Note how often we find ourselves struggling to find the right conditions for meditation and the cultivation of a "spiritual" mind amidst the chaos of our lives. We may feel that we need stillness and isolation to practice, withdrawal from the round of daily life. But a central teaching of the Zen tradition is that anyone can awaken to intimacy with life, and nobody can start from anywhere other than where they are at the moment.
I recently re-watched After.life directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo and revisted some thoughts I had when I screened it several years ago as part of Cinema Nirvana, a film series I curated for five years. If you've not seen it, you may want to check out the trailer.
As you might expect, the common dialogue around this film has run the "Is she or isn't she" dead. Those who are firmly convinced one way or the other seem to like the film, while those who are caught with not knowing, seem to hate it!
For a dharma essay about the film, you'd expect that I'd emphasize the 'moral' of the tale -- which is stated baldly at least several times throughout the film -- that most of us live our lives as already dead. And that dharma practice is there to help us "Wake Up!"
However, when I first saw this film, the comment made by the mortician (played to creepily fine perfection by Liam Neeson) that Anna is a corpse ("no one cares about your opinions anymore") reminded me of the famous hwadu: Who carries this corpse?
Hsu Yun was a renowned Chinese Chan (Zen) master, and extremely influential. He lived from 1840 to 1959, dying at the age of 119. Here's a "poem" written by him, from which the famous hwadu comes:
Years Months Days Hours
One year and then another.
Appearances gradually change.
Bone marrow shrivels.
Eyebrows thin away.
This time-limited body is like a mound of slurry.
In the Triple World, earth, air, fire and water mingle and change.
This is all our emotions allow us to notice.
And their sight obstructs our view of Heaven.
One month and then another.
The light and dark pass like melting snow.
No part can be kept for long.
Only the Dharma does not come or go.
The lacquer bowl suddenly breaks.
You are like the Dragon of Heaven - born to be lively and free.
A roc can't live in a crane's nest.
A little jiaoliao bird needs to stay near mosquito ponds.
One day and then another.
They never wear themselves out.
Give up your judgments about everything.
It's all insubstantial in the end.
All things under the sun come to an end and dissolve.
Spend what time you have in honest simplicity.
Just one breath of the Eternal
Admits you to the Great Chamber.
One hour and then another.
Inexorably march, step by step.
Whenever I meet you, we each smile.
But who is it who drags your corpse around?
Steadfast and unchangeable.
Always mindful of this or that.
You're young and strong. Exert yourself!
Don't wait... oh please don't wait
Until you're much too old and weak.
“Who drags this corpse around?" The hwadu (Korean; hua tou: Chinese) takes us right to the essence of Chan. Generally, most folk are more familiar with the koan, an apparently irrational or paradoxical story used in Zen Buddhism as a meditation technique. The hwadu is considered the true 'turning word' from the koan. For instance: "Does a dog have buddha-nature?" asks the student of Master Joshu, who replies, "Mu!" is the complete koan. "Mu" is the hwadu.
For many, practicing with a hwadu may seem too abstruse, difficult and bizarre. The very way to approach working with one seems alien or insurmountable. I mean, counting the breaths, working with a mantra or cultivating an elaborate visualization can be challenging enough, but to struggle with "What am I?" or "What is it?" can be truly mind-boggling!
One issue is the belief that certain circumstances are necessary to practice such a demanding practice. Hsu Yun warned us about this point:
"There are cases of the enjoyable state of purity and cleanness realizable in stillness but not realizable in disturbance. For this reason many meditators avoid disturbing conditions and look for quiet places. They do not realize that they have already agreed to become servants of the demon of both stillness and disturbance."
Often, practitioners find themselves struggling to find the "right conditions" for meditation and the cultivation of a "spiritual" mind amidst the chaos of our lives. We may feel that we need stillness and isolation to practice, withdrawal from the round of daily life. But a central teaching of the Zen tradition is that anyone can awaken to intimacy with life, and nobody can start from anywhere other than where they are at the moment. As Hsu Yun emphasized, to separate conditions of "stillness" from "disturbance" in order to find the ideal condition for meditation is to have already succumbed to error.
When working with a hwadu, it is like being told to open our eyes in a totally dark room and being told to look . In working with a hwadu (or koan) we use the same mind we use to explore the world of the senses; but we turn that faculty inwards instead of outwards, as the Korean Master Chinul said, "tracing the radiance back." And truly, at first all we see may be murky darkness, but before long that darkness can become illuminated from within by a most brilliant light.
A hwadu is designed to take us beyond where our conditioned minds alone can take us. By forcing the mind to its very limits, we enter into a whole new way of perception – a more direct perception independent of the mind's more gross filtering machinery. The traditional Zen teaching is that we can go beyond all conditioning, but I believe that as neural beings, such unmediated "perception" is a fantasy. What we go beyond is the identification and attachment to social, cultural and some biological conditioning, but as all this 'going beyond' occurs in the body/brain, there is no going beyond all 'filters.' For instance, we can only see the colors and forms we see as conditioned by our optic systems, including the brain. What Zen practice can do for us is to allow us to see the colors free of conditioned association, and that's actually quite a lot!
The fact that work on the hwadu is expected to continue during times not set aside specifically for meditation provides us with the implication that this examination is not intended to be a merely rational, discursive part of the thinking process; it is rather about developing a "feeling" of doubt -- or as I prefer, questioning or inquiry -- and slowly acquiring the skill to carry it with us at all times. It is a form of cognitive skepticism. We can argue with our spouse, change soiled diapers, be mindful of doing the washing-up after dinner, showering and shaving… all while being aware of the inquiry, questioning just "who is performing this action?" There is nothing that can happen in our lives that we cannot use to give rise to this inquiring, questioning, mind. We can always ask ourselves "Who feels?," "Who thinks?", "Who is in pain?" "Who feels defensive?" "Who hears the train whistle?"
And as we practice, the easier it becomes to give rise to this feeling. When we least expect it, the breakthrough happens, revealing the perfectly clear unambiguous answer to our hwadu. When that happens a blissful flowing energy -- what the early Buddhists called nibanna-dhatu -- is felt throughout the bodymind.
The hwadu "who drags the corpse" is a sword designed for cutting through to the heart of "who". The "corpse" referred to in the question does not simply refer to the physical body. In Buddhist teachings -- common to the wider Yoga Tradition, mind is also a part of this body, a part of this corpse. As all the six senses come together on this hwadu, a curious thing happens: we "see" the who and the corpse as the same thing - the duality vanished. The sense of an individual self vanished. It's this realization of anatta (not-self) that we are led to find by this practice.
An integral aspect of the essential reality of "not-self" is realizing that our form is not a unified and permanent whole, but a collection of interacting attributes that come together and move apart; a fluid but impermanent relationship of conditions. In Buddhism, these conditions are referred to as the five skandhas -- "heaps" or "aggregates". The "corpse" that we carry is the totality of these temporarily-bonded skandhas. Think of a pile of laundry: we call it "the laundry" as if it were a unified 'thing,' when in fact it is a heap of undies, socks, shirts, etc.
The five skandhas are physical form (rūpa), which is the "meat body." Secondly, there are our feelings (vedanā), the actual felt-sense of the body, including whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Thirdly, there are our perceptions (samjñā), our tendency to notice, to label, to describe, and to perceive. Fourthly, there are our mental formations (citta-samskāras) which are more difficult to describe, but might be recognized as ideas, beliefs and emotions which are formations based on feelings and perceptions, which create attitudes and perspectives unique to us. Finally, there is consciousness itself (vijñāna). It enlivens and animates the other four skandhas.
Together, these skandhas change, interact, coalesce and create the personal sense of "I." It is this manufactured "I," identifying with the corpse, that the evasive "who" of the hwadu hides behind.
Looked at this way, the skandhas are this corpse. There is no duality between body and mind in this hwadu. The deepening examination of "who" it is that enlivens this corpse reveals a nexus of awareness that seemingly both transcends and "indwells" this body, this mind, these perceptions and feelings, this limited personal consciousness. The duality is, like all dualities, apparent: a product of our perception (one of the skandhas). This "who" is not a part of the personal self. It is not any"thing." We use the word "who" as we look within, but we know we will not find anyone. How could we? Anything found would simply be another entity, another being limited by its own point of reference, its own beginning and end. But we ask "who" in order to pierce deeper into that emptiness that is at the core of our own personal self.
Another example here: we say, "It is raining," but there is no "it" separate from raining. In a similar way, we talk of "our feelings," or "our ideas" as if there is some entity behind, beyond, below or above the changing phenomena of feelings and ideas. But such an "it" cannot be found!
Every moment of every day, and not simply in seated meditation, reality itself asks this hwadu. Who are we? Who is it that responds to each thought, each perception, each feeling? The answer cannot be any of the skandhas for we are not our bodies, ideas, perceptions, forms or changing energies. So what is this who?
As we ask "who drags this corpse" and as we look deeper into this space of unknowing, we find that as our focus deepens, our words, and the corpse, falls away. Finally we are left with just who? And what then?!
Putting aside our self-images, our hopes, fears (and aren't they just two sides of the same thing?) and memories (at least just for the purposes of pursuing the "not-knowing" necessary for working with the hwadu, ask, as full-heartedly as possible, as intimately as possible: