I’m really liking the current Zen book I’m translating. It’s called the Barrier of No Gate (wumenguan), and contains 48 koan. Now, “koan” are the mystical riddles Zen is so famous for. These riddles are drawn from the large compilations that describe the lives of famous Zen masters, like (my favorite) Linji Yixuan, who I talked about a bit in a previous post. Koan collections select the most interesting scenes from these compilations, and comment on why they’re important. In a sense, they’re comparable to Reader’s Digest (you will understand this reference if you’re older than 30) or Flipboard, collections that bring together interesting stuff from various origins.

The following koan intrigues me.I first got interested in it because it’s about a car: whether you’re talking ancient China or today’s America, cars are prestigious items. If you own a nice car, say a BMW, you’re considered to be someone in the world. The koan talks of what is no doubt the medieval Chinese equivalent of a BMW, namely a “chariot with a hundred spokes.” It goes as follows





機輪轉處  達者猶迷

四維上下  南北東西

Xi Zhong’s creates the chariot

The reverend Yue-an asked a monk: “Xi Zhong created a chariot with a hundred spokes. If you exclude the two hubs and the axle, what do you obviously get?”

Wumen said: “If you immediately understand and get this, your eyes will be like meteors, and your reactions like a flash of lightning.”

My verse says:

The pivot and wheel’s turning place

Those who get it seem lost

Four corners above and below

South north east west.

There’s several interesting things going on here, but I want to focus on the notion of imagining a car and then not imagining it. Xi Zhong is the guy who, according to Chinese tradition, invented the wheel. Because he’s such an important guy, the wheel he creates is fittingly intricate. But the point here is not really the car itself, because as soon as you’ve tried to imagine this vehicle, it’s taken away from you: try to imagine the car without wheels and axle, Yue-an asks the anonymous monk (and us). What would such a car look like?

Like a weird boat, you might answer. But what if even the carriage itself was taken away? Like the white of a page, an endless nothingness. First you imagined a car, and then you imagined a space with no car, a great nothing, a boundless space without concepts or ideas or things. Some Buddhists, like the ancient philosopher Nagarjuna, would call this space “ultimate reality.” Nagarjuna believed that the world as we see it in our daily lives, with cars, cats, people, buildings, and so on, is only an aspect of reality.But then how does reality appear? Later philosophers, belonging to the so-called Yogacara school, had a solution: it’s our minds that sketch day-to-day ideas on the surface of this ultimate reality, like a person drawing a house on a piece of paper. The house is a real image, but so is the white paper underneath the color. Without the paper, the picture of the house couldn’t exist. But without the house, who would be interested in the paper?

This might have sounded pretty technical. The bottom line is, there’s a profound connection between what we see and what we do not see. Between the car in our imagination, and there being no car. And I think that is what Yue-an is pointing to here. He’s trying to get us to imagine ultimate reality. But he can’t do that right away, because it’s so big and you can’t describe it. What you can do though, is first describe something and then take it away. And then limitless space opens.

Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist teacher whom I love, describes a moment of profound insight when she was meditating under a fan. The whole time she was sitting the fan whirred. Minutes ticked by, and the sound was loud in her ears. Then the fan stopped. And in the silence, there was boundlessness (The Places that Scare You). Perhaps Chödrön, too, felt that at that moment, her eyes were “like meteors”, and her reflexes “like a flash of lightning,” as Wumen, who is commenting on this scene, tells us.

The feeling must be like that in the first Matrix film, when Neo realizes that the reality he sees exists only provisionally. His reflexes became insanely quick then, because there were no concepts to stop them anymore. So he could kick the evil computer guy’s ass. And get the girl. That’s pretty cool.


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