writing the sutra of our life: a chinese detective, zhuang zi & hard nails

108zb-black-gold-post_2 Lokesh, the Tibetan monk, embodiment of Avalokiteshvara and conscience in Eliot Pattison’s Tibetan detective series, says to anti-hero Shan: “Jamyang told us his story…It is but for us to understand it. He left us the sutra of his life. We simply need to learn how to read it.” One of the most compelling detective series with a strongly Buddhist and pro-Tibetan message, Mandarin Gate(1) is the latest in the life of Chinese detective Shan and his eternal battle to fight wrongs with right. Jamyang is one of the characters in the novel but with Lokesh’s pronouncement, he can be any one of us.

How do we write the sutra of our life? How do we read and understand such a sutra? Sutras are complicated things, filled with mysterious allusions and verbal illusions. Recently, I had the absolute joy of being part of an art show with Kaz Tanahashi. Over a quiet lunch together (a snow squall had kept others stranded in their homes), I asked how best to study Dogen whom I said, “Is complicated though seemingly simple.” He chuckled and nodded: Dogen is in opposites. He writes “self” but he means “Self.” If you don’t know opposites, you cannot know Dogen.

I wish I could say that helped. It did in a reassuring way that one suddenly realizes the mountain is confirming it is a rather large and ofttimes impenetrable mountain which requires a good guide or key to its mystery. And it leaves me wondering what are the keys to these impenetrable lines of mysterious symbols and signs I’ve carved into my life. My spiritual life – though I hesitate to call it that any more, being saturated by the demands of the mundane world. Then again, that is what it is in its truest form be it Zen or any other form. Chogyam Trungpa wrote in The Myth of Freedom(2) that the intent of the discipline of practice (sit, cook, eat) is to go deeper into an intimate relationship with boredom. That is, we drop past the labels, preferences, gold stars (he calls them ‘credentials’) and addictions to form. We enter the naked lines of our scriptured life. We become entirely what we are in each moment, mountain, river, cloud, sky.

Our problem is that we tire of this ‘just is’ and want some reassurance we are on the right track. The unspoken demand is that this will be value-added to our life, our personality, our internal sense of worth. It will be a ‘credential,’ what Linchi called a ‘rank.’ I understand that it is hard to keep plugging along without some reinforcement. Truthfully the dishes wouldn’t get done without that promise of dessert after. And this is the key to understanding the sutra of our life: we make it all contingent on something happening for us (not in us).

After all, it says that in the suttas, sutras, and every teaching. Hearing the stone on the bamboo brought enlightenment! Seeing the ember, the raised finger…

Gutei-cropWait. What was that story? Gutei’s finger in the Mumokan! Gutei answered questions by raising his finger. His attendant started copying him and Gutei, seeing his mischief cut off the attendant’s finger. As the boy ran away crying, Gutei called to him and raised his finger. The attendant attained enlightenment! Boom! See, we take the raised finger as propellant to full realization and run around flipping it out. Instead of appreciating the simplicity of the one-fingered teaching, we elevate it and ritualize it.

There are all kinds of interpretations of this koan. The boy’s understanding was superficial. Teachings have nothing to do with fingers (sometimes they might with some fingers but we’re not going there today). The usual commentaries focus on owning our wisdom and not mimicking our teachers. The subtext to that is rarely mentioned; once upon a time our own teachers copied their teachers as did Gutei of his teacher Tenryu, finger and all. And there is the impenetrable “copy, yes; copy, no.”

In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh (may he be held in love and peace as he traverses the realms at this moment) makes a strong point that holding onto any teaching (as in holding onto to the raft that gets us across to the other shore) is to violate the percepts. He is quoted in the preface of Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree(3) that “if you have an ideology and stick to it, thinking it is the absolute truth, you can kill millions.”

While this subtext of rigidly copying our teachers calls for compassion for our limitations, the ultimate intent of practice is in learning to write our own sutra, penetrating our own mind. To fully study our self as Dogen teaches, we need to uncover our tendencies to get caught in various levels of mind. In the Book of Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi)(4), Confucius (the mouthpiece for Zhuang Zi) is guiding his pupil Yen Hui who is taking on an immense task of transforming a nearby king’s evil ways. Yen Hui had come up with various strategies all of which involved force and intimidation, most based on literal interpretations of Confucius and in his own pride. The master tries in many ways to exhort Yen Hui to see that forcing others to be benevolent is not the best approach. Finally, Confucius tells Yen Hui he has to fast. Yen Hui is baffled because he does fast and Confucius tells him it is the fasting of the heart/mind that is necessary.

Your mind must become one, do not try to understand with your ears but with your heart. Indeed, not with your heart but with your soul. Listening blocks the ears, set your heart on what is right but let your soul be open to receive in true sincerity, The Way is found in emptiness. Emptiness is fasting of the heart.

UBC professor Edward Slingerland states it clearly in a lecture on Chinese philosophy (i.e., with a key to those mysterious lines; see video). Zhuang Zi says:

Hearing stops the ears (it’s at the level of doctrine).
Mind stops with signs (it’s a process of matching up names to reality).
Qi is empty/tenuous and opens to things themselves.

We get caught at the ears (think sound of tree falling); we chant and are caught in mind, mapping to reality. It is only when we cut through these iron-hard nails that hold together our doctrines and assumptions that the sutra of our life can be understood and then written in clear, unimpeded language. That means willing to be vulnerable in our ignorance, exhausted by our anger, and bruised hopelessly by our attachments. With no desire or hope of reward. So write your sutra without the traps of facts and figures, without the compulsion to line up philosophies with actions. Rather write with a boundless transparency and simplicity of what you eternally are becoming.


(1) Pattison, Eliot, Mandarin Gate (2012). Minotaur Books, NY
(2) Trungpa, Choygam, The Myth of Freedom (2002). Shambhala Publications, Boston MA
(3) Buddhasa Bhikkhu, Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree (1985/2013). Wisdom Publications, Boston MA
(4)Chuang Tzu, The Book of Chuang Tzu (translated by Martin Palmer with Elizabeth Breuilly) (1996). Penguin Books, London UK

sounds don’t worry about mu

But sounds don’t worry about whether they make sense or whether they are heading in the right direction.  They don’t need that direction or mis-direction to be themselves.  They are, and that’s enough for them.  And for me too…

A sound possesses nothing, no more than I possess it.  A sound doesn’t have its being, it can’t be sure of existing in the following second.  What’s strange is that it came to be there, this very second.  And that it goes away.  The riddle is the process.

from Where the Heart Beats – John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson

rampant mu

For all our best intentions, it became an inadvertent 10 km journey of back-tracking.  We started the day in a compassionate-mind state, choosing only to cover what distance would be possible.  That got us to the car from the kitchen.  It was a good start followed by an hour-long drive to the Gatineau Hills and Trail #3.  Sure it was coded as “difficult” but we had that compassionate-mind which was going to allow us to be wherever difficult joined us on the trail.

Trail #3 starts out at a lovely lookout point, Étienne Brûlé, and descends quickly to a flat run through the forest.  The implication of that drop didn’t escape me; it would be there as the last leg of the hike when we returned.  I knew better than to project into the return trip and set my mind into my feet.  Mu.  The trail markers named #3 the Huron Trail which crossed others that lead to Meech Lake, the Western Trail, or up to the Rampart Lookout.  It was fun and games; we were actually enjoying the slopes and slides, enjoying the feeling of effort and lifting of the mental fog that held us earlier in the day.

Alone on the trail, I was happy when we met another hiker.  My mind could finally stop trying not to think of black bears, hungry black bears, hungry black bears looking for a quick meal deal.  Mu.  We stood and chatted for a while, the hiker subtly assessing our capabilities, asking us if we’d been on these trails before.  And where were we headed and when had we started out and yes, the trail up to the Rampart Lookout was quite easy.  No, not steep at all; a few ups and downs but not steep.  I was so relieved I failed to note he was wearing a tee-shirt that advertised the Meech Lake Trail; he may have been inclined to experience a different version of steep.


We overshot the trail leading to the Ramparts and wandered about 1.5 kms further east before turning around.  Getting to the lookout from the trail junction was another 800 meters; a kilometer and a half there and back again.  I dithered about it as the start into the trail looked chancy and then decided that trusting in difficult to join us had worked so far.  It met us about two-thirds of the way up and set its challenge.  Not in the steepness of the trail but in the sheer drop off the edge of my mind as old stories surfaced about what should have been, what is, and what may never be.  Mu.

Mu is this large, this wide, this deep, and this penetrable when you’re sitting on a log wondering why 800 meters is so large, so wide, so deep and so impenetrable.  It sits on your chest and clutches at your throat, willing you to be someone else.  Someone who says Mu! to wanting the world to shift, the ups and downs to smooth out, the forest to open and the way to be passable.

It runs rampant over your life and confirms, “Now, you can never say never again.”

(Interesting factoid: Trail #3 is locally called, by hikers and skiers, Burma Road.  The trail builders found it so tough to cut the route that they felt they were building the Bridge on the River Kwai.  A bit of a stretch to calling it the Burma Road (which is whole different part of Burma’s war history) but I’m not about to take it away from these folks who hand sawed the trail open.  You can read more about it here.)

tilting at mu

More Mu.

I was at an art retreat with Stephen Addiss at Zen Mountain Monastery.  We practiced with the kanji character for mu and I was having all kinds of trouble.  Of course you were, you say.  That’s just who mu is.  

If you’ve seen the formal script for Mu, you’ll know there are four lines in the middle and four dots at the base.  For whatever the reason, I just couldn’t get the lines to look like lines.  Now that may seem very strange because, after all, how hard can it be to just draw four tilted lines.  Well it was until I figured out that there was some trust that had to be placed into the relationship I have with the observers of my efforts.

That they would perceive whatever line and tilt was necessary to facilitate our ongoing dance with each other.


moving mu

Part of the return to health has included a return to yoga every week.  I’ve missed it.  So too have my core muscles because apparently they are on strike – or having a tantrum.  But I committed to approaching yoga this time with a truly non-competitive attitude.  The teacher often says about certain poses, “When in doubt, leave it out.”  And I catch myself saying, “Hah!  Didn’t have to with that one!”

If “No” is a form of Mu then that was a Mu-Mu.

For 75 minutes twice a week, I watch my nonsense mind make so much more of every moment than it needs to.  And thankfully my body doesn’t listen.  Or at least, my muscles don’t because as time passed, strength accrued with diligence.

So, I’m learning.  What needs to be left out most is that need to be more than what is possible at this moment.  That’s not to say more isn’t available in the next moment; just not this one.  And in a yoga school as in a zen community or any place at all, there are ample opportunities to want more.    I’ve been successful at passing up the 200-hour yoga teacher’s course and the 5-day yoga intensive.  I’ve let go of teacher trainings on some beautiful beach somewhere and I’ve even resisted heading down to Toronto to train with the Yoga for Round Bodies folks!


variations on a theme

Has Mu become a cliché?

Or maybe saying “Oh it’s a koan!” has become a cliché.  A spiritual mobius strip in the highway to enlightenment?

I ramble.  Or maybe not.

We’ve been spending our weekends rambling… hiking.  Why?  Well, I woke up one morning and decided that was a nice thing to do – waking up, I mean – and something I’d like to continue to do.  As I often say to my family, it’s not the heart attack that will kill me; it’s that heart attack that doesn’t kill me that will kill me.

How’s that for a koan!

I doubt I’m alone in fearing a life of slow degradation.  Despite watching so many people courageously living their own lives through after heart attacks, cancer, various diseases and injuries, I continue to doubt my capacity to live with grace and ease in such circumstances.

So, I woke up one morning.  And I decided that settling for waking up and waddling to the bathroom then bemoaning the double chin and the plus size PJs (I know, I know… you will now need several doses of gore-filled alien-invasion movies to get that picture out of your head) was not enough waking up.


When I worked with that koan, I realized that there is an alternative for “This is it!”

This is not it!

So we began the weekend hikes.