Exposure to Koans is recent in my journey but has proven to be invaluable. Just a mere reflection of what on the surface appear to be unsolvable riddles, unearths my deep-rooted patterns of thinking. The chooser of me that I have identified with for most of my life is exposed again for what it is. The truth of what is, my headless nature, the essential nature of the phenomenal world, resurfaces in a flash, short as it may be, and I am home again. In the wake of such a moment, the thinking mind shifts, the chooser takes a break, and often a wave of insight follows. Here is one such insight.
Case 32 from The Gateless Gate: the verse
Walking on the edge of a sword,
Running over a ridge of jagged ice;
Not using steps or ladders,
Jumping from the cliff with hands free.
Commentary: Anyone who is walking on the edge of a sword or over a ridge of jagged ice cannot hesitate even for a moment or else he will slip and be injured. When someone grasps absolute reality, he experiences it in a second. If he hesitates on even a bit of a concept, his true life is lost. The non-Buddhist did not hesitate. He attained satori like a flash of lightning. We cannot attain true realization by proceeding step by step, like going up a ladder. We must take a leap as if we were jumping into the air from a high cliff, with our hands attached to nothing!
This koan verse describes how the chooser trips us up. As the chooser, we feel the desire to understand to choose to believe or accept, judge and label, and take credit for understanding. Our minds can’t help it. This is what it is to be the chooser.
But the chooser isn’t real. Choosing appears, and choices are made, but the chooser is a thought, a feeling, a conditioned response to a stimulus like the act of choosing. To escape from this cycle of an illusory chooser, something must shift. The thinker can be bypassed in an awakening revelation that comes without opportunity for thought. The thinker can disappear through direct inquiry. We may get lost in samadhi where thinking stops, and in the silent space, we discover our essential nature.
When an awakening experience takes us by surprise, it hijacks our thinking and takes us beyond the limits of thought. These moments can’t be contoured, manipulated, or possessed. They come and go like the wind. Maybe they come and go more often than we think and are missed because we are thinking.
We can look for the thinker and discover it does not exist and see the thinker fall away. This direct pointing can be effective for those to whom it is effective. For others, we might see the absurdity of a thinker, recognize our headlessness and think about how awesome it is we are not a thinker. A shift has happened, but it is in the phenomenal world. There is still a thinker, just a better version of itself.
We can find the space between thoughts, come into samadhi, be zero in zazen, be lost in prayer, be filled with the spirit, surrender to the truth, and so on. These may be effective when they are, but often the moments of clarity are claimed by the thinker who set the course that got it to the destination.
This discussion may be frustrating, feel defeatist or instill a sense of hopelessness, but this is normal. Seeing what is, frustrating or not, is to see what we are. It is the most direct route to discovering ourself. We may think our way past the truth, hide the truth in our concepts, lose sight of the truth in our understanding and forget what we are in our daydreams, but what we are can’t be denied. This one thread of hope, thin as a whisper as it may be, is our life when tripped up by the chooser. What we are can’t be denied and is ever-present.