Zhaozhou once asked Nanquan, ‘What is Tao?’ Nanquan answered, ‘Ordinary mind is Tao.’ ‘Then should we direct ourselves toward it or not?’ asked Zhaozhou. ‘If you try to direct yourself toward it, you go away from it,’ answered Nanquan. Zhaozhou continued, ‘If we do not try, how can we know that it is Tao?’ Nanquan replied, ‘Tao does not belong to knowing or to not-knowing. Knowing is illusion; not-knowing is blankness. If you really attain to Tao of no-doubt, it is like the great void, so vast and boundless. How then can there be right and wrong in the Tao?’ At these words, Zhaozhou was suddenly enlightened.
It’s easy to conclude that it was Nanquan’s sterling words that brought on Zhaozhou’s breakthrough, but in doing so you’d be ignoring the years of practice that Zhaozhou did both before this famous dialogue and after. Zhaozhou stayed with Nanquan even after his major realization till Nanquan’s death, then wandered from monastery to monastery and didn’t begin to teach till he was 80, becoming one of the greatest of all Chan masters.
So what was Zhaozhou practicing all these years? You might call it the practice of paradox.
Do I direct myself towards it or not? Yes or no? This way or that way? These are all examples of an either/or type of reasoning. This kind of reasoning is useful in making everyday decisions: Should I go to the post office today or should I go tomorrow? Do I read this book or do I read that book? But that kind of reasoning is also very limited.
You are probably aware of the hypothesis of multiverses, according to which, when I wonder whether to go to the post office today or tomorrow, a universe unfolds in which I go to the post office today and simultaneously a second universe unfolds in which I go to the post office tomorrow. In other words, both eventualities co-exist, only in separate universes.
The paradigm of Indra’s Net of pearls brings both eventualities together. Here, every thought, concept, feeling, or being is a pearl. Each pearl lies in a node of the Net, thus connected to all the other pearls, and each pearl reflects all the other pearls. I can go to the post office today is one pearl. I’ll go to the post office tomorrow is another pearl. One doesn’t nullify the other; both co-exist in this infinite Net.
Here’s another situation that doesn’t lend itself to either/or thinking: I love him and I hate him at the same time. Two opposite feelings, but still two pearls existing in the same net. Temple Grandin, the autistic expert on animal science, has written that the reason she won’t marry is because she can’t love and hate at the same time. She explains that the frontal part of the brain of severely autistic people like her, which deals with integration of contrasts and opposites, is different from its counterpart in people who are not severely autistic. Those of us who are not autistic people instantly get that one can love and hate a person at the same time, while Grandin wrote that in her case, the minute her partner gets angry or upset or withdraws, she’ll be convinced that there’s no more love in the relationship. In her case, it’s either-or. In our case, it’s both-and.
Parker Palmer, the educator, has written: “Paradoxical thinking . . . comes from the capacity to entertain apparently contradictory ideas in a way that stretches the mind and opens the heart to something new. Paradox is also a way of being that’s key to wholeness, which does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” He talked about the depressions he’s coped with in his life, and then added: “Eventually I was able to see that the closer I move to the source of light, the deeper my shadow becomes. To be whole I have to be able to say I am both shadow and light.”
We often think that practicing will keep us in the light, or at least bring us closer. And we want that, don’t we? Like Zhaozhou, we want to direct towards something, light rather than dark, wholeness rather than fragmentation. And yet, “[t]he closer I move to the source of light, the deeper my shadow becomes.” That’s been my experience, too. The greater the light, the more corners it reveals that are in shadow. Do I disown those parts of me?
“Embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” Embracing brokenness for me means embracing myself as I am. The Hasidic version of the start of life is that God created a holy vessel, which then shattered into pieces, and we are all shards of that holy vessel trying to come back together again. According to the Big Bang Theory, a singularity expanded to become gases and eventually infinite particles, to which we then gave names: planet, comet, sun. In some ways they both come to the same thing: We are fragments, each shaped differently from the other. One has concave sides, another has convex. One’s corners are sharp and another’s are round. One is shy and the other likes to brag; one is socially adaptable and the other wants to hide. We call some aspects shortcomings and others virtues, not very different from how we label some people autistic and others normal. Basically, we’re like serrated rocks that are never the same. But keep in mind that we’re not just unique, each of us is whole as we are, in our respective uniqueness.
If that is the case, then is our objective to become smooth? To get rid of my brokenness, my jaggedness and unevenness, the surfaces that are fine as they are except for my judgments of them?
I am both shadow and light. In beginning the 108 Days of Practice, Genyo quoted the great Chan master Linchi: “You must right now turn your light around and shine it on yourselves, not go seeking somewhere else. Then you will understand that in body and mind you are no different from the Ancestors and Buddhas, and that there is nothing to do.”
This is very poignant for me. We’re broken vessels and we want to be whole. Many of us come to practice because we want to go after the light. We want to do what Zhaozhou suggested, go towards something. It could be a career, a lover, a zendo or a teacher or guru. Linchi says not to go out to seek wholeness but to go in. Turn your attention inwards and rest there. Does everything get lit up? I doubt it. The deeper I go to the source of light, the more shadows I find. So is the work to go further and further into light till I get rid of all shadows, or is it to find the light in the shadows? To find that I’m both light and shadow.