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Lions Roar : March 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2009 73 seemed enigmatic and scary. How would I know what the sound of one hand clapping was, as one famous koan asked. Koans were meant to be illogical and stump the student, to kick her into an- other way of thinking—or not thinking—so that she could have insight into the nature of the universe. My old Soto teacher said, “Soto is more like the not-so-bright, kindly elder uncle.” He admired Rinzai and indicated it was for sharper types. despite my reservations, in 1998 I moved up to St. Paul, Min- nesota, for two months to dive into koans. I would study The Book of Serenity, an ancient Chinese zen text of one hundred koans (or cases) depicting situations and dialogues between teacher and student, teacher and teacher, student and student. Near the end of November, I turned to page one hundred and eight, case number twenty-five. “Rhinoceros Fan” was the title. My mind froze. That’s my usual tactic: when anything new comes along, I brake, clutch, and stop dead. What do I know about a rhinoceros? Aren’t they African? I later found out that China did have rhinos, and that their horns were carved into fans. What stumped me more was the juxtaposition of these two words: “rhinoceros,” that huge, forceful animal, prob- ably as close to a dinosaur as we are going to find now on earth, placed beside the word “fan,” something light, used to create a breeze, a stirring of wind to refresh court ladies or Southern belles. I moved on from the title to the actual case: 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 reply. Zifu drew a circle and wrote the word “rhino” inside it. Yanguan was an illustrious disciple of Matsu. After his teacher’s death, he had wandered until he became the abbot of Fayao Temple. This was a monastery situ- ation. The attendant was not paid staff but was Yan- guan’s student. As an attendant, the student had the great opportunity of extra time with his teacher. In this particular story the student is anonymous. All the bet- ter; he could be any of us—John or Sue or Sally, you or me. I was not sure who zifu was who appears at the end. I would look him up later. But for now I’d stay with the teacher-and- student interaction. More than likely, their interchange takes place in a quiet mo- ment when Yanguan has a little time to put his attention on this monk. He’s going to test him, poke him: Are you there? Yanguan and the attendant are in kinship. They had both probably lived in the monastery for many years, but Yanguan couldn’t turn around to the attendant and say something simple like, “do you love me?” or “Are you happy here?” Instead, there is decorum. One person is made the attendant, the other the zen Master. Of course, one has been practicing longer than the other. Out of time we create hierarchy, levels, positions. In the large space of this true book, we eventually let go of these criteria, but we also play along. So Yanguan asks for a fan. The fan is the excuse for an exchange, though it could also have been one of those unbearable hot sum- mer days. Bring me some relief. Where’s the fan? The attendant replies that the fan is broken. He can’t find another one? I’m thinking. What was going on here? That evening after I read this case I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned. The night became a deep and endless thing. My mind wan- dered over much terrain: a particular apple orchard, a young boy who died. I remembered an old friendship I once had. This line ran through my head: the relationship is broken. Broken! I sat up in bed. That is the word the attendant used. I jumped up, ran to the shelf, and opened the book. I took a leap: the attendant was saying he himself was broken, even if he referred to a fan. He was the fan. But that doesn’t stop Yanguan, his teacher. Hell, if the fan— the product—was shattered, then bring back the whole rhinoc- eros. What a stunning concept! If the paper is torn, bring the enormous tree into the living room. Yanguan was asking this of his student (and of us): Take a tremendous step—not forwards but backwards—into your essen- tial nature. Manifest your original face. don’t get stuck on some- thing broken—a heart, a wish. Become the rhinoceros—reveal your full self, go to the source, nothing hidden. And this is what I loved the most: “The attendant had no reply.” What do we do when a rhino is charging us, when a bear of a ILLUSTRATIONBYLIzAMATTHeWS