Today I’d like to work with Case 35 from the Book of Serenity. It begins like this:
Attention! Rakuho went to visit Kassan. Without bowing, he stood and faced him. Kassan remarked, “A chicken lives in a phoenix nest. He’s not in the same class. Get out.” (Thus Rakuho comes to see Kassan but acts rudely by not bowing, and Kassan rebuffs him on this.)
Rakuho said, “Your fame has made me come from afar. I beg your indulgence.” Kassan replied, “There’s no one before me, and no old monk here.” (Kassan again challenges Rakuho, probing his depth with this statement.)
At that, Rakuho gave a shout. Kassan said, “Stop! Stop! You shouldn’t rattle on like that. The moon and the clouds are the same. Valleys and mountains are differerent. It’s not that you can’t cut off tongue tips of everyone under heaven, but how can you make a tongueless person able to talk?” Rakuho had no reply. Kassan struck him. Henceforth, Rakuho acquiesced.
In this koan, we have one of those classic dharma battles between an upstart student and a master. Rakuho had studied with Rinzai and therefore was fond of shouting. Rinzai had approved of him. However, Kassan was more of a Soto style teacher, and this is the story of how Rakuho came to accept Kassan as his teacher.
There is a lot in this case, but there are two things in particular I want to speak to:
The first is this statement by Kassan: “It’s not that you can’t cut off the tongue tips of everyone under heaven, but how can you make a tongueless man able to talk.” When we think of meditation and Zen we often think the aim is to quiet the mind, the cutting off of thought. Manjushri’s sword. The shouts and blows. Going into silence. Emptiness. Of course, alll this can have much benefit. But it is also not the whole dharma. When we only want to silence, it is too easy to think we know. We silence others. We cut them off. We cut ourselves off. We hurl insults at ourselves and each other, and cause each other pain. But how do we give life? How do we support the silenced to speak?
We cannot become whole only by silencing and cutting off our pain in zazen (or in shouting, or in distraction). That pain actually gives life if we live through it.
The second thing, and not unrelated, is the moment of acquiescence. Often we hear of the journey of taming the mind, taming the bull of the self. We can link this endeavor to the silencing process, however this koan suggests that silencing can itself be a form of self. Rakuho was a powerful practitioner: He could cut off speech, but in that his ego was still alive. It was only by being challenged to give voice (and support others to give voice) to the voiceless, that he realizes he doesn’t know. He acquiesces and accepts his teacher. This kind of acquiescing is the taming we are looking for, the taming of self-absorbedness. Letting the voice of the tongueless speak.
In my own experience, over and over, the way teaches me, “Don’t rattle on like that,” and don’t be stuck in my own self-absorption. I see that my desire to somehow succeed, to be approved of, actually creates my disappointments. When I acquiesce to what is arising, I have the chance to harmonize with the situation, meet the situation. This is not-knowing and bearing witness, rather than thinking I know. In practicing this, in acquiescing over and over, we become clearer, more flexible, and thus more resilient.