“A Non-Buddhist Philosopher Questions the Buddha.”

(This was Kanko’s first teisho (dharma talk) to her root sangha right before her teacher, Kurt Kangan Spellmeyer, publicly gave her permission to teach independently. In our tradition, the speaker of a dharma talk does not use any written notes, speaks spontaneously and is woven together at the time of delivery. Often, the sentences are often not complete at the time the talk is delivered. The edits and additions have been inserted within square brackets.)

Today’s koan is on Case 65 in the Hekiganroku.  Case 65 is entitled, “A Non-Buddhist Philosopher Questions the Buddha.”

Engo’s Introduction

It has no form and yet appears.  It extends in every direction and is boundless.  It responds spontaneously and works in emptiness.  Even though you may be clever enough to deduce three from one instance, and to detect the slightest deviation at a glance, and though you may be so powerful that the blows fall away from your stick like raindrops and your shouts sound like thunderclaps, you are not yet to be compared with the man of advanced enlightenment.  What is the condition of such a man?  See the following.

Main Subject

A non-Buddhist philosopher said to the Buddha, “I do not ask for words; I do not ask for non-words.”  The World-honored One remained silent for a while.  The philosopher said admiringly, “The World-honored One, in his great mercy, has blown away the clouds of my illusion and enabled me to enter the Way.”  After the philosopher had gone, Ananda asked theBuddha, “What did he realize to say he had entered the Way?”  The World-honored one replied, “A fine horse runs even at the shadow of the whip.” 

Setcho’s Verse

The spiritual wheel does not turn; When it turns, it goes two ways.

The brilliant mirror on its stand, Divides beauty from ugliness, Lifts the clouds of doubt and illusion.

No dust is found in the gate of mercy. A fine horse watches for the shadow of the whip; He goes a thousand miles a day.

Once the Buddha made his mind turn back. Should the horse come back when I beckon, I’ll snap my fingers thrice at him.

Three bells

I want to start by thanking Kurt for having trust that I was ready to give a teisho, to share my journey and not say anything which might be disruptive to everyone’s practice.

Today is the third day of sesshin.  It’s the day when our consciousness can flip its operational mode and we begin to feel much better.  By now we have descended deep into our haras (Japanese for the nerve center below our navels which we breath from while in meditation).  [The process of] surrender to our breath and to mushin becomes easier.  It’s easier to hear the birds.  It becomes more natural to laugh.  I’ve been sitting by the side of someone who’s here for the first time and I’ve been absolutely amazed [by their stillness].  [That such a stillness and natural-ness could be achieved] was so hard to believe years ago when I attended my first sesshin.

Today, I want to start by talking about my background.  [How was the life unfolding] before I started practicing and what my first sesshin was like before I got deeper into the koan study.  I was raised in north India.  My father was missing from my life almost since I was conceived and my brave single mother raised me with enormous love and support from my mausis [maternal aunts] and my maternal grandfather, who was a freedom fighter and later a leading political figure in my home state in India. Today, I found myself thinking about [him], my maternal grandfather, who was a Gandhian.  He went to jail several times with a lot of Gandhians during Indian freedom movement in the 30s and 40s.  And he was a very well read, very well respected lawyer in his village/city and later his urban community. [After India gained freedom in 1947], he was forced into politics because people close to him trusted him and wanted him to lead them.  He always used to wear white clothes, white Khadi clothes.  Khadi is handspun cotton [and was Gandhi’s spiritual, economic and political “weapon” against British regime during Indian freedom struggle].  And there was an aura of bare simplicity around him.  There were books that used to line up the walls of his room.  The legal treatises lining his home-office were hardbound, black and red books.  And he was always busy.  Always.

So this kind of a person helped raise me.  I grew up watching him, wanting to be a little bit like him, very simple.   I never wore khadi… but… as children we all form an image of what we want to be like. For me, it was trying to do good, being virtuous, moral, helping people around and not getting distracted by materialistic things.  Growing up, I was a nerdy kid, [who] was always studying hard for school.  Actually, first of all, I was a sickly kid.  My mother’s pregnancy was quite complicated and I was born underweight.  My mother used to say, “We didn’t know if you would survive [or grow up normally].  We didn’t know what would happen to you.”  Somehow, she managed. With help from my grandfather and her two sisters who worked very hard to keep helping me to grow into a decent….well, I shouldn’t say decent… But I guess I’m decent (laughter).  But they certainly [helped me grow into] a healthy human being who would not fall apart all the time. Because I was sickly, I couldn’t be good at sports.  I was not into novels, cable TV hadn’t made its way to India until after I was in college. So, I was nerdy.  I got good grades.  [Back in those days] in India, we didn’t call them grades.  We called them marks and percentages.  So I was almost always in top 1 percent. You know, Kurt sometimes talks about people who get depressed if they don’t get 99%, that was my karma, I couldn’t lose [especially before college].

So, anyway that was the karmic history I brought along with me to the U.S. in 2001 when I landed here, right after 9-11.  And then, I had come here to become a computational biologist.  I had gotten admission in a Ph.D. program that would have helped me become a computational biologist, but by the time I reached U.S, I had lost interest in the subject.  At the time, that was like a disaster – not knowing what I was doing in a new country.  Now, I know it’s very common.  In fact, it should probably happen to every student that he/she question and probe very deeply what is it that we want to make of our education… if not after joining grad school like me perhaps before joining [PhD/masters programs].  But at that time, it was nerve-wrecking.  Also I was in the U.S., a country whose culture, [unlike many of my peers from India], I hadn’t really come to appreciate.    I remember going into the superstores and feeling absolutely, totally lost and feeling stripped of any meaning amidst those giant wheels of materialism.  Things were so bright and yet [there was] very little genuine connection.  And everyone misses home.  I know there is a part of us that wants to break away and live our own lives.  But when the familiar surroundings [and relationships] go away, it feels like a loss of identity.  So, I was sort of going through the motions – not knowing what I am without wanting to be computational biologist, not liking direction of my Ph.D. program, not wanting to get up in the morning to attend classes and so on.

I ended up meeting a woman who’s still our beloved friend, Priya.   She’s extremely hard-working  scientist and an amazingly caring friend.  She had just met me and she said, “Would you like to try meditation?  I [know] this guy and I know he’ll give us a ride.”  I had done meditation in India too.  I had done a devotional kind of meditation practice where one chants a single name again and again. And in that community, there was also a reliance on music to take one into deeper layers of mind [bhakti]. There are Bhakti clubs at Rutgers [where] you can sing along with the very rhythmic music and you can get into samadhi .  So I told Priya, “Yes, of course.  I’ll go for [meditation].”  And there’s this guy who shows up in a grey Nissan Sentra.  And he had this sort of, I couldn’t tell at the moment, British accent, and it seems a bit artificial to me.  And he gave Priya and me a ride to my first Zen “sit”.  And I thought, “What a pretentious guy!!  Why doesn’t he leave me alone?”  I really had that sort of first impression about Imtiaz.  Now you know he’s my husband for, how much would that be since 2004, [ 9 years].  So Imtiaz gave us both a ride and I met Kurt on the same day.

I met Kurt and Imtiaz, two very important people in my life on the same day.  Unlike Imtiaz, I didn’t have first impressions about Kurt.  He was just this very tall guy, who Priya introduced me to.  He said, “Hello.  How are you?” . And then Kurt did not give me detailed instructions like I see him giving to newcomers these days.  Maybe he thought that my head was already too full to get any instructions. Maybe he assumed that I’m from India and would know how to meditate. Anyway, he didn’t give me detailed instructions.  And I don’t remember feeling immediately after the first sit , “Ah, this is great!”  I just kept coming back because it sort of [resonated with me] and my life off the cushion was depressing. And the background culture helps.  In India, people don’t necessarily meditate regularly but you can grow up hearing about non-duality.  As I said earlier, I was not introduced to fiction in my childhood.  I was introduced to non-fiction and actually you wouldn’t believe one of the earliest books I read was by Vimala Thakar who was a close friend and disciple of Jiddu Krishnamurti.  So I had indeed grown up hearing a lot about non-duality, silence of the mind, meditation, but [had] never meditated for more than 25 minutes.  So I kept coming back to [meditation at] Rutgers even though it didn’t immediately click.  And I guess part of the reason I kept coming back was because Imtiaz was still giving me a ride.  It’s so helpful, so helpful to have friends who support our inner voices. Often people want to meditate but we are not [consciously] sure because of the distractions in the modern world.  And I do not think I would be here today if Imtiaz was not there, not just to cook great food for me and all of us, just being the wonderful organic person that he is in all respects and supporting me, but helping me to come to meditation.  If he hadn’t given me the ride to Saturday sits, I wouldn’t know how wonderful  Saturday sits could be.  I wouldn’t have had courage to try a sesshin [5-7 day long meditation retreat].

So you can fast forward six, seven months and I’m at my first sesshin.  And at my first sesshin, I was sitting where Jim is sitting right now [second spot in the row facing Kurt].  So, Jaru [Chia-ju] was across from me.  John Hogan was to my left facing Kurt.  And, of course, I could see Kurt from where I was.  And then there used to be a guy, Qiao Feng. Brian Tucker, who helped found Princeton group, was also there.  They were all sort of on the side where Sandy, Karen and Bob are sitting at this sesshin.  I’m not kidding, after every sit I would watch everyone. Of course, Kurt was sitting like a rock…. rock with no change in posture for 1.5 hours.  John Hogan used to sit like a rock too, just like Kurt.  Jaru also used to sit in full lotus, and at that sesshin, like a rock!  And then I used to wait for inkling of some human presence there, right?  After every sit when Imtiaz or Qiao Feng or Brian Tucker would move to adjust their posture, I used to feel victory.  “Oh my god!  I’m not the only human being here.”  Of course, I moved much more than them and I moved a lot during each sit. [Even though most people sat like a rock, there was no “rule” against not moving.  I’m amazed at how wonderful Preet is doing  at his first session and [how well] other people for whom it is second or third sesshin [are doing, as well].

For me: first day, I survived.  Second day passed, I survived.  Third day, I went into dokusan room (where private interview with the teacher happens) and I screamed at the top of my lungs. I didn’t know at the time that there is supposed to be practice of calling “Mu” in dokusan room. I just screamed out of utter frustration. I do not know if Kurt would remember but I was so frustrated, [I was in] so much pain that I told him, “I do not want to be enlightened!!  I don’t care!!”   I don’t remember what he said but [whatever he said], it [gave me] a sincere feeling.  He wasn’t disappointed.  He was quiet but I don’t remember what he said.  And I came back [from dokusan room] and I stuck around for the rest of the sesshin.  There were some people who had come only for 2-3 days and had left sesshin earlier in the day I screamed but I think I stuck around because of my background and because Imtiaz was there.  One last thing I want to tell about first sesshin is that at some point I saw Imtiaz talking to John Hogan.  It sounded like a very intimate conversation and you know what I thought?  I thought, “Imtiaz has gotten enlightened and he’s telling John Hogan [a very senior student at the time] that ‘I don’t care about this crazy girl who has come with me to sesshin anymore.’”  Talk about misconceptions!  (Laughter) Talk about feeling how easy it is to get enlightened or that being enlightened means that we don’t need our relationships anymore.   But anyway, that’s what my thoughts were.  [It turned out, he was talking about a tick bite he had because Murray Grove, where we hold our sesshins, is a hotspot for Lyme disease causing ticks].

When my first sesshin ended, I went home and found myself simply elated.  I didn’t know at the time but tremendous energy [ki] had built up in me. I had indeed had a few good sits, a few sits where perhaps for the first time in my life I had really tasted the non-dual, really become one with my body, one with the rise and fall of my breath.  I had not appreciated them at the time but I had a few samadhi experiences. So now, fast forward a few more months, I kept coming back to sesshin, three weekday sits, alternate Saturdays, slowly adding Tuesday sits at Princeton, sometimes Sunday sits at Wachung.  And very soon, I was doing sitting with the sangha, with Kurt, six times a week.  I probably learned driving, and I think I’ve heard Sandy say the same thing, I learned driving so I could drive to sits.  I wasn’t motivated about going to eat at new places.  I wasn’t motivated about going to New York City.  If you think about my nerdy, one-pointed mind, something about [zazen] Zen sitting appealed me and life started revolving around that.  There is a kind of warrior-like character to this, right?

After a while I was just going, going, going to all the sits.  And I was still a full time grad student, PhD student, doing my lab experiments every week.  [But the life was absolutely centered around sitting] with warrior-like devotion to Zen.  It spoke to me.  After a while, if it speaks to you, if it makes you curious, when you go to one layer of mind, you want to know more about the next. Even after one reaches the enlightened state once, the process still keeps going on! Anyway, I hung on to every word Kurt said for my dear life.  There was a phrase he used to use in those days which he doesn’t use anymore but I absolutely loved.  That phrase was, “Follow your breath as if you were a blind person,”  We walk forward.  We grope forward like a blind person.  And our walking cane, our stick, is our hara.  We are feeling our way deep into layers of mushin using that hara, that space below our belly button, that nerve center!

So while I was in this warrior-like mindset, I received an email from Kurt, I think it was in 2007, he had written, “We need to make a delegation and we need to go to a monastery.”  Jaru had arranged this visit.  This was a Taiwanese monastery.  We can host about forty people for sesshin at Murray Grove but in the main hall of this Monastery, I think we could easily fit a hundred people.  So the idea was maybe we could, I don’t recall the specifics but somehow it would be a better place to host our sesshins.  Maybe we could have more people sitting with us and maybe we wouldn’t have to pay as much.  I don’t know exactly what we were thinking but the delegation consisted of Sandy, Gary, Jaru, Imtiaz, myself and, of course Kurt.  And again I don’t remember all the details but it ended up being a tough interview for Kurt.  And we were all a witness to a non-Zen outsider questioning our teacher.  At that time, we didn’t interact with Kurt as much outside of sesshin and sits as we do now.  We did still have picnics but we sort of didn’t know him very well.   He was really on a very, very high pedestal for me, so you can say you know for that nerdy little kid coming from India, loving Zen, he was the Buddha.  So here’s a non-Zen outsider interviewing Kurt, trying to figure out whether or not our group can rent that place or do our sesshins at that place and so on.  So now I want to go back to the koan.

A non-Buddhist philosopher said to the Buddha, “I do not ask for words; I do not ask for non-words.”  The World-honored One remained silent for a while.  The philosopher said admiringly, “The World-honored One in his great mercy has blown away the clouds of my illusion and enabled me to enter the Way.”

At the monastery, it all started with some gentle introductions.  We entered the room, uttered our names, how long we had been practicing with our sangha etc. But it was soon clear that it wasn’t going to be friendly.    I guess, because of the kind of practice they do there, the [literal adherence to] precepts were very important.   Of course, they’re important everywhere but the concept of celibacy was somehow paramount to them [In most Zen traditions, people don’t take the precept of celibacy. They agree to be mindful of sexuality and be faithful to their partners].  At this monastery, they were trying to see how seriously we took the issue of celibacy.  And I think Imtiaz and I were introduced as a married couple.  There was a guy there, let’s call him Reverend Peter.   At some point Reverend Peter asked, “Well, what about these two?”  And I do not know what Jaru said.  She said something in Chinese and I was relieved (laughter).  And I really don’t know what she said.  But anyway, the same line of questioning went on for Kurt.  And that made me furious, furious.  I remember feeling self-righteously livid.  How dare you!!   My teacher!!  And at one point, I even requested Jaru to translate my questions for them.  Through her, I asked, “You are making us answer all these questions and at the end of it, is your space even available for anyone to use for our sesshins?”  I think she translated it.  At one point, Reverend Peter actually took Jaru aside and threw a koan at her and said, “Can you answer this koan?”  There was this sort of distrustful vibe in the air.  There was a wiser person there who was really the teacher who was kinder, gentler, who seemed to listening well and so on…. but Peter was a total non-Zen outsider. Outsider!!  And I was not in the state of mind of this koan. Identity, my identity as a Zen student was so threatened by an outsider who did not love and respect my teacher as much as I did.

And then, when you think about it, why are we doing all this practice, right? Sometimes I think all the koans, this koan book (flipping through the book in her hand), how important is this koan collection?  We could go through all the koans but what does it really mean if we are not kind, embodied and centered in our daily lives?  But here I was, absolutely livid.  I could not understand, I could not integrate, I could not assimilate at that time Peter’s “outsiderness.”  And Buddha in this koan, what did Buddha do?  He remained silent for a while.  In another translation, the same action by Buddha  is referred to as, “He just sat there,” which is a little better than saying, “remained silent.”  Buddha did not give him words or non-words. That would be the heart of this koan.  Buddha was able to enter that space where Buddha, himself, lost his identity.  Buddha was not doing Zen.  Buddha was not preaching Buddhism.  Buddha was not trying to convert an outsider into an insider.  Buddha just sat there. What does that mean? Maybe Buddha got up and hugged him. What do you think?

There’s actually a story of a renowned Indian rishi (meditator), Ramakrishna Paramhansa being questioned by a very learned philosopher, you know, having a sort of a Dharma battle.  And the questioner [Keshav Chandra, who founded Bramha Samaj entirely based on his philosophy] came and started arguing about the nature of God.  I don’t have time to go into details.  In the end, Ramakrishna Paramhansa befriended the tough questioner by [the energy of] his presence and danced with his opponent.  It’s not so uncommon in India, you know the Bhakti tradition, Rama Krishna Paramhansa saw this outsider who was making up all these philosophical discussions, and Rama Krishna Paramhansa, instead of trying to intellectually convince Keshav of his idea of spirituality, just danced around in joy.  And then after a while, Keshav, the “non-Buddhist” – the outsider — melted, became Rama Krishna’s disciple.  Similarly Buddha was not trying to convert or impress anyone. He was not striving for anything? What did he do?

After the philosopher had gone, Ananda asked the Buddha, “What did he realize to say he had entered the Way?”  The World-honored One replied, “A fine horse runs even at the shadow of the whip.”

There could be many aspects of this koan that one can work with. I’m surprised that I’m running out of time.  [What if the philosopher was sincere in his questioning and Buddha really helped him wake up. What could have Buddha done to do that — something which didn’t make any sense to Ananda?] There’s one issue that I did want to talk about.  This koan talks about someone outside us, right?  Non-buddhist philosopher outside the physical body of Ananda and Buddha.  Reverend Peter was outside me. But with time, I have been humbled to realize that the most important “non-Buddhist outsider” is not actually outside but “inside” my psyche, inside my heart-mind.  Why was I livid? Why was it important that everyone like my teacher the way I like?  What was my definition of myself that was getting threatened by Peter?  I could go on and on…. The most important things that we forget to integrate [and embrace and dance with], are parts of ourselves things that we can’t integrate with our definition of ourselves.   If I am not appreciated, my worldview is not accepted, or if I’m lonely, angry, fearful, and I say, “I’m not sad, I’m not angry,” and I keep that outside of my meditation or spiritual practice that I do identify with, then that response is not like what Buddha did in this koan.

“I do not ask for words.  I do not ask for non-words.”  And Buddha just sat there.

This [keeping parts of myself outside] is creating boundaries.  That’s not being one [with parts of my own self].  We are out of time. I was hoping to talk a little bit more about my own practice, how I have failed and learned again, failed and learned again, then failed again in these twelve years.  But I think the most important lesson has been how to deal with shadows…parts of myself that don’t align well with what I would like to define myself to be. By the way, it is okay to have shadows. With time, I have come to realize that warrior-like devotion to Zen is a double edged sword. We need to bring energy and faith into our practice to be able to surrender to the deeper layers of mind. Warrior like intensity, however, can come with several shadows: arrogance, competition, more entrenched spiritual bypassing, lack of care towards body and relationships.

Most of you might know that Imtiaz and I are leaving New Jersey and moving to Colorado [in a few days].  And after these 12 years of sitting together, I think we are taking you, your friendship with us.  We’re taking your love with us and we are taking the ability to practice, get on the cushion and face whatever comes our way.  And the work on the cushion is [partly] what I talked about earlier.  Making the outsider elements, things that I do not see or things that I see but want to say that they do not belong to me.  Integrating all of that outsider-ness.  And I hope I have learned enough number of times that before I get upset with something outside of myself, which I still do:  I get upset with people outside of me all the time, I sit with my definition of myself.  The heart of the practice for me is in sitting and integrating the outsider elements inside of my own self.  And for that, for that lesson, I’m infinitely grateful to this sangha.  I could not have practiced the way I’ve practiced without each one of you……[10 hours a day, every 4-5 sesshins a year, for 12 years!] Thank you so much.  I’m going to miss all of you a lot.  And I wish for all of you that you all be able to integrate the outsider elements outside of you, in you, very deeply.  And I hope that you will visit Imtiaz and me in Boulder.

A non-Buddhist philosopher said to the Buddha, “I do not ask for words.   I do not ask for non-words.”  The World-honored One remained silent for a while.  The philosopher said admiringly, “The World-honored One in his great mercy has blown away the clouds of my illusion and enabled me to enter the Way.  After the philosopher had gone, Ananda asked the Buddha, “What did he realize to say he had entered the Way?” 

When we integrate our “outsider-ness,” the people outside us are also not so threatened.  I don’t know about Reverend Peter but the way Kurt responded to that questioning, I think the older quieter teacher was satisfied. Overall, if you are looking for a closure, it was a tense meeting and I don’t think they fully embraced us.  We never followed up with them. We never inquired what they felt about our community…..but something does soften when we are integrated ourselves.

The World-honored One replied, “A fine horse runs even at the shadow of the whip.”

A deep bow. (Three bells)