When I last talked about Zen I was discussing it as a dialogue between master and student, and I was discussing it to a great extent in relation to Far Eastern culture: how it is, in effect, a method of liberation from the culture. All of us need to be liberated from our culture to a certain extent, because education is a kind of necessary evil. And when the process of education—or acculturation—has been completed, we need a cure for it. Education is like salting meat in order to preserve it for eating. But when you’re ready to cook it and eat it, you need to soak some of the salt out. So in the process of being brought up by one’s parents and one’s teachers you are in one way spoiled—although, in another way, made tolerable to live with. And so in our culture it’s increasingly fashionable to have psychoanalysis when you’re finished with education, so as to work out and resolve all the damage and traumatic shocks that were done to you in the process. And it’s becoming something that—in sophisticated circles—one goes through, not because you’re a mentally sick person, but because it’s considered beneficial to general mental health. And this is our fumbling attempt, you see, to find a cure for our own culture.
We need a cure, of course, because the thing that we lose in the course of being brought up is spontaneity. That’s what’s so delightful about a child, as well as so objectionable—that children are just plain spontaneous. And when they do it in a way that pleases us we think they’re delightful, and when they do it in a way that doesn’t please us we think they’re horrid. And so we pretty much kill the spontaneity in them in order to get—certainly, that they won’t be horrid, and that they will be nice, but in a rather phony way. And this is such a disaster, isn’t it? Because when we watch a child—say, dancing—and it’s never learned; never had a single dancing lesson, and is really just dancing for fun, we say, “That’s delightful.” Then, eventually, the child notices that this is a way of getting attention and becomes self-conscious about dancing, and then we send it to dancing school, and it becomes stiff and wretched. And only after many, many years of practice does the child—as a dancer, now a young man or woman—recapture the spontaneity of childhood. Got to go all that long way around to get back to the thing that it once had. And that’s terribly difficult.
So in the same way, we might say the general attitude to life, that a child is taught to live as the child is taught to dance. It has to observe the rules. And in so doing this thing arises that bugs us human beings beyond belief. That is: self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is, in one sense, our pride as human beings. It’s the great thing we have. We cannot only be happy, but we can know we’re happy. We cannot only think, but we can think about thinking. And therein lies the whole possibility in reasoning: to think about thinking, to know about knowing, to be aware of what one does. Herein is the whole birth of a rational control of behavior, which you might say is the glory of civilization and the glory of man. But at the same time it’s a perfect pest, because how do you know when to stop thinking about thinking? For instance, you think over a problem; you’ve got to make a decision. How long should you think about it? How much evidence should you collect before you take a step? You never know. Actually, what most of us do is we think about a given decision until it’s a nuisance, or the time is too late to think about it anymore, and then we do something. We never are sure that we decided the right thing, and one of the troubles about thinking decisions is there are ever so many unpredictable variables that come into everything. And you may work out the most perfect business contract, and everything is fine, but you didn’t bargain for the banana skin that you were going to slip on on your way to your partner’s office, or whatever it was. Such things couldn’t be predicted in any amount of decision-making, and the more we try to elaborate perfectly foolproof methods of arranging our lives, the more we find ourselves encumbered with impossible details. That’s the fallacy of too much law. When we provide for everything in the law, [we] suddenly find you can’t move without filling out 300 forms, and without consulting all sorts of bureaucrats, without hiring a staff of lawyers and accountants, and all kinds of things; to be sure you don’t make the wrong move. After a while, the game ceases to be worth the candle. And life becomes so safe that it’s not worth living at all.
So this is one of the problems of being self-conscious. And all education, you see, is an instruction in self-consciousness. What do you learn in education? You learn, fundamentally, words. In other words, symbols about reality. And through words we’re able to talk about living, and so think about living, and so have knowledge about it. You see, no knowledge is academically respectable knowledge unless it’s knowledge in terms of words or in terms of numbers. That is to say, in terms of symbolic language about life. But you see, once you’re in that position, once you know that you know, and you know you’re alive, and you know you’re gonna die—because you can predict—you feel you’ve lost your innocence. Something’s gone wrong. This, in the Christian tradition, was the knowledge of good and evil. What it says in Hebrew is not exactly moral good and evil that was known as a result of eating the fruit of the tree, but what was advantageous and disadvantageous. It gave you the gift of being like God, that is to say, the gift of being able to control the course of events. And anybody who controls the course of events, you see, probably puts themself in the situation of the sorcerer’s apprentice. The Lord, looking at you down there and says, “Okay, you wanted to be God. Man, you go ahead and try!” And you get in more and more of a mess. You know, you succeed amazingly. Just like the sorcerer’s apprentice actually made that broom go and fetch water for it. But he couldn’t stop it. And as we say today: you can’t stop progress.
So then, the whole problem of self-consciousness is that you’re always in a dither and a doubt. We call this anxiety. And a nostalgia develops among us for the age of innocence. Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to make any decisions? To act entirely on whim? And if you got into trouble—well, that would be alright, because you wouldn’t’ve been worrying about it. See, when a moth mistakes a candle for its sex call—which is what happens; that’s why moths fly into candles—the moth makes a mistake and powie, it goes out. That’s that. [The] moth doesn’t worry on the way to the candle whether it’s going to get burned. And of course, the moths are sufficiently prolific so that one moth more or less lost in a candle doesn’t matter. Hundreds of moths lost in candles don’t matter. They just go on. So you might imagine a human civilization where people make mistakes—and yes, they go off with a glorious bang instead of a whimper. And that’s that. They wouldn’t worry. They’d live magnificently. But we can’t possibly go back and do that. You can’t on purpose give up self-consciousness, you can’t give up worrying, you can’t give up thinking about yourself, and above all you’re terrified to live spontaneously because you might do something wrong.
However, the center of Zen training is to live spontaneously. And this is why it’s so fascinating to many Western people, especially Western intellectuals, who are overburdened with self-consciousness. Because what fascinated people about Zen, when they first heard of it through Dr. Suzuki’s writings, were Zen stories. I lent a book of Zen stories once to a friend of mine, years and years ago, and he was in hospital. And when he gave it back to me he said, “Geez, I didn’t understand a word of it, but it cheered me up enormously!” So the literature of Zen, especially the literature of Zen in its early days in the Tang Dynasty in China, was a literature that runs from approximately 700 A.D. to 1,000 A.D. This span of years is the golden age of Zen, and almost all the literature of the period—in early Buddhist Chinese—is anecdotes about the encounters of Zen masters with their students. They are called in Japanese mondō, which means “question-answer.” And it appears that the way of studying Zen in those days was rather unlike the way of studying it now. Now, Zen is settled and is studied in communities—such as we’ve been looking at and will be staying in tomorrow night. But in those days, Zen was a wandering thing. In other words, if you became a Zen monk, you did a great deal of traveling. And instead of sitting on your fanny most of the day, you trudged. You were walking along through prairies, mountain paths, rugged country; you were visiting master after master after master, to find one who would answer your question.
Now, in a very natural way—supposing a person is questing; you are a seeker. You’re not a phony seeker, but a real seeker—that is to say, you have within you a burning desire to find out what it’s all about. Who you are, what life is, what reality is, or what’s the way out of the mess. You want to become—instead of a mixed-up human being—you want to become something as simple and genuine as a tiger, or a cat, or a bird, or a Buddha. So those monks used to wander, and wander, and wander in search of a man who would answer the question. So one of the first stories is that, when Bodhidharma—or Daruma, who you see all over Japan as the man with big eyes, a bushy beard, usually dressed in red, with no legs—he [Alan mistakenly says Bodhidharma visited himself. The person asking Bodhidharma for advice referred to here is Taiso Eka] came to where Bodhidharma was meditating and said, “Master, I have no peace of mind. Please pacify my mind.” Of course, he didn’t even get in for a long time to ask the question, because Bodhidharma refused to see anybody. Finally, when he cut off his left arm as a token of his sincerity and presented it to the master, Bodhidharma said, you know, “All right, what do you want?” Well, he said, “I have no peace of mind.” The mind, in Chinese, is xīn, and it isn’t quite what we mean by “mind.” They locate it here [the heart]; Japanese kokoro. We locate our mind here [the head]. But this mind here, the heart-mind, is the psychic center. When you say, “I’ve no peace of mind,” it doesn’t mean you’ve just got a headache. You may have a heartache, too. It’s a more inclusive word; you might call it the center of psychic activity. So Bodhidharma said to this man, whose name was Eka: “Bring out your mind here before me. I’ll pacify it.” And Eka said, “When I look for my mind I can’t find it.” Bodhidharma said, “There, it’s pacified.” Now somehow, this answered Eka’s question.
And all Zen is stories like that. Now, one thing I must tell you about these stories: they are of the same nature as jokes. That is to say, a joke is told with the object of making you laugh. Laughter is not an intellectual thing, it is an emotional reaction. And the point is the emotional reaction. If, therefore, a joke is explained to you, you may laugh out of politeness; a throaty laugh—but you will not laugh spontaneously; a belly laugh. Now, the object of Zen stories is not to produce laughter, but to produce awakening, clarification, enlightenment, or what is called in Japanese satori. Satori is, like laughter, something that happens suddenly. You don’t—as a rule—slowly begin to laugh and then laugh louder and louder. Because you see a joke instantly. A joke is always a matter of an a-ha! So, in the same way, these stories are intended to produce an a-ha reaction in you of, “Oh, but I see! Now it’s clear!” And really, they don’t contain any information. Their design is not to tell you something—that is to say, to impart information or knowledge. Their design is to get rid of something. To get rid of a false problem with which you are wrestling, so that the problem will disappear as a result of understanding the story. And you’ll see, from the story that I told you, that what happened was the disappearance of a problem. Because Eka, when he looked for his mind that was giving him so much trouble, couldn’t find it.
Now then, these stories go on in the most amazing ways, and I might retell a few—although some of them may be familiar to you. I’ll try and choose ones that are probably less familiar.
There was a master walking in the forest with a group of his disciples, and suddenly he picked up a tree branch and said to one of the monks, “What is it?” And the monk hesitated; didn’t answer immediately, so the teacher hit him with it. So he turned to another monk and said, “What is it?” And the monk said, “Give it to me, so that I can see.” And the master tossed him the branch. He caught it and he hit the master with it. And so the master said, “Well, you got out of that dilemma!”
There was another occasion where an officer of the army came to a Zen master and said, “Sir, I have heard a very strange story and I want to know your answer to it. Once upon a time there was a man who kept a goose in a bottle. And it grew so large that he couldn’t get it out. Now, he didn’t want to break the bottle and he didn’t want to hurt the goose, so how does he get it out?” And the master changed the subject and said something like, you know, “It’s a nice day today, isn’t it? The waterfall’s making a lovely sound outside.” And so they went on, in pleasant conversation. And then the officer got up to leave, and as he walked away to the door the master said, “Oh, officer?” And he turned around and said, “Yes?” And the master said, “There! It’s out!”
Another time there was a famous master called Suibi, and he was asked, “What is the secret teaching of Buddhism?” And he was asked this in the lecture hall, you know, where other monks were studying. And he said, “Wait until there’s no one around and I’ll tell you.” So, later in the day, the monk accosted him and said, “There’s nobody around now. What is the secret teaching of Buddhism?” So he went into the garden with this monk, and he pointed at the bamboos. And the monk said, “I don’t understand.” He said, “What a tall one that is. What a short one that is.” And this awakened the monk.
Then there was another monk, whose name was Gutei, and whenever people came to ask him [a] question about Buddhism, he’d hold up a finger. That was the only answer he’d give. Well, he had an attendant. And one day somebody came to the temple to inquire about the teaching being given there, and the master was apparently out, and his attendant was there. So the investigator said, “What is your teaching here?” And the attendant held up a finger. Well, actually, the master had been there; he was peeking from behind a screen. And so he came out to this boy and said, “What’s the fundamental teaching of Buddhism?” And the boy held up a finger. Instantly, the master drew a knife and cut it off. And the boy was very dismayed and rushed away, yelling. So the master said, “Hey, come back!” So he came back. He said, “What’s the fundamental principle of Buddhism?” And he went to hold up the finger and it wasn’t there. And he was enlightened.
There is a Chinese god whose name is Ping-Ting, and this is the god of fire. And there was a monk who was traveling, and he came to a new master—he had been to someone else—and he said, “Well, who did you study with before you came to me?” “Oh,” he said, “I studied with so-and-so.” He said, “What did he teach you?” “Well,” he said, “when I asked about the fundamental meaning of Buddhism he answered me, ‘Ping-Ting comes for fire.’” “Well,” the master said, “That was an excellent answer, but I bet you didn’t understand it.” “Oh yes,” he said, “I understood it. Because Ping-Ting is the god of fire. And if Ping-Ting should ask for fire, that would be like me asking about Buddhism, because I’m really a Buddha already.” The master shook his head. “I knew it,” he said, “you missed the point completely. “Well,” he said, “how would you deal with it?” The master said, “You ask me.” So the monk said, “What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?” And the master said, “Ping-Ting comes for fire,” And the monk got the point.
Well, you know, you can go on with these stories indefinitely. But you’ll notice certain dynamics in them. They require, as a rule, a solution to a dilemma. Or they do something that creates what we would call a state of blockage. When you’re posed with something completely unusual, and you don’t know how to react to it in a normal, automatic way. You see, if somebody says to you, in the street, “Good morning,” you say “Good morning,” and you’re not being spontaneous, you’re being merely automatic. When somebody comes up to you and says, “Are you saved?” Or “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” It’s a very unusual question and it stalls most people. They say, “Well, what do you mean?” Or something funny like that. They feel embarrassed by religious questions. Somebody might say to you, “Why have you got such long toenails?”—when you’re wearing a shoe and nobody can see it, you see? Anything that absolutely disrupts the normal flow of interchange. Well, then you’re nonplussed.
And the object of Zen is never to be nonplussed. That’s—you see, to be nonplussed is the real meaning of the Buddhist doctrine of what’s called bonnō in Japanese, which means “entanglements” or “defilements.” Or “attachments,” we might call them. Worldly attachments. It is not a worldly attachment, in Buddhist philosophy, to enjoy dinner. That is natural, you see? It is not a worldly attachment to need to sleep. That is perfectly natural. But it is worldly attachment to be sticky. That’s to say, to be like a wheel that sticks on the axle and squeaks. So we are sticky when we are, in a certain way, self-conscious. We are, as we would say, “all balled up” or “all clutched up,” and we’ve lost our original spontaneity. And we are not, as it were, flowing with the stream of the Tao—the course of nature, or whatever you want to call it. So then all these questions put you in a dilemma. And the point is to see if you can get out of the dilemma without a moment’s hesitation. That doesn’t mean doing it quickly, necessarily, because if you’re in a hurry to give a quick answer, that itself is a form of blockage.
You should all read, in this connection, a translation in Suzuki’s book Zen and Japanese Culture, of a letter written by Takuan, who invented pickled radishes—I told you about, you know? Those yellow daikons are called takuan, after this man. And he wrote a letter on the art of swordsmanship where he explains the necessity of spontaneity in fencing is that, if you have to stop to think about how you’re going to respond to a certain kind of attack, it’s too late. You’ll be dead. You must respond in the same way as when you clap your hands: the sound comes out without a moment’s hesitation. Or when you strike steel on flint, there is no waiting before the spark comes out. But he adds: if you try to be quick, this will itself be a block.
You may notice that when people are trained in the use of the sword, they get what Anne Clark bought the other day—which is a bamboo sword—to start with. And you can give a person a healthy clobber with the bamboo sword without actually ruining him. The teacher may well have you work around the house doing various chores as a sort of janitor when you begin in sword school, and will take every possible occasion to surprise you and hitting you with a bamboo sword. And you’re expected to defend yourself with anything available. With the cushion, with a broom, with a saucepan, anything you happen to be handling—defend yourself, immediately. Well after a while, you know, if you’re going around your everyday work expecting to be jumped on any minute, [it] becomes rather nerve-wracking. Especially if you’re thinking all the time about where’s it going to come from next? And you discover that the more you make plans and try to calculate on where it’s going to hit you next, you will always be outwitted because the teacher is infinitely clever and will always come from an unexpected direction. So at last there arrives a point where you just give up. You stop planning. And you just go around, relaxed, and if it hits, it hits! And then you’re ready to start fencing.
Another story told about this is the story of the woodcutter and the animal, whose name was Satori. There was once a woodcutter working in a clearing in a forest, when he saw a strange animal peeking at him from behind a bush. And, thinking to have this animal for dinner, he rushed at it with his axe. And the animal laughed from the opposite side of the clearing. Because this animal had the power to read thoughts. And therefore, wherever the woodsman intended to go, the animal read his thought first. And so the animal began to talk, and mocked him and said, “You think I’m going to be [in] this place next,” because the woodsman naturally thought, “When I see him next, instead of going to where he is, I’ll go to the opposite side of the clearing.” And so this went on until the woodsman got absolutely furious, and he returned to chopping the wood. And the animal laughed and said, “So you’ve given up!” And just at that moment, as he whanged the axe against the tree, the head flew off and struck the animal dead. That’s the way you have to attain Zen.
So you see what happened here? The boy who studies swordsmanship is put in this impossible situation where he can’t do anything right. Everything he does is wrong. And therefore, after finding this out—that nothing will do because it’s all self-conscious—he gives up. Then he can be spontaneous. But you see, what is provided is the training—why the training of Zen people is disciplined is that, we’re going, first of all, to be spontaneous within limits. See, out in society you can’t do that. Because people will be just bugged by you if you say exactly what you feel and always act the truth. You won’t be liked. And you may indeed do very dangerous things. But the Sōtō, or the Zen training school, is set up so it’s a walled-in situation where one is allowed to be spontaneous within certain limits. And the crucial moment is what is called the sanzen interview, which is a restricted interview; it’s very formal. But in the climax of that interview no holds are barred. It is a personal interchange where fundamental honesty is the crux of the whole thing.
Now you see, as I explained last time, that is a very buggy situation. Because the more you wonder whether you’re going to be fundamentally honest, the more you get cold feet. Supposing you were allowed an interview with God, and allowed to ask one question, what would you ask? And really think it over, you know? If you go into this and think, “What would I ask?” You know? It’s got to be really important. It’s got to be the fundamental question to you. What is it that you basically want to know? And you start thinking about that, and thinking about that, and the more you think about it, the more you don’t know what you would ask. You’d say, “Well that’s a silly question, isn’t it? I know what he would say to that.” You think about another one and think, “Eh, it’s a curiously interesting question; I don’t suppose anybody knows the answer to it. But after all, it’s only just idle curiosity. I don’t think I’ll ask that one.” Then you think of another question, and think about that for a while, and then you realize it’s a question that doesn’t mean anything. That would be a waste of breath, and of a great opportunity. And you go through it, and through it, and through it, until you think about all the questions you might ask.
It’s the same—very much so—if you visit a great master. You know, you might get an interview with a Zen master while you’re here, and with the advantage of an interpreter present. What are you going to ask him? You’ve got just this one chance. What do you want to know? I remember a friend of mine who went to Yamazaki Rōshi, who used to be at Shōkoku-ji. He said—when he got in there—he said, “You know, I feel so silly.” He said, “I haven’t got any questions to ask you. I just feel like laughing.” And Yamazaki said, “Good! Let’s laugh!” And he broke into a great bellow.
And, you know, there it is. This is what I want to emphasize about this, because there are ever so many facets of Zen that are so easily misunderstood just through reading about it. There’s one school of people that will emphasize the spontaneity of it and think, “Gee, this Zen is real groovy stuff! It means you just do anything you like.” It’s true, you see, that certain of the great Zen masters have said—Rinzai made this point very strongly—he said, “In Zen there is no place for discipline, or for Buddhism, or for making efforts. You just eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, move your bowels when nature calls. Fools will laugh at me, but the wise will understand.” See? You read that. Next thing you know, somebody comes here to Japan to study Zen, and suddenly they write back letters about hours and hours of sitting in one position, and being banged about with warning sticks, and having to get up at ghastly four in the morning, and wash in cold water, and having a very spare diet, and having to do things, behave and move just exactly so, and all that side of it is emphasized. People think, what’s going on? Is it this or is it that? Is it one thing or is it the other?
The answer is it’s both. It does have discipline, especially in view of the fact—and do bear this in mind: most Zen monks today are not really in the monastery of their own volition, and have not been for hundreds of years. They’ve been there because it was a family tradition. You’re a priest and you have a son; well, in all traditional cultures—in India, in China, and so on—there’s a tendency for the son to carry on his father’s business. So if you’re the son of a priest it’s sort of expected that you’ll be one, too. So, off to the monastery with you. It was the same in England in the 18th century, where the oldest son in the family went into the army, the second son into the law—I forget which order it was—and the third son, anyway, went into the ministry. Well, that means a whole lot of people were in theological school who haven’t got the slightest interest in religion. Not real interest. And so they have to be taught to think. So St. Ignatius, for example, made out methods of meditation. A, B, C, D. Approximate consideration, remote consideration, the meditation itself, the resolution at the end—this is simply designed to teach people how to think who have never thought, and weren’t interested in thinking. So in much the same way, these things have occurred in the Far East. And a great deal of it is therefore designed to discipline people who have no real motivation for the discipline in question; the study in question.
So now, one of the great features of Zen training is to develop within yourself what is called a “great doubt.” And the kōan system is used to develop a great doubt. Here you are, you know; you’re asked to hear the sound of one hand. If you’re an American and you come over to Japan to study Zen, you’ve gone to a lot of trouble. You obviously have some sincere motivation, and you just can’t get the answer to that “one hand” thing, and it becomes more a matter of life and death because it seems terribly important to find this out. So you have a great doubt; that is to say, you have an urgent spirit of inquiry. And you can’t get it, and you can’t get it, and you can’t get it—the teacher keeps saying, “Now c’mon, c’mon, let’s go. Let’s be ready to give your life for this thing!” But you see, if you go into a Zen monastery and you don’t have that spirit of inquiry that led you across the ocean at a great deal of expense, you were just someone who was brought up—one of the boys in the neighborhood—and he went into the monastery. Well then the teacher says, “The trouble with you is you don’t have a great doubt.” Of course he doesn’t have a great doubt; he’s not interested. So he learns to cultivate a great doubt.
See, it’s like trying to—if I may put it in Western or Christian terminology: you don’t love God. You’ve never seen him, you don’t know anything about God. How—why the devil would you love God? Somebody comes along and says, “You’ve got to love God, you know! It’s terribly important. It’s the first commandment.” “Oh, gee, I’ve got to love God!” So what do we do? We sit down and say, “Dear God, I love you. Dear God, I love you. Dear God, I love you. Dear God, I love you. C’mon, c’mon, I’ve got to get this feeling going.” And then the preacher can tell all sorts of stories, you see, and move you; terrify you with the fear of hell if you don’t love God. Or he could say how beautiful Jesus was. That was the revelation of God. Now, you ought to love that! Like you ought to love your mother (…probably hate her guts). So you see, you get this thing. Work on that great doubt. Well, you see, the trouble is you can’t get a great doubt to order. You can’t tell anybody anything to order. If you could, do you know [what would happen]?
Supposing you were at music school. What are they trying to do in music school? They’re trying to find methods for teaching creative musicianship. Whether you’re a player, or whether you’re a composer, or whatever. They want to find out how they can make every student a genius. Actually, all schools are run for the advantage of the staff. And, you know, it’s a job. You’ve got to put people through there; it’s a way of keeping them off the labor market. But if you’re a very sincere teacher you want to find out how to impart that subtle thing to the student. So there are books galore on methods—special methods—for getting that creative ability across. Professor So-And-So’s method, Doctor So-And-So’s method, et cetera, playing the piano, and so on, make it easy but make him a genius. Now, if such a method existed, you know what would happen? These geniuses would all be boring. Because we would know how they do it. And the whole fascination of an art, and of a great performance, is you don’t know how it’s done. There must be something about it that is fundamentally astonishing.
You could say—again, putting it into Western terms—if God could explain how he created the universe, he wouldn’t be God. And you know how, in the Book of Genesis, it’s told so straightforwardly that, when the Lord first of all creates the things, and then looks at them afterwards and sees that they’re good. And you know, I love the passage where suddenly he creates great whales. You know, suddenly—great whales! Whoops—like that! And he looks at these things and says, “My, that’s great! Do it again!” So in this way, there’s a Zen poem which says,
You may want to ask where the flowers come from,
but even the god of spring doesn’t know.
And another says,
Planting flowers to which the butterflies come,
Bodhidharma says, “I don’t know.”
So there is this curious thing in all—what I would call—vital knowledge; living knowledge. That it’s always a mystery to itself. Life is a mystery to itself. For the same reason, you see, that there’s a Zen poem which says,
It is like a sword that cuts but does not cut itself.
Like an eye that sees, but does not see itself.
So, in this way, what there is—fundamentally; basic reality—knows itself and doesn’t know itself. If it did know itself thoroughly it would stop. Like playing games. If you know the outcome of a game for sure there’s no point playing it. So, you know, when master chessplayers sit down and it becomes apparent—although there are still many pieces on the board—that one of them is going to mate in three moves, they abandon the game because they know the outcome. If you knew the future perfectly, you knew everything you’re going to do right up to the day of your death, you’d say, “Let’s check out on this game. Let’s commit suicide and start another life.” Because there’s no point living through what is known completely. Of course, you can’t very well live through what is unknown completely; there must be some light. But total light annihilates itself.
So then, you see, there is no prescription. No infallible technique for teaching anybody music, although there are music schools. And there is, likewise, no infallible technique for teaching anybody Zen, although indeed there are Zen schools. And sometimes the teacher, who is many years experienced, begins to gets disillusioned. What’s the point of all these schools; what’s the point of teaching music? You can’t teach music. You can only pass it on from one person to another by osmosis. Sure, there’s a technique. You can learn how to read, you can learn how to put your fingers on the banjo—but the real thing, what to do with that technique, what to say with it—you can’t teach that. So one assumes, then, that a person who is sufficiently motivated, who is fond of music, will learn the technique because he wants to get so where he can handle the instruments. And you suppose, likewise, that a person who is really interested in self-knowledge—after all, Zen is only a certain way of self-knowledge—will master certain techniques because he’s interested. But, you see, all schools and all systems begin to make techniques an end in themselves, because technique is the only thing you can teach. You can’t teach the thing.
Now, you see, we get scared when we think of that. Do you mean to say I might be that person who gets hung up in this? And all I’m going to get out of this school is technique? Somehow I might be that dumb bunny who just doesn’t get this thing? That’s an awful thought, isn’t it? Because that’s drilled into us from childhood; for example, it comes out in toilet training. I remember all medical and nursing authorities, when I was a small boy, had tremendous constipation phobia, and they believed that you could suffer from poisoning, you know, from retaining things too long. And so they were always, always agitating, questioning every day as to whether you had been. So you built up, conversely, a terror that you might not be able to. And this, in its turn, built up tensions that were actually constipating. And so everybody was constantly being filled with cáscara sagrada, California syrup of figs, castor oil—bombshells in every description, which upset the natural functionings.
So, in the same way, you might think, “I’m going to practice meditations or something, and study Zen. But will I be the poor fool who never gets the point?” Or you could put it in Christian terms and say, “Well, I’ll be as good as I can be, but perhaps I will be the one whom God will never give any real grace to, because I haven’t been picked out. And will I get this grace?” There’s no way, you see, that you can wrangle grace. You can’t compel the Lord to give it. In the same way you can’t compel satori to happen. You think, “Maybe it won’t happen to me.” That’s possible, you see. So what do you do about that?
Well, the teachers have all sorts of things to say about what to do about it. They say, “Well, now look: just forget about it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get it.” Not getting it is getting it, you see? They use this paradox all the time. Not to have it—really, to accept that you don’t have it—that’s getting it; that’s the real point, you see? But that’s a gimmick. See, I’m going to try as hard as I can not to try to get it. See? But you’re really playing a game. At last, I’ve got the infallible method! There must be an infallible method, because if there isn’t a method we’re lost; we’re up the creek! Why? Because we’re out of control.
But, you see, when you find out there isn’t a method—there isn’t a positive method and there isn’t a negative method—what are you going to do? You can’t do something and you can’t do nothing. You can’t let go of the thing because, after all, you got curious about it. And this is what’s called having swallowed a ball of hot iron. You can’t gulp it down and you can’t spit it out. And Zen is a trap to get you into that state. You be very careful how you get mixed up with the thing, because you may end up in a padded cell, blathering. That is the quandary, and that’s why ever-silly opposite things can be said about Zen. That’s why, on the one hand, it can be said rightly that it’s a strong discipline, while on the other hand it can be said rightly that it’s not a discipline at all. And it isn’t that it’s just a mixture of things. Zen isn’t sort of partly discipline and partly spontaneity. Whatever is said about it can be said of all of it. And therefore it seems to be paradoxical. And one can always get into difficulty by neglecting some side of it and saying, “Well, that doesn’t matter.” Sometimes it’s true that it doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s not true; it may be just the thing that you need—the side you say that doesn’t matter.
So there’s no way—what I’m trying to say is: there’s no way of putting your finger on this thing. There’s no way of nailing it down, and that’s the whole point. Because, you see, fundamentally, Zen makes you do what you were doing all the time, only it makes you do it consistently. Supposing you’re sitting in your padded cell and you suddenly found out this little game. See? You’ve got your one hand clasped by the other and your thumb sticking out here, at the top. You look at that thumb and say, “Ooh, look at that”—whoops! And then try and catch it. Now you’ve got it—no. No. Here we go! No. No. C’mon, let’s get it! C’mon, let’s get it! C’mon, let’s get it! Get it, get it, get it! Get that thing! Get that—see? Whew. That’s what we’re doing, see? Here’s me, and here’s knowing about me. No, I want to try and control myself, you see? I want to get a hold of that thing that’s me. Because when I get a hold of it I can control it, and then I’m going to be alright. Gotta get a hold of it.
And so we’re doing that. And as a result we have astounding illusions. Now, we have the illusion because it’s ruled into us through acculturation that each one of us is a separate ego, separate center of awareness, little living pulp of some kind, that lives in a strange world. Scares the hell out of us. What makes you think this, you see? How did you ever come to imagine that you are somehow disconnected, out there, surrounded by this world in which you’re a stranger? See, it’s really obvious that that isn’t so—only, it’s not obvious to most people. It’s really obvious that you—the real you, deep in—is this thing that is reality. And that you’re having a profoundly interesting game pretending you’re not. And you’re going through all kinds of amazing mazes to play this game, and mostly running in terror from your own shadow. Jumping at the sound of your own heartbeat. Having goosepimples rise on your back at the sound of your own footsteps. Wow!
And you are always exploring into this world and finding it gets stranger and stranger as you look out into the infinitudes of space, where you thought everything was pretty rational—you know, these other galaxies that were millions of light years away—you thought, “Well, that’s just a lot of galaxies out there.” Suddenly, something called a quasar turns up. Nobody understands what a quasar is; they defy all the things that we thought we knew. And so it get stranger and stranger. And the more you probe inwardly—you know, you sort of lift the skin off your own stomach and take a look inside. What a weird world that is. And we say, “Oohw, cover that up! That makes me feel…” I feel like I feel when I see spiders, or ants, or something. You get the shivers and the creeps from it.
But, you see, what you’re getting the creeps at is yourself in an unfamiliar aspect. The unknown side. Because at last comes recognition. The most far out thing, the thing that seems the most totally other—and you say, “Why, that’s me!” And what a relief. But at the same time: what fun to begin all over again and have a new surprise, something different.