Thursday, April 28, 2011

Spider on a Drum

One of the things I appreciate the most about Zen master Seung Sahn's teaching style is his application of koans to everyday life, what Dogen might call genjokoan. As Seung Sahn explains it, traditionally when students sit with the koan Mu and try to penetrate it, become one with it, Mu fills their entire being. Everything they do is Mu. When they drive, Mu drives. When they eat, Mu eats.

The problem, of course, is when someone else needs help, Mu can't help them. Mu doesn't allow for compassion (at least not in this stage of a student's training). So Seung Sahn stresses an emptiness of mind, what he calls "mirror mind." This allows for compassion to arise when it's needed. It's a form of upaya or skillful means--the ability to adapt to meet the needs of others.

As I was reading Branching Streams Flow Through the Darkness by Shunryu Suzuki, I encountered a type of koan that captures Seung Sahn's koan teaching method. I didn't make this scenario up; it actually happened to one of Suzuki's students. It goes like this:

You're beating the mokugyo (a small wooden drum) during morning Zen service--a task you take very seriously. The entire chant depends on you beating this drum. If you slip up, the service will be ruined. Suddenly you notice a spider crawling on top of the mokugyo. What do you do?

We see the dilemma: if we stop to save the spider we interrupt the chant and the service, risk embarrassment and perhaps a scolding from the teacher. However, if we continue, we'll kill the spider--a violation of the first Precept. We must act. We must step off the hundred-foot pole.

What do we do?

Mokugyo photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Big Mind Zen Center.


  1. Do not crush the spider. I don't think this one is too difficult

  2. Perhaps, but I wonder if a teacher might say we were attached to the Precepts themselves by refusing to break them and squash the spider. Are we simply being self-righteous and inflexible? Then again, the same can be said about beating the drum--attachment to form. I think it's a rich question. Perhaps not a koan per se, but one that targets the pressure points in our pratice.

  3. Definitely don't crush the spider. It's life is more important than your potential embarassment. :)

  4. BTW, that drum looks like a bola spider!