Ma-tsu’s White and Black

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by Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei

Book of Equanimity, Case 6

Ma-tsu’s White and Black

A Stage Whisper:
Where you can’t open your mouth, a tongueless person can speak; where you lift your feet without rising, a legless person can walk. If you fall within their range and die at the phrase, how can you have any freedom? When the four mountains all oppress you, how can you penetrate to freedom?

Main Case:
A monastic asked Great Master Ma-tsu, “Apart from the four propositions and beyond the hundred negations, please directly point out the meaning of living Buddhism.” Ma-tsu said, “I’m tired today and can’t explain for you. Go ask Zhizhang.”
The monastic asked Zhizhang; Zhizhang said, “Why don’t you ask the teacher?”
The monastic said, “The teacher told me to come ask you.” Zhizhang said, “I have a headache today and can’t explain for you. Ask Brother Hai.”
The monastic asked Hai, who said, “When I come this far, after all I don’t understand.”
The monastic related all this back to Ma-tsu. Ma-tsu said, “Zang’s head is white, Hai’s head is black.”


Medicine working as illness—
It is mirrored in the past sages.
Illness working as medicine—
Sure, but who is it?
White head, black head—capable heirs of the house. Statement or no statement—
the ability to cut off the flow. Clearly sitting,
cutting off the road of speech and explanation.
Laughable is the old ancient awl at Vaisali.

This is one of the “Nanto“ koans, a variety of koan that is traditionally classified as difficult to pass through. Nanto koans demand a raw and wide presentation, and will be alive with a student for a student’s whole life, never settling into the comfort zone. This koan of Ma-tsu deals with the issue of existence itself. It takes up the basic matter of life and death—not just our physical death in the future—but also that undermining and ongoing sense of our present insubstantiality, the sense one can have of not being able to quite grasp a continuous self. It sends us looking for our life, bouncing off our ideas and formulations, right along with this earnest monk.
Recognizing the emptiness of the human condition, Zen is a practical process to “resolve the absence,” with a built-in imperative not to be seduced into secondary or superficial projects. We’re all familiar, killingly familiar, with the projects that temporarily allay our anxiety but fail to address, much less adequately or ultimately relieve, the underlying existential crisis that eventually drives many to religious practice. The process of engaging the practice could be considered an allegiance to this great matter, rather than sliding off into despair. To travel the heart of the koan with this monk, we have to take that first step into practice, into allowing that we care about the living of this life, and will live that caring completely. For the monk, the first step was to ask.

The four propositions he refers to are a standard Buddhist analysis of the possibilities of the nature of reality. The first proposition is existence. The second is nonexistence. The third is both, and the fourth is neither. The hundred negations are the various ways that you can take up each of those possibilities and turn, negate, obviate, and transform it. A sutra says, “Existence is slandered by exaggeration. Nonexistence is slandered by underestimation. Both existence and nonexistence is slandered by contradiction. Neither existence nor nonexistence is slandered by intellectual fabrication. If you abandon these four propositions, the hundred negations are spontaneously wiped out.”

Huang Po said, “If you want to understand directly and immediately, everything is not it. If you say you understand clearly and thoroughly, nothing is not it. Looking at it the other way around, without abandoning the four propositions or the hundred negations, where is the meaning of living Buddhism not clear?”

So, is everything, everywhere “it”? But if we understand “everything everywhere” the ideas become a form of idolatry that flattens the heart. If we say “nothing, no way, nowhere,” the apathy that follows the idea also flattens the heart. We’re still left with “What is the living meaning of an awakened life?” Is there a life that is clear, that’s not deluded, that’s not simply a series of compromises and crises? If that life is possible, does that mean there is an independent self, or not?

David Loy, Buddhist scholar and social critic, asks:

How shall we understand anatta “non-self,” that strange Buddhist teaching which denies the self we take for granted in our everyday lives…Today we must relate the anatta doctrine to what we know (or think we know) about the self and the way that self relates to its world…We can use the psychoanalytic understanding of repression to help us understand anatta, and vice-versa. Then anatta implies that our primary repression is not sexual wishes (as Freud thought), nor even death fears (as many existential psychologists think) but awareness of non-self—the intuition that “I am not real”—which we become conscious of…as a sense of lack infecting our empty sunya core. Buddhism analyzes the sense of self into sets of impersonal psycho-physical phenomena whose interaction creates the illusion of self-consciousness—that consciousness is the attribute of the self. The death-repression emphasized by existential psychology transforms the Oedipal complex into what Norman Brown calls an Oedipal project: the attempt to become the father of oneself i.e. one’s own origin…Buddhism merely shifts the emphasis: the Oedipal project is the attempt of the developing sense of self to attain autonomy, the quest to deny one’s groundlessness by becoming one’s own ground.

We can see how subtle issues of confidence and self-trust are within a tradition that recognizes anatta. Trusting oneself involves much more than trusting one’s pathology. So what is it? Loy again: “Self-consciousness is not something ‘self-existing’ but a mental construct, and more like the surface of the sea: dependent on unknown depths that it cannot grasp because it is a manifestation of them.”

A friend and I were talking as we walked on the beach, stopping now and then to stare dumbly out at the water. The light was riding around like diamonds on the low waves. I remembered this image and blurted out, “There’s a teaching in Buddhism that our consciousness is like the surface of the sea.” She surprised me with this exuberant response, “That’s right! Why do we think the things we do? Why do I think what I think and you think what you think? Suddenly I’ll be thinking about pineapples!”

Photo By Bill Kando Johnston, MRO

Photo By Bill Kando Johnston, MRO

Consciousness is trying to grasp oneself by virtue of the surface of the sea. The problem arises when this conditioned consciousness wants to ground itself—to make itself real. If the sense of self is an always insecure construct, its efforts to realize itself will be attempts to objectify itself in some fashion. The ego-self is this never-ending project to objectify oneself.

The endlessness of the project is also important to taste: when the teaching points to ceaseless practice, it is a response to and liberation of this never-ending project to objectify oneself. Our dukkha (suffering or anxiety) projects, the projects of the dissatisfied mind, whether they’re laudable or laughable, all fail. This seems a major part of the challenge of maturity: we recognize that whether we’re being good, being successful, being powerful, whether we’re having stuff or love or pleasure, whether we’re doing right or doing nothing, all of it is shadowed by this ultimate lack of ultimacy. It is easy as we get older and the disappointments mount up to climb into a pit of sadness, or to just lose touch with how to generate any energy to begin anything with trust.

The consequence of the perpetual failure (of the ego to reify itself) is that the sense of self has, as its inescapable shadow, a sense of lack, which it always tries to escape…We experience this deep sense of lack as the persistent feeling that “there is something wrong with me…The problem with our objectifications is that no object can ever satisfy if it’s not really an object we want.

My brother collects lighters. My friend is a team person; she loves Florida State University. Maybe we collect silence, treasure the dharma, trust trees. Regardless of the object, though, whether it’s material abundance or spiritual ideologies, to the extent that it’s objectified, it will fail us. The bottom will drop out. This is why it becomes so compelling to clarify what’s going on—that failing hurts so much. Democracy will fail, Zen will fail. Love won’t work, and the enlightened examples won’t do either. The breadth of the failure is utterly scathing. Over and over again we get the idea going, and then feel it short-sheet us. Whether the pain is sharp or deep or just annoying, we’re apt to feel betrayed by the way it keeps happening, constantly conspiring toward collapse.

When we don’t understand what is actually motivating us—because what we think we want is only a symptom of something else (our desire to become real, which is essentially a spiritual yearning)—we end up compulsive…Any truly satisfactory resolution of this situation must address the root problem, my lack of self. This can lead to an awakening that transforms my lack from such a festering anxiety into a ‘empty source of creativity. The self’s sense of separation from the world motivates me to try to secure myself within it, but the only authentic solution is the essentially spiritual realization that I am not other than it.

The monastic asks, “Apart from the four propositions and the hundred negations, please point out to me directly the meaning of living Buddhism.” Wansong comments on this, “Everywhere they call this a question in the mouth of a shackle; but Ma-tsu wasn’t flustered—he just said, ‘I’m too tired to tell you today. Go ask Zhizhang.’ He spared his own eyebrows and pierced that monastic’s nose.”

When Buddhist teachers explain too much it’s said that their eyebrows fall out. When a student’s nose is pierced, it’s like when a small ring is placed in the nose of a large ox, enabling a farmer to move it around with ease. Here, with few words and no explanation, Ma-tsu moves the monastic away from his expected path. “I’m too tired” is not what a teacher is “supposed” to be or say; what creates a teacher is the fact of teaching. Is this teaching, or excusing himself? That lumbering ox may be led around by whatever idea forms right at this point. This is where it’s so important to pay attention to what we project, what we assume is happening when we don’t get the response we anticipate: whether the koan is from the formal collections, or from daily life.

Zhizhang, too, “fit in the groove without contrivance” when he responded to the monastic, “Why don’t you ask the teacher?” The monastic still didn’t open his eyes; he said, “The teacher told me to come to you. ” Zhizhang said, “I’ve got a headache today. I can’t explain for you. Go ask Brother Hai.” The monastic asked Hai, who said, “When I come this far, after all I don’t understand. ”

Wansong’s comment on this is telling: “I thought it was Houbai (the thief), but here is even Houhei (who robbed Houbai by trickery).” In other words, Hai steals the illusion from this monastic, but the monastic thinks nothing has happened. He doesn’t even know the thief is in the house. There’s this incredible compassionate activity meeting this monastic at his every turn, and still he is unable to recognize it, much less feel and be moved by it. Sound familiar? So much of spiritual practice involves waking up to some ongoing kindness or rightness that we’ve somehow ignored for days or even years, and then practicing the regret at what we feel we’ve kind of wasted, letting the humility of that transform into vow. This can be really hard when we realize that others around us got it right away, or much earlier, while we bumbled on with our self-absorption blinding us. This monastic doesn’t have that challenge yet; he’s still got the blinders on securely.

He completes the circle by returning to Ma-tsu, and recounting his journey. Ma-tsu responds, “Zang’s head is white, Hai’s head is black.’’ The comment says, “This statement kills everyone in the world with doubt.’’ There’s a surface interpretation of this that we can look at first, just to get it out of the way. Zang, in saying “I have a headache,” takes up a thing—the headache—revealing the whole thing through one thing. Therefore, his head is white. Hai, who says, “When I come this far, after all I don’t understand,” takes up nothing, not knowing, non-separation, the absolute. His head is black, where no distinctions can be discerned. However, with this kind of analysis we are still left with the resounding “So what?” How does this speak to the issue at all? The hundred negations and four propositions gone, wordless, we face this life directly.

Photo By Alex Fernandez, MRO

Photo By Alex Fernandez, MRO

Wansong helps open this up: “I say four in the morning, three at night—they are glad or mad without reason. ” Explanations don’t reach this point. The neat aligning of “Ah, that’s an answer from the absolute; that’s an answer from the relative” doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. About “Zang’s head is white, Hai’s head is black,” he says “a duck’s head is green, a crane’s head is red” blowing the color-scheme metaphor on absolute and relative out of the water entirely.

What is the reality of living Buddhism? “The ten-shadowed spiritual horse stands south of the ocean, the five-colored auspicious unicorn walks north of the sky. People everywhere, don’t depend on a fox spirit.” This is a repeat of the advice we can’t seem to hear often enough: don’t let it become tricky. Don’t think it’s something contrived that you have to figure out, look up in the back of the book: what does white mean? What is really being revealed here? A Zen koan is not something to memorize and have in your pocket as a reference.

Ernest Becker in The Birth and Death of Meaning expresses much the same point using some interesting language: “Idolatry occurs whenever we try to become real by completely identifying with something in the world as the source of our power. The problem of life is how to grow out of our idolatries: Human beings believe either in God or in idols. There is no third course open, for God is the only object who is not a concrete object. God is abstract necessity, the unconditioned, and this is liberating rather than opposing or confining, even though we submit our energies to it. Humanity achieves its highest freedom when its energies are allied with the unconditioned cosmic process.”

Ma-tsu’s koan takes up the implications for basic self-trust within groundlessness. For many American Buddhists it seems that the moment God enters the sentence, a kind of shut-down occurs. “I don’t believe in that. Been there; done that. It didn’t work. Don’t like it. It scares me. It’s going to get stupid.” We just stop hearing in a deep way. Loy comments, “The touchstone of authentic spirituality is not whether one believes in God but whether one believes in and works to ground one’s energies in what Becker calls the unconditioned cosmic process.” Grounding the mystery of being in one’s own life is practicing one’s own life. It’s an ineffable trust that can thoroughly change how we live and love this life.

“Zang’s head is white, Hai’s head is black.’’ There’s a footnote to this line that says, “Investigate for thirty more years.” It’s not accomplished in a weekend, or even in a thousand centuries. When is it finished? When does it begin? An old friend once changed my sense of what’s possible just by saying “I’ll never finish loving you.” To discern this life, we need to practice this life. Is this apart from the world? Is this the world itself? Is it neither? Is it both?

Putting aside all that, who will realize the living meaning of an awakened life?

Mill Poem:

My old eyes preferred

The hundreds of white flowers

To these lost golf balls

Bonnie Myotai Treace Sensei is the founder of Hermitage Heart and the Bodies of Water Society. The first Dharma heir of John Daido Loori Roshi, she lived and taught at Zen Mountain Monastery and Fire Lotus Temple for over 20 years. Author, activist and Zen teacher, she shares her time between Gristmill Hermitage in Garrison, New York, and Ashville, NC.

From Empty Branches: A Season of Zen Teachings, Published by Millstone Press, copyright ©2016 Bonnie Myotai Treace. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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