “on the other side”? Is it where you would like to be? Is it that much different than the ‘side’ you are on now?
And even if you aren’t discriminating between inside and outside a gate, why haven’t you entered? If you sense a gate between what you want and what you don’t have, why haven’t you made steps to enter?
Is there a gate between you and someone else? Why do you think that gate is permanent? Maybe it doesn’t exist at all. Maybe you could just walk through the gate that was wide open all the time and say “Hi.”
When I work with this koan, I end up asking myself, if Manjushri didn’t see himself on outside, then why didn’t he enter?
And that leads me to ask myself where it is I haven’t entered my life fully. Where is it I’m not allowing myself to truly enter into or connect to person in my life or a part of me? Where am I content to be a half-hearted participant in a cause or activity I believe in or where am I just going through the motions of doing something—instead of being fully-engaged—jumping up off the bleachers at the risk of possible failure, embarrassment, or the fear of being seen as different.
Maybe the best practice using this koan is to ask yourself every day, “Where is the gate?” or just “Where?” And also ask “Why should I enter?”
And another is “Where have I put a gate of separation between myself and another; between ‘my group’ and ‘the other?’
Every time you pause to ask yourself to think again, you come one step closer to true wisdom. You come to the place where you don’t see yourself, or anyone else, as outside or inside.
Today’s koan is “Bells and Robes” by Unmon (Case 16)
Zen Master Unmon said: “The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?
A monk in a Zen temple lives a regulated life—much more rigid than our professional lives—or is it?
The koan refers to the meditation hall bell. When it sounds, the monk puts on his robe and goes to the hall.
But Unmon asks, “Why?” Some background: There is a Buddhist saying that whatever comes in through the gates is foreign. The gates are the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch.
As the story goes, if we move and act guided only by the senses, we are following foreign commands. If we see with our eyes only and hear with only our ears, we are living at the command of something other than who we really are—our authentic self.
Some commentators remark on this koan that to really understand our self, we need to see sound. See sound? This is where you need to break the chains of concepts and free your mind to see what that means to you.
How can you use this koan in everyday life? The best way to put this koan to work is to use Unmon’s question as a mantra for a while. Why? Ask yourself, “why?”
Are your days lived following the ‘commands’ whispered to you by social norms? Other people’s professional or personal expectations of you? The siren call of commercialism? The need to be acknowledged or liked through habitual Facebook or Instagram posts and comments … and instant text message responses?
In response to those ‘bells’ in your environment, are you regulated to move, speak, or react without thinking? Without asking, “Why?” Do you frequently feel pressured, nervous, frustrated, or angry? Do you think it may be because you’re doing things based on foreign commands?
Maybe those foreign commands are the only ones you’ve ever heard. Maybe you haven’t looked to see the sound of what’s inside you in a long time—or ever!
Try this: Before the next thing you are about to do … or the next words you are about to say, ask yourself, “Why?” Then look inside to see the sound of the answer. YOUR answer.
I will end with Rev. Gyomay Kubose’s ending comments on this koan:
“…if one settles down firmly in one’s inner life, all actions, feeling, and deeds come from deep within. The unenlightened one does things because he MUST do them; the enlightened one acts because he wants to. Freedom lies in the center of life. Unmon points to the center.”
Today’s koan is “No Cold and Heat” by Tozan (Blue Cliff Record Case 43: Dongshan’s Cold and Heat)
A monk asked Tozan “How can we escape the cold and heat?”
Tozan replied, “Why not go where there is no cold and heat?”
“Is there such a place?” the monk asked.
Tozan commented, “When cold, be thoroughly cold; when hot, be hot through and through.”
This koan points to a counterintuitive recommendation of action that can ultimately make us happier and more successful. That is, instead of avoiding circumstances that make us uncomfortable, we should turn toward them. Face them and walk right into and through them. Can you consider what might happen if you turned toward your discomfort, rather than avoiding it?
Another wording of the last line in this classic koan is, “When it is cold, let the cold kill you. When it is hot, let the heat kill you.” This does not imply that we walk into fire and burn to death, nor plunge into ice and die from hypothermia. It is trying to take you beyond the words; beyond the concepts; beyond the description that you have applied to your self and your circumstances.
The heat and cold in this koan represent the troubles and challenges we face in life. Our discomforts. Obviously, if we can easily escape, we do. But life sometimes presents problems that can’t be escaped. So, is there a place where there is no trouble? Tozan says there is.
That place is the place we arrive at when we become one with the discomfort or trouble that presents. When we do so, we emerge as the master, rather than the victim. This principle is the point of “being thoroughly cold” or “hot through and through.” This is how cold or heat will kill you and you will be happy about it. It will kill you when you forget about how cold or how hot you are; when you stop complaining about it and stop trying to avoid it. You will just do what you’re doing and be hot; be cold.
The “killing” is in the forgetting.
You will forget when you accept what is before you and take action. Instead of spending hours worrying about why something is happening to you or how you’re going to deal with what is happening to you, you will take action by accepting it. According to Gregg Krech of the ToDo Institute (http://www.todoinstitute.org/), who wrote the book The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology, taking action is “doing what needs to be done when it need to be done in response to the needs of the situation.”
Pretty simple, isn’t it? This “secret” derives from a model of psychology referred to as Morita Therapy. It is a therapy based in Zen and an Eastern worldview. Morita Therapy has four key elements:
1) Acceptance. When we are in situations that make us physically or emotionally uncomfortable, the first thing we do is to try to change or manipulate the circumstances. We find a way to escape. We escape through avoidance, resignation, and complaining, rather than accepting what is.
2) Avoidance. This is a strategy based on resistance, rather than acceptance. The problem with this strategy is that resistance, too, causes discomfort by our preoccupation with how to avoid and what we are avoiding.
3) Resignation. This sounds like acceptance—and it is what most of us with a Western worldview think of as acceptance. Resignation is a passive acceptance or depressed acceptance. It is the languishing in our negative feelings or procrastination.
4) Complaining. Complaining perpetuates our discomforts. As Gregg Krech wrote: “Who is hotter—a person who constantly complains throughout the day about how hot it is or a person who doesn’t complain?” Complaining reminds us, and those around us, of our discomfort, rather than helping us to focus on something else.
I worked with a client who told me a story about how she turned into her discomfort, her trouble, in a situation most of us would try to avoid, resign, or complain about. At the time of the story, my client was a department director at a major corporation. I will refer to her department as marketing and the corporation as a financial services leader. The marketing department had become very successful since she headed it. She was exceeding all goals and objectives and, at the same time, earning industry awards for innovative programs she developed and instituted.
A new COO moved in and wanted to institute Lean Six Sigma projects to identify where ROI could be improved across the corporation. He wanted to start with my client’s department as the initial Six Sigma pilot program. Now, my client’s first reaction, of course, was to feel unappreciated. Here she was, the most successful leader in the corporation bringing all sorts of good press and market visibility to the corporation, and he wanted to pick her operation apart.
Yet, my client was very wise. Instead of complaining, avoiding, or resentfully resigning, she embraced the program. She dove into Six Sigma methodology and steered the pilot to complete success. It was so successful that, not only did the ROI of her department’s programs improve, she became the corporation’s “go-to” for Six Sigma leadership and, ultimately, a highly visible and in-demand presenter on Six Sigma in marketing and Six Sigma in the financial services industry.
This brings us back to acceptance. As my Sensei, Rev. Koyo Kubose teaches, “Acceptance IS transcendence.” The only way to transcend your discomfort is by actively accepting things as they are. This is NOT resignation! The word for this is arugamama, meaning “to accept things as they are.”
When we accept things as they are, we stop wasting time wishing things were some other way … wishing the people around us were different … wishing we were different … wishing our boss was different or our job was different. This state of arugamama is the same quality of non-resistance taught in marital arts.
When an opposing force is strong, direct resistance is ineffective, but if you don’t resist, the force flows through us and back to its source.
When you’re unhappy, anxious, or worried, accept and move forward. We can move forward now because we aren’t trapped by our thoughts. We have forgotten ourselves (“killed” ourselves) and moved on to the task at hand. Gregg Krech writes that “acceptance—of our internal human condition as well as external conditions— is at the very heart of action.”
January 1, 2016 and I’m beginning a new practice for the new year: Reading, reflecting, and meditating on a Zen koan each day. I will be using the book Zen Koans, by Rev. Gyomay Kubose, the father of my teacher, Rev. Koyo Kubose, and the founder of our school and center, The Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism.
A Zen koan is, in essence, a problem that can’t be solved by the intellect. In trying to understand it, you run up against the limitations of thought and, hopefully, tap into a direct and non-verbal awareness of reality. Koans plumb a dimension deeper than the five senses that keep us attached to things, conditions, and concepts—preventing us from being aware and resilient in the face of challenge and change.
Koans plumb a dimension deeper than the five senses that keep us attached to things, conditions, and concepts—preventing us from being aware and resilient in the face of challenge and change.
We typically intellectualize and conceptualize our life—both personally and professionally. When we do that, we shackle ourselves to concepts. Concepts seem so real that our mind gets confused about whether it’s a concept or an absolute. These concepts harden like concrete, keeping our minds trapped and our forward momentum stuck.
We may classify or conceptualize certain people as “trouble” or “wrong” or “bad.” We may categorize a task or activity as “beneath us” or “too hard.” We may look to escape our job because the company our department is “behind the times.” Once that concept has repeated in our thoughts long enough, then that person IS trouble for us … the project impossible … and the company useless and of no value, even though we receive our paycheck from them.
Our minds have become victims to those perspectives and we freeze that person into a characterization, a concept, rather than a living being capable of change. And no task is beneath us, really. If a task that is a part of our job or our family life and it needs doing, then it is our responsibility to life to do it. Is a company or organization really not capable of change? Or did we make it not capable by giving up and looking to get out—essentially abandoning any help we can offer.
As part of my practice, I thought I would repackage and share a few of the koans, as brief blog posts offering a different way for you to view and respond to your professional life. Sometimes a new way of looking at things can help you solve a work problem, overcome a challenge with a co-worker, be more productive, or—if you’re a job seeker—bring a new, more positive energy to the challenge.
Today’s koan is “Every Day Is a Good Day” by Unmon: Unmon said: “I do not ask you about fifteen days ago. But about fifteen days hence? Come, say a word about this!” Since none of the monks answered, he answered for them: “Every day is a good day.”
Calligraphy on scroll reading, “Nichi, Nichi, Kore, Ko, Jitsu” meaning “every day is a good day.”
Is every day a good day? I can hear the resounding chorus now. “No!” you answer. Every day is certainly not a nice or easy day, as in compared to a bad day. Every day is THE absolute day. It is the ONLY day you have right now, so that’s good. It doesn’t repeat. It’s brand new and fresh. The goodness of today is that it IS the absolute day you have to live right now. Rain, shine, sickness, health, angry boss or promotion, overdue project with a drop-dead delivery date of today, or a project extension.
The day itself is not bad or good. All days are the absolute day; all days are good days. Only the concepts we hold about circumstances as bad—the rain or the angry boss—and our expectations—sunshine and a promotion—make us label the day as bad, in comparison to our expectations. We are the ones that turn our days into bad days. The day has nothing to do with it.
We are the ones that turn our days into bad days. The day has nothing to do with it.Yesterday or last week is only a reference. Tomorrow or next week is a hope. Rain or sunshine is a natural condition. An angry boss or promotion is only a circumstance. It is up to us to not freeze the conditions or circumstances of life into reality. When we do, we are the ones that have made our days bad days.
This from a LinkedIn article and blog post series on my career coaching website
About these blog posts
A mix of older posts I wrote for the blog, Suchness: It's All Good - Buddhist Ramblings, LinkedIn articles, and Career Coaching blog posts.