May 18, 2020
Martin Goodson

Staying on Target

The Buddha's parable of the poisoned arrow warns against being distracted when urgent action is necessary. The later Zen masters developed lightening fast ways of removing these arrows from their followers.

Samurai archer firing a kabura-ya at a target... By Unknown.


Wikimedia Public Domain

There are many stories from the Zen Buddhist tradition in which a monk asks a master a question about the teachings, only to be given short shrift or some mundane answer about the ordinary and commonplace. The following are some examples:

A monk asks Master Joshu: “Does a dog have Buddha Nature?”

Master Joshu replies: “Mu!” (Mu implies a negative in Japanese.)

(When a different monk asks the same question at another time, Joshu replies in the affirmative.)

A monk asks a Zen master: “What is the Way?”

The master points to a road on the other side of a hedge.

“No, I mean the Great Way.”

“Oh, that leads to the capital,” the master replies.

In both these stories, the monks ask serious questions about the teachings. In the Mahaparinirvana sutra, a Mahayana scripture, it is written that the Buddha declared upon his awakening that all beings inherently have Buddha Nature. The monk is simply enquiring along those lines, asking whether or not this means that even a dog might have Buddha Nature. Joshu’s reply seems to contradict the Buddha’s own words.

In the second story, the monk asks about the “Way”. The Way, or the Dao, as it is known in Chinese, has several meanings and functions, rather like the word dharma. It can refer to questions about the teachings, or about how to live one’s life, and also speaks to the inherent harmony and interrelatedness of all beings. This is staple fare for Mahayana philosophy – so, again, why does the Zen master trivialise the question by deliberately misunderstanding the term “Way” as referring to the road behind the hedge?

In order to ask a question, we must, necessarily, take a point of view. The question reveals our expectations and assumptions about the matter at hand. We can assume that Master Joshu knows this monk, and that, presumably, the monk is prone to endless speculation about the teachings. He might also know that this monk uses such questions to entertain himself, rather than getting on with the task at hand. He might also be in the habit of using such questions to avoid feeling bored – after all, a monk’s life can be a bit of a grind, day to day. The master knows that every time the monk is given an answer to one of his questions, he returns shortly thereafter with another one. More and more questions arise, like the Hydra of Greek mythology. On this occasion, then, Master Joshu simply implies that the matter is not at all straightforward, and may be considered negative.

Now, the monk would know that Joshu cannot tell a lie – doing so would break the rules of right conduct – and yet, with his reply, the master appears to contradict the Buddha. The monk is now faced with a real problem! This doubt might work its way into him, and become all-consuming. We read of such doubt in Zen tales. It becomes an obsession, like a boil that grows until it bursts, releasing all the toxins in one go; having done so, the wound can heal cleanly.

In the second case, the monk tries to engage the Zen master on a philosophical level. He asks about the Way. Yet he is a human being who was born, grew into an adult and became ordained as a monk. He is living his life anyway: he is on the Way already. The root of this Way concerns this very life, but he asks his question as if this Way is somewhere else!

Thus the master deliberately interprets the question in the most banal sense possible. How easy it would be to say something such as: “The Way lies under your feet.” Such a reply, however, would likely provoke another endless torrent of questions, so the master cuts off this line of thinking altogether and refuses to engage, leaving the monk with his question. At this point, one of two things are likely to happen. The monk might fail to renounce his question, and seek out another master; or he might doubt his question, and himself. If the latter, he would have a greater chance of awakening.

The Buddha took up this point in a parable. He tells a story of a man pierced by a poisoned arrow. The man’s companions rush to his aid, preparing to remove the arrow to stop the poison leaching into him. But he stops them, saying that before they can remove the arrow, he wants to know: who shot it? Which tribe does the attacker come from? What kind of wood is the arrow made of? To which kind of bird do the feathers used for the fletching belong? What are the ingredients of the poison, and what is the procedure for mixing them? On and on he goes, in an endless stream. The Buddha remarks that the man will be long dead before these answers can be given, if they can be given at all. In the first instance, the most important thing is to remove the arrow; then, if the man is still curious, he can seek the answers at his leisure.

From the Buddha’s perspective, we suffer from delusion. How we see ourselves and the world in which we live is not quite right. We can come up with all sorts of questions about the Buddha’s teachings, but they were originally spoken from a state of enlightenment. It is true that the Buddha asked us to not take his word for the Truth; he also expected us to doubt our own views and opinions as well. It is this latter point that we tend to neglect, however.

We can make working assumptions, of course, but we must always leave room for wider inclusion as the training begins to clear the view. In this way, we discover what is true for ourselves. Truth arises as a consequence of our training. This approach is considered absolutely necessary, as opposed to one that attempts to satisfy the hungry Hydra of a thousand questions.

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