Bos. Koan 25 from the Book of Serenity
One day Yanguan called
to his attendant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”
The attendant said,
“The fan is broken.”
Yanguan said, “If the
fan is broken, then bring me back the rhinoceros!”
The attendant had no
Zifu drew a circle and
wrote the word ‘rhino’ inside it.
This is one of my favorite instructions for Zen. At first read, the koans are somewhat
obscure but as you work with them, and as they get unpacked by a teacher, I
find that they become images of instructions stronger than words.
Let’s start with the first two sentences. A teacher asked the Jisha, or
attendant, to bring him his fan.
The attendant replied, “the fan is broken.” The teacher’s request cannot be satisfied. “The fan is broken” has become for me a
strong image of the first Noble Truth – that life has dissatisfaction or
suffering built into it. This is
what I understand about Samsara – the wandering-in-circles world or the world
of form and appearance. In the
world of Samsara, everything is inherently broken. "Inherently" means that because of birth, there is always
death. Because of gain, there is
always loss. We cannot escape
pain, loss, failure and blame.
Each dharma or each moment, has built into it, its decline and loss. So, Samsara is ALWAYS broken. We cannot grapple with life and end up
satisfied. We have to face our death,
one way or the other.
I first became aware of this idea through Pema Chodron’s
teaching in the ‘90’s.
through her what Trungpa Rinpoche used to say - that “unrequited love is the heart of the world.”
That was the last thing
I wanted to hear.
I really wanted
to hear that through spiritual life I could transcend the pain and
dissatisfaction of my life.
began to practice digesting the teaching that form life is inherently
broken. The fan is broken.
If the fan is broken,
how can we successfully live our life?
How can we successfully fan ourselves and perform life’s functions? That is the deep question of practice.
The teacher answered, “Then
bring me the rhinoceros!”
What does this mean?
Of course, the attendant can’t bring him the “real” rhinoceros!
That rhinoceros was killed in the
process of obtaining the tusk.
the twenty-first century, killing animals for their tusks is illegal and
But in the 800’s,
when this story was told, this was quite common place.
People had ivory fans or ivory holders
for fans. To explore this koan, I think we have to go underneath the difference
in our cultures, and allow the mind to digest the metaphor of bring me the rhinoceros.
Bring me the
rhinoceros, for me, is an image for bring me that which created the tusk,
bring me the source of life. Are
you in contact with the mystery of life and its wholeness and completeness, which is expressed in each moment? This
dynamic wholeness is anything but broken.
It is life itself, including birth and death, coming and going etc. Through meditation and practice
we can begin to discover that which dynamically works with form, but is also
empty of formed existence.
In the introduction to the koan it says:
Oceans of lands
without bound are not apart from right here: the events of infinite aeons past are all in the immediate
These oceans of lands
without bound are simultaneously arising with all the forms that are whole
or broken. This is called co-arising in Buddhist vernacular. It means to be connected even in the midst of the events of our life
and the appearance of each moment, with the whole dynamic working of the
universe and life.
Thich Nhat Hanh suggest that this understanding goes beyond
our concepts of life.
Beyond the Eight concepts:
Permanence and dissolution
Coming and going
One and many
And allows our understand to grapple and experience the
No birth, no death
No permanence, no dissolution
No coming, no going
No one, no many.
With this understanding of the source, are we able to
express that vitality in each moment of our activity. Can we bring forth the rhinoceros or the source of life?
We don’t know if the attendant’s silence was an alive
silence like Vimalakirti’s silence of interconnection with the whole, or if his
silence was the dumbfounded response of a student trying to answer from his
discriminative thinking? Maybe
that’s a question we can ask ourselves in our everyday life. Is this action connected to the whole
dynamism of life or am I lost in the routine of my life and somewhat dead?
I love Zifu’s response. He responded in an action. This is one of the most important of our practices. As Dogen would say, “Just do it”. Bring your practice to life in your
actions. I wanted to feel what it
would be like to draw a circle and write “rhino” in the center. So I did it.
This was a very alive action. It was a “doing” of the coming together of the thought or
word and the action of dynamism.
I also found it ironic that he uses a "word" “rhino” inside
his circle. If we do not
understand that every form, every thought, every dharma is included in the
mystery, we have a tendency to say that thought or word is not “it”. That words and the mind take us away
from suchness or the source. We
might consider them a blocking hindrance.
But this is again an example that EVERYTHING is Buddha, including our
discriminative thought, our language and our actions as human being.
I like that all the essential instructions for a zen life
are included in this koan.
Understand the suffering of human life, the
first noble truth
Find the suchness or source in each moment
Take an action that is dynamic and appropriate
to the moment.
I put a capping verse together:
Teardrops of brokenness
For our thoughtful expectations of wholeness
Destruction inherent in each moment’s arising
Feel the source in the circle of talk
No coming, no going.
Labels: 8 concepts and 8 No's, Book of Serenity 25, form and emptiness, interdependent co-arising, Thich Nhat hanh, Yanguan's Rhinoceros Fan