May 07 Newsletter » Shuso Talk
Charles Ryoshin Kalmanek

One day Enkan called to his attendant: “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”

The attendant said: “The fan is broken.”

Enkan said: “If the fan is broken, then bring me back the rhinoceros.”

The attendant made no reply.

Shifuku drew a circle and wrote the word rhinoceros in it.

This is a delightful koan – it’s deep, but it’s also wonderfully fresh and alive. I feel fortunate to have been given a koan with a wild animal in it instead of something dry and abstract.

“One day Enkan called to his attendant: Bring me the rhinoceros fan.” I picture the fan as something of great beauty, made from rhinoceros horn, or perhaps with an image of a rhinoceros on it. Maybe Enkan was hot and wanted to fan himself, so he says: Bring me the rhinoceros fan. Or maybe he is so attached to the fan that he wants to sit and admire it. I suspect that even our Zen teachers have some last few remaining attachments, though we’ll let them speak for themselves on that topic some other time! In any case, Enkan says “Bring me my rhinoceros fan.” His attendant says: “The fan is broken.”

Perhaps the attendant knows that Enkan’s precious rhinoceros horn fan was broken. Another interpretation might be that the fan was sitting right beside Enkan, and the attendant knew that he was being tested. But I like to think of it as a situation where the attendant has to break the news that Enkan’s precious fan that he loves so much is broken. A fan made of rhinoceros horn is probably brittle and if it’s dropped, it breaks. In the first part of this koan, we’re asked to look at the fact of the broken fan. We don’t want to look at the fact that things are always breaking, always falling apart. The first part of the koan speaks to impermanence and loss, to our brokenness and the brokenness of the world.

Since my mother died last June, I’m often reminded of her, but I’ve also been reminded again of my father, who died a little over eleven years ago. My father was born in 1921. The late 20’s and 30’s saw an increase in the frequency and magnitude of polio outbreaks in the United States, and he was struck with the disease as a small child. My grandfather told stories of how my father woke up one night screaming – maybe he was 5 years old – and within a day, his right leg was twisted so that his foot was turned nearly 180 degrees around as the virus attacked his nervous system, causing "tightness in the neck, back, and hamstring muscles as paralysis set in." My grandparents didn’t have a car – they had to carry him to the doctor. Of course, to this date there is no cure for polio, so there wasn’t much that could be done. The doctor taught them to massage his leg back into a normal position. Though the severity of the symptoms subside over time, my father’s right leg was permanently deformed and smaller than his left. He walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

The fan is broken. He was not to have a “typical” childhood. As he grew up, he was a cripple, a gimp, the other kids threw things at him, he certainly wasn’t invited to join anybody’s pick up team, just as I wasn’t invited to join anybody’s pick up team. As an adult, he could be very hurt by criticism, and would wall himself off for days if one of us said something that pushed his buttons.

But when he got to high school, there were a group of girls that took him under their wing and became his friends. They brought him out of the shell that he had built to protect himself. The father that I grew up with had a huge personality, he was a storyteller, he was ornery, he loved people and loved being the center of attention. Because he taught high school in a small town, he knew almost everyone in town, and was (I like to think) universally loved.

What does this have to do with the koan?

Enkan says bring me the rhinoceros fan. Bring me happiness, bring me praise and recognition, bring me a perfect childhood (ha!), bring me some candy. The attendant says: the fan is broken. It’s all transient, it’s all falling apart, it’s all empty.

I am reminded of one of my favorite lines from the Genjokoan, in which Dogen Zenji says: “Flowers fall amid our longing and weeds spring up despite our aversion.” The Genjokoan is the koan of everyday life, our lives as koan.

No matter how much we want perfection, want things to go a certain way, weeds spring up. Our lives are not always or perhaps not often the way that we want them to be. When we sit, this is often what comes up. We see ourselves and say I’m not successful or not successful enough, I’m fighting with so-and-so at work, I’m not good enough. Or we put the blame somewhere else, that I’m not successful because my parents never encouraged me, or my officemate is inconsiderate, or my boss is a jerk. We do this all the time, we dwell on the imperfection, we get stuck in the brokenness.

How does Enkan deal with this? Enkan says, “If the fan is broken, then bring me the rhinoceros.” I want to tell one more story about my father, to give you a sense of the kind of rhinoceros he was. When Sarah and I were still living in Hoboken, my mother and father came to visit us. My father had a few drinks at the apartment before we went out to dinner. At dinner, we were waited on by a pretty girl in her 20’s. While she was standing there, waiting for our order, my father looked up at her and said: “Are your eyes bothering you?” “No,” she said, looking slightly confused. With a big grin, my father said back, “Well, they’re sure bothering me!” My mother said to the waitress, “Do you have a garbage can? ‘Cause I’d like to put him in it!”

“If the fan is broken, then bring me back the rhinoceros.” The attendant made no reply. What is Enkan getting at? Why did the attendant make no reply? There is the famous koan about the Second Patriarch and Bodhidharma. The Second Patriarch cut off his arm in order to demonstrate the sincerity of his intention to Bodhidharma. He then said “Your disciple’s mind is not yet at peace. I beg you my teacher, please give it peace.” Bodhidharma said “Bring the mind to me, and I will set it at rest.” After some time, maybe one sitting period, maybe a week of searching, searching, the Second Patriarch comes back into dokusan and says “I have searched for the mind, and it is finally unattainable.” Bodhidharma says “I have thoroughly set it at rest for you.”

Enkan demands “If the fan is broken, then bring me back the rhinoceros.” The attendant racks his brain and makes no reply. I have searched for the rhinoceros and it is finally unattainable.

This is so much like our practice: we search and search and search for the mind, trying to understand ‘what is the source of this disquiet that I feel, what is wrong with me, why is the fan so broken, why can’t I have this piece of candy to make me feel better.’ Then at some point, there is an opening, and we realize that we have everything we need. The rhinoceros is right here in front of me, and has been all along. Sometimes it’s a sleepy rhinoceros, sometimes it’s an angry rhinoceros. When we are in Samadhi, what do we realize? Just this moment, that’s it. Nothing to search for. Nothing to do. Or, as it says elsewhere, when we’re hungry, we eat; when we’re tired, we sleep. It’s so simple, once we tame the rhinoceros, once we realize the nature of our minds.

At some level, we all fear that everything that we hold dear – our loved ones, our health, our job, our place in society – could all be gone in an instant, and will ultimately be taken from us. Our egos exist to fend off this fear of annihilation, and of course, our egos and selfish desires are what trip us up so much of the time. Bring me my precious rhinoceros fan, bring me that perfect girlfriend or boyfriend, bring me that promotion, or even bring me good health and enough money to pay the rent. Not him, me. Not later, now. Sometimes everything goes ok, but… flowers fall amid our longing and weeds spring up despite our aversion. No, no, no, no, no. We don’t like hearing no.

But there is another side, which is the radical acceptance of Zen, which is yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. THIS is my life – not some idea of what would make my life perfect – just this life as it is! Crippled as a child, but nurtured by some thoughtful people somewhere along the way. Not easy, not difficult.

Anraku bringing the koan to Roshi

The last part of the koan is a little cryptic “Shifuku draws a circle and writes the word rhino in it.” The circle – Enso in Japanese – symbolizes the enlightened mind, which is beyond yes and no. Everything is included in this circle – life and death, praise and censure, every part of each of our lives, all Buddhas beyond Space and Time, the universe, vast beyond conception – it’s all included. This was illustrated by our visit to the courthouse to bear witness at arraignments earlier this week. Everything is included: the prisoner with the handcuffs on his hands, the young man in front of us with the design cut into his hair, the detached judge, the court officer bellowing “Case number 653422, I have in front of me a sworn affidavit, the people will present their case,” the mother and sleepy child whose father is waiting to be brought before the judge. Everything is included in the circle. And sitting right in the middle of the circle is the big, fat, horned rhino, which is our mind. When we say mind, it includes both our individual mind, and something that we can’t describe, which is universal mind. Because we can’t describe it, the attendant made no reply. Shifuku couldn’t say it either, so he drew a picture.

In the Book of Serenity, from which this koan is taken, there is an extended commentary, in which there’s a back and forth, almost like Dharma Combat, of different masters commenting on lines of the poem. The comments add another dimension to the koan. I’ll talk about a few of my favorite comments.

In response to the attendant’s no reply, Touzi said on his behalf, “I don’t decline to bring it out, but I’m afraid the horn on its head will be lacking.” Xuedou brought this up and said, “I want the lacking horn.”

I want the lacking horn. The horn that is broken: that’s the one that I want. To me, the lacking horn is like a beautiful old chipped tea cup, whose imperfections are what makes it so precious. Or like your best friend or the person that you love: it’s the quirks, the rough edges that are interesting. How boring we would all be if we were perfect little Zen zombies – always saying the right thing, never messing up. Speaking of the lacking horn, Wanshi Shokaku, the author of the Book of Serenity said, “this is a family heirloom.”

Shishuang said, “If I give it back to you, master, then I’ll have none.” Is enlightenment, is life, something that you can hoard and refuse to share? I don’t think so.

Xuedou said, “The rhino is still there.” Did you ever try to hide a rhinoceros? You can’t hide him under a tea cozy.

In reference to Enkan, Xuedou said, “What a pity to work so hard without accomplishing anything.” Look – this guy Enkan has a lunkhead for an attendant. He can’t present anything. Just wait a few minutes for Dharma Combat if you want to know what that’s all about. He worked all this time trying to train this guy for nothing.

But though the fan is broken “When has so much as a bit of hair been moved? Before when he didn’t bring it out, when had it ever been lacking either? And now that it’s brought out, it’s still never increased.” Tiantong praises Shifuku for being able to bring it out and use it knowingly, elevating the name and seeking out (one who knows), especially boiling some tea for him…

Do you see the rhinoceros? He is sitting right here in this room. In fact, he fills the room. He spills out of the windows, reaches to the bottom of the East River and touches the great blue sky. Treat him (or her) with kindness, and he will serve you well for all the days of your life.

Ryushin with capping verse

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