Tuesday, April 12, 2022

No Water, No Moon

 The arid prose of Zen aphorisms sometimes leave you thirsty. Yet something
shines through—something nameless, beyond all categories, and, in the best possible sense of the word, empty. Empty as in full of potential. Empty as in big enough to hold the whole world.

In his classic collection Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, (C.E. Tuttle Company, 1957) Paul Reps gathered together more than 160 such aphorisms, as elusive, fluid, and shimmering as trout in a stream. And none more evocative than the story of a woman named Chiyono.

“When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free! In commemoration, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail. Since the bamboo strip was weakening, and about to break, until at last the bottom fell out. No more water in the pail! No more moon in the water!

We meet Chiyono in a recognizable moment—the frustration many of us feel when after years of spiritual practice we find ourselves right back at the beginning, or nowhere at all – just as unhappy and scattered as we ever were. Was it all for nothing?

And then in the course of her ordinary work, carrying a pail of water from the well, something snapped—in this case, the bamboo strap holding the wooden slats of her pail together. As poetic images go, you can’t do better than this. Notice how we, like Chiyono, work so hard to keep it together, thinking we can manage the world, thinking we actually possess its treasures in our conceptual containers – our health, our money, our loved ones. But in a snap the lie of ownership is laid bare.

The true moment of satori (enlightenment) is her response to the pail-fail. Most of us would curse and complain, but years of practice prepared her for this shift. Instead of being angry, she’s relieved, even jubilant—“No more water in the pail! No more moon in the water!”

We do not own the air in our lungs, the water in our pails, or the love in our hearts—yet we need them to live. The very engines of our existence come from outside us, and are beyond control. We experience them, but we do not own them. The water in our pail retains its unity with the One Water—it only seems separate. And what a laughable confusion—to think our pail holds the moon because we see its reflection there. That is why part of us—a deep and unconscious part—recognizes Chiyono’s relief when the bottom falls out. The charade was exhausting. It turns out attachment was the root of our suffering.

What a sense of freedom it would be to finally let go and realize that not only is there nothing to grasp, there isn’t anyone to do the grasping. All forms are empty, in the best possible sense of the word—fluid, ephemeral, shimmering. We are fleeting moments in an interconnected field of energy, consciousness, and matter without border or boundary. Sure, we still need to bring water into the kitchen to cook our rice, but we do so now with a sense of engagement, not ownership or control. 

[This piece was first published in my column "A to Zen" in the May/June 2022 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]