Kasan said, “Cultivating study is called learning. Cutting off study is called nearness. Going beyond these two is to be considered real going beyond.” A monk came forward and asked, “What is real going beyond?” Kasan said, “Knowing how to beat the drum.” Again the monk asked “What is the real truth?” Kasan said, “Knowing how to beat the drum.” The monk asked once more, “I do not ask about mind is Buddha, but what is no-mind, no-Buddha?” Kasan said, “Knowing how to beat the drum.” The monk continued to ask, “When a transcendent man comes, how do you receive him?” Kasan said, “Knowing how to beat the drum.” — Hekiganroku Case 44
Talking about koans is not a very productive thing. However, a talk like this can give you a sense of what a koan is pointing toward. A koan is a road map that points toward a destination, and in this particular instance, it’s a destination that you never leave. The point is to stop trying to get someplace else. You take the backward step. The words in a koan are simply the pointing fingers. Consequently, you have to go deeper than the words to have a koan actualize in your life. When that happens you will recognize it. It is always a light bulb going off. “Wow! I see!” Typically it’s in direct opposition to what you originally thought.
No one has ever spoken more clearly than the old masters in our koans. Theirs was an amazing time when prajna and wisdom truly flourished. But then again, remember that all of the sutras, in a certain sense, are koans. The precepts are koans. Maezumi Roshi said shikantaza is a koan. And if we understand koan to mean the actualized wisdom of a particular view, a particular perspective, the koans are windows that we look through. We look through into this inner self to the true self. I can say we look into muji. I can say we look into dharmakaya. But it’s not enough to look to emptiness—this is the beauty of muji—it isn’t just empty (in the absolute sense that nothing moves). The great Hongzhi said that at that place it shines black, lacquered black. And then the pivot turns and all of this becomes the functioning of this vast state of emptiness. Then, there’s not much that can be said—or at least I can’t say.
The whole point to a koan is to transcend the words, and what I’m going to try to do as we move through this is show a comparison to what’s happening when we work on muji, or “mu.” What is the technique that we’re trying to do? What are the mechanics of it? Because you can almost say that what we’re trying to do is mechanistic.
Kasan said, “Cultivating study is called learning. Cutting off study is called nearness. Going beyond these two is to be considered real going beyond.” A monk came forward and asked, “What is real going beyond?” Kasan said, “Knowing how to beat the drum.” Again the monk asked “What is the real truth?” Kasan said, “Knowing how to beat the drum.” The monk asked once more, “I do not ask about mind is Buddha, but what is no-mind no-Buddha?” Kasan said, “Knowing how to beat the drum.” The monk continued to ask, “When a transcendent man comes, how do you receive him?” Kasan said, “Knowing how to beat the drum.”
Setcho’s appreciatory verse says:
One hauled rock, another carried dirt.
To shoot the bolt you need a 10-ton crossbow.
Seppo once rolled some balls,
but how can that compare to Kasan’s ability to beat the drum?
I announce for your information: Don’t be careless!
The sweet is sweet, and the bitter is bitter.
Kasan said, “Cultivating study is called learning.” Here we’re talking about the type of study where you are so intensely focused that you actually forget the study. To go beyond learning, you have to exhaust the search for intellectual understanding. Furthermore, “cutting off study is called nearness.” Once you reach the stage of not-knowing, not-knowing is most intimate. It’s been said: shallow learning, deep enlightenment; deep learning, no enlightenment. How do you take that statement? Do you take it to mean that if you don’t spend too much time intellectually pursuing answers, then you will attain deep enlightenment, and that if you pursue deep learning it will mean no enlightenment? No! The words can mislead. If your learning, or your practice, is very shallow, you’ll be really involved with the idea of enlightenment as something special and other-worldly. You might pursue it into the mountains of the Himalayas or the monasteries in Japan! But if your practice is truly deep, there’s no enlightenment. You’ve gone beyond duality, and that’s the enlightened state.
Do you know why the practice is so complicated? Because we sit down and work really hard on it. But are we really working hard? For sure, we’re doing a lot of mental activity. “I’m going to have perfect breathing. I’m going to master this koan. I’m going to figure out the answer.” We go about it in the wrong direction. Dogen says take the backward step—turn the light inward. Don’t try to produce anything.
With a koan, don’t try to produce an answer. Become the koan. You have to find the balance between effort and no-effort. No-effort isn’t careless indifference—and that’s what most people do with koan practice. They drop that very refined, alert state and zone out. Instead, bring that very alert attention to single point, hold it, look at it, and become it. Then, if your effort is actually deep effort, poof! Something happens. You will see the koan in a different way.
The problem for most people when they work with koans is they bring in their conceptual understanding. They come to dokusan to discuss the koan. They might have four or five answers lined up to try. But if you don’t hit it with the first shot you don’t see the koan.
When you go beyond duality, when you go beyond effort and no-effort, when you go beyond the absolute state and the relative state, that’s real going beyond. That’s transcendence. As you sit here now you are in fact the absolute. You are alaya consciousness. You are dharmakaya. And here we sit in the manifest form: me blabbing at the mouth, you listening. Something amazing is going on right here. This koan is telling you to go beyond the duality of knowing and not-knowing. What do you do then? How do you function? If you don’t see it, you don’t see it even as you walk on it.
In this koan a monk comes forward and asks, “What is real going beyond?” This is a gutsy monk. He knows what’s important. He wants to know: what is it when we go beyond cultivating and not-cultivating? And then Kasan says, “Knowing how to beat the drum.”
This is the first testing-point for you and for this monk. First appreciate the teacher. Does he respond to the monk where the monk is in his own development? Does he deal with the very question being asked? And does he cut off all avenues of escape—all means of intellectual understanding? And then, does he set a higher level? In this particular instance, he absolutely does: knowing how to beat the drum.
You have to transcend his words. Bring your attention, your focus, your concentrated mind on this: knowing how to beat the drum. What does it mean, knowing how to beat the drum?
Now take a look at the monk. Is he testing Kasan? Is he responding appropriately? Is he showing an open eye? Or is he still trapped in his own delusional thinking? What is the real truth? Look! Look! Look! It’s obvious! Don’t you see it? Look! Look! There’s nothing outside of this. There’s just this one thing. But what is this one thing?
How does Kasan respond? Is it vital and living, what he’s doing here? Now you see the power of Kasan. He isn’t caught by the questions. He doesn’t go down into the weeds. That alone tells us something.
The monk tries to find the real truth and what does he run into? An iron mountain. Bump into Kasan and he doesn’t move: knowing how to beat the drum. Now the monk decides to see if he can pull the old fellow off his perch. The monk asks once more, “I do not ask about mind is Buddha, but what is no-mind no-Buddha?” This is very famous, Basso’s “Mind is Buddha.” Yuanwu says about this, “Mind is Buddha is easy to study.” It’s easy to study because there is something to seek. There’s something to be attained. There is something to be understood. It’s tangible, palpable, and it’s right here. Mind is Buddha. But the monk says, “I don’t ask about that. What about no-mind no-Buddha?” There’s no entranceway, no hitching post, no anchor point. He must be able to move the great Kasan with this! But Kasan answers: knowing how to beat the drum.
The monk is persistent. He finally asks, “When a transcendent man comes, how do you receive him?” What can you say to a free man? What can you say to a practitioner who is now unfettered? Kasan said, knowing how to beat the drum. The point again is to understand: what is this knowing how to beat the drum?
You know what knowing means: to be aware of, cognizant of. To beat a drum. In his statement, “Knowing how to beat the drum” he has answered with absolute precision what is real going beyond. Beating the drum. What is real truth? Beating the drum. No mind, no Buddha. Beating the drum. Well, how do I speak to an enlightened guy? Beating the drum. It is absolutely beautiful, but you have to push out the bottom—the floor—of your intellectual understanding.
All teachers have their own devices. In Setcho’s verse he says “One hauled rock, another carried dirt.” With one old master, new students weren’t allowed to say anything. They had to go out to the road and haul three loads of dirt and then the master would speak to them. Milarepa had laborers tear stuff down and build it up. That’s knowing how to beat the drum, and it takes you beyond delusional thinking. The great Joshu was known for lip Zen, or turning words. Rinzai and Obaku, they hit. Some bulged out their eyes or stuck out their tongues. It’s always appropriate if it comes out of the living expression of the teacher. When the great Obaku, Basso or Rinzai shouted, this was the killing shout. And this shout was knowing how to beat the drum.
To intellectually know you’re a Buddha is worthless. There is no transformation that takes place. And this is what Setcho says here: to shoot the bolt you need a 10-ton crossbow. You have to be truly clear, and you have to be spiritually powerful. This Kasan, knowing how to beat the drum: unwavering strength! Once you crack through that layer of ego, of intellectual understanding; once you cut the root of conceptual thought, the flow of discriminating consciousness for a moment, bang! And then you’ll know what it means to beat the drum. You can respond accordingly. I can tell you what beating the drum means and it won’t change your life. You won’t even be able to take the next test, which would be knowing how to beat the drum.
The only way you are free is if you enter into that state of total concentrated mind that cuts off the flow of emotional thoughts. That doesn’t mean you become a zombie. Knowing how to beat the drum means to come right to this point, here now, without any mediating thoughts—nothing between you and this state of absolute reality. Kasan is holding his head right to it. This thing here! This thing here! This thing here!
Setcho can’t resist adding a little more to it. “I announce for your information: Don’t be careless! The sweet is sweet. The bitter is bitter.” Can it be more obvious?
A talk given at the Hazy Moon Zen Center on July 7, 2005.