‘A monk asked Yunmen, “What is the teaching of a lifetime?”
Yunmen replied, “An appropriate response.” (Blue Cliff Record, case 14)
This was the koan I put on the front page of my class handout, as a kind of meta-koan. For me, this response characterises the response to any koan.
I thought this would be a nice, brief launching point. In the end, we spent about half the class discussing it, in a very lively and engaged way. One person suggested something on the lines of ‘first thought, best thought,’ and I cautioned that with my family karmic training, where swiftly delivered put-downs were considered par for the course, I could probably succeed in offending everyone in the room without pausing. We agreed that our training in zazen is more likely to make our first response a compassionate one, and that ‘fully engaging body and mind’, as Dogen expresses it, is a good path to follow to move past whatever karma we carry around with us, to find that appropriate or authentic response.
I mentioned to the class that there was an alternative translation that I knew, which I had put aside in favour of my preferred one – something that highlights inevitable limitations when we are going from pictograms to words. When I checked it again, Yunmen’s response is rendered as ‘preaching facing oneness.’
At first glance that might seem like quite a leap, but as I thought about it, the two versions edged a little closer (even though I wonder how it is that you can face oneness).
At the beginning of the class, I said that I would not be supplying answers, certainly not definitive ones, but responding from where I am in my practice at the moment. At the end, I gave everyone the homework of traveling through the week with this koan in mind. Who knows what will come up?