There’s a guy who’s real smart. Buddhist guy. Knows every sutra. He takes up with a new teacher and the teacher asks him, “So what sutra do you lecture about?
The smart guy goes, “The Heart Sutra.”
Master goes, “How do you lecture on the heart sutra?”
Smart guy says, “With my mind.”
FOOTNOTE: In Chinese & Japanese the character for heart and mind are the same. So this is a pun that totally loses it’s pun-ness in English.
Master goes, “The mind is the leading actor, will is a supporting player and the six senses are the followers. How can mind lecture on the sutra?”
FOOTNOTE: In Buddhism, we count six senses. The first 5 are the usual ones and number 6 is the brain as a sense organ that senses the mental sphere. It is not a sixth sense in the sense of a Bruce Willis movie.
Smart guy goes, “If it’s impossible for the mind to lecture about the sutra, maybe you think even empty space can lecture about it!”
Master goes, “Even empty space can lecture on it.”
Smart guy gets disgusted and, thinking he’s beaten the Master, walks off swinging his sleeves in what was then a very arrogant gesture.
As the smart guy walks off the master calls after him, “Hey, lecturer!”
Smart guy turns around.
Master goes, “From birth to death it’s just like this!”
All at once the smart guy gets it. And he is never heard from again.
That’s the koan I talked about to both people who showed up for the Zazen/lecture this morning at Hill Street. It’s always been a favorite of mine. Not really for the story of the smart dude, but for that line at the end. From birth to death it’s just like this.
Some people say koans are illogical stories to be meditated upon so that the meditator transcends logic and comes to a realization which is beyond rational thought. This is, of course, horse poopie. Koans are just a means by which Buddhist logic is conveyed in the form of stories, usually annecdotes about conversations between Buddhist teachers and their students. There is nothing irrational or “beyond logic” about any of these stories, though their logic and rationality may not be the type most of us are used to.
In this story, the smart guy thinks he’s won an intellectual battle with the master until the master forces him to notice what’s actually going on at that very moment. When the smart guy hears this, he notices something much more profound. Which doesn’t mean he gives up being smart. He just gives up thinking that being clever is the be all and end all of things. That we never hear from him again just means that he devotes himself to practice.
“From birth to death it’s just like this” means that this moment, this reality, right now is what is really true. Everything else is bupkiss. All your thoughts, ideas, clever notions, fears about the future, guilt about the past, plans, schemes, and all the rest are just images in your head. Nothing more. The only thing that ever really counts is what’s right here, right in front of your nose.
From birth to death it’s JUST LIKE THIS. It is always just like this. No matter where you go, no matter what happens, it’s always just like this. It’s always here and it’s always now. Just like most of us, the smart guy in this story had devoted his life to trying to escape this simple reality. He sought refuge in knowledge and became the top in his field as a lecturer on Buddhism without ever understanding the basis of the philosophy he lectured about. When suddenly confronted with the reality of his own direct experience, though, he was intelligent enough to recognize it.