Friday, 27 January 2017

A person of great strength does not lift his legs

Zen Master Shogen said "A person of great strength does not lift his legs."

The first time I read this I thought it said "does not lift his leg" – well of course! How uncouth, lifting your leg like a dog...

Needless to say, this koan is not talking about peeing on a passing tree trunk. And it goes on to say "and it is not his tongue he speaks with." So what's all this about?

A person of "great strength" is another way of referring to someone who is awake to themselves, who knows their fundamental nature. "Great" here means something like expansive or encompassing. So an enlightened person does not lift their legs, or use their tongue. Does that mean they just sit still, dumb as a stone?

Here's another koan that points in the same direction (and useful for this time of year):

One day a monk asked Zen Master Tozan, "How can we avoid hot and cold?" Tozan said, "Why don't you go somewhere that is neither hot nor cold?"

In this case, the monk then got a chance to ask what he meant.

The monk asked, "Where is a place that is neither hot nor cold?" Tozan replied, "When it is cold, be completely cold; when it is hot, be completely hot."

If we're cold, most of us spend a lot of effort wishing we weren't. "I hate this feeling", "I wish I was indoors", "why can't the turn the heating up?" "I wish I'd worn my thick gloves", etc. The same thing goes when we're really hot. "I'm so hot I can't stand it", "if there was a freezer here I'd get in it", etc.

But if we can simply be cold when we're cold, as Tozan suggests, then there's no problem. There's only a problem is we want things to be different to how they are. Daizan's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, likes to use the term "nari kiru". "Nari" means to become, and "kiru" means cut off – together it means to 100% become one with how things are and to cut off all other wishes or wants. So when we're cold, we nari kiru being cold – then in that moment there is no cold or hot, we simply are, and all concepts of this or that go out the window.

Shogen said "an enlightened person does not lift their legs". Just like being cold, when we 100% nari kiru lifting out legs (say when we're walking), then the concepts of lifting or lowering again disappear. We are just walking.

So the next time you're walking, or indeed speaking, try not lifting your legs or using your tongue...

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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