Saturday, September 22, 2012

Power, Perception, and Zen Master Nanchuan's Cat

An old grad school classmate drilled into my mind and others a trinity on power from philosopher Michel Foucault. He said what people do to maintain power, and also often do in response to power abuse is to minimize, deny, and blame. Whenever a spiritual community scandal goes public, you'll see all of these in action. Blame the teacher. Blame the student. Minimize the actions of the teacher as "mere sex." Minimize the responsibility on both sides of the equation, as well as the collective responsibility of the wider Zen community. Deny the impact of teacher's action. Deny the validity of grievances of said teacher's students. Deny the agency of said students, suggesting they are nothing but helpless victims.

The list goes on and on. Foucault's trinity is a wonderful lens for considering such things.

But obviously, scandals are kind of rareified experiences, and so it's probably a lot more valuable to consider these issues in action in our every day lives.

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “For a long time, I’ve heard of the stone bridge of Zhaozhou, but now that I’ve come here I only see a simple log bridge.” Zhaozhou said, “You just see the log bridge; you don’t see the stone bridge.” The monk said, “What is the stone bridge?” Zhaozhou replied, “Asses cross, horses cross.” Case 52, Blue Cliff Record

I suppose that was an unexpected turn. Well, I think it's useful to consider power in terms of perception. Because what we see, and don't see, has a large role in the way power is experienced in each of our lives. As well as collectively.

For those of you who aren't too familiar with Zhaozhou, he's well known for being a toned down, ordinary kind of guy. He wasn't a flashy teacher, nor was he given to pounding on students, shouting, or any of the other "tools" of some of the old Zen masters.

Back to power, one of the first stories about Zhaozhou I ever heard was Nanchuan's Cat, where his response to bickering in the hall, and subsequent cutting in half of a cat by Zen master Nanchuan, was to remove his sandals, place them on his head, and walk out silently.

As a cat lover, I have always gravitated back to that koan, partly out of a sense of sadness for the cat and the people involved who seem so entangled. And aren't we all entangled in something? Aren't we all caught up in clinging too hard to one side or another, sometimes to the point where someone ends up spilling blood?

After several years, I still don't know what to make of Nanchuan's act. At times, I've thought cutting the cat was just a metaphoric act, showing the ways in which humans cut the world into dualistic parts all the time. At other times, I have thought that he did kill the cat, and it was in order to help his students wake up. Still other times, I think he just acted rashly, and blew it.

Zhaozhou's response there always has felt more in line with the truth for some reason. He seems to deeply get the entanglements that are present in the situation, and placing his shoes on his head, considered a sign of mourning, show a respect for and perhaps also sadness for what has happened.

Where is power in all of this? Was Nanchuan's action a powerful expression of the dharma, or a mistake? Was Zhaozhou's action a powerful expression of the dharma, or something more along the lines of passiveness?

In the past, I have seen Zhaoshou's actions in both koans as a reflection of what seems to be a knowing that both asses and horses cross to the "other side." This "other side" being nirvana, awakened and liberated life. Like the end of the Heart Sutra - "Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha" or gone, gone, completely gone across to the other side. And the "asses" and "horses" you might take to be the delusional and the awakened, which if you believe Zhaoshou both "go across the bridge" to nirvana. But while the monk in the koan asking Zhaoshou about the stone bridge thinks there is a location to "go to" to reach nirvana, Zhaoshou's answer seems to be an indicator that trying to find a some location, or bridge, or magic entry point is off the mark.

Now, I have returned to asking questions of the koans.

I think, though, that a wise - even liberated - understanding of power is the ability to see both "the stone bridge" (the absolute) and "the log bridge" (our relative, everyday stories and lives) and to take care of both. And considering power isn't just about Zen teachers, or political leaders: it's about how each of us conducts our lives in the world, understanding that our actions do have an impact, however tiny it might be. It's an understanding that cause and effect doesn't disappear if you see into the nature of things, and that humility, compassion, and taking care of the stories in our lives are lifelong processes.

*Photo is of my mother's cat BJ

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