Monday, June 1, 2009

regret and repentance

I guess everyone has some sense of regret -- a longing to repent of things that have been done or left undone. I know I have. There may be no undoing to past, but still there is a nagging presence, like sitting on a tack and somehow being unable to get up. There once as a Zen teacher who counseled, "In order to do this practice, you must feel shame" and perhaps that pointing finger (minus the cogent and up-to-date analyses and denials) indicates something about regret and repentance.

One of the interesting things about regret and repentance is how assured I can feel in their presence. What demands regret is assured and insistent, but what requires no regret is wobbly and uncertain. But how could the one arise without the other? This may be a common-sensical observation, but when was the heart ever swayed by common sense?

To be more specific, I was thinking last night and again today about my own stinginess when it comes to lending others a 'Buddhist' hand. Any counterpoint generosities are somehow lost or dismissed ... it is the stinginess that nags and sticks me in the ass.

And the best I can do to illustrate my stinginess (without laying claim to the good heart that resolves the situation) is to cut and paste one of my all-time favorite Zen stories ... one I think is worth considering ... or anyway I like to consider it. It's just my bellybutton we're talking about here, so the highlights are just my emphasis on what I think is important about this tale:

Stingy in Teaching

A young physician in Tokyo named Kusuda met a college friend who had been studying Zen. The young doctor asked him what Zen was.

"I cannot tell you what it is," the friend replied, "but one thing is certain. If you understand Zen, you will not be afraid to die."

"That's fine," said Kusuda. "I will try it. Where can I find a teacher?"

"Go to the master Nan-in," the friend told him.

So Kusuda went to call on Nan-in. He carried a dagger nine and a half inches long to determine whether or not the teacher was afraid to die.

When Nan-in saw Kusuda he exclaimed: "Hello, friend. How are you? We haven't seen each other for a long time!"

This perplexed Kusuda, who replied: "We have never met before."

"That's right," answered Nan-in. "I mistook you for another physician who is receiving instruction here."

With such a beginning, Kusuda lost his chance to test the master, so reluctantly he asked if he might receive Zen instruction.

Nan-in said: "Zen is not a difficult task. If you are a physician, treat you patients with kindness. That is Zen."

Kusuda visited Nan-in three times. Each time Nan-in told him the same thing. "A physician should not waste time around here. Go home and take care of you patients."

It was not yet clear to Kusuda how such teaching could remove the fear of death. So on his fourth visit he complained: "My friend told me when one learns Zen one loses the fear of death. Each time I come here all you tell me is to take care of my patients. I know that much. If that is your so-called Zen, I am not going to visit you any more."

Nan-in smiled and patted the doctor. "I have been too strict with you. Let me give you a koan." He presented Kusuda with Joshu's Mu to work over, which is the first mind enlightening problem in the book called The Gateless Gate.

Kusuda pondered this problem of Mu (No-Thing) for two years. At length he thought he had reached certainty of mind. But his teacher commented: "You are not in yet."

Kusuda continued in concentration for another year and a half. His mind became placid. Problems dissolved. No-Thing became the truth. He served his patients well and, without even knowing it, he was free from concern over life and death.

Then when he visited Nan-in, his old teacher just smiled.

I have never knowingly and deliberately given anyone a koan -- some kindness that would offer temporary purchase and focus and comfort. That's pretty stingy, pretty strict and pretty impatient, perhaps. But I salve my conscience with this: How is it possible for anyone NOT to offer the comfort of a koan? Isn't it a koan to imagine that there might actually be a koan ... or not?

It's just a koan for this old, stingy, faithless bastard.


  1. Hey, thanks for the koan.


  2. Stingy in your teaching...that's a good one, bud!

  3. Adam,

    Thanks for your perspective on koans.

    I'm running with a Soto posse, so I'm not meant to 'do koans' according to the leaflet. In the Dogen sense I do THE koan, and it does me of course (...ahem).

    I think from tiome-to-time that I should be 'doing koans' in the 'not leaflet' sense... but that idea just goes away after a while so far. I think its just an ornament of doubt.

    Some questions do come up in zazen though... these ones have come up in the past with some bone rattling intensity:

    Why am I like this?

    What am I?

    Who wants to know?

    Interestingly, when the questions have come up, they do so after a time of uncertainty, doubt, uncomfortable zazen etc etc... the questions coming up themselves seem to resolve this when I just let them go in zazen... like they are answering themselves retrospectively. A bit backwards, eh?

    It won't have been the first time I got Buddhism, and things in general, ass-backwards.