Practice at a Distance

Practicing at a Distance: Nan Ch’uan Draws a Circle


A Dharma Talk by Roshi Enkyo O’Hara: June 3, 2004

A Zen master said:
Just set foot on the road of Zen and you will find there is nothing difficult. Indeed, you don’t even have to set foot on it, because it is right under your feet wherever you are!

From this perspective, we are never distant, never separate from our practice. It is a curious thing, this idea of distance. There is a man who lives next door to the Zendo who, because of his work, finds it difficult to have time to practice here. In his case, time is a kind of distance. Usually, of course, we think about being at a physical distance, of having to travel far in order to practice with the community. Some sangha members are only able to join us physically for one retreat a year.

It is a real question: How do you preserve a sense of intimacy with your sangha, the teachings and your teacher? How do you partake of the support that the sangha offers you and that you give back to the sangha, thus strengthening your own practice?

When I sat at home, I used to try to sit at the same time that the sangha was sitting. I wasn’t able, of course, to sit zazen as much as one does in sesshin. But I would try and sit a little bit of the schedule. So even to find an extra 15 minutes here and there during intensive periods, to sit “virtually” with the community. At first I would sit in casual clothes, but at a certain point, it would feel better to put on my robe again, as a kind of being in community at a distance.

Those were the very simple ways that I was able to sense that common thread between me and my “distant” community. But there’s another way to look at this question of distance. It is embedded in the koan “Nan Ch’uan Draws a Circle.”

In the pointer, we are told that when we are able to free ourselves, we are like “a snowflake in a red hot furnace.” What would it be like to not get caught in any view, to not be at a distance from our own hearts in the moment of irritation or boredom, to be as free to change as a snowflake in a furnace: psst! Instead of clinging, “No, no, no! I don’t want to change.” Psst!

There’s wonder in that. There’s freedom in that! Not fixed. The minute you say it, it’s changed. Observe the shifting and changing in the case:

Nan Ch’uan, Kuei Tsung and Ma Ku went together to pay respects to National Teacher Chung.

When they got halfway there, Nan Ch’uan drew a circle on the ground, and said, “If you can speak, then let’s go on.”

Kuei Tsung sat down inside the circle; Ma Ku curtseyed.

Nan Ch’uan said, “Then, let’s not go on.”

Kuei Tsung said, “What is going on in your mind?”

Just imagine, these three venerable teachers, dharma brothers—rather loose and quirky guys, probably rumpled and dirty—off on a ramble together to pay respects to National Teacher Ch’uan. This National Teacher is said to be the person who originated the use of the circle as a sign of the Way.

Walking along, suddenly Nan Ch’uan draws a circle on the ground, and he says, “If you can speak, then let’s go on.”

This “if you can speak”—a phrase you may have heard before in other koans—means “say a word of Zen,” express something appropriate. Our lives are filled with phony words, imprecise, false and misleading expressions: “Yes, I know how you feel,” “He’s bad news,” “That’s just my karma,” “I’m fine!” Or worse yet, “All is one,” “Just say no,” and “Just this is it!” How difficult it is to express the truth! Here, Nan Ch’uan challenges his dharma brothers: If you can express it, then we’ll go on; if you cannot, then we’ll go back.

Immediately Kuei Tsung sits down inside the circle! How dramatic! He didn’t say, “The circle is a sign of the Way; there is no outside.” He just sat down. A lively Zen expression often uses no words, but demonstrates the truth of the moment. How can Ma Ku respond to such immediate, physical expression? Ma Ku does a little curtsy—not an elaborate bow that would stink to the heavens, but a curtsy. He acknowledges, and does so in a silly, non-traditional manner.

But then Nan Ch’uan says, “Let’s not go on.” Does he mean that they’ve failed? Hadn’t he said that if they could express, then they would proceed? Who can argue with the brilliance of sitting in the middle of the circle, and of the spontaneous, humorous acknowledgment? Not arguing, but definitely springing in another direction, Nan Ch’uan shatters the “meaning” we are building up with this key line: “Let’s not go on.”

If we can see this, we can see why we are never practicing at a distance. Ultimately, where is there to go? In a circle can one “go on” or “go back”? Isn’t it all right here? Yuan-wu commented, “One hundred rivers flow separately, but alike return to the great sea. That’s why Nan Ch’uan said, ‘Then, let’s not go.’”

Kuei Tsung, who sat in the circle, responds immediately, “What’s going on in your mind?” This, too, is a really important question. What are you thinking? What is all this about coming and going? Hseuh Tou, commenting on this line, said, “At that time he should have given him a slap.” A slap certainly brings us back to this moment, to this place, obliterating distance.

Nan Ch’uan used to say, “Call it thusness and already it’s changed.” Many social and physical science theories teach us the same: observe it and you change it. Our meditation practice teaches us this, too. It’s like that snowflake in a furnace [snaps]: “This is my life.” Oh, already it’s changed.

Here’s what Yuan-wu says about that: “These three old fellows are on different roads, but they return to the same place. They are exceedingly direct. If you know where they’re going then you’re free in all directions without leaving your heart.” Seeing distance as the act of leaving your heart, we must protect ourselves from leaving our hearts. How? Let us notice when we go to the refrigerator when we are anxious, to the computer when we could sit zazen. When we chatter instead of being quiet together; when we watch TV or read the newspaper in order to distract ourselves from ourselves. This is creating distance from our heart.

Look under your feet. Don’t create distance. Right here is where we practice; always, so close.

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