A Very Practical Joke

Zen monks at Vulture Peak, Ragjir, India

Chogyam Turngpa Rinpoche supposedly referred to formal zen practice as “the biggest joke that has ever been played in the spiritual realm.” “But,” he added wryly, “it is a practical joke, very practical.” The forms and rituals that we practice in the Kwan Um School, handed down to us from the Chogye Order of Korean Zen by Zen Master Seung Sahn upon his emigration to the United States in 1972, serve a very important function. Like the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous that hold that fellowship together so that individual healing can take place, our school’s forms and rituals create a container to hold the teachings. More than that, however, they are the teachings. True wisdom is not transmitted through words. It’s transmitted through action, as the Buddha transmitted his dharma to the smiling Mahakasyapa by holding a flower in the air atop Vulture Peak. During the time that I’ve been practicing zen, I’ve come to realize that all of the arcane rules and customs that I thought were getting in the way of my spiritual practice are my spiritual practice. They have a way of showing me where I’m stuck in a very real, very tangible way.

A few years ago at Open Meadow Zen, where I practice regularly, sitting sessions were sometimes sparsely attended. One evening, there were only four of us there: me, who acted as Head Dharma Teacher by timing the sitting and leading walking meditation, the moktak master, who lead chanting with a wooden percussion instrument, Zen Master Bon Haeng, and one other guy. When the zen master and that one other guy left the room for koan interview, only two of us remained. The scene during walking meditation looked like this: two grown men in matching grey robes walking really slowly around an empty room. My thought was pervasive and clear… “This is a bizarre way to spend a Monday night.” For the life of me, I couldn’t see how this activity was of benefit to me or anyone else, but I kept walking. For all I knew, the guy behind me was really into it, and I didn’t want to spoil his good time.

When my turn in the interview room came, The zen master asked, as he often does, “Did you bring me anything?”

“Yes,” I replied, “I come with Great Question… What’s the point of all this? We’re supposed to be practicing for the sake of all sentient beings, but instead we’re just wearing robes, chanting in Korean, and walking around in a room by ourselves. It doesn’t make any sense… I don’t see the connection.”

He gave me a swat on the knee with his zen stick, as tends to happen from time to time. It’s a very useful teaching tool.

“Did you feel that?”

“Of course I felt that, you just hit me!”

“In that moment, your experience is pain in knee. When you’re doing walking meditation, your experience is just walking. All of this doubt, this like and dislike, this mind stuff, all of this fantasy of yours, it’s not necessary. It isn’t helpful. If you want to help others, begin by becoming present. We begin to become present when we stop preferring our fantasy to reality.”

That’s pretty big teaching. The greatest thing that I can do for others is to get rid of this idea of “I” and “others,” to stop preferring my fantasy of separation. This “very practical joke” of zen, when approached with awareness, has the power to do that.

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