Where did the wild geese go?

Fukushima roshi said Zen could be called the religion that teaches the self. I return to this question – what is the self? – over and over, asking “Who am I really? What is my nature?” These questions seem to me to be essentially the same as asking the more comprehensive ontological question – What is the nature of existence? – but when I frame the question in terms of me, myself, (or you, yourself) right here, right now – the question is more immediate.

An old Zen story about Hyakujo and his teacher Zen Master Baso touches on this question. I don’t find every old Zen story to be useful, but some of them are real beauties and, preserving the culture of these stories is important to me as part of the lineage I’ve been trained in. Because they can be baffling, at least on first meeting, these old stories help capture attention. They’re challenging and intriguing and can’t be understood with the usual analytical tools. They wake up a different muscle.

I’ve been taking yoga classes to help me deal with back pain I experience from long walks. I’m committed to long walks but often have back pain afterwards. My yoga teacher finds and engages muscles I don’t usually use. The postures and movements she teaches “wake up” these dormant, underused muscles. At first I couldn’t feel them, but I’m beginning to, my posture is changing, as is how I walk. The result is less back trouble. These old Zen stories are similar, as is Zen as a whole, a yogic practice that awakens muscles you didn’t know you had and changes your posture and how you walk through the world.

Hyakujo was a Chinese monk who lived from 720 to 814. He’s famous for establishing monastic rules and for the dictum “a day of no work is a day of no food.” This was important because the monastic tradition was reliant on alms. With Hyakujo, monks became less dependent on donations – and looked less like freeloaders – and work was a way to integrate their practice into their bodies. Hyakujo’s also famous for the story of the old man and the fox which tackles the question of cause and effect, of actions and consequences, and how Zen understands this question. The story I want to talk about today is called Hyakujo and the wild geese. It’s case 53 in the Blue Cliff Record.
Hyakujo was a disciple of Zen Master Baso. He was walking with Baso through a meadow when they saw some wild geese in flight. Baso asked, “What is that?” and Hyakujo answered, “Wild geese.” Baso asked, “Where did they go?” and Hyakujo answered, “They flew away.” Baso gave Hyakujo’s nose a tweak, Hyakujo howled, and Baso said, “They didn’t go anywhere,” at which point Hyakujo had a realization. Fukushima roshi commented, “If something has no relationship to you yourself, it’s not Zen.”

Zen teaches that the self is not what we usually think it is. This is the teaching of the Baso and Hyakujo story of the wild geese. Keep in mind that this dialog was between intimates. They knew each other deeply. Baso had been Hyakujo’s teacher for some time and in Hyakujo’s answer “They flew away,” Baso sensed a gap in Hyakujo’s practice and so he tweaked his nose. Wake up! This is a story about realizing that the self is everything, and as everything, the self is constantly becoming the self in relationship with whatever is arising, moment by moment. The wild geese are flying away and they are right here. Hyakujo is right here and he is flying away.

This is at the heart of Zen practice, understanding the self that is at once the self and no-self. An actual self, but unfixed. Temporary and contingent. It is a foreign idea, a mysterious idea, so it tends to be confusing. How can it be that there is no fixed self or that the self is everything? I am Peter. This is clear to me. I am not Bruce. I am not Mick Jagger. I exist and I am here. And when I get in my car and go away, I won’t be here any more. This seems plain. So what to make of this case?

The other day I was sitting in my living room thinking about this question. It was lovely outside, but I had the doors to the outside closed because it was still pollen season and I’m allergic. I was thinking about the air outside the room and the air inside the room, partitioned off. The air inside the room, closed off, protected, became a metaphor for the separate self, the individual self. But I thought I could also fairly say the air inside the room and the air outside were also “one air.” Later, I opened the doors and a soft breeze blew through the living room, mixing the air inside the room with the air outside. With the breeze blowing, which air was “the air in the room” and which air was “the air outside?” The room didn’t cease to exist and there was air in it – the air the self, the room the form of the self. But the air inside the room – the self – was, together with the breeze blowing through, now more obviously one with the air outside. Did the air in the room fly away like the wild geese? I think it’s possible to see that the air outside was not separate from either the air inside the room or from all the air and space in the whole universe.

Thinking about the air like this is a way to understand the self and the wild geese and Hyakujo (and his nose). To push the metaphor further, keeping the doors closed was necessary. Understanding my needs as an individual self, separate and distinct, was useful. Everyone needs to take care of herself. But if this vision of the self as separate and sealed off is the whole story, the whole picture, that’s not so good. The air in the room gets stale and if the room is sealed off too tightly, the oxygen is finally depleted. So it’s a good idea to find the windows and doors and learn how to operate them. That’s one of the gifts of Zen practice. We learn to open the windows and doors and let the breeze blow through.

When I sit in zazen, for example, I notice everything that passes through my mind and the many sensations in my body and this breeze of existence is in one sense actually who I am when I am sitting. It is, together with my mind and body apparatus and my history and all of you sitting in the room with me, my self. I exist as an individual self, but this self is not static and is not really separate from everything. The air in the room and the air outside are the same air. And one thing we’re aiming for in practice is to understand this, not just to understand it intellectually, but to have some concrete experience of it, of the self constantly becoming the self in relationship with what is arising, moment by moment.

(from a talk given at Zen Center of Fresno, May 2014)