One of the simplest, and thus most profound, koans in the Mumonkan is, to my thinking, the 7th, Joshu's "Wash your bowls." A newly arrived monk asks Joshu to instruct him in the essence of Zen. "Have you had breakfast?" asks Joshu. "Yes, Master," replies the monk. "Then wash your bowls."
The monk asks for instruction. What possible instruction could Joshu give him? The essence of self-realization is devoid of objective truth. It is not 'out there'. It has nothing to do with 'understanding' anything about Reality. The experience is utterly subjective. This is the mighty blow of Joshu's instruction. To realize this subjectivity is to realize nothing; it is simply to be that subjectivity.
It is not 'out there', but neither is it 'in here', if by this is meant there is some 'answer' to find there. It is just as easy to import objectivity into one's subjective inquiry as it is to posit it elsewhere. It is not about finding one's 'true self', or anything else; it's about being the self you are, and if it happens that, after the fact, that feels like 'true self', so what? Forgive my ridiculous presumption in saying so, but it seems to me that Zen does us a grave injustice when it jibbers on about 'True Self' and Absolute Mind and Truth and Buddha Nature — it’s all rubbish. These are all objective distractions. Zen knows this, of course. This is why it forever turns its sword on itself, ever returning itself to critical zero. "If you meet the Buddha, kill him!"
I have not had this experience. Yet if I had, still I would be stammering as I am now, if I tried to describe it. Still, we can sometimes get a dim inkling of what something entails without fully experiencing it in truth. This shift from objectivity to absolute subjectivity is fundamental to the experience of transcendence. And it is so radically different from the normal way we proceed as to be comparable to reversing the flow of a mighty river. Always we 'seek'; and seeking is always a failure to be. What to do? We can start by being the self that seeks, the self that we are. Denial, negation, rejection have their roots in objectivity and are no place to begin. We cannot swim back up the mighty river; can we perhaps allow it to take us where we wish to go? Transcendence is not ceasing to be something, but being all things.
Joshu instructed the monk, gave him a most wonderful word. He brought him back to the real world. He brought him back to himself.
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