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It is one of the Zen stories which is told and retold, the story of the transmission of the Dharma by the Fifth Chinese Patriarch, Hung-Jen, to Hui-Neng. Hui-Neng was to become, after Shakyamuni Buddha himself, the most revered teacher in Zen. “But you get out of here now,” Hung-Jen advised. Hui-Neng was an illiterate peasant. Hung-Jen knew that many of the monks would likely be in a jealous rage.

So Hui-neng left the monastery shortly after midnight and, although no one saw him leave, word spread rapidly. Head monk Ming, passed over for transmission pursues Hui-Neng into the mountains.

Seeing Ming coming, Hui-Neng lays the robe, the symbol of transmission, on the ground. “This robe represents the Dharma. There should be no fighting over it. You may take it back with you.”

But when Ming goes to pick up the robe, he can’t lift it. In this apocryphal moment, Ming falls to his knees. “I came for the Dharma not for the robe. Please, brother, show me the way.”

When Hui-Neng responds, “Show me your face before your parents were born,” Ming experiences a great enlightenment.

Seventy-five years later, Kuei-shan presents this same challenge to Hsiang-yen. When Hsiang-yen is unable to respond and begs Kuei-shan to explain, the master answers, “I really have nothing to teach you… Whatever understanding I have is my own and will never be yours.”

Hsiang-yen, with Kuei-shan’s approval, drops all ambition and takes up the care of an abandoned temple. Each day, he meticulously sweeps the temple grounds. One day a swept stone sailing through the air strikes a bamboo, Thwock!

That Thwock awakened Hsiang-yen. Immediately, he prostrated himself in the direction of Kuei-shan’s temple, crying out in gratitude, “Your kindness is greater than that of my parents. If you had explained it to me, I would never have known this joy.”[1]

Adapted from Case 5 and 23, The Gateless Gate

In a recent blog, I shared a story which I have been retelling for years, a story which was shared by a young woman during a group therapy session. She told the group about a psychiatrist she had been seeing for about a year. “I don’t know what was going on with me,” she said, “but I never said a word. I would just come in and sit and think about what I might say until finally he would announce, ‘Our time is up. We can continue next week.’ And I would leave. He was so patient with me, but I think he must have been getting bored. I was thinking of things to say, but I never said anything. One week — it seemed out of the blue — he announced at the end of the session, ‘Obviously, this therapy isn’t going anywhere. I won’t be seeing you anymore.’ I felt very bad. He was so patient, and I was getting very close to talking.”

I felt bad for the psychiatrist too. He had been so patient. I knew from my experience how hard it was to listen and not speak. And he was so close to being rewarded for his patience — what a great story it would have been to share with his colleagues, how he just waited and waited until this young woman was ready to share what was in her heart.

A friend of mine who read that blog shared a different experience.

“In my first therapy I needed all kinds of help, not to mention that my then husband didn’t approve of my going for therapy and it was something of a fight each time I went. But when I arrived it was almost impossible for me to talk, I was so locked up. We also just sat there for a year. I was dying for some questions, for prompts that would help me unlock, and he gave me nothing. When I finally told him I wasn’t coming back. He smiled and said, ‘Of course you are.’ I told him, ‘No.’ He said, with that knowing smile, ‘We both know you are.’ I never went back.”

Her story reminded me of an experience of my own when I went back to therapy during my mid-life crisis, to a new therapist, my wonderful Adlerian analyst having died in the years since I finished my analysis. I bargained with Arthur. I had already been through a seven-year analysis — I didn’t want to do that again — and in the meantime, I’d had some training in brief psychotherapy. I was caught in the final throes of what was turning out to be an unhappy marriage, but I didn’t know that yet. I was feeling myself being pulled in a new direction, but I was completely stuck. “Can we agree to get me unstuck in three months?”

Arthur agreed, but three months later I was still stuck. I complained to Arthur halfway though the fourth month, “Weren’t we supposed to get me unstuck by now?”

"I thought you would have left by now.”

That’s all he said.

I went home and told wife number two that I wanted a trial separation. She quickly packed an overnight bag and moved out that night. A few days later she returned “to pick up a few more things.” I stayed away from the house on the afternoon she was coming. I didn’t want a scene. When I got home, I found she had taken most of the furniture. Our uncontested divorce was handled through lawyers.

Arthur’s nudge was all I needed to get “unstuck,” and I have never had any regrets that that marriage ended. But I have always wondered if that nudge didn’t rob me of something. Years later that question was still in my head when I began my Kuei-shan koan. With that nudge, had Arthur robbed me of the opportunity to hear my thwock myself?

To speak or not to speak: the great Zen dilemma. “Open mouth already a mistake,” was a favored expression of the great Korean Zen teacher, Seung Sahn. Dainin Katagiri Roshi said, “You have to say something.” Both are true. Sometimes.

The great Giants football coach, Bill Parcells, said, “Some players need a pat on the back. Some need a kick in the butt. Coaching is about recognizing who needs what.”

Shakyamuni Buddha had the same idea. Patients are different, he taught. He would give each patient the medicine he needed.

When we opened our first charter school integrating students with emotional challenges with their undiagnosed peers, our founding faculty adopted the slogan, “Fair is not equal.”

One of our teachers, Lee Poerio, came up with a wonderful way to introduce this idea to her Wellness class. She came into class wearing a white nurse’s cap, carrying a stethoscope. “Let’s pretend that you have all come to the doctor’s office, and I’m going to come around and ask each of you what the problem is.”

The kids had their seats in the circle and Lee went around the room. “What’s your problem?”

“I have a really bad headache.”

“Take two aspirins.”

Onto the next student. “What’s your problem?”

“Bad stomach ache.”

“Take two aspirins.”

The next student. “I think I may have broken my arm.”

“Take two aspirins.”

By now the students were laughing. Lee continued around the room. They were trying to stump her.

“I think I have appendicitis.”

“Take two aspirins.”

Those students never forgot that lesson. Fair is not equal.

Open mouth already a mistake. You have to say something.

You got to know your players.

Every patient is different.

There is no formula.


(1) Adapted from the commentary on Case 5, The Gateless Barrier (translated with a commentary by Robert Aitken). San Francisco: Northpoint Press, 1990: 39.

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