Can everything mean something in particular? What do walruses mean?
What does this pondering walrus mean to you right now? What will this walrus mean to you in twenty years? If your children’s children discover this secret meaning a century from now, would they approve?
Do walruses typically need approval? Why do you? Does it have anything to do with asking about what things mean?
What does it all mean?
Zen Speaks is a modern collection of Zen stories and koans by the author and artist Tsai Chih Chung that I highly recommend which contains wonderful cartoon renderings of many of the koans and stories we’ve already covered. I just found out that you can watch the entire work as a cartoon in Cantonese with English subtitles on YouTube.
In the Zen koan collection The Gateless Gate, Zhaozhou found the sages Kanzan and Jittoju while wandering on Mount Tiantai and said, “For a long time I have heard about Kanzan and Jittoju, but having come here I just see two water buffalo.” The sages put their fingers on their heads like horns. The master waved his arms at them and said, “Shoo! Shoo!” The sages gnashed their teeth and glared at each other, happy to become water buffalos when accused but reluctant to leave when shooed. When asked about this later, Zhaozhou laughed heartily and said nothing. When Linji compared Pahua to a donkey Pahua brayed at him, and Linji called a monk who mooed at him, “This beast!” If you asked these masters an educated, scholarly question you would likely be ridiculed, but if you acted like an untamed animal you just might meet their approval.
This gong-an is very simple and short, but like the rest it contains meanings that sprout up when you look them over carefully and consider that for thousands of years these particular cases were preserved as teaching devices. We typically pick humans over water buffalos, so calling two sages water buffalos is insulting, even if it is innocent and playful, like the sages response to effortlessly take up the role of water buffalo, a muddy and supposedly dimwitted beast. If we are all somewhat water buffalo, why not embrace it? It is very easy to miss that after Zhaozhou shoos them, they refuse, which is moving from obeying Zhaozhou to disobeying Zhaozhou. However, once this thought occurs, it then opens up to the next thought that a disobedient water buffalo is a ‘good’ water buffalo in that it is more true to life, so when Kanzan and Jittoju disobey, are they obeying Zhaozhou or not? Zhaozhou simply laughs. Is it more obedient to the universe to be a crazy beast or a polite and proper person?
It is quite human to be inhumane. Is a broken, unusable vase still a vase? If not, why call it such? How can our minds share these negative forms, what Hegel could call determinate negation, so easily and fluidly? Consider this mere image, two blind men on a log bridge, by the Rinzai Zen master Hakuin:
Now consider this cover art here, with only the first blind man . You would think of the second only if you were familiar with the first image, which anyone familiar with the image would know, just as effortlessly. However, in looking into these things, and looking specifically for an image that has the end of the log hanging in space as it is on this cover, it turns out that the image on this cover is actually one of three blind men crossing a bridge, a cropped portion of a completely different painting by Hakuin of the same theme, blind men crossing a log bridge. Here is the third image below:
Hakuin might ask us: What does the blindness of these men look like? Perhaps it looks like the slippery feeling of being blindfolded on a wet, algae-covered log suspended over a rushing stream that cannot be seen, either by us or by these blind images.
In Zen Buddhism, the 77th case of the Blue Cliff Record is cake. A monk asked Yunmen, “What is talk that goes beyond buddhas and patriarchs?” Yunmen said, “Cake.” He makes us think of cake, imagining it’s sweetness, texture and satisfaction, a strange ghost that can be raised with a single word, somewhat like the ghosts of ancestors. The thought of a cake is both a cake and not a cake, much as a rock is sometimes a rock and sometimes the thought of a rock, and thus not a rock. Whether or not this has anything to do with the buddhas and patriarchs, it certainly has to do with cake.
A Zen master posed his monks with a problem: “Two monks went walking in the rain. One didn’t get wet. Why?” The monks suggested that one had an umbrella, that the rain was scattered in places, that one walked under the cover of awnings, but the master said that the students were too focused on the words. When the monks finally gave up, the master told them that both got wet. “Two monks went walking in the rain. One didn’t get wet. Two got wet.”
The joke works just as well in ancient Chinese as it does in modern English because language has grey areas and ambiguities. When the master said, “One didn’t get wet”, he could mean that it is the case that one didn’t get wet, such that one remained dry, or he could mean that it isn’t the case that one got wet, rather two got wet. All of the solutions proposed by the monks assumed that one didn’t get wet, the first case, making them blind to the second. It isn’t that the first case is the literal meaning of the words and the second metaphorical or derivative, but rather that we do not expect to hear about one monk and not the other if both got wet or both stayed dry. The joke would also work if the master said both stayed dry, as one didn’t get wet, and the other didn’t get wet either.