Hoen's "Who Is He?"

Today’s teisho is on Case 45 in the Mumonkan, Hoen’s "Who Is He?”


Hoen of Tozan said, “Even Shakya and Maitreya are servants of another. I want to ask you, "Who is he?”


If you can really see this “another” with perfect clarity, it is like encountering your own father at a crossroads. Why should you ask whether you recognize him or not?


Don’t draw another’s bow,
Don’t ride another’s horse,
Don’t discuss another’s faults,
Don’t explore another’s affairs.

I want to thank everybody for coming here on this beautiful, beautiful spring morning to practice Zen. Some of us have been practicing together for many years now, and it’s wonderful to be here with you this morning. I know that some of you have had a long and challenging week, and you might be pretty tired. All the same, you got up this morning and came here to sit. I hope you had a good experience.

Earlier this week I was re-reading an old book that I own, The Portable Beat Reader. It’s a collection of work by writers like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and other figures I admire from the 1950's. Many of these people were quite interested in Zen, as a matter of fact. After meditating in the morning, I picked the book up and started leafing through it. Within the anthology there is a selection of Japanese and Chinese poems translated by a man named Kenneth Rexroth, who’s not as famous as Kerouac and Snyder, but who was part of that same literary movement in San Francisco at the time--they were known as the Beats.

As I say, Rexroth made some translations from the Chinese and Japanese. Let me read you just one of the poems:

The deer on Pine Mountain
Where no leaves are falling
Knows the coming of autumn
Only by the sound of his voice.

I thought these lines were quite beautiful. This poem is not just about deer, however, but about the proper way to live. The poem refers to a deer standing on something called Pine Mountain--which must be a mountain covered with pines. And because it’s covered with evergreens, there are no falling leaves when autumn comes. So if you just saw the mountainside, and you saw the pines, and you saw the deer, you couldn’t tell what season it is. And the deer, just by looking around, can’t tell what season it is either.

In the autumn, you might see male deer fighting sometimes. All summer long their antlers have been growing, and in the fall the velvet comes off the antlers, and the deer use them to fight for territory. And sometimes the deer let out a call. You won’t hear that call in the spring or the summer, but you’ll hear it in the fall. If the deer is on Pine Mountain and he’s trying to decide what time of the year it is, he’ll know because he’ll start to call--automatically. And when he hears himself calling, he’ll know it’s fall.

The point is that if you were really in harmony with the universe, your life might be like the deer’s life. Suppose you shared a house or apartment with someone, and when you got up in the morning, your house mate or roommate said to you, “I wonder if it’s cold outside.” Imagine if you answered by saying, “Wait a minute!” and you sat down on your meditation cushion. After a few minutes you announced, “48 degrees, with wind out of the northeast.” Wouldn’t that be great? You wouldn’t have to go outside to check the temperature-- you’d be able to know just by looking within yourself. In the same way, the deer knows it’s fall because the knowledge comes right out of himself. Essentially this is a little poem about being completely in harmony, inside and out, with the universe. It’s really wonderful:

The deer on Pine Mountain
Where no leaves are falling
Knows the coming of autumn
Only by the sound of his own voice.

Actually you don’t need the “Only” at the start of last line. It would be better just to leave it out--even more natural. Autumn is coming right out of the deer. With its scenery and subject matter, this poem expresses what was an ideal--a dream--for people in China and Japan. Perhaps more highly than they valued anything else, East Asians once valued the achievement of harmony with the natural world. Or rather, I should say that they valued harmony with the order of things. When we say “the natural world,” we have already shown how separate we are--we modern Western people--from nature. For people in China at this time, there wasn’t a natural world and some other world outside of nature. For them, it seemed so clear that human beings were part of nature, and that the order of nature was the order of things. As a result, many Chinese people of this period wanted to deepen their connectedness to life itself--to the mountains and the streams, to the seasons. And a lot of their energy and time went into living harmoniously with the order of the world or the order of the universe. Their word for this order was Tao (Ch.) or Do (Jap.) Tao is the way of the world, the naturalness in the unfolding of things. People felt that the same order present in a plant or a birds’ song was at work in the way the stars are distributed across the sky. I find this idea quite inspiring, though it is far removed from the way that modern people think. In olden times, people in East Asia thought that human beings are part of the world, part of the natural world, and that the natural world is part of the universe.

In the interests of honesty, let me admit that I too belong to the modern world. Like everyone else I have a computer. But the older view may be coming back. I went online recently and one of the sites I came across showed some new photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope. We’ve all seen photos of the planets and of constellations, but these photos showed incredible vastness--great clouds of constellations. The scale was impossible to get my mind around. A cloud of galaxies. Galaxies piled on galaxies. Looking at it I suppose you could be frightened, but on the other hand, there’s something energizing about the realization that we’re really part of this huge thing that’s actually alive. In the modern world we might normally think of the earth as alive whereas the rest of the universe is somehow dead. We call it “lifeless matter.” But in China people thought of the universe as one big living thing. Their idea was that in order to live well, you need to harmonize yourself with the Tao, the order of the universe.

This way of seeing seems to me extremely valuable. Every day now we read about some problem with the environment. I myself was teaching a research course on the environment this spring, and my students wrote papers on many of these issues. As we discovered in the course, the more you probe, the more you see problems that are becoming increasingly complex. If you look at the ocean, the fish stocks are seriously depleted. There are dead zones in the oceans that keep growing and growing, produced by fertilizers that people use in agriculture and in maintaining their lawns. At the base of the Hudson River in this area, and also the Chesapeake and the place where Mississippi opens out into the Gulf of Mexico, waters rich with fertilizers create de-oxygenated zones where is almost no life. Fish can’t even go in there. And these dead zones are growing.

We have problems of many different kinds, and the more my students researched all of this, the more complex the various problems became. I didn’t really teach the class at all. I didn’t give any lectures. I gave my students readings that deal with contemporary environmental problems. I basically gave them information from current books and articles, trying to act as a conduit. But as the course continued, the overwhelming impression that people came away with--without much prompting from me--was that humans need to change the way they live.

So, this idea of a Tao, of a harmonious way to live, may become important once again. It may become more obvious, more clear. Ancient people would say that we today are out of harmony with the Tao, out of harmony with the order of things. It’s not just a matter of owning a gas-guzzling SUV, or putting chemical fertilizer on your lawn, or throwing out recyclables with the regular trash because you’re too lazy to wash them. On a deeper level it has to do with our inner lives too. People in ancient times understood that it wasn’t really possible to be in harmony with the order of things unless you cultivated yourself--unless you made yourself harmonious.

Now, this isn't an idea that most people understand very well. In modern society people are told that their job is to buy personal possessions. If we watch TV or listen to the radio, mostly it’s all about acquiring possessions. Supposedly the items we acquire will bring us pleasure, and we’re also told, maybe not so directly, that these possessions will make us respectable or important. Most people are eager to find happiness, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the possessions they acquire are incapable of bringing them any closer to the world--any closer to the order of things. Getting closer to the world would require self-cultivation, and most people don't know much about that.

Nothing could be more self-evident than this: our way of life is all about acquiring possessions. I don’t think that people on my street treat me better now that I have a new car, but . . . . I had a car that was sixteen years old, and maybe my neighbors are relieved because my car was starting to look like a junker that possibly made the whole neighborhood look bad. I myself feel kind of happy that I have a new car and not the old beater I drove for so long. Maybe I feel better about myself. And why not? Acquiring things for pleasure and status is the central ritual of modern life. And we’re constantly brainwashed by the media and by all kinds of messages telling us that our possessions are more important than anything else. Even if you don’t think these messages work, they’re very powerful. Companies don’t spend all those billions of dollars for nothing. They want to create anxieties about living a truly good life and being a respectable person. And they do--they succeed.

Modern people don't know much about harmonizing with the order of things, and they don’t have a concept of self-cultivation as a way of becoming harmonious. However, the Japanese have a word for it--michi. Self-cultivation. The Chinese, of course, understood this too. Indeed, much of Japanese culture comes out of China. One example of self-cultivation is calligraphy, a very important art-form in Chinese culture. In China, people who are great calligraphic artists practice calligraphy as a form of meditation. It’s not just about “writing beautifully.” You want to be harmonious in doing it. The calligraphy has to be done with the proper state of mind. If your mind is nervous and distracted, fearful and aggressive, you can’t do calligraphy in the proper way because you’re not in harmony with the Tao, the natural order of things. All of the arts that emerged from East Asia are connected with this outlook.

Originally the purpose of calligraphy or painting wasn’t to achieve fame, or to make a lot of money so you could buy possessions. The purpose was to become harmonious--concordant--with the universe. Calligraphy and painting were practiced as forms of meditation. In our own time, I have a number of friends who are, in my opinion, truly great artists. They sometimes have terrible psychological problems because no one has ever heard of them. I have stored some of their work on my computer, and I’ll sometimes show it to a visitor or friend, and the response is always enthusiastic: “Who’s that artist? That is wonderful work.” But you’ve never heard of my artist friends and they can barely make any money. They feel impoverished because they’re not well-known, and they’ve been taught that the artist’s job is to be creative, get noticed and become famous enough to get into art books with titles like Art of the Early Twenty-first Century. They want their names to appear in the Who’s Who in the World of Art. I have a friend whose name was dropped by Who’s Who, and he felt crushed. Artists feel all kinds of pressures of this kind. People in China had these pressures as well, but they were also taught that the most important thing in life was to harmonize themselves with the order of the world. One way to think about zazen is to see it as a way of pursuing and achieving that harmony too.

All of this sounds great. It sounds very persuasive, but the issue becomes complicated for a number of reasons. Some of you might have been watching the reports on TV or online about all those poor people in China this week, after the earthquake. One minute fifty thousand people were going about their lives. Little kids were in school. People were sitting in their offices thinking about lunch. Maybe someone was upset because he didn’t get a raise. Someone else was imagining his vacation, or a love affair. And then, half an hour later, twenty thousand of those fifty thousand people were already dead. In fact, it didn’t even take half an hour. It all happened in less than ten minutes. The rest died more slowly over several days.

This is why it’s hard to be in harmony with the Tao, or one of the reasons. The idea of being in harmony with the world sounds so nice, but when something like this happens, it challenges us. We might decide that this world is just a bad place to be. In fact, many of the world’s religions actually teach that. This fallen world is not our home. We’re strangers in a strange land, and the sooner we get out of it, the better.

Modern society may be less religious than in times past, but it is still based on a similar outlook. The idea is that nature is dangerous and has to be conquered or subdued. Events like the one in China explain why we distrust the world so much. The crucial event doesn’t have to be an earthquake that kills fifty thousand people. You could get into your car one day and wind up in a terrible accident. Events like this make us feel betrayed. It’s not so easy, after all, to be harmonious with the universe. It’s a real challenge, and that’s one of the reasons we need to do zazen. We need to do zazen because the order of the world is not what we think it is, and when we feel betrayed, we’re cast into a profound uncertainty.

But maybe you’ve had the following experience. Even if events have broken your heart in some way, you still sit down on the cushion and start to meditate. You watch and watch your breath, and after a while your anger or pain begins to subside, and eventually, if you go into deep Mu-shin [mind of emptiness] you begin to feel a certain kind of energy which is very much like love filling your heart. This might have happened to you. It has happened to me many times, even after events that seemed profoundly unfair and difficult. Even today, I myself still have moments when I just think, “Life is crap.” Everybody has those moments. And then you sit on the cushion and you eventually think, “Oh, this life is so wonderful.” When we work through our obstacles and reconnect, we’ve regained our harmony with the Tao.

We tend to think of ancient times as very different from the present, but it’s foolish to imagine that people then didn’t die from earthquakes back then. People in ancient times knew all about misery. Indeed, they often knew more than we do. And for that very reason, they often had a deeper experience of the world. They knew that even these terrible tragedies could be worked through.

But there’s another complication to this business of living in harmony with the world. Let’s supposed that you leave the house in the morning and see birds flying overhead. They seem so completely at home in the world. I myself saw geese flying overhead this morning, when I got in my car to come here. Geese are beautiful in flight. You could say that geese have a natural way of living that involves flying, swimming, pooping on people’s lawns and on park sidewalks, drinking pond water and eating algae and other plant life. It seems so clear that these geese are totally in harmony with the world.

You might have noticed that right now, the geese have all had their little goslings. Yesterday when I was coming home, some geese were crossing the street--two adults, probably the male and female, and their five little goslings. I was so relieved to see all the cars respectfully waiting for the little geese to get across the road, even though this is New Jersey. People respectfully waited. They enjoyed seeing creatures who lived in the Tao so beautifully. The geese were obeying nature’s law, you might say. It’s so clear that geese are completely at home in a world where they can fly, swim, poop, and eat.

In my neighborhood there are also a lot of deer, and they go around eating everybody’s carefully tended garden plants. Around my house we have plants called hostas that have large spreading leaves--very beautiful. The deer love to eat them. Right now the hostas have come out, but by the end of the summer season, all the broad leaves will have been eaten and only the stalks will remain. You could get mad at the deer, but that would be foolish because it’s the Tao of the deer to eat the hostas. They’re forest dwelling grazers, after all. And they seldom travel alone, because that’s their Tao too. When they are walking together through the neighborhood and eating people’s hostas with delight, they’re following their Tao, their True Nature.

But then, when you look at human beings, the whole business becomes more puzzling. How should we live, if we want to live in harmony with nature? Of course, you should recycle your cans and bottles, and you could grow indigenous plants in your yard instead of grass, if your municipality didn’t fine you for doing so. But on a deeper level, what does it mean for humans to be natural? It’s actually very hard to say what is the Tao of human beings.

For example, there are human beings who get married and they each have one spouse. In modern America, most people who get married are heterosexual couples, a man and a woman. And everyone says that this arrangement is the natural one. So heterosexual couples would seem to be following the Tao.

But through much of human history, people didn’t always pair off in this way. Even now many people practice polygamy--and not just those Mormons in Texas who got raided a few weeks ago. In Africa and in the Moslem world until quite recently, a man might have two, three and even four wives. This was also true in China. In parts of the world it continues even today. This arrangement has never been easy. If you are married now and you are trying to support your family, imagine how hard it would be to support one or two more families on top of that! Yet to all of the people who lived that way, it felt perfectly natural.

It’s not well known, but in Tibet people used to practice something called polyandry. That’s where one woman would marry a number of brothers. If you’re a woman, I’m sure you'd agree that this arrangement sounds just terrible. Imagine having to do not only your husband’s dirty dishes but also your husband’s brother’s dishes and another brother’s dishes too. And all the brothers would throw their dirty clothes on the ground instead of in the hamper. But this arrangement of brother-marriage was widely practiced in the Himalayan region, and people there always saw it as totally natural. And then there are people who don’t marry, who practice celibacy, and to them, celibacy may seem to be the very best way of living. There have also always been men who loved other men, and women who loved other women --not just recently but for as long as humans have existed on earth.

What is the natural way of the human being? It’s very difficult to say. And this is what the koan is all about: “Who is he?”

What is your natural self? In Zen we call it your True Nature. It’s the Tao of birds to fly through the sky, built nests and lay eggs. It’s the Tao of foxes to come out at night and raid these nests if they can get to them, and to eat the birds that laid the eggs. It’s the Tao of raccoons to eat trash out of the trash cans. But what is the Tao of human beings? This is complicated. One wife, two wives, three wives, one husband, two husbands, three husbands. No wife, no husband. All of these arrangements might feel natural under the right circumstances.

I think that humans are strange creatures. I really do. Stranger than we know. I actually think that people are a little bit terrified of who we really are. If you sit down on the cushion and you watch your breath, and if you do it long enough, a strange thing is going to happen. Your breath is going to disappear and your mind is going to become blank and dark.

When we start going deep into ourselves, we encounter all kinds of things--thoughts, emotions. If you had a rough day in your office yesterday, you might have been rehearsing those painful events on the cushion this morning. That’s part of who you were at the time. But after a while, if you keep sitting, and you go deeper deeper and deeper, all those troubles are going to dissipate as you come back to the breath, over and over. Eventually, even the breath will go away and your mind will become blank and dark. We call this blankness Mu shin. Zen practice is all about spending a lot of time there.

If you like to sit--if you like to meditate--that blank and dark state probably didn’t bother you too much when you first encountered it. You probably even enjoyed that state. I myself felt very happy when I encountered Mu shin--I felt rescued. But there are people who find this blankness very unnerving. For some people, encountering that blankness is like standing at the edge of a vast ocean with no horizon in view. It’s like wading into the ocean at night. It’s wet and cold. You can’t see the limits of the ocean, and all you know is its immensity. Some people find this very intimidating, and they have to work through their fear on the cushion for a long time.

I think that Mu shin is frightening for a lot of people. Every once in a while, however, people discover for themselves that this emptiness is who we really are.

Now, I know that some people sit down on the cushion and their minds become blank and they think, “Oh yeah. My mind is blank, big deal.” But if you go down, down, down into your deepest self, you find will find vast blankness, vast darkness, vast emptiness. Right at the heart of your life, the heart of your being, there is this vast shunyata, this immense nothingess.

Even in ordinary life, people sometimes encounter some hint of this emptiness, but they often run away. They realize that there is a kind of emptiness to life but they find it frightening. You’ll hear people say, “There’s something wrong. My life is so empty.” Now, if you’ve been practicing Zen for a while, you might say,”Wonderful!” But most people don’t respond in that way.

When I was growing up, everybody was reading a group of philosophers who became quite famous. They were called “the Existentialists.” They also taught that life is basically empty. And they were convinced that because it’s empty, it’s meaningless. Their word for it was “absurd.” Life was absurd, they liked to say. And they were very unhappy about it, very worried.

But they were only half right. They discovered that at the center of the human being, there is this vast emptiness. Yet we Zen people are much more optimistic. Why? Well, let's see.

Master Mumon asks:

Even Shayka and Maitreya are servants of another. I want to ask you, "Who is he?"

One way to answer Mumon's question would be to say, “Buddha.” But this answer would be wrong. The great Master Chao Chou used to say, “I can’t stand to even hear the word Buddha.”

Other people would say, “Jesus. Of course!” But "Jesus" isn't the answer. Others would say, “Mohammed.” Wrong again. Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Ram, Krishna, Wakan Tanka, Zeus, these are all symbols of something, but they’re not it. And we often cling to the symbol because we’re afraid of the reality.

If you answered “Buddha,” perhaps you can see in your mind’s eye a handsome Indian man sitting under a tree, serene in the lotus posture. If you answered “Jesus,” you might see a gentle, bearded man surrounded by little children. If you answered “Mohammed,” you might imagine someone with a resolute and lofty expression, merciful and just. If you answered, “Krishna,” you might think of a vibrant young man moving through the world with joy and generosity.

But these are just symbols that people cling to until all the life is drained away from them. And when the life drains away, people become fearful and desperate. And then they become aggressive. For this reason, it’s not surprising that the history of religion is tied to so much terrible violence. Religion and violence often go hand in hand.

But behind Buddha, behind Jesus, behind Mohammed, behind Krishna, there is something else. But what is it? I think it’s this blankness that you discover when you meditate. You might suppose it’s trivial, but it’s not. Just stay there for thirty years. This is our Tao. Living with this blankness is the Tao of the human being. The Tao of birds is to fly through the air. The Tao of squirrels is to climb trees. The Tao of fish is to swim in the sea.

But what’s our Tao? We’re the creature whose True Nature is Mu shin. Mu shin, shunyata, this is our great ocean. We’re like fish that belong in the ocean of Mu. Our life is to swim in this beautiful ocean of emptiness. Emptiness, nothingness--these words sound grim, but if you stay there long enough, you eventually discover the most beautiful energy. If a little minnow swims long enough in that ocean, it will grow into an enormous whale.

How is that possible? It's possible because everything that is comes out of this vast Is-Not.

It’s so beautiful to be there. So purifying, with endless energy rising up. When you encounter it, you can forgive. You can forgive yourself, and forgive others. Your heart is purified and filled with joy.

But the whole matter is complicated. We could say that it’s the Tao of birds to fly through the air, but you know what? There are birds that don’t have wings. Once, long ago,their ancestors had wings, but now they live in holes in the ground --burrowing birds that have no wings. Right now squirrels live in the trees, but someday squirrels might start living in the ocean. Just wait a hundred million years. So maybe flying through the air isn’t the Tao of birds, and climbing trees isn’t the Tao of squirrels. Maybe Mu shin is the True Nature of everything. Well, I don’t know. I’ll have to wait until I come back as a squirrel, and then I can tell you.

But I do know this--Mu shin is my True Nature. And I hope you will explore Mu shin for yourself.

Hoen of Tozan said, “Even Shakya and Maitreya are servants of another. I want to ask you, "Who is he?”


If you can really see this “another” with perfect clarity, it is like encountering your own father at a crossroads. Why should you ask whether you recognize him or not?


Don’t draw another’s bow,

Be natural.

Don’t ride another’s horse,

Be natural.

Don’t discuss another’s faults,
Don’t explore another’s affairs.

Be true to your True Nature. And what is your True Nature? Please look inside yourself and see what you find there.