A Boneless Tongue
by Scott Bradley
by Scott Bradley
The eleventh 'case' (koan) of the Mumonkan is a story about Chao-chou having gone twice to visit a hermit, who both times simply raises a fist at the interruption. [Whether it was one or two different hermits is debated.] The first time, Chao-chou passes a negative judgment on this response. The second time, he makes a positive judgment. Wu-men, in his commentary says, "If you can give a turning word on this matter, you will realize that Chao-chou's tongue had no bone in it."
I am reminded of another story in which a master asks a monk a koan-ic question ("Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?" — if I remember correctly) and, receiving a standard answer ("The cypress in the courtyard."), gives him a slap. The master then says, Now you ask me. His answer is the same. His tongue was boneless.
A boneless tongue is one that is free to make contrary statements because it realizes that neither is 'true'. This is true because nothing is true. At least this is untrue at some level. I mean true.
It is true that my name is Scott. But if Chao-chou were to show up and say otherwise, would you believe him? I would. Because I would know that he was approaching the question of my identity on an entirely different level. He would, in effect, be asking me what my name was before my mother and father were born.
The facilities of reason, with its prerequisite dependence on words and truth, and of moral judgment, with its rights and wrongs, are wonderful and necessary human endowments. But can we not absolutize them? Can we free ourselves from them in such a way that they become our tools, rather than the other way around? Can we have a transcendent perspective?
It is this freedom which enables us to transcend the egoic monad of self. Or is it the transcendence that frees us? I do not know. Only I know this freedom is the testimony of those who have apparently experienced transcendence. And I, in my own inner pilgrimage, encountering these walls of truth and judgment, sometimes manage to get a glimpse of the freedom that lies beyond. And even that feels really good.
Have I given "a turning word"? Perhaps, but one that is little more than word-deep.
You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.