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Questions of Quality

Someone asked, “I’ve heard how the teachings say that ‘the great sea doesn’t harbor a corpse.’ What is the sea?”

Master Caoshan said, “It includes the whole universe.”

The questioner asked, “Then why doesn’t it harbor a corpse?”

The master said, “It doesn’t let one whose breath has been cut off stay.”

The questioner asked, “Well, since it includes the whole universe why doesn’t it let one whose breath has been cut off stay?”

The master said, “In the whole universe there is no virtue. If the breath is cut off, there is virtue.”

The questioner asked, “Is there anything more?”

The master said, “You can say there is, or there isn’t, but what are you going to do about the dragon king who holds the sword?”

–  Zen master Coashan

This is often a poignant koan, most likely because on one level it is designed to help loosen the habitual need for self-belonging— and our anxiety over exclusion and abandonment, of being “outside.” When it is engaged with sincerely, it opens up the vulnerability of position, both interpersonally and in terms of the nature of things.

In the present koan a student asks, “I have heard that the teachings say that ‘the great sea does not harbor a corpse.’ ” We will need to explore what the sea is and what the

Corpse is before we can proceed effectively into the workings of the koan. The sea is often used in Zen to indicate that which does not exclude anything, the

Container of all stillness and movement— thusness, or the vastness of the unbound. It is said, “all streams return to the great sea,” meaning all Buddhist teachings are aimed at

Awakening. All things are within one reality. Buddhist teachings are said to be like an ocean in that they become deeper the further you go into them, and also in that they have a uniform flavor: the taste of liberation. The “oceanic reflection” or “ocean seal” refers to the calm mind reflecting all things, a great sea of thusness.

If nothing is excluded by the sea, why is a corpse not harbored? What is “a corpse”? Is it someone who has died the great death, the death of the ego, the death of separation? Or is it the dead weight of self-absorption, of self-centered, self-possessing delusion that precludes all real kindness? What is that weight, that lifeless thing that never finds its true harbor, or any real rest or relief from itself? How, indeed, do we become kind? How, indeed, do we become our real selves?

Buddhism teaches that as we draw the skin bag around the idea of self, we live in a bubble of delusion, not letting the fresh water of reality flow in or flow out as experience.

Always, that line between “us” and “it,” maintains distance. When we operate at that distance, our attempts at kindness have a pre-meditated quality, strained with yearning or hopelessness. For this and so many reasons, this koan is a great gift, like a ladle of water from that hidden spring we sense belongs to us.

Remaining is the question: what is the entire universe? What is it that contains everything? Unless the questioning becomes increasingly acute, the process becomes muted and remains immature; never advancing beyond the kind of thinking that dulls the mind, and depresses the sensitive heart. So much more is possible.

I heard someone recently explaining that the reason many of us feel we have a lousy life is that we ask lousy questions: “Why can’t I do it? What’s wrong with me?” Or,

“Why have we so fouled the world? What’s wrong with us?”Of course, the mind creates answers: “I’m inadequate; I’m a pig; I’m being punished by an unjust universe.” “We are idiots. We’ll never get out of this mess”.

It is possible to ask a different quality of question: “How can I step fully into it? Not later, but right now? What would it be like to enjoy the process?” Even this kind of questioning can get in the way at times, but occasionally it’s grand medicine. “How can I step fully into the challenges that come my way and not fight with time? What if things as they are were not a mistake and I was perfectly positioned?”

In terms of the koan at hand, the questioner does go forward, deepening the ocean by walking into it: “Well, since it includes the whole universe why doesn’t it let one whose breath has been cut off stay?” The master said, “In the whole universe there is no virtue. If the breath is cut off, there is virtue.”

We could rephrase this: In wholeness, there is not some “thing.” Intimacy allows no perspective. Where there is cutting off, however, there are things. Separation allows

Multiplicity of perspective. If it can be cut off, then it began. If there is being there is nonbeing; if there is virtue, there is evil. The koan at this point is such a shower of

Generosity, but we don’t quite see, we look for elsewhere, for “more.

In Sensitive Chaos Theodore Schwenk draws a picture of birds in migration. The depiction offers a beautiful window into who we are, what relationships might be actually

Expressing even as we’re blithely constructing our stories:

Each bird lies on a wave which is made in the air by the leader who initiates it. The beats of their wings follow the ups and downs of the wave and simply make visible what, as a vibrating aerial form, surrounds and bears them all in the arrow formation. …A bird does not need much strength, for it is as though the movement of the wave of air were to raise and lower its wings for it. If one of the birds has an excess of energy it will do more than simply allow itself to be carried along. With the beating of its wings it will strengthen the whole wave, will infuse the aerial form with energy from which all will benefit. … Indeed, even the leading bird itself draws energy from this field.… Thus it comes about that during a long flight over many hundreds of miles each single bird elastically connected with the whole flight beats its wings exactly as many times as all the others in the formation. The entire process is an aerial form, an organic whole moving through the air. The bird is a creature of the air. It is born out of the air and entrusts itself to it. It cannot possibly be abandoned by the sky.

It cannot possibly be abandoned by the sky. Sky and sea and self: can we be abandoned? Can we secure one another?

Excerpts from the Dharma Talk “Water Speaking Water” by Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei.