Dongshan is ill

Case 94 in the Book of Serenity is entitled Dongshan is Unwell. Here’s the case:

Dongshan was unwell.
A monk asked, “Your Reverence is unwell. Is there anyone who does not become ill?”
Dongshan said, “There is.”
The monk said, “Does the one who does not get ill take care of Your Reverence?”
Dongshan said, “The old monk is properly taking care of that one.”
The monk said, “How about when your Reverence takes care of that one?”
Dongshan said, “Then the old monk does not see that there is illness.”

Dongshan, whose Japanese name is Tozan, lived during the Tang Dynasty. He was born in 807 into the educated class among whom Chan Buddhism was popular and he began to study Chan when he was quite young. It was clear he was precocious and so he was sent to train in a Chan monastery at 10. At 21 he was ordained as a priest. He spent a good part of his early training life wandering between Chan masters, as was customary for a monk at that time. At 52, Dongshan established his own school known as Caodong, which we know in Japanese as Soto. He died at 63, having spent two thirds of his life as a monk.

Like many cases in the Book of Serenity, it’s not immediately obvious what case 94 means. Sometimes I think the Book of Serenity is mis-titled and should be called The Book of Perplexity instead, because so many of the cases in the book are baffling. In this case, Dongshan is sick. One of his monks takes advantage of the situation to ask him about the Dharma. The monk notes that Dongshan’s sick and asks if there’s anyone who doesn’t get sick. This is a rich question. What’s he asking? One way to hear the question is in terms of basic Buddhist teaching: the question could refer to Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha. It was Prince Gautama’s first exposure to sickness, old age, and death as inevitable, inescapable sources of human suffering that launched him on his spiritual journey. In this context, what else could Dongshan say but “No. There’s no one who doesn’t become ill.”

But that’s not what Dongshan says. He says the opposite: “There is.” There is one who doesn’t become ill. Does he mean the Buddha’s teaching about sickness, old age, and death is incorrect? Are these sources of suffering avoidable? If that’s not what Dongshan means by his reply, then what does he mean?

The monk’s follow up question reveals that the conversation is really taking place in a different context. When the monk asks, “Does the one who does not get ill take care of Your Reverence?” we see that the question of ill and not ill, well and unwell, is about Dongshan. It’s personal as well as abstract and philosophical. The monk is really asking Dongshan if when he is unwell, is he at the same time also well.

In this way, he’s asking Dongshan to address the duality of sickness and health. How does an awakened teacher understand this duality and by extension the dualities of pain and pleasure, good and bad? How does he address the nature of duality itself? Zen is very concrete, so the conversation isn’t just philosophical. It’s grounded in the ordinary, everyday business of sickness. Visualize this situation concretely. Imagine Dongshan, in his 50’s – this would be rather elderly for an era when the average lifespan was something like 30 to 40 –in his room in bed. He’s got the flu, he’s sniffling, his eyes are bloodshot, he’s got a fever. Maybe the monk is Dongshan’s attendant, bringing him a cup of broth. He serves the broth, makes a bow, and asks his question. Dongshan, the master, doesn’t get a break from teaching just because he’s not well.

Dongshan says there is one who does not get ill. In other words, even though I am ill, there’s more to see about the nature of illness and health and about who this “one” who is ill or not is in the deepest sense. The monk asks, “Does the one who does not get ill take care of Your Reverence?” In other words, if there’s one who does not get ill, does that one take care of the one who is ill? This seems like a natural and logical way to frame the duality of ill and not-ill, of sickness and health. After all, the monk who is not ill is taking care of Dongshan, the one who is ill. Wouldn’t you expect Dongshan’s answer to be yes? It would be a comforting and comfortable response, something like, “Even though I am ill, I have transcended this suffering and my Buddha mind, my awakened mind, can hold and care for my symptoms and my discomfort without being disturbed.”

But Dongshan’s answer is not in accordance with this logic. Donshan says, “The old monk is properly taking care of that one.” To be clear about this meaning, the old monk refers to Dongshan himself. Dongshan is saying that the one who is ill is actually taking care of the one who is not. This is how I understand this dialogue. It’s backwards. What does Dongshan mean? Please think about what it might mean that the one who is ill takes care of the one who is not. Is this Zen double-talk? Is Dongshan actually an early Chinese Jewish mother martyr. “Never mind me, honey.”

The monk asks Dongshan to clarify – “How about that?” – and Dongshan says, “Then the old monk does not see that there is illness.” So when the one who is ill takes care of the one who is not, then there’s no such thing as illness. In other words, illness in its usual sense is no longer relevant. It’s no longer a problem in the way the monk might understand it. Illness and non-illness are harmonized. Duality is transcended. And this transcendence includes the one who is ill taking care of the one who is not.

This is a little tricky. It’s not Zen-speak for “every cloud has a silver lining.” It’s something else. There is illness and there is health. But our usually rigid way of defining these conditions and holding them in opposition to each other is too narrow. The point is to be careful about our rigid categories. We use these categories of good and bad to organize our lives, averting from what we might call “illness” and wishing only for health, or medicine. While no one yearns to be sick, the fact is that illness can be a great teacher. Attachment to health and dread of illness can both be imprisoning. Our usual frame of reference is a complex web of such dualities comprised of what we like and want and what we don’t, and our activity in the world and in the privacy of our own minds is seeking and trying to hold on to the former and avoiding and eliminating the latter.

In zazen, we have an open door policy allowing whatever arises to arise. We just notice and let it go. This is not so easy, this letting go, which is one reason we do extended retreats. In an extended retreat we’re a little sleep deprived, a little physically uncomfortable, a little short of distractions, and as a result, some of our usual fight is knocked out of us. If we’re lucky, we have an experience of giving up. Our preference engine runs out of steam, and we’re just present with whatever arises. One minute, we’re the one who is ill. The next minute, we’re the one who is not. We’re not fighting with what arises and insisting on things being a certain way. And when we really stop fighting, we discover a kind of freedom. This is a taste of the freedom Dongshan is referring to when he says “The old monk does not see that there is illness.”

Illness and health are unified and harmonized as the whole of our life. Because in every moment, there’s simultaneously one who is ill (and unhappy, unskillful, lonely, etc) and one who’s not and transcending duality in practice doesn’t mean abiding in Neverneverland. We abide in this actual world of mass shootings and cancer and bank failures, and we live in this world of the absolute all at once. They’re the same world. We’re in bed with the flu and learning to be the old monk who also doesn’t see that there is illness. This is both our work and our refuge.