Here is an excerpt from Alan Watts :
Buddhism speaks of the four dignities of man: walking, standing, sitting, and lying. And so zazen is simply the Japanese word for ‘sitting Zen.’ There must also be walking Zen, standing Zen, and lying Zen. You should know, for example, how to sleep in a Zen way: that means to sleep thoroughly. Zen has been described as, “When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.” And when the student got that description he said, “Well, doesn’t everybody do that?” And the master said, “They don’t. When hungry, they don’t just eat but think of 10,000 things. When tired, they don’t just sleep but dream innumerable dreams.”
So, in a sense, this sounds like the old Western truism whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. But that’s not the same thing as Zen. A lot of people like to see if they could sum up Zen in that way. In the Latin motto of the school I used to go to in England: age dum agis, ‘act when you act,’ or while you act.
There’s a famous story which beautifully illustrates the current relationships between East and West. Paul Reps, who wrote—or rather, drew—a lovely book called Zen Telegrams, once asked a Zen master to sum up Buddhism in one phrase. And he said, “Don’t act, but act.” So Reps was simply delighted because he thought the master had said, “Don’t act but act.” And that, of course, would be the Taoist principle of wú wéi (無爲), of action in the spirit of not being separate from the world. Realizing so fully that you are the universe, too—that your action on it is not an interference, but an expression of the totality. But the master’s English was very bad indeed, and Paul Reps had misunderstood him. He had said, “Don’t act bad act.” And, you know, that is the sort of attitude that all clergy develop over the centuries. You know how it is when you go to church—if you do—so often the sermon boils down to, “My dear people, you ought to be good.” And everybody knows that—but hardly anybody knows how, or even what, ‘good’ is.
ZEN’S APPEAL TO THE WEST
The fascination of Zen, to the West, is that it promises a sudden insight into something that is always supposed to take years and years and years. The psychoanalysts—if you’re mixed up—they tell you the troubles you’ve got yourself into over all these years can’t be undone in a day, and therefore it will take many, many sessions—maybe twice a week for several years—for you to get straightened out.
The Christians say that if you embark on a path of spiritual discipline, you get yourself a spiritual director and submit yourself to the will of God, but you may not get into the high states of contemplative prayer for very many years. The Hindus, the Vedanta society people, the Buddhists also say it’ll require many long years of meditation, very hard concentration, very difficult practice, and stern discipline. Then, maybe, you’ll make enough progress in this life to become a monk in your next life, and then you’ll make enough progress to enter some of the preliminary stages leading to Buddhahood, but it’s all likely to take you many, many incarnations.
But when this artist, Hasegawa, was asked, “How does one see into Zen?” he said: “It may take you three seconds, it may take you thirty years. I mean that.” And so, you see, there is always the possibility that it may take only three seconds. Zen literature aboudns with stories, you see, in which there’s a dialogue—or what is called in Japanese mondō, which means ‘question-answer’—between a Zen teacher and his student, and these dialogues are fascinatingly incomprehensible. But it always seems to be that [at] the end of this swift interchange, the student gets the point. Sometimes he doesn’t.
I gave a book of these dialogues, once, to a friend of mine who was deeply interested in Eastern philosophy. He said, “I haven’t understood a word of it, but it has cheered me up enormously.” So this book—called the Mumonkan, which means ‘the barrier with no gate,’ or ‘the gateless gate’—contains such stories as the student—I say student rather than monk, because Zen students are not monks in our sense of the word ‘monk.’ Our monks take life vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and to make the grade you’re expected to spend your whole life in the monastic state. But I call the Zen monk a student because he’s more like a student in a theological seminary. He may stay much longer than the usual three years; he may stay thirty years or so, but it’s always possible for him to leave with dignity, and to graduate, (Text sourced from https://www.organism.earth/library/document/out-of-your-mind-7) and to go into lay life, or to become a regular priest who keeps charge of a temple, can get married and have a family, and only very few graduates of a Zen monastery become rōshi. Rōshi simply means ‘old teacher’—that is, the man in charge of the spiritual development of the students.
So one of these students in the book says to the master Jōshū, “I have been here in this monastery for some time, and I’ve had no instruction from you.” The master said, “Have you had breakfast?” “Yes.” “Then go wash your bowl.” And the monk was awakened. Now, you may think that the moral of the story is, “do the work that’s nearest though it’s dull at whiles, helping, when you meet them, lame dogs over stiles” [Charles Kingsley].
Or that the bowl might be a symbol of the great void, the all-containing universe, and that—probably—the monk had washed it already, because they immediately—after eating in Japan and China, in a monastery—they take tea and pour it into the bowl and swill it around, wash it and wipe it out. So maybe he had already washed the bowl. And in that case you might think that the master was saying, “Don’t gild the lily.” Don’t—to use a real nice Zen phrase—don’t put legs on a snake. Or a beard on a eunuch. No, the point of that story is so clear that that’s what’s difficult about it.
And all these stories resemble jokes in this sense. A joke is told to make you laugh. When you get the point of the joke, you laugh spontaneously. But if the point has to be explained to you, you don’t laugh so well; you force a laugh. There is some kind of sudden impact between the punchline and the laugh, and so in exactly the same way with these stories, there is expected to be something else than laughter, which is sudden insight into the nature of being. ‘Nature of being;’ that sounds—again—very abstract, but it was “go wash your bowl.”
So, another story in this book concerns a master who said, “When a cow walks out of the enclosure—the corral—the horns and head, the four legs, and the body all get through, but not the tail. How is it that the tail can’t get through?” And nobody could answer this.
Another story tells of a certain master called Bǎizhàng, who was so good that he had hundreds of students, and they couldn’t all be housed in one monastery. So he had to find one of the students who could also be a master. And so he arranged a test. He put down a pitcher in front of them all and said, “Without making an assertion, or without making a denial, tell me what is this?” And the senior monk said, “It couldn’t be called a piece of wood.” And the teacher didn’t accept this answer. But the monastery cook came forward and kicked the pitcher over and walked away, and he got the job. And the commentator remarks, “Maybe he wasn’t so smart after all, for he gave up an easy job for a difficult one.”
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