The Iron Flute, Case 90
There once was a little hut called Fei’tien, meaning “rich field,”
where a monk lived for thirty years.
(Fugai: Maybe he did not know how to move.)
He had only one tray made of clay.
(Fugai: Expensive things are not always precious.)
One day a monk, who studied under him, broke that tray accidentally.
(Fugai: The real treasure appears from the breaking.)
Each day the teacher asked the student to replace it.
(Fugai: Why do you want another?)
Each time the disciple would bring a new one, the teacher threw it out saying,
“This is not it. Give me back my old one!”
(Fugai: I would open my hands and laugh.)
(Genro: If I were the disciple, I would say, “Wait until the sun
rises in the West.”)
(Fugai: I will search for it before I am born.)
It is broken;
(Fugai: The whole tray remains.)
Run fast after it.
(Fugai: The sword disappears in the water.)
(Genro: The disciple cannot understand it.)
(Fugai: It has returned to him already. Call an iron kettle a bell; call the earth heaven . . . what’s wrong?)
This koan is from one of my favorite collections, “The Iron Flute.” It was brought together by Master Genro in the late 1700s. He gathered koans from Tang and Sung-dynasty teachings and commented on them. His successor, Fugai, then added a commentary and poem to illuminate the koan’s point. It’s a wonderful collection in that you get a line of the koan, and then it’s as if there is someone standing offstage whispering conspiratorially to you, “Here’s the point of what was just said.” Unfortunately, these helpful additions are often as challenging as the original koan. But there is a nice sense—if we sit with these whisperings—of having many people working on our behalf, for our awakening.
“The Iron Flute” collection is so called because it takes up koans that deal with doing the impossible. How do you play an iron flute? The holes are closed. How do we do that which can’t, but somehow must, be done? How do we reveal what has never been concealed? “The Iron Flute” koans have an undercurrent of refreshing vitality that often strikes me like cool water does; they are meant to help cut through stagnancy, designed not to let any kind of staleness define our journey. Before we get into this koan, it seems important to reflect briefly on how koan study works.
Because “The Iron Flute” koans are more modern in their presentation than some of the other collections we use, their language is a little easier to grapple with. Rather than asking for an intellectual understanding, koans demand that we experience, realize, and ultimately reveal their spirit. In working with a koan, the student who says, “Well, what this means is that all things are one,” is rung out by the teacher’s bell. That doesn’t reach it; that’s an explanation. What is “all things are one,” realized? If it’s not realized, it’s not going to transform your life, it’s not going to heal your suffering, or enable you to live at ease, at peace in the midst of life and death.
Some of the koan work of Zen is designed to keep spiritual practice from becoming just another variety of self-deceit. It doesn’t take much to talk convincingly about Zen, given the proper research materials or time to think. But koan study is designed to ask “How does the koan live?” If it doesn’t live here and it doesn’t live now, the koan is not living.
In order to engage koans as our life rather than as just another system of thought, Zen requires that we work with a teacher. In order to work with a teacher, there needs to be a student. We often skip over this: It’s easy to waste time going through the motions of entering the room for a face-to-face teaching, but to not really be a student—to just be someone who wants to debate, or to prove something. Often, a real spiritual meeting is not available even though the bows have been made. Yet once a student develops, it is inevitable that a teacher will appear in their life. They create each other.
To meet the teacher in this koan, the student has to enter the hut where the teacher is teaching. To identify with the student, is to be in this hut—we don’t know where: a small place called “the rich field.” In this confined space—the space that seems to have nothing to offer, the place that traps us—there is richness. To enter the koan is to identify with this environment, not to separate from it. We’re asked to consider: Is there more to what confines us than we might immediately assume?
Then we meet a nameless teacher. I particularly like this koan because the teacher is nameless. The monk, too, is not given a name—a dubious honor traditionally reserved for the nuns and traveling laywomen who appear nameless throughout the koan collections. Here the nameless monk has broken the only tray in the hut, and is being compelled to realize “What is it that’s irreplaceable, unbreakable, and that serves continually?”
The teacher demands, “Bring it to me!” “Show me the tray!” The one who experienced the breaking—in this case the monk—needs to deal with the brokenness. It’s your job, the teacher implies, it’s nobody else’s responsibility. But how can the student produce what doesn’t exist?
There once was a little hut called Fei’tien, meaning “rich field,” where a monk lived for thirty years. Fugai whispers from the sidelines, Maybe he did not know how to move. Is he stuck? Or is he at the center of the universe? It is not clear at this point in the koan, but we need to allow either possibility. Again these comments are delicious, because Fugai is saying, “Don’t assume the obvious. Check it out. Maybe the teacher here has nothing to teach.” Not knowing how to move could indicate confinement, or it could be the freedom of not knowing, not needing, no other place, no other time: this place and time filling the universe.
He had only one tray made of clay. Fugai says, Expensive things are not always precious. Fugai is helping here to point out that the situation of this destitute teacher in his simple hut with its meager supply of serving implements is sufficient; there’s more going on than a complaint about the student’s clumsiness. The student’s situation is in some way the human situation. Whether it is a tray, or a human body, what we have to serve from can seem fragile, and there is only one. What is it that’s precious? What is the treasure of the hut?
One day a monk broke that tray accidentally. Fugai says, The real treasure begins in the breaking. The body breaks, things change, life ends. Only when impermanence is fully apprehended do we really have the chance to serve, to give without bargaining. So far, the monk had only been able to serve tea in small measured cups; his teacher wants him to realize and overflow with intimacy. But first, the cup and tray—the idea and the body—have to be released.
Each day the teacher asked the student to replace it. Fugai asks, Why do you want another? Don’t think it is somewhere else, some earlier time. Fugai whispered as loudly as he could, but the monk had that same storm in his brain that we all use to drown out the clear song of the iron flute. Don’t look elsewhere for it, we’re told, don’t hesitate or try to remember. Don’t call it by your name, or any other name. Just serve.
Each time the disciple brought a new one, the teacher threw it out, saying, “This is not it. Give me back my old one!” Fugai makes two comments here. First he says, I would open my hands and laugh! Then he says, I will search for it before I am born. His teacher, Genro, comments, If I were the disciple, I would say, “Wait until the sun rises in the West.” Remaining after all the commentary is still the matter of this life. The teacher is asking each of us to bring out the tray, to serve not our limitations but what’s whole and unbreakable, our true self. It’s easy to identify with all the places we’ve been hurt and abandoned, but can we identify with the timeless wholeness that weathers every abuse, every condition? If we can’t, we may spend this life protecting ourselves and never risk really living. That’s why this is such an important koan to realize, over and over.
Another koan, “Keichu Makes Carts,” can help clarify how this one works. This is a koan from the “Gateless Gate,” the first koan collection students encounter in training. The koan says: Master Gettan asked a monk, “Keichu made a hundred carts. If he took off both wheels and removed the axle, what would be vividly apparent?” Keichu was regarded in ancient Chinese mythology as the inventor, the “Adam,” of carts. When Keichu is mentioned, we know we’re in the realm of primal being, of the original vehicle, the original construction. Keichu’s presence is a cue to pay attention not just to the story, but the state of consciousness involved. This original cart; he made a hundred of them. Take away the pieces, take away the parts, and what is it that’s vividly apparent?
The axle and the wheels are meant to represent all the stuff, all the bits. If we say that what’s apparent when the parts are removed is nothing, that doesn’t really reach it. Nothing is an idea. Show me nothing. The moment you show it, say it, make it, you have turned it into something.
“A pile of mechanical bits: wheels, spokes, axles”—we might say that is what is made apparent. Still, where do you find yourself in the koan? This koan could be rephrased as “God made the original person, made a hundred of them, made ten million of them; take away the eyes, the ears, the noses, the shoulders, the fingers, the feet, the guts, the skin—now what is clearly revealed? What is vividly apparent?” Who are you?
We grow old, go blind, lose our hearing, can no longer have sex. You’ve been beautiful, and suddenly you get a skin disease. You’ve been married, now you’re a widow. Some way of defining yourself changes radically. Who are you? All the parts and pieces are taken away—all the roles and identities. What’s revealed? Aitken Roshi comments on this using the example of the bicycle. He says,
Zazen is like learning how to ride a bicycle. You have to steer, pump, keep your balance, watch out for pedestrians and other vehicles—all at once. You are riding a pile of parts with your pile of parts. After you learn to ride, however, what then? You are free of those parts, surely. You are one with the bicycle, and the bicycle keeps its own balance. It steers and pumps itself, and you can enjoy your ride and go anywhere—to the store, to school, to the office, the beach. You have forgotten sprockets and handle bars. You have forgotten that you have forgotten. Likewise, when Keichu made those carts he was lost in cutting and fitting.
Being one, not separating—the bike rides itself, the dance dances itself. But if we abandon cause and effect in this “forgetting,” the koan is not complete. When we carry the tray across the room and carelessly drop it, it breaks. If we drive carelessly, we could hurt someone. When one person has ecstatic sex, their partner may still end up bruised and frightened. The limitless body doesn’t mean not taking absolute care of this one, and absolute care of that one. So how to proceed?
Aitken Roshi says,
Take it all off! Take off all those parts. Take off all that meat, take away the gristle, the fat, the marrow, the protein, the vitamins, the calcium, the phosphorus, the atoms, the electrons, the neutrons, the protons—what is crystal clear?
We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to let go of our preoccupation with our body, and we don’t want to let go of the comfort of familiar patterns of thought. To get over the seduction of our own thought is not easy. We’re either seduced by self-hatred or self-love. “Everything I think and do is inadequate, I’m stupid, I’m too tall, my neck’s too long, my eyes are wrong, my hair’s too curly or too straight, I don’t work as well as I should, I’m not as smart as I should be, I ought to be doing more, I ought to take better care of myself. Let me define for you why I should not have breathing room on this earth.” Or we fall into the other pit: “Let me show you this beautiful thought I’ve had, let me explain to you why you should respect me, why you should hear me, why your life won’t be complete unless you know all about me and my stuff and what I’ve done and accomplished.” Most of us are too busy talking to ourselves to even contemplate what might be vivid and apparent should we ever learn to shut up.
The attachment to the body, pro or con, is similar in that most people tend to swing wildly back and forth between body hate and body love. In explaining our misconception of the body as reality, Daido Roshi has often described a cartoon he’d like to produce in which there’s this huge cornucopia of abundant food and other “stuff ” we like—apples, bananas, cows, cabbages, music, literature. Everything that we’re going to take in is contained in this cornucopia. A sperm and egg come together and form a little being. From the moment of inception, the cornucopia begins to spill into the mouth and eyes and sense organs of the being. It grows and begins to walk and then to stride, and the cornucopia keeps flowing. Very shortly after the flowing in begins, the flowing out begins—the creative outflow of the body—all the piss, poop, songs, poems, and so on. The being grows older, becomes bent, gets smaller and smaller. Then, finally, poof—and the being is gone. The question implicit in the animation is, “Who are you?” Are you the cornucopia of goodies? Are you the pile of stuff behind? Where are you? Where do you find yourself?
The koan can be so viscerally discomforting that we’ll do whatever we can to avoid confronting it directly. We feed ourselves with guilt, or we look back at our trail and admire it: “Look what I’ve made!” We look back at our constructions and are either disgusted or delighted.
But when it’s all taken apart, who are we?
The tray that is broken comes alive through the continual questioning of the teacher, “Bring me the tray! Reveal it!” The student doesn’t just leave the hut and evade the issue, go down valley and have a drink. He keeps coming back. “Well, how about this wooden tray?” Or “I’ve glued together some of the clay pieces and constructed this other thing.” He keeps addressing the issue, though he’s looking in the wrong place. The tray is needed, the wholeness of our life is demanded. What excuse is acceptable? “I’m sorry—my mother dropped me, I chipped. I’m sorry, I can’t because I’m too sleepy. I’m sorry, but I’m not smart enough. I don’t even understand the question, so please excuse me.” The demand is always there; life can’t happen without you. Please, present the tray, present your life. The time has come.
There are those who will persist and find the treasure in the hut. In one fascicle of “Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo,” called “The Sounds of the Valley Stream,” he writes,
It is pitiful that we are living in a treasure mountain and can’t see it. If we develop an enlightenment-seeking mind, everything becomes the practice of enlightenment, even if we are in the midst of various worlds of samsara [cyclic existence], even if we have already wasted much time—it doesn’t matter. It is still possible to develop an enlightenment-seeking mind in this lifetime.
This is like that beautiful story of the pirate who came to the Buddha. The pirate in his youth was convinced by a shaman that the way to become powerful was to create a necklace of the knuckles of the people he killed. So the pirate spent his life murdering and assembling this gruesome necklace of body parts in order to be powerful and invulnerable. Then he met the Buddha and, stripped raw of all his delusions, encountered the horror of what he had created, the brokenness of his tray. He said to the Buddha, “It’s too late, I have done what you cannot even imagine.” The Buddha said, “I see what you’ve done—the world of suffering is immeasurable, the ocean of suffering is vast, but the moment one turns toward the shore of enlightenment, it is revealed.”
No matter how far out on the sea of suffering we’ve sailed, all that is required is to turn toward awakening. It’s never too late, but it takes that turning, and no one can do that for us. Dogen says, “It is very difficult to find people who wish to study the true Buddhist teaching.” Throughout our history, saints and sages are quite rare. If we try to explain the Buddha-seeking mind, people shut their eyes and ears and run away from the truth, they don’t have any introspection, they only have resentment.
It’s so perpetually tempting to present our objection, our resentment. It takes most of us a very long time to look within, genuinely, vigorously. I remember I went through a period at the monastery when it seemed that all I could feel was resentment. I wasn’t at peace. I was calmer in many ways, but I didn’t feel at peace. Every dharma talk would get me angry. I could barely stay on my little black mat, and everything seemed pretentious and ridiculous—“Maybe we should all just go have brunch and not pretend that this practice does something.” My attitude was black, and I was ready to take apart the training, the teacher, the koans, the patriarchal horror of all major world religions, the fool’s game of all spiritual practices. One morning it dawned on me that I was in an intolerable crisis, and that I had better engage it in crisis mode. I had to quit silently complaining and do something to take care of it, or else this was how I was going to live and die. All I could muster was zazen [sitting meditation], and I began to sit like I never had before. Because there was nothing else, because there was an intractability to the loneliness that no one else could touch, because I knew there was really nowhere else to go that would be “better”—zazen, Saturday night until midnight, or all night if that’s what it took. It began to turn around, and the practice became my own.
It is difficult to develop a Buddha-seeking mind, but when you do, you should never abandon your initial resolve. “From the first, never seek the Buddhist way to receive others’ praise.” Approval, affirmation, someone saying you’re right, you’re on the right track, you’re doing the right thing is how we usually learn. The hard point is that none of us will ever really be satisfied with somebody else’s standard of practice. We don’t have their imperative, their death, their life, but we do have our own. When we trust that, we can’t go wrong. Dogen reminds us not to be swayed by criticism either: We know that there are dogs that bark at good people. Don’t worry about those barking dogs, and don’t resent them either. It is better to say to them, “You beasts, awaken your Buddha-seeking mind!”
In the poem, Genro writes, “It’s broken, run fast after it.” Fugai comments: The whole tray remains. To realize this directly is to have eyes like shooting stars, with every action snatching a bolt of lightning. Run fast after it, he says. Don’t be stopped, resolve it, take care of it. Do whatever it takes to serve, to realize, to be yourself. Fugai says, The sword disappears in the water: There is no longer any sense of you and it, you and the koan, you and your practice. Completely immersed in the way; the way becomes you. The resistance gone, the sharp edges move through the body of water as needed. Genro says, The disciple can’t understand it. Fugai says, It’s returned to him already. Still, he goes looking for it, outside himself. Call an iron kettle a bell— there is no substitute. If it doesn’t ring through you from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, it’s not the bell. Fugai says, You can call the earth heaven . . . what’s wrong?
It’s possible to conclude with something more positive than “I’m a wounded healer, I’ll serve from my brokenness.” That’s still an idea. We can bury ourselves in shit and call it heaven, but ultimately the situation stinks. It doesn’t serve. More than just selling ourselves another story, we can realize, and bring the truth of this koan to life. That unnamed teacher who calls every day, “Bring me the tray!” is still calling. The koan is never over; it is only now, and that makes for an incredibly rich field. Everything we need is in the “small hut” of this moment; and everything depends on whether we come forward with the original tray.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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