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Joshu’s Zen

December 20, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Joshu began the study of Zen when he was sixty years old and continued until he was eighty, when he realized Zen.
He taught from the age of eighty until he was one hundred and twenty.
A student once asked him: “If I haven’t anything in my mind, what shall I do?”
Joshu replied: “Throw it out.”
“But if I haven’t anything, how can I throw it out?” continued the questioner.
“Well,” said Joshu, “then carry it out.”

I was touched by this story not only because of the humorous way it expresses an important teaching, but also because I too began my Zen practice later in life, after I had practiced other forms of Buddhism for many years. When I was a young man, several of my closest friends who were already sitting at the San Francisco Zen center, tried unsuccessfully to convince me to go with them to various events. Looking back on that time in my life I realize that I wasn’t yet ready for Zen and if I had gone with my friends I might have had difficult experiences that might have prevented me from approaching Zen later in life. It’s as if something in me knew that it was best for me to wait.

Ultimately, progress in any spiritual path is not so much a function of the length of a person’s practice as much as it is a function of its depth. It is hard to feel the “urgency” to practice when one is young. I remember that when I was young I felt that there was enough time for everything. If I didn’t do what I needed to do on a Monday there was always a Tuesday and a Wednesday and so on indefinitely. Those days are long gone and now I feel that there is not enough time to waste. As Dogen said: Do not pass your days and nights in vain. Each moment feels precious. And when I do waste time, watching TV or the thousand other ways I use to distract myself from my life, I am filled with a deep sense of regret. This regret for the “lack” in my life has become a prime motivating force in my life.

Of course, that is not the main point of this short teaching story. Joshu is telling his student, is telling us, that we should not be attached to anything, even our realizations of emptiness. In Zen we do not say “yes” or “no” to anything, because there is really nothing to affirm or deny. Here I am reminded of an old Bob Dylan Song, The country music station plays soft/But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off. To say “yes” or “no” to an experience is to try to give it a substance, a self. Ironically, we even try to make “emptiness” into a thing. This is, according to our teaching, the fundamental delusion of our lives. As the Tibetans like to say, we need to see the emptiness of emptiness.

And yet, if we pay careful attention, we see that we do become subtly attached to our experiences in our practice. If we have a taste of emptiness, we often become very attached to it and keep it for “future reference.” Sometimes we even create a theory about it to share with others in a Dharma discussion. So, in our story, Joshu tells his student to throw out the “emptiness” in his mind as if it were just yesterday’s newspaper. If he were teaching today, I suspect that he would tell his student to recycle his experience, which is actually a more accurate description of what needs to be done with our past experiences. Actually, Joshu is not telling us to throw out the emptiness in our minds, because there is nothing, really nothing to throw out. He is telling us to throw out our attachments to what is not there. That is total freedom!


From → Zen Buddhism

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