Now, I hope you remember that, this morning, I was trying (in the brief space of fifty minutes) to give you a basic introduction to Mahayana Buddhism—the kind of Buddhism that is found in China and Japan, and the kind of Buddhism of which Zen Buddhism in particular is a subsect. And we are rather particularly concerned with Zen, since it has had such a fundamental influence in the shaping of Japanese culture and the arts of Japan, and since we are (in the course of this informal tour) going to be visiting a good deal of Zen monasteries and seeing a great deal of Zen-formed works of art, architecture, and so on. So I want to lead now, tonight, from Buddhism in general—or Mahayana Buddhism in general—to Zen in particular.
Now, Zen plays a little game with you. Whenever anybody like myself or Dr. Suzuki talks about Zen, all the other people say: “Because they talk about it, they don’t understand it.” “Those” (in the words of Lao Tzu) “who know, do not say. Those who say, do not know.” And yet he said that! He wrote a book of eighty chapters or so to explain the Tao and its power. And nobody can help themselves; they’ve got to talk. Human beings are a bunch of chatterboxes, and when we’ve got something in our minds that we want to talk about, we talk. Now poetry, though, is the great language, because poetry is the art of saying what can’t be said. Every poet knows this; they’re trying to describe the indescribable. And every poet also knows that nothing is describable. Whether you take some sort of ineffable mystical experience at one extreme, or whether you take an ordinary rusty nail at the other: nothing is really describable. In the words of the famous count, Korzybski: “Whatever you say something is, it isn’t.” We used to have a professor at Northwestern who would produce a matchbooklet in front of his class and would say to them: “What is it?” And they would say, “Matchbooklet.” And he’d say “No, no, no! ‘Matchbooklet’ is a noise. Is this a noise? What is it?” And so, to answer this, he’d throw it at them. That’s what it is.
So in this way, you see, nothing can really be described. And yet, on the other hand, we all know perfectly well what we mean when we talk. If you know, if you’ve shared an experience with somebody else, then of course you can talk about it. We can all talk about fire and air and water and wood because we know what it is, and there’s no mystery. And so, in the same way, when it comes to discussing something so esoteric as Zen, it can be discussed. Only, Zen people play games with each other. They play little tricks, they test each other out by saying to somebody—I remember when I met Paul Reps for the first time, who wrote that lovely book Zen Flesh and Zen Bones, and he said to me: “Well,” he said, “You’ve written quite a number of books by now. You must think you’re pretty fancy.” I said, “I haven’t said a word.” So this is simply a Zen game. And people sort of feel each other out. There’s a poem which says: “When two Zen masters meet each other on the road they need no introduction. Thieves recognize one another instantaneously.”
So now, having got that off my chest, it’s to say, then, that if I were to give you a really proper and really, truly educative talk about Zen, I would gather you around here and sit here and silence for five minutes and leave. And in a way this would be a much more direct exposition of it than what I’m going to do instead, which is talk about it. Only, I have a feeling that you would feel that you were disappointed and somewhat cheated by this kind of behavior, if I just left, and five minutes’ silence.
So then, this word, zen, is the Japanese way of pronouncing the Chinese word chán, which in turn is the Chinese way of pronouncing the Sanskrit word dhyāna. And dhyāna is a very difficult word to translate into English, if not impossible. It’s been called “meditation.” Meditation, in English, generally means sitting quietly and thinking about something, and that’s not what Zen is. “Contemplation” might come a little nearer if you use the word in a very technical sense; the sense that it was used or still is used among catholic mystics. Perhaps that’s something a bit like Zen. But again, “contemplation,” as we normally use the word, has a sense of inactivity: the sense of not doing anything, of being completely still and passive—whereas Zen is something highly active. So we really don’t have an English word for dhyāna, chán, zen.
But I would say that we do know what it is, because we do all sorts of things every day of our lives in this spirit—when, for example, you drive a car. Most Americans, at any rate, drive cars since they were teenagers and are very expert drivers. And when they drive a car, they don’t think about it. They’re one with the car. Or when a rider of a horse is one being with the horse—when you watch a good cowboy or cavalry rider, he’s glued to the horse. He’s like a centaur, almost: as the horse moves, he moves. Which is in control? Is the horse riding the man or the man riding the horse? You practically don’t know. Same way when you have an excellent dancing partner: who leads, who follows? It seems as if you are one body and you move together. That is zen. That is dhyāna.
And so, in a wider sense, when a person doesn’t react to life on the one hand, or try to dominate it on the other, but when the internal world of one’s own organism and the external world of other people and other things move together as if they were (and indeed are) one and the same motion, that is Zen. So you could say in a very, very simple way that the real concern of Zen is to realize—not merely to think, but to know in your bones—that the inside world inside your skin and the outside world outside your skin (going out as far as anything can go into galaxies beyond galaxies) is all one world, and all one being; one Self—and you’re it. And once you know that, then you have completely abolished all the problems that arise as a result of feeling that you’re a stranger in the world, that you’re set down in the middle of a hostile and alien domain of nature or people who are not you. This whole sense of estrangement, foreignness to the world, is overcome in Zen.
Now, let me illustrate this a little (before we go into Zen in any kind of technical way) by a few rather superficial but nevertheless significant facts out of Japanese culture, and the place of Zen in Japanese culture. Japanese culture was, as you may have noticed, extraordinarily ritualistic. There is a right way of doing everything: a good form, a proper style. And nowhere is this more apparent than in such practices as the tea ceremony, or arranging flowers, or knowing how to dress, or knowing how to organize a formal dinner. The punctiliousness, the skill of these people in doing these things, is quite remarkable. But in the same measure as they are very skillful at doing this things, they’re very worried about it. The whole question, for example, of bringing presents to somebody else: have they given us more than we’ve given them? Did we remember this occasion? Did we remember that occasion? These weigh very heavily on the Japanese soul. The debt which you owe to your parents, the debt which you owe to your country and to your Emperor: immeasurable, infinite debt—never can be paid. All these weigh very heavily. And therefore, in Japan—until the sort of breakaway of modern youth, with its westernized ideals—this is a very nervous culture, concerned about whether one is playing the ritual correctly. A culture like that needs an outlet, needs a safety valve, needs a way out of this thing. And Zen provides just that.
And so, by contrast, when you meet a Japanese who is thoroughly trained in Zen, he is a different kind of personality altogether from ordinary Japanese. He is in manners not studiedly courteous, nor is he brusque, but he is simply at ease. He gives you his whole attention so long as you give him your whole attention. If you start wandering and frittering, he’s got work to do, and he promptly leaves. But so long as you are wanting to talk to him, he is there for you and for nobody else. And he sits down—and he really sits, you know? He doesn’t worry about whether he ought to be somewhere else, and so unable to sit with complete serenity in one place. You know, if you have half an idea that you ought to be worrying about something out in the garden, or that you ought to be cooking dinner, or that you ought to be down in your office or something, you can’t sit where you are. You’re not really there. You’re a kind of gas balloon that keeps wanting to wander off. But these people, when—you will see as you meet people connected with Zen—even sometimes the most neophyte novice of a priest has this atmosphere of knowing how to live in the present, and not to be fidgety and giggly and worrying about whether he’s done the right thing. That’s very much Zen style.
Even though, at the same time, the Zen people do have a very exacting and demanding discipline. The function of this discipline is rather curious: it’s to enable you to be comfortable. It’s an aid to enable you, for example, to sleep on a concrete sidewalk on a cold, wet night, and enjoy it. To relax completely under any situation of hardship. You see, ordinarily, when you’re out in the cold, you start shivering. Why? Because you’re resisting the cold. You’re tightening your muscles against the cold and you get the staggers. But you are taught, if you learn Zen discipline, not to do that. Take it easy. Go with the cold. Relax. And all those monks in those monasteries here, they’re as cold as hell in winter. And they simply sit there most of the time. And we would be frozen to death and miserable and have influenza and the great Siberian itch, but they simply relax and learn how to take the cold. So there’s nothing about Zen discipline which is masochistic. It isn’t to beat your body because your body’s bad and is a creation of the devil or something. It has nothing to do with that. It is: how to be comfortable under all circumstances.
But that, again, is something rather incidental to the main question of Zen. As I said, the Zen people (as you meet them and as you get to know their style of personality) are at ease in a culture that is not at ease; in a culture that is chronically concerned with protocol and “is it just right?” That is indeed a terribly self-conscious culture where everybody is always watching themselves and having, therefore, second thoughts about everything. And so, the discipline of Zen is to enable you to act without watching yourself. We would say: unselfconsciously. But Japanese are as terrified of this as we are. They think, and we think: “If I don’t watch myself, I’ll make a mistake.” “If I don’t hold a club over myself, I’ll cease to be civilized and become a barbarian.” If I don’t discipline myself with all sorts of UUUNNGHH! down on those passions of yours, you will become like the monk of Siberia who burst from his cell and devoured the father Superior. So this basic mistrust and so on in one’s own spontaneity makes us wonder that, if the Zen people are really spontaneous and they don’t plan and premeditate and hold clubs over themselves—well, they become very, very dangerous people, socially. Won’t they go out and rape their mothers and daughters, and murder their grandmothers to inherit their fortunes, and so on and so forth? And Zen people just don’t do that. And yet, they are perfectly spontaneous.
So then, let me try, then, and indicate how this discipline called Zen actually works. This will involve a little bit of letting the cat out of the bag, but it can’t be helped. Let’s go back to what I told you was fundamental to Buddhism. Buddhism is unlike other religions in that it does not tell you anything. It doesn’t require you to believe in anything. Buddhism is a dialogue, and what are called the teachings of Buddhism are nothing more than the opening phrases, or opening exchanges, in the dialogue. Buddhism is a dialogue between a Buddha and an ordinary man—or rather: someone who insists on defining himself as an ordinary man, and thereby creates a problem. I quoted you this morning our saying that “anybody who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.” And in exactly the same way, in this culture, anybody who goes to a guru, a spiritual teacher, or a Zen master, or whatever, ought to have his head examined. Or as the old Chinese master Tokuzan put it: “If you ask any question, you get thirty blows with my stick. If you don’t ask any question you get thirty blows just the same.” In other words: what the hell are you doing around here, defining yourself as a student and defining me as a teacher? In other words: you have raised a problem.
And in the way of training of Zen, this is very clearly emphasized. If you go to a Zen teacher, and you approach him in the traditional way, the first thing he will do is to say, “I haven’t anything to teach. Go away.” Well, you say, “What are these people doing around here? Aren’t they your students?” He’ll say, “Well, they’re working with me. But unfortunately, we are very poor these days. We don’t have enough rice, really, to go around and make ends meet. And we can’t take on anybody else in this community.” So you have to insist to be taken in. Every postulant for Zen training assumes immediately that the teacher has given him the brushoff in order to test his sincerity. In other words: if you really want this thing, you’ve got to work for it. That isn’t the real point. The point is that you’ve got to make such a fuss to get in that you cannot withdraw gracefully after having made such a fuss to get in. Because you put yourself on the spot, and you define yourself as somebody needing help, or somebody with a problem who needs a master in order to be helped out of the problem.
So then, when you’ve done this in the old days, of course—and it’s still the formal rule among the Zen monasteries here—that when you’re a postulant and you want to come in, you have to sit outside at the gate for a week, or maybe only five days, in a position of supplication with your head bowed down on the steps. And they let you in at night because they must give hospitality to any wandering monk. But you’re expected not to go to sleep any of those five nights, but to sit there in meditation. And they give you food. But you sit and you sit and you sit there, and you make a damn fool of yourself, saying, “I insist on getting into this thing. I insist on learning. I want to know what the secret of this master here is.” And he’s told you from the start that he doesn’t have a secret and that he doesn’t teach anything. But you insist that he does.
See, that is the situation of everybody who feels that life is a problem to be solved. Whether you want psychoanalysis, whether you want integration, whether you want salvation, whether you want Buddhahood—whatever it is you define yourself as wanting. You created the problem. What is the real problem that everybody brings to these teachers? What is it all about? It’s basically this, isn’t it: “Teacher, I want to get one-up on the universe. I feel a stranger in this world. I feel that it’s a problem and that having a body means that I am subject to disease and change and death. Having emotions and passions means that I am tormented by feelings which I can’t help having, and yet it’s not reasonable to act on those feelings without creating trouble. I feel trapped by this world, and so I want to get the better of it. And is there some wise man around who is a master of life and who can teach me to cope with all this?” So that’s what everybody’s looking for in a teacher: the man who is the savior and who can show you how to cope with it.
The Zen teacher says, “I don’t have any answers.” Nobody believes that because he seems to be so competent when you look at him. You can’t believe that he has no answers. And yet, that’s the consistent teaching of Zen: that it has nothing to say and nothing to teach. The great Chinese master of the Song Dynasty called Linji in Chinese, or Rinzai in Japanese, said: “Zen is like using a yellow leaf to stop a child crying.” A child is crying for gold, and the father takes an autumn leaf with yellow and says, “Gold.” Or he said: “It’s like using an empty fist to deceive a child.” See, you’ve got a closed fist, and you say to the child, “What’ve I got here?” And the child says, “Let me see.” “Oh no!” You put your fist behind your back. And the child will become more and more excited to know what the devil’s in that fist! And fights and fights and fights, and finally is practically in tears. And then suddenly you finally open the fist, and there’s nothing inside. So, in exactly the same way, a person who is under the impression that there is something that we ought to get… see, all this is dressed up in a big way: to be a Buddha, to know the answer, to finally solve the problem, to get the message, to get the word, or however you put it—in other words, to be in control of your fate and of the world. Would you like it if you could have it?
And so all these powers are projected upon the Zen master. He is a Buddha, he is a master of life. And if he is, the reason why he is, is that he has discovered the unreality of the whole problem. There is not life on the one hand and you on the other. It’s all the same. But, you see, you can’t tell people that, and just by telling get them to see it. Just in in exactly this way, people who know that the Earth is flat can’t be reasoned with. People who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God—absolutely impossible to reason with them at all because they know it is so. So, in the same way, we tend to know that we are all separate, poor little me, and that we’re in need of salvation or something. And we know this is so. And so somebody says, “Well, you’re not really that. You know that that feeling of separateness is an illusion?” Well, that’s all very nice in theory, but I don’t feel it.
So what will you do? What will you do with a person who is convinced that the Earth is flat? There’s no way of reasoning with him. If it’s for some reason important that he discover that the Earth is round, you’ve got to play a game with him; you want to play a trick on him. You tell him: “Great, the Earth is flat. Let’s go and look over the edge. Wouldn’t that be fun? Because, if we’re going to look over the edge of the Earth, we must be very, very careful that we don’t go around in circles, or we’ll never get to the edge. So we’ve got to go along consistently, along a certain line of latitude, westwards. And then we’re going to come to the edge of the Earth, just so long as we’re consistent.” In other words, in order to convince a flat-Earthist that the world is round, you’ve got to make him act consistently on his own proposition, and go consistently westwards to find the edge of the world. Now, at last, when he (by going consistently westwards) comes back to the place where he started, he’s been convinced that the Earth is at least cylindrical. And he may believe you, and then take it on faith that if he goes along the line of longitude, the same thing will happen. But, you see, what you did was to make him persist in his folly. Now, that’s the whole method of Zen: to make people become perfect egotists, and so explode the illusion of the separate ego.
So what happens? In effect, then, in the discipline of Zen, when you’ve finally convinced the master that you are stupid enough to be accepted as a student—because you’ve persisted and because you’ve defined yourself as someone having a problem. He has warned you well in advance that he has nothing to teach. But he says, “Now I will ask you a question.” There are many ways of asking this question, but they all boil down to one common theme, and that is: “Who are you?” You say you have a problem. You say you’d like to get out of the sufferings of life. You say you would like to get one-up on the universe. I want to know who’s asking this question. Show me “you.” Only, they put it in such ways as: “Before your father and mother conceived you, what was your original nature?” Questions like that. And they’ll say, “Now, look, I want I want to be shown. I don’t want a lot of ideas about who you are. I don’t want to know who you are in terms of a social role—you know, that you have such degrees, or you have such professional qualifications, and such a name and such a family. All that’s the past. I want to see you genuinely, now.” It’s like saying to a person, “Now, don’t be self-conscious, see? I want you, right this minute, to be completely sincere. C’mon now.” Well, nothing is better calculated to make a person incapable of sincerity. It’s as when relatives come, and aunts and uncles, and there’s a little child, and they want to review this child and see it, and the parents say to the child, “Darling, come on now and play for us.” See? And the poor child is completely nonplussed. Doesn’t know what to do. Because you cannot play on demand.
Now, what is the Zen teacher doing in saying to a person, “You must answer this question by coming before me” in, in fact, a rather formal situation The kind of context in which a Zen master interviews his students is very formal. And there he sits, a sort of enthroned tiger. He is definitely, in this culture, a sensei; an authority figure. And so he is the last kind of person you can be spontaneous with, because you feel that he knows you through and through. And that—do you know, have you ever read that story of von Kleist about a man who has a fight with a bear, and the bear is a mind-reader and always knows what move he’s going to make? So that the man can never conquer the bear unless he makes a move which he doesn’t think about first. How will you do that? And you get the same feeling with a relationship to a Zen master. You feel that he is absolutely aware of everything phony about you; that he reads you like a book—but that you can’t find a way of being not phony. Think about this a little.
You see, we can arrange a group session—and this is a little game that’s being played by lots of people as a kind of psychotherapy—we can arrange a group session in which the gimmick is this: that when anybody says anything or does anything, the group or some section of the group challenges its sincerity and says, “Why are you coming on so strong? Are you trying to dominate us?” And, you see, anything that you do can be interpreted in that way. Because the moment a group of people starts making comments on its own behavior, it is setting up a situation within the group which is analogous—say, in a TV studio—to turning the camera on the monitor. So when we start thinking about thinking, being aware of being aware, this is what is called in Japanese the observing self: “I watch myself all the time,” see? You’re in a hopeless mess.
But this is the price that human beings pay for having become self-conscious: anxiety and guilt. Anxiety because: am I sure that I thought this out sufficiently carefully? When I left the house, did I turn off the gas stove? And incidentally, I remember turning it off, but can I trust my memory? I’ve learned to think about memory now, and I wonder if I can trust it? Maybe I better go back and look. Yeah, I went back and I looked. But did I really see? Because I’m thinking about my sight, and whether whether this is quite authentic. Did I did I look properly? because you know how the unconscious can alter your senses. So I better go look again. See? Soon, now, I’ve got into a sort of vicious circle where I’ll never get away from the house. And all this sort of getting mixed up is the penalty we pay for the advantageous gift of being able to know that we know:
There was a young man who said, “Though
It seems that I know that I know,
What I would like to see
Is the I that knows me
When I know that I know that I know.”
And so this is the Zen trick. It’s to put you into this situation in a very crucial way. To think about thinking about thinking about thinking about. Or, just the same thing, to make a very strong effort not to think. That’s zazen: sit, let your senses operate, and be responsive to whatever that may be around, but don’t think about it. But now, this is already thinking: I’m thinking about not thinking. How will I stop thinking about not thinking? So there you are, you see? You’re all caught up. It’s like somebody came to you and they put tar in one hand, or molasses, feathers in the other, slap the two hands together, rub them around, and said, “Now pick up the feathers.” So, you see what happens: the teacher is well aware that he’s played this trick on you. And he’s going to see what will happen if you act—and he’s going to help you to act—consistently on this foolishness.
Now, you see what he’s done is: he’s simply made a special case of what society does to us all anyhow. And this is true of most cultures. The high cultures of the world, whether they’re of the East or whether they’re of the West, play a game on every new member. They don’t know they’re playing this game because their forefathers played it on them, and they’re still its hopeless victim. The game is called the double-bind, and the formula under whose auspices everybody comes into this world is as follows: you are required to do something which will be acceptable only if you do it voluntarily. You must love me. You must go to sleep. You must be natural. You must be free. Listen to that! You must be free!
Now, what happens, you see: society, the community into which every child enters, defines the child. We know who we are as other people react to us. So the other people say to us, “You’re an independent agent. You’re responsible. You are a freely acting individual.” But this is a commandment. And we obey it because we can’t help it. A child has no way of criticizing us or of seeing there’s something phony about it. So the child has to be free because he is commanded to be so by the community. Now then, the community sets itself a problem. Having defined the child as an independent agent, and having got the child to believe that he’s an independent agent because he isn’t—in other words, he wouldn’t believe this if he were independent—it then has trouble getting him to behave as the community wants him to behave. So they feel, then, there’s something ornery about all children. They’re born in original sin. They’re a fractious and so on—of course they are! Because they’ve been defined in a self-contradictory way.
So when the community says to a person, “You must be free,” or when we are in a family relationship in which the members of the family are saying to each other, “You must love me. It’s your duty to love me”—what a bunch of rot! Supposing one day you get up and you say to your wife, “Darling, do you really love me?” and she replies, “Well, I’m trying my very best to do so,” is that the answer you wanted? No! You wanted her to say, “Darling, I can’t help loving you. I love you so much I could eat you.” You don’t want her to try to love you. But yet, that is what you put on people in almost any marriage ceremony: that you shall love this person. “Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God.” “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is a double bind. And anybody who lives under the dominance of a double bind lives in a state of chronic frustration, because he is devoting his whole life to solving a meaningless, nonsensical problem.
Let’s take the double bind that is the deepest of all: “You must go on living.” Now, living is a spontaneous process. And to say to it “You must happen” is exactly the same thing as saying to any kind of creative artist, “You must come through with the goods. Tonight you must give the superb performance, and above all you must be unselfconscious.” Well, this is being done to us all the time. And the object of the Zen discipline is that, instead of doing this to people unconsciously—as parents do it, and as teachers do it to children, and as the children’s peers do it to their own peer members—in Zen, the double bind is put on you deliberately, knowing how stupid it is. The teacher is well aware of everything he is doing and what tricks he’s playing on you, because he has behind it all the compassionate intent of getting you into such a fierce double bind that you will see how stupid it is.
So then, what happens is this: he gives you the double bind “Be genuine. I want to see you do something that is the real you.” I had a friend who was studying Zen, and he was given some kōan like this to work on. And when he was one day going for his interview, he walked through the garden that connected the sodo, or the monks’ study quarters, with the master’s place, and there was a big bullfrog. Bullfrogs in this country are rather tame. People don’t eat them. And so he swept up the bullfrog and dropped it into the sleeve of his kimono. And when he got in front of the teacher to answer the kōan—that is to say, to spontaneously produce his genuine self—he produced the bullfrog. And the teacher looked at it, and shook his head and said, “Nu-uh. Too intellectual.” Or, as we might say: too contrived, too studied. That’s not yet you. Now, do you see the bind in this? It’s like being told that everything is alright at this moment so long as you don’t think of a green elephant. So try not to think of a green elephant. See?
Now, as he works at this, as he tries to produce the genuine “you,” the teacher really strings him out on this and makes him work and work and work over a period of many months, until he comes to the point of seeing this: there is nothing you can do to be genuine. The more you do, the phonier you are. But at the opposite extreme, there is nothing you can not do—that is to say, you cannot give up trying to be genuine. You can’t relax, you know, and be completely passive, and say, “Well, let’s forget about it. Let’s think about practical matters and forget all these spiritual concerns.” The moment you do that, your abandonment of trying is itself an insidious form of trying. For example, there’s a very interesting Hindu teacher by the name of Krishnamurti that many of you may know about, and he tells people that all their religious inquiry, their yoga practices, their reading religious books, and so on, is nothing but a form of perpetuating one’s egocentricity, but on a very refined and highbrow level. So he gets a kind of disciple who studiously avoids reading any kind of philosophical or edifying book. They’re reduced to reading mystery stories. And they become devoted non-disciples. See, what a clever bind that is! It’s the same as the Zen technique. You can’t, in other words, let go of—my point was at the beginning we saw the way of Buddhism is to let go of yourself. To see that you live in a universe in which in which nothing can be grasped. Therefore, stop grasping.
So here’s the problem. I come and say to the teacher, “Teach me not to grasp.” He’ll say, “Why do you want to know?” And he shows you that the reason why you want to stop grasping is that it’s a new form of grasping. You feel that you will beat the game by being unattached. See, it’s horrible to grieve when somebody you love dies. So maybe, by being unattached to that person, I can avoid grief. Pretty cold, isn’t it? Maybe, you see, by not having an ego, when life comes and bangs on me, if there’s nobody there, it’ll be alright. So that’s why I want non-ego state. That’s phony. All this is a new way of safeguarding and protecting the ego. So this is the way in which Buddhism is a dialogue.
So, you see, if you go back to fundamental primitive Buddhism, people say to the Buddha, “I want to escape from suffering.” It’s a perfectly honest statement. Alright, realize that suffering is caused by desire. Try not to desire. So the student goes away and tries to eliminate desires by controlling his mind and practicing yoga. He comes back to the teacher and says, “It’s pretty difficult. But I have managed at least to get rid of some desires.” The teacher says to him, “But you’re still desiring to get rid of desire. What about that one?” And then the student sees that if he tries to stop desiring to get rid of desire, but then he’s got to stop desiring to get rid of not desiring to desire. And suddenly he finds himself once more with molasses in one hand and feathers in the other: absolutely tied up in a vicious circle. So he realizes: there is nothing I can do about it, and there’s nothing I can not do about it. And this predicament in Zen is called a mosquito trying to bite an iron bull: a position of such psychic extremity that nothing can be done about it.
Now, the point here is: what does this situation mean? When you find yourself in that kind of a trap, what’s the meaning of the trap? Why, that’s very simple: if there’s nothing you can do, and also nothing you cannot do about a given situation, it means that “you” are phony. That, in other words, what we call a “separate ego” isn’t there. Of course it can’t do anything, because it is not an agent. And by virtue of the fact that it can’t do anything, equally, it can’t not do anything. It’s completely phony. So what has happened is: to expose the fiction of there being a separate ego—either to force its actions upon the world or to have the actions of the world forced upon it as a puppet—this thing just doesn’t exist, except as a figment of the imagination, or except as a game rule. Let’s pretend everybody is responsible, is independent, is separate. Sure, that’s a great game. But it’s a game. And so the whole object of this Zen dialogue between the teacher and the student is to carry that game of being the separate ego to its logical conclusion, to its reductio ad absurdum so that, as Blake said, the fool who persists in his folly will become wise.