Tuesday, November 8, 2011


by Scott Bradley

"When your four elements scatter, where do you go?" — Tou-shuai

A friend of mine despises the French because forty-odd years ago in Paris he returned to a dry cleaner's to pick up a beloved sweater only to be told it had disappeared. "Where did it go!?" he demanded. "Pfft!" said the proprietor with a Gallic shrug.

This is how I answer Tou-shuai's question. If that fails to satisfy, the problem is with me, not with the answer. I can make no other. And if it failed the test of an examining roshi, as it most certainly would, then I can only say I have chosen the path of failure.

This question is the last of Tou-shuai's Three Barriers, the 47th case in the Mumonkan, and I have irreverently torn it from its context. This is largely because the first two questions appear to assume presuppositions beyond my ability to believe. They leave me at sea.

However, if I get the first test completely wrong, I consequentially find it quite insightful. "You make your way through the darkness of abandoned grasses in a single-minded search for your self-nature," it begins. "Now, honored one, where is your nature?" Well, it was never anything other than that which was doing whatever it was doing, I reply. There is nothing to find when everything is what it is. But perhaps I am not too far off the mark, since "honored one" suggests the searcher is that which he seeks.

The second test says, "When you realize your self-nature, you are free of birth and death. When the light of your eye falls, how are you free?" I think I have an inkling of what it means to be free of birth and death, but not in any way which sheds light on 'before' and 'beyond'. This is to say, I see a psychological possibility of being free of birth and death, a release of the 'problem' into Mystery, but not the metaphysical and ontic possibility which seems to underpin and motivate Buddhism.

But returning to the path of failure, this left-handed path, this way of not-getting-it... Well, though a mental illness may not be curable, there is a lot to be said for some relieving of the symptoms.

And when the four elements scatter, they all scatter alike.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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