Call and Response

From a teisho by Peggy Metta Sheehan on Feb. 28, 2016

Wu-men Kuan, Case 17:

The National Teacher called to his attendant three times, and three times his attendant responded. The National Teacher said, ‘I thought I had transgressed against you, but now I find that you too have transgressed against me.”

The National Teacher called to his attendant three times and three times his attendant responded. And that is the heart of the case, even though there is a comment by the teacher: “I thought I had transgressed against you, but now I find that you too have transgressed against me.”

If you see into the heart of the case, you will have no trouble with the teacher’s comment. The National Teacher called to his attendant three times and three times his attendant responded.

Zen practice/realization is genuinely this simple, this direct, It couldn’t be more direct, but lord knows, it is not easy. It requires our effort to be this simple, effort akin to climbing a mountain of swords with bare feet, and it requires response. You can’t just sit here.

We have a discussion coming up on the calendar in April about the Clouds and Water training program. What is it exactly, how do you begin to participate, what are current members’ experiences with it, why is it beneficial for practice and realization, transformation? What does it have to do with you, with Zen, with living kindly, compassionately, responsively?

The National Teacher called to his attendant three times and three times his attendant responded. In Clouds and Water the teacher’s attendant is called the jisha. It is a traditional and honored position in any Zen training. Ananda was the Buddha’s attendant for many years.

This koan I think points to at least one of the main strengths or fundamental aspects of the Clouds and Water training. “Jisha!” We allow ourselves to be called again and again and again. We intentionally put ourselves in this position, to be called. “Jisha!” And this goes for all the other positions as well – jiki, tanto, anja, ino and tenzo.

There is something called the tumbler effect. You put a bunch of jagged edged stones in a jar or barrel with other stones and shake it. The stones rub against each other over and over, and those edges begin to smooth away. These edges, of course, symbolize our comfort zones, our habit force, our constructs of self. On the internet it said: “Using a rock tumbler to convert rough rock into sparkling gemstones is part art and part science.” I like it. It describes our training pretty well – part art, part science. Training is a tradition in Zen, and it’s not just sitting zazen.

We are still finding our way with this in the traveling zendo environment. And for the sake of this important aspect of training, I do hope we will have a practice home in the not too distant future.

Otherwise, how will we work with our own edges? You can’t just sit here. You have to get tossed around a little bit. Now, certainly life itself provides daily opportunity for this friction or rubbing, and yet it still seems that intentionality, some conscious choice to work with these energies is necessary and helpful. After all, these edges are here to protect what some might call our core vulnerabilities, the ones we guard and protect at any and all cost. There must be some willingness to look, otherwise we may lean into our zazen in order to avoid them, which is not uncommon.

So just as kinhin and samu/work practice are often described as bridge practices that help us express the understanding that is developing or becoming clear in our zazen, so Clouds and Water is another very helpful practice along this journey. Kinhin, samu, jiki, tanto, are each whole and complete practices in and of themselves, as well as opportunities to meet ourselves, to explore the edges and ultimately to see through them and allow the inherent gemstone to shine.

The National Teacher calls three times and three times his attendant responds. This attendant has become mature, transparent, so much so that the teacher says, “I thought I had transgressed against you, but now I see that you too have transgressed against me.”

Shibayama writes, “I remember when my teacher gave teisho on this koan of ‘calling thrice and answering thrice,’ said, ‘You monks, I do hope that your training will be as scrupulous and thoroughgoing as this!'”

And here is Aitken Roshi, recalling his teacher, Nyogen Senzaki, dramatizing this call and response:

Oshin comes up to the teachers quarters from the monastery below, bows, and says, “Yes, Master?”
“Oh, there you are. Thank you for coming, but I don’t need you right now.” Then a little later,
Oshin drops what he is doing and comes again, “Yes, Master?”
“Oh thank you. You many return now.” Oshin bows and returns below and again there is a call,
Again he comes and responds, “Yes, Master?”

And I am certain that all of the senior students here have stories about our teacher, Danan Henry, calling us, three times at least, challenging again and again our dearly held beliefs, whether knowingly or not. And I’m certain that we three teachers are now returning this teaching in kind – knowingly or not.

I’ll be very honest, I’m still working on this one. Aitken Roshi says, Don’t try this in a restaurant – “Waiter, Waiter, Waiter!” It gets old in families, too, though not for the one calling. There is a button that we all have and it is so familiar, so quick, so sharp. And you can only work with it IF you work with it. “Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly, I vow to abandon them. Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them.” Everything is an opportunity, everything. Especially the things we struggle with.

The National Teacher called to his attendant three times and three times his attendant responded. Aitken Roshi writes, “Since the attendant was a veteran monk, the second call was fresh and new, and so was the third call. he did not become dulled (or annoyed) by repetition because he was no longer oriented to sequence.”

Rumi wrote:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

So, what’s this like, this “no longer oriented to sequence”? Hopefully we have touched this, even momentarily. A moment of freshness, of vivid aliveness, of the world too full to talk about, of no right or wrong, self or other, because that is actually the Truth of each moment. This very Truth that is not opposed in any way to the nitty gritty edges of life. Each moment there is always a calling, absolutely new, from the universe to you and vice versa. And you are always responding, as is the universe.

The shape and form of the call and response is infinite. What about the call of the morning dove or the morning alarm clock, the crisp morning air, the first buds in spring, the sirens that pass in the night, the taste of bitter or sweet, the cry of your new baby, the surge of fear or anger, the smell of rain, the whistle of your tea kettle or text message? Call and response, call and response, call and response. And how about when death comes calling? How will you answer?

Shibayama quotes a verse in his talk on this case:

A mirror reflects candle lights in the Golden Palace.
A mountain responds to the temple bell in the moonlight.

Candle lights in the mirror reflecting one another — which are the true lights and which are the reflections? In sheer brightness they can hardly be distinguished. The mountain echos the temple bell in the moonlight. Responding to each other in the quiet sky, the bell and the echoes are indistinguishable.

The calling master and the answering disciple – can you tell who is who?

Wumen’s comment:

The National Teacher called three times and his tongue fell to the ground. His attendant answered three times and his responses were brilliant. The National Teacher was old and feeling lonely. He pushed the cow’s head down to the grass to make it eat. The attendant would have none of it. Delicious food does not attract a person who is full. Now tell me, at what point was there transgression?

So did the National teacher say too much, his tongue fell to the ground? From one perspective one call is always more than enough. It is too much. From another we are grateful to be called again and again and again.

“Delicious food does not attract a person who is full. Now tell me, at what point was there transgression?” Does calling assume there is an other? Does answering confirm?

Mother Teresa was asked once by an interviewer: “When you pray, what do you say to God? She said, “I don’t talk, I listen.” The interviewer then asked: “What does God say to you?” Mother Teresa replied, “He doesn’t talk. He listens. And if you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.”

Wu-men’s verse:

You must carry the iron yoke with no hole.
No trivial matter, this curse passes to descendants.
If you want to support the gate and sustain the house,
You must climb a mountain of swords with bare feet.

An iron yoke or iron cangue is a Chinese torture device, supposedly ancient (but not that ancient – there are photos of Tibetan people wearing them in the 1920s). It’s two large pieces of wood hinged together with a hole in the middle for a person’s head. It’s heavy and too large to be able to reach your hands to your mouth. You must rely on others to offer you some food or water each day.

So what is an iron yoke with no hole? What kind of burden is this? Unfathomable. One must let go of all attempts to comprehend it, this curse that passes to descendants. This extraordinary thing, “absurd beyond description,” says Shibayama, and still it is borne and maybe even transmitted through a simple call.

This iron yoke with no hole points to the fact that there is no such thing as a true word or teaching, so what are we doing here? Well, we are sustaining the house and climbing a mountain of swords with bare feet. And if you’re up for it, let’s do it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: