Tuesday, April 10, 2012

1 The Whole World Is Medicine—The Zenosaurus Course in Koans

               I was not separated from people,
               grief and pity joined us.
               We forget—I kept saying—that we are all                    children of the King.
Czeslaw Milosz

Sickness is memorable, forgettable, disgusting, painful, discouraging, shocking, and sometimes a discovery. It tells me that I have a body, and that I rely on my body.

Usually, casually, I think of myself as being well; when I am sick, wellness is the me I imagine I’ll get back to. 

When I was an undergraduate in Canberra, I had an intense experience of being reduced to the physical. I meditated every day outside under a Chinese elm tree, and every day also had a fever which led me to rush outside and throw up. And I became close to the elm tree in the garden, so that as I write I am there again, consoled by its mild, reassuring bulk in the night, it’s delicate serrated leaves, the progress of the moon in its branches, the twigs and leaves under my knees. The sickness took me beyond the idea of myself as someone who needed to get back to being well. I didn’t have the energy to dislike or to dread my state so I didn’t. It was a place of which the only special quality was that it was not on the way to somewhere else, a place commonly called, ‘now’. It was an initiation realm, I felt visited by the powers that move heaven and earth. The sickness, which would normally have been disgusting, stopped time from passing, which is why I remember kneeling under my guardian tree.

At the time, I was spending the days in a biology lab and was struck by electron microscope images of mitochondria. Mitochondria are the power stations in every cell in the body. They are us, and at the same time, not us; they have their own DNA, which is passed down outside the nucleus of the cell. And I wondered about the notion of consciousness—an awareness of myself, which seemed precious and separate yet also completely entwined with the physical world. I felt myself to be like the mitochondria, hopelessly unclear how to describe my true identity. We had been taught that there was a big bang and the universe expanded and came into being and eventually consciousness, along with the Chrysler building, online advertising, and theories of beauty—appeared as an emerging feature of complexity. It wasn’t like that under the tree, though. I gave up, I knelt in pain on the roots, and the most material thing—a virus (are they even alive?), a spirochete, a pebble, the leaf of a Chinese elm tree—was apparently part of the same scheme that my mind was part of. Consciousness appeared to be a property of matter, just like my hand.

Years later a Zen student told me during a retreat that when she sang the universe was created as the notes came out of her mouth. I had seen Chinese bronze sculptures of meditators chanting with Buddhas coming out of their mouths. ‘The universe does this sort of thing,’ I thought, ‘It will do that when you sing, or throw up.’ 

It’s natural to think of my self as something I need to get back to after. After the war ends, the heart beat finds a sinus rhythm, the divorce is complete, the baby arrives, the exam is passed. But of course we are already ourselves and something is always flowering in us. 

There are many kinds of sickness—love of the unattainable person. the isolation that cruelty imposes on cruel people, cancer. Almost everyone lives provisionally, for the time being, till the world changes or those we love come around to our way of thinking—that is a sickness too.

Interactions with the body can’t be dodged. If I write the word “pus” your (and my) desire to eat will be contaminated for a short period of time, not because you are unusually susceptible to suggestion, but because our bodies react to images and words. It’s not a choice. Which is why swear words are shocking. Disgusting images reduce us to the physical, they stay with us because they are an assault on our idea of ourselves as a package of virtues and an IQ score. Paradoxically this is why Renaissance memory manuals recommend using disgusting images for important points in that speech you are rehearsing—you won’t forget them. Vomiting zombies give you double the effect.

Here is the full rendition of the koan:

Medicine and sickness heal each other. The whole world is medicine. What am I?

Koans are devices for entering what is real in life. They open a gate in the mind. The other side of the gate is the background behind everything we do. The ideas and actions we thought of as important foreground stuff come to an end and an opening appears. 

This koan is from Yunmen, one of the Chinese thinkers. A koan like this can approach you, whether you have never encountered koans before or have long experience of them. The phrase ‘the whole world is medicine’ can be used alone as a kind of short form, something convenient and portable to keep you company. 

For many centuries Yunmen's embalmed body was on the altar in his temple in China. It disappeared in the cultural revolution, and was believed to have been destroyed by the iconoclasts of the Red Guards. It seems to be back in the temple now though, so either it was found again or some other ancient corpse was repurposed. 

When I wake up in the middle of the night, the dream life of the night is there. I live down and in among the bits and pieces. The unlived images arrive—snatches of song, the troubadours, the lost books of Aristotle, the legend of a continent overwhelmed by the sea, dancing girls, hard pressed sailors in the great southern ocean. Gnostics thought of the things in the world as shards of an original brightness. People who run large groups of servers to manage say, online auctions, speak of them as being sharded. The term indicates an acceptance of the nature of the world as made of bits and pieces—the idea of fragments that somehow operate in harmony as long as we don’t try to force them to, is an enduring one. 

The way a koan works doesn’t have to be about the topic of the koan. This koan might open up an illness as an heroic journey. But it might shift how other aspects of life too. I have been working—with a friend—on a new translation of this medicine koan, which you see above. But recently I forgot and taught the older, probably less accurate version, ‘sickness and medicine correspond with each other.’ Someone in the group said, “I was deep in meditation and my thinking had descended also, and I took the word ‘correspond’ to mean ‘write a letter to.’ 'Dear Sickness,' the letter began, and it ended, 'Your friend, Medicine.'” 

Keeping company with the koan, and the situation that rises to meet it, I live closer in to my life. This reveals another person inside me. Let’s say you are a teenage girl with your first boyfriend. You plan to go away to college and know you will have to break up; you have a carefully considered plan about how to do it and stay friends and you have both talked about it. But your boyfriend makes a preemptive strike—he breaks up now. You had no idea that romance could hurt so much and you cry for days. And, because of those tears you become available for different things, you get more of a relationship with your father, you volunteer to teach in a school, you practice baroque music, you travel, you consider going to school in another country. It’s not clear which is sickness and which is medicine, or which condition needs to be healed. 

If the whole world becomes medicine, there are implications; in our assessments, we can’t be quite so sure what is healing and what is the opposite. A girl is asked out and feels fear. She doesn’t know whether this means she needs to take a risk and go on the date or that she needs to be cautious—so many situations are like that. A job offer raises the same questions. We don’t know outcomes and live our way through what we are given. Our explanations only get in the way. 

When the question, 'Who am I? What am I?' appears, help and healing can come from anywhere. It doesn’t have to come from known sources and it doesn’t have to come to the person we think we are. 

When I was leading a retreat last winter I got ill. I was concerned whether I was being sufficiently coherent and helpful—it can be hard to assess—and I had a dream:
I was in the underworld and a Mexican guy drove up in an old, high, red truck with a load of wood to deliver. I liked him immediately. He had come to the wrong building and I perched on the hood of the truck to guide him around to the right place. I was enjoying this but wondered, “Is it illegal—to ride on the hood of a truck?” And I thought, “Oh I’m in the underworld, I can do this here.” The driver saw a harvester under the eaves of the barn, a machine I hadn’t remembered having. He offered to buy it for $777 but I thought I might use it myself. 

After that dream I started to get better, aided by antibiotics, and also by the way unlooked for help arrived, in the dream. 777 could refer to a lot of things—it’s fun that it is a Unix code giving complete access to a file. 

When I allow myself to walk through the koan’s gate, then even sickness can be unexpected help. Help, freedom, happiness appear from unexpected quarters, and all quarters are unexpected. 

  1. Think of a time when you have been ill, what do you remember from that time? What was it like? How did it change you?
  2. What is sickness for you? 
  3. What are your own personal medicines? What works for you? Have you ever been surprised by something that helped you?
  4. If you close your eyes and feel your way way into your body what images rise for you?
  5. If you imagine your body, what comes to your mind first?
  6. What are you?

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