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.

18 Responses

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  1. PA
    PA October 1, 2006 at 2:18 am |

    How much do we need to know about Buddhism to be able to practice effectively? Do we need to read Shobogenzo to be able to live in the present? Can we let go of the raft before we get to the shore?

  2. Wolf
    Wolf October 1, 2006 at 6:52 am |

    More importantly: Do we need to get to the shore?

  3. Jordan & The Tortoise
    Jordan & The Tortoise October 1, 2006 at 8:03 am |

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  4. Jordan & The Tortoise
    Jordan & The Tortoise October 1, 2006 at 8:16 am |

    @pa, How much did Gotama Buddha know about Buddhism?

    I try to read a chapter from the Shobogenzo every week and a passage from the Buddha Vaccana every day. It won’t get you there by itself. It is like a raft without paddles. You will end up going wherever the current takes you. Practice and good council are your ores and rudder.

    @ wolf, no, from what I have seen getting to the shore really is not all that important. It is all about the trip since you are going to get there sooner or later anyway. Take it slowly and learn to enjoy every passing moment.

    In my profession I have to go to a range and qualify with a rifle. I look at the bullets from this rifle as passing moments. Once I have fired a round down range I can never get it back. Life is like this, Time is like this, and a realization is like this. It is not that important since it is only one moment in time and it is gone.

  5. PA
    PA October 1, 2006 at 8:50 am |

    jordan&theturtle;: but the stuff he knew was stuff he’d found out, not by reading, but by sitting and studying his mind. Do we need to study what he found out, or other masters, or should we just sit and find out for ourselves?

  6. Jordan & The Tortoise
    Jordan & The Tortoise October 1, 2006 at 9:41 am |

    pa, To put it simply, Yes.

    You can read all you want but never understand the context without practicing. A picture of a rice cake will not satisfy hunger.

    Practicing without understanding Buddhist theory will take a long time (lifetimes)
    But you will arrive there as you come to the same conclusions Buddha did.

    I have a theory that a lot of this could also hinge on how well you are acquainted with suffering. Remember how all this started.

    Yes, read! yes, sit and find out for your self!

  7. Jordan & The Tortoise
    Jordan & The Tortoise October 1, 2006 at 9:49 am |

    Picture getting to the other side like driving from New York to LA. The Scriptures are your maps.
    You can get there without the map but it will be risky and probably take longer, if you make it at all.

  8. Jinzang
    Jinzang October 1, 2006 at 10:54 am |

    Here’s an analogy my teacher once gave about the relation between study and practice.

    “Suppose someone came and told me we’re going on a trip. First I’d want to know where are we going? How long will it take to get there? What should I take with me?”

    Knowing these things is no replacement for taking the trip. And you could take the trip without them. But knowing something about where you are going and what you are doing is certainly useful.

  9. Jinzang
    Jinzang October 1, 2006 at 2:04 pm |

    What’s Brad good for if I can’t use him to blogwhore? I wrote a comment on the same Zen story.

  10. lkjlkjlkj
    lkjlkjlkj October 1, 2006 at 4:44 pm |

    Brad goes:
    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.

    Illogical, no. But meditated upon, yes. Of course the practise with subsequent koans is different from mu and other first koans.

    Mumon goes:
    (commenting koan mu)

    Mumon’s Comment: For the pursuit of Zen, you must pass through the barriers (gates) set up by the Zen masters. To attain his mysterious awareness one must completely uproot all the normal workings of one’s mind. If you do not pass through the barriers, nor uproot the normal workings of your mind, whatever you do and whatever you think is a tangle of ghost. Now what are the barriers? This one word “Mu” is the sole barrier. This is why it is called the Gateless Gate of Zen. The one who passes through this barrier shall meet with Joshu face to face and also see with the same eyes, hear with the same ears and walk together in the long train of the patriarchs. Wouldn’t that be pleasant?

    Would you like to pass through this barrier? Then concentrate your whole body, with its 360 bones and joints, and 84,000 hair follicles, into this question of what “Mu” is; day and night, without ceasing, hold it before you. It is neither nothingness, nor its relative “not” of “is” and “is not.” It must be like gulping a hot iron ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out.How do you concentrate on this Mu? Pour every ounce of your entire energy into it and do not give up, then a torch of truth will illuminate the entire universe.

    Here is other translation MUMONKAN


    Now, I want to ask you again, “How will you carry it out?”


    Employ every ounce of your energy to work on this “Mu.”


    If you hold on without interruption, behold: a single spark, and the holy candle is lit!

  11. Lone Wolf
    Lone Wolf October 1, 2006 at 8:06 pm |

    Beware of attaining enlightment, unless you want a retractable peins! LOL.

  12. PA
    PA October 2, 2006 at 6:01 am |

    Jordan & the turtle and Jinzang: I had a look at the maps and reasearched where I was going for quite some time, but I found that I’d be thinking about the theory most of the time rather than living my life. Now I get lost a hell of a lot, but I’m not thinking about theory just thinking about other stuff 🙂
    Don’t know which is better to be honest…

  13. Jordan & The Tortoise
    Jordan & The Tortoise October 2, 2006 at 8:43 am |

    A map is only good if it is understood. Some Maps will be difficult to wrap your ego around and some will wrap themselves around your ego.

    Getting lost is just part of the journey and honestly some times we get lost even with a good map and gps. (Maybe we need to get lost) That doesn’t mean they aren’t good maps or gps it just means that at that particular moment we are lost.

    Other stuff is on the map too. I would recommend you find a good teacher or good council to help you find out how to interpret it. It has made a huge difference in my practice although sometimes it takes a while for my thick head to see the moon instead of the finger pointing at the moon.

    Again on your original question, no you do not need to read the Shobogenzo to be able to live in the present. Yes you can let go of the raft before you get to the shore. I hope you are a strong swimmer though.

    Lastly, if you just concentrate on the present moment you will find all of the things in theory and all the “other Stuff” you are thinking about are related. Maybe not how your logical mind perceives it, but it will come to you in waves.

  14. me
    me October 2, 2006 at 12:56 pm |

    A picture of a rice cake will not satisfy hunger.

    but e=mc^2 was just an idea and look what it produced.

    I have trouble with the Zen approach to ideas – they are constantly being dismissed as ‘unreal’. Yet, a huge percent of them are dead-on descriptors of actual reality or potential reality ( I imagine a table, I build the table… a thought becomes reality).

    Why be so dismissive? Sure lots of thoughts are garbage. But lots aren’t. Why not emphasize how one can distinguish the two rather than emphasize that all thought, mental concepts, etc. isn’t ‘real’.

  15. Justin
    Justin October 2, 2006 at 2:13 pm |

    Nice story Brad – like it.

    From birth to death it’s just like this. It’s always just like this.

  16. Jordan & The Tortoise
    Jordan & The Tortoise October 2, 2006 at 3:31 pm |

    @ me,
    Einstein’s theories sprang from a ground of ideas prepared by decades of experiments.

    Theory and practice, not theory without practice, or practice without theory.

  17. Anonymous
    Anonymous October 11, 2006 at 8:55 pm |

    I want a retractable peins!

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