Tenshin Reb Anderson left advanced study in mathematics and Western psychology to practice Zen with Master Shunryu Suzuki, who ordained him as a priest in 1970. In 1983 he was made Dharma lineage holder, and in 1986 he became Abbot of the three Zen Center locations at Green Gulch Farm, San Francisco and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. He specializes in Buddhist philosophy and psychology and the relationship of Zen to the social and ecological crisis of our time. Reb Anderson took the Inquiring Mind on a delightful journey through tales and reflections, leaving us engaged and wondering. When we asked him how he first became interested in Buddhism, he told us the following story:
I was introduced to Zen through the stories that were coming out in the mid-1950s such as those collected by Paul Reps in Zen Flesh Zen Bones. I think now particularly of one story about Hakuin, a Zen master of high repute who lived in a fishing village. A girl in the village got pregnant and told her parents that this monk was the father. So the parents went and said to the monk, “You are a terrible monk. How could you do this? You are a disgrace to your profession, and not only that, you can take care of the kid.” The monk said, “Is that so?” When the baby was born, the girl’s parents brought him to the monk. He took the baby and, with great care, raised him for two years. Then, the girl finally told her parents that the monk wasn’t the father, that some other young man from the village was the father. The parents went back to the monk, who by this time had lost his reputation. They highly praised him and they said, “We’re so sorry. We now know that you didn’t do this. And not only that, you didn’t defend yourself and you took care of this baby. You are really a wonderful, compassionate Buddhist practitioner.” And he said, “Is that so?” When I read this story, I thought, “That’s a story of how I want to live my life.” Do you see the circle? “Is that so” closes the circle. So the story has the quality of completion, recognition. Moreover, we recognize Hakuin and we want Hakuin to recognize us. If we live as he did, he will recognize us. So that is an important story to me and my practice. There are many other stories that come to play when I need them. It’s good to know those stories.
Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker conducted the following interview with Reb Anderson at Green Gulch Farm in Muir Beach, California, in November 1993.
Inquiring Mind: We’re interested in how stories transmit dharma. Could you tell us some stories and discuss how they work in the Zen tradition?
Reb Anderson: Let’s begin with a dog story. I’ve raised a very well-behaved, long-haired, golden-colored Labrador/terrier cross, a beautiful female dog. Since I didn’t want her to have puppies, the first time she came into heat, I kept her inside the house. Contrary to my plan, there was something outside that she wanted to do. She kept trying to get out, and I kept bringing her back inside.
Finally one day she got out and ran down the stairs ahead of me. At the bottom of the stairs I saw all these male dogs. They could smell my dog in the house and they were waiting for her. When she ran towards those dogs, I felt like I had lost control. Yet I still wanted to retain some control. I wanted to choose the dog with whom she would mate. I saw that there was one beautiful big white husky and there was also an unattractive runt, a spotted, short-haired little guy. I wanted her to go to the husky. But she didn’t. The little mongrel got her. Then I told my very well-behaved dog to come in the house. Now you may know that once dogs get engaged, they can’t disengage until they have finished. But I didn’t know that at the time. So I told my dog to come in. When she came in dragging this little guy up the stairs, I had the same reaction you just had. I saw that I had gone too far.
That’s a story about me trying to control a living being who is willing to respond to my attempt to control. By responding to my attempt to control, she taught me how stupid I was to try to control such life process. The story closes itself.
IM: Yes, the story does close itself. And in listening to it, we participate in that closing. You didn’t even have to add the moral. We got the point on our own before you voiced it, and it went much deeper than if you had told us first.
RA: Right. You made a face when you got the picture of my dog dragging the little guy up the stairs. The look on your face was just how I felt, except you felt a little different from me because I felt ashamed and stupid. I learned something from that, but I didn’t learn enough. And so there is a sequel which is related. This intercourse I described caused fertilization and pregnancy. When my dog was approaching the time to deliver her puppies, she started to swell and spread, and various bloody fluids started to ooze out all over the place. Usually she slept on my bed, but during that time I made a separate bed for her in the kitchen. I imagined this stuff all over my bed, dry cleaning bills and so on. So I told my dog to stay in her bed in the kitchen. She would keep coming into my bed and I would keep sending her back to the kitchen.
Once again, I wanted some control. And again, I had the same obedient dog. When I told her to go back in the kitchen, she went back. But then, because she really wanted to be in my bed, she kept forgetting, and she kept coming back again. One day when I came into my room, she was up on my bed on the pillows. I saw red stuff all over the white pillows. So then I got angry and kind of mean. I said, “Get into your own bed.” Obediently, she hopped down and went into her bed in the kitchen. And I went to clean up the mess. There, behind the pillows, I found four little puppies. It was then that I realized how stupid I had been again, and I invited my dog back up onto the pillows.
The moral is the same moral, but there is something additional: I was deeply touched by her trust in, and obedience to, me. If she had stood by her puppies and not obeyed me, I wouldn’t have felt quite as embarrassed. And I wouldn’t have learned what I learned. The fact that she would abandon her own puppies at my instruction, that she would go against her instinct to do what her master said, showed me how much more stupid I was and how much more noble she was.
It’s a great lesson. It again reminded me of the nobility of life, and of the stupidness of my attempt to control it. Sometimes life gets messy, and sometimes you get the point that it’s not about keeping your bed clean. It’s about this thing going forward. Yet there is some play in it and some chance to learn.
So training was involved in these two stories. Through language, my dog entered formal training with me and I entered formal training with her. My dog learned how, upon instruction, to come inside the house or to go to the bed in the kitchen. Through my dog’s willingness to cooperate with me, I learned something about human control and obedience, about devotion and love. Likewise, in Zen training, I ask someone to do something and we go off together to struggle through the communication process until he or she actually understands what I mean. The training is mutual. And there is a closure in the communication, a circle.
When I tell you a story about how this closure in communication happens, you probably feel gratified in your mind to see the closure in that relationship. You can carry that story in your mind about how to close the circle of communication with other people.
IM: Isn’t there a more formal use of stories in Zen training?
RA: There are two phases in the full story of Zen practice. One phase is intrapsychic; it’s what we call just sitting. Just sit and become intimate with yourself. You really work to come down to pure mindfulness. This phase is usually not mentioned in the stories, but should be understood. The next phase is interpersonal; it’s called going to the teacher and discussing dharma. You can go to the teacher and discuss dharma before you’ve actually settled in order to get some instruction about how to settle. But once you sense that you have settled, you go to get reflection, to see if the teacher will reflect your settling. You hope that your teacher has also been settling. So you have two people coming together who have settled on themselves who then express that settledness to each other and recognize it in the other.
There is no such thing as a buddha by herself. The Buddha wasn’t sitting alone under the bo tree. He was sitting with the tree, with the stars and with all sentient beings. He was recognizing them, and how they work, and they were recognizing him. A buddha by herself is a buddha that hasn’t yet thoroughly realized dharma. In a sense, Buddha was not really Buddha until he started teaching. Buddha was somebody who had great insight. But when teaching, he showed that he could express his insight and recognize others who would express themselves and be recognized by him. So the second phase of Zen practice is this mirroring. And Zen stories are about that. These stories are not about somebody sitting by himself and having awakening. That happened before the stories happened. Or else it didn’t happen. And then the monk came, expressed herself, and the teacher said, in essence, go back and sit some more.
IM: Does a monk alone in a cave ever use stories just to get himself settled?
RA: We need stories about how to let go and stories about how to sit down and stories about how to deal with ourselves. A Sufi story just popped into my head. In this story, a man was put in prison. When a friend of this prisoner sent him a prayer rug, he was not happy. He wanted something more along the line of a saw or a crowbar or perhaps keys. But given that he had the prayer rug, he figured he’d just have to use it. So he started bowing on the prayer rug. As he bowed, he became more familiar with the pattern woven into the rug. Finally, he started to see an interesting image in the pattern. As you may have guessed, it was the diagram of the lock. So this is a story that you can remember. If you like this story and it rings a bell in you, then when you are sitting in your meditation, you may realize that there is some pattern of bondage in your thought and see how it may be unlocked.
IM: Of course! This is your own story.
RA: Right. You are sitting in your own stories. You watch your own stories, and you watch your own stories watch your story. You realize that there is some pattern there, and the more you realize it, you see that your story is your way out of your story. So, if you were sitting in a cave, the story of the prisoner and the prayer rug would encourage you to work with the story that you were living right then of your being in the cave. There are a lot of stories that you might use if you started wavering and losing enthusiasm, other stories that say, “Oh no, stay here.” When you would get angry, or sleepy, or depressed, hopefully you would have other stories about each one of these things. And if you didn’t have the appropriate stories, you would go to see your teacher. The teacher would then give you a story about how she had experienced that same thing, or how she knew somebody else who had experienced it. So you would go back and use the story to continue your meditation. Then once you felt as if your story had done its job, then you would go to the teacher and say, “I’m cooked, I’m done,” and see if the teacher recognized you or gave you another story and sent you back for more work.
IM: How does a koan differ from a story? Or are they the same?
RA: Zen stories are koans, and koan literally means “public case.” In other words, it’s out in the public. The stories are records of actual conversations, public examples of actual reality. Actual reality is realized when two people completely express themselves and give reflection. The stories or koans help us understand these fundamental interactions between people.
A lot of the Zen stories are showing that the teaching is both ways. It’s from the teacher to the disciple and from the disciple back to the teacher. And sometimes it’s between two teachers that are both teaching each other. Here’s an example from The Book of Serenity of a story between two Chinese Zen masters. Both are masters, but still one is the teacher of the other. The younger one, San Sheng, is the disciple of the older, Linji (Rinzai). When the older master, Linji, who is known for his shout, is about to die, the younger master is standing next to him. Linji says, “When I die, please don’t destroy my teaching.” And his disciple responds, “How would I dare destroy the master’s teaching?” Linji says, “After I die, if someone asks you what my teaching is, what will you say?” In response, San Sheng shouts. Linji says, “Who would have thought that my teaching would be destroyed by a blind ass?” After that time, nobody ever again could truly shout in that lineage. Everybody that shouted after that was said to be just copying the master. The shout that the younger master gave put an end to shouting. That’s the story.
If you study the history of Buddhism, then you know that in the living lineage the new generation must destroy the previous generation. That’s what keeps the lineage alive. In order to become a successor in Zen, you have to make the previous teacher obsolete. In this particular case, in order to transcend the teacher, the disciple used the shout, which was the teacher’s specialty. If a student does something a master does, but does it very differently, the master says, “Well, she’s just got her own thing.” But if she does the master’s thing in almost the same way, but slightly differently, then the master says, “No!” So, in this story, the young master gives a great shout that leads to no more shouting. The older master responds, “Who would have thought that my teaching would have been destroyed by this blind ass!” This is recognized as the dharma transmission between them.
IM: So the story is saying that the tradition will be destroyed if it isn’t destroyed!
RA: Exactly. A student can only be sure he has done something new when he draws blood. In this case, the older teacher is dying, and when his student yells at him, the teacher calls him a blind ass. Blood has been drawn! And, at the same time, we know that the master’s response is ironic. We know that this is the moment of transmission. Now there are other stories where the teacher says, “This is my wonderful disciple.”
IM: But mightn’t that be ironic as well?
RA: Remember, ironic doesn’t mean “not so.” It has a contradiction, a dynamic in it. If it were just the opposite, it wouldn’t have that bite.
IM: So there’s a lot more in the story than meets the eye! I imagine that there could be endless commentary on that final exchange.
RA: There is. In almost instantaneous interchanges such as this one, there is a whole universe. Generation after generation can look at a few sentences between two masters and see almost all of Buddhist practice. In this story, and in the one I am leading up to involving that same younger master and another senior master, the crucial teaching is about mutual recognition and mutual expression. In usual social interactions, people take turns. When I am expressing myself, I take a little break and don’t pay attention to you and recognize you. Or people take different roles. A lot of people are good at recognizing others but they don’t express themselves very well. Some people are good at expressing themselves and getting recognition, but they aren’t good at listening to and recognizing others. But in Buddhism, if the teacher can’t recognize the other, the process is dead. The place of reality is where you are both simultaneously connecting. And it is very difficult for human beings to stay in that place. We veer off to one side or the other to play in one of those roles, because it is so intense and so paradoxical to be both fully expressing yourself and fully listening to the other. But that’s what these stories are about: simultaneously meeting and making each other happen.
IM: It seems to me that in a lot of those stories there is a subtle one-upsmanship.
RA: Right. In the story I have been leading up to it may look that way.
After San Sheng becomes Linji’s (Rinzai’s) dharma heir, he goes traveling around to visit all the great Zen teachers in order to get recognition. It’s as if he is saying, “I’m the successor of this lineage. Do you recognize me?” So he goes to visit another teacher senior to himself, Xue Feng, and says, “When the wonderful, mysterious golden fish breaks out of the net, what will you feed him?” Xue Feng says, “When you get out of the net, I’ll tell you.” Then San Sheng says, “You are the teacher of 1500 monks, and you don’t even have some words that are appropriate.” And then Xue Feng says, “I’m so busy with my tasks as abbot.”
So first the story is just a wall. Then, if you watch it a little bit, you might see that San Sheng is saying, “I’m the goldfish that has broken out of the net. I’ve broken out of the net of confusion, subject-object dualism, and so on. I’m a free fish. What are you going to give me, teacher?” It looks like the senior teacher is saying, “You’re telling me that you have attained this great freedom, and I don’t think so. But when you do get out of the net, I’ll tell you.” On that level, the hot shot young master seems to be saying, “Here you are, the teacher of this great assembly and you can’t even say anything better than that?” On the same level, one might understand the teacher to be saying, “I’m too busy to make the effort even to make a good comment to a guy like you.”
IM: It sure looks like a putdown.
RA: It looks like a putdown. But remember, in Zen stories the most common rhetorical device is irony. In a certain sense, it is a putdown, but that’s not all. Let’s review the story. The young guy challenges the older master to see him as equal by strongly expressing himself in way that may sound arrogant. “I am the wonderful, mysterious golden fish who has broken out of the net.” But, it is through this full, seemingly arrogant, expression of himself that he shows his respect for the older master.
Now it looks like the teacher puts him down, but actually the teacher does the same thing. He strongly expresses himself in a way that may sound like a putdown, “You aren’t even out of the net yet!” But it is through this full, seemingly insulting, expression of himself that he shows his respect for the younger master.
IM: So the master’s comment can be seen as a recognition of this young guy’s chutzpah! These two might be seen as expressing the heights of mutual compliments.
RA: They are. They compliment each other through fully expressing themselves to each other.
On still another level, the ironic way that they talk to each other suggests something else that is very important: no matter what you say, it can be a form of recognition. The reality of human meeting is that we do recognize other people and that we do express ourselves. This is the reality of dependent co-arising. We do actually create each other. At the place where we create each other, it’s paradoxical: I create you, but you create me. And I can’t create you unless you create me.
IM: It’s amazing! So many teachings in this tiny exchange! And each story has its world of meanings. In a Zen community these stories must be a great resource. How are they passed on?
RA: Commonly in Japan these days, Zen teachers will meet individually with a student and give him a story to meditate upon. Then the student returns to present his understanding again and again, until the student and the teacher reach an accord. Teachers also present their understanding to groups in a form called teisho, which literally means “presenting the shout.” These presentations are not interactive; that is, the students do not express their understanding or ask questions but just sit and listen to the teacher.
We have also used these forms here; but, in addition, we have developed a much more interactive way of sharing these stories in a group. Over a period of several years now I have had a class with a group of people where we have been going through the one hundred stories of the Book of Serenity and intensively studying them. In this last round of classes we spent seven weeks on one story. We work with a story until I feel like people are really using it in their meditation and I see it functioning in the community. Then I feel like we can go on to the next story. I don’t keep doing it until I think everyone completely understands a story, because I don’t think there is ever an end to this understanding. The more you study these stories, the more you realize how vast they are.
IM: So after weeks of discussion, the story takes over and actually starts to work as its own teacher.
RA: Exactly. In the past, I followed a system similar to that followed by a lot of Rinzai teachers. They assign stories to people. The people are supposed to work on those stories until they get to a certain kind of understanding which is standardized and checked in certain systematic ways. But I’m not following that system. In my approach, I’m systematic in the sense that I go straight through this book and don’t skip anything, but I am not systematic in checking understanding. My interest is in building a vocabulary with these stories in the community—a vocabulary of how to talk, a vocabulary that helps us know how to relate to each other. This vocabulary teaches us how to assert ourselves and listen to others and enter into the very dynamic space which these stories are showing.
In this class, the people in the room are a crucial resource. To begin each meeting, I say everybody’s name and then everybody else repeats their name. We start off by everybody recognizing everybody, and everybody being recognized by everybody.
IM: Throughout our conversation, you repeatedly talk about “recognition.” This concept seems fundamental. What does it mean “to recognize the other”? Is it to be as present as possible in that moment with that other person?
RA: It means being as present as possible with yourself first. Then, you notice how there is a place where you seem to end. And that leads you to a more vital place. Really meeting the other is like meeting your death. Just as you reach the fullness of your life at your death, you reach the fullness of you when you meet the other. And the kind of understanding that we are working towards in this class is not an understanding that one person can have by herself. This kind of understanding is something that you do with other people. It’s something that happens between people. And the stories themselves, as conversations, are modeling this!
IM: How would you differentiate these stories, these koan cases, from the one-line puzzles: if everything returns to the one, to what does the one return? Or, does a dog have buddha nature? Aren’t those what people generally call koans?
RA: Let’s look at how a conversation between a teacher and a student might become a story. When a monk would come to a teacher, the teacher would ask, “What’s your name? Where are you from? How long have you been practicing?” Then the teacher would give the monk instruction. After giving that instruction, either right away or later, the teacher would say, “What’s been happening with that instruction I gave you?” If the monk had an answer that other people witnessed or that was interesting enough so that the teacher or the student mentioned it to somebody, then the record of that interaction would become a story. The one-line koan that you are talking about would be the instruction insinuated in the middle of that story.
IM: So the one-line koan is the key sentence in the story?
RA: Let’s take the Mu koan. The story is a record of a conversation that actually happened. A monk asked a teacher, “Does the dog have buddha nature or not (mu)?” And the teacher said, “Mu.” Later, the monk asked, “Does the dog have buddha nature or not?” and the teacher said, “Yes it does.” The Book of Serenity has both of those stories. So the story has nothing to do with whether a dog has buddha nature or not. And mu has nothing do whether you have it or not. Buddha nature is not something you have or don’t have, right? But you work with this dynamic of existence and nonexistence around this koan.
A teacher may assign you the mu koan when you go for instruction. When you are actually meditating, it’s easier to work if you just pick one character. Usually, in the key sentence of a story, there is a pivot, a particular point in the sentence which is the best place to concentrate on that sentence. This pivotal character, or head word (wato), is at the beginning or end of the sentence. The wato in the sentence, “Does the dog have buddha nature or not?” is mu (not). So you study the whole story, and then you focus on this one character. As you focus, you start to feel the context of this character, which is the dependent co-arising of the word mu. You use mu to zero in on a fundamental question. Do we have or not have enlightened nature? Are we awake or not? But you know the story around it. And the story around it is the entire universe.