An Oak Tree - Just an Oak Tree and the Lilies and the Birds

Someone asked Zhaozhou, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the west? Zhaozhou said, “Oak tree in the garden.”

In the 60’s television show, Dragnet, Joe Friday, one of the detectives, when questioning a witness would often say, “Just the facts, m’am.” Zhaozhou sticks to the facts, exposing his own guts, pointing to the life of the one asking, the fact of Bodhidharma coming from the west. It is all there, “Oak tree in the garden” Such simplicity, everything exposed. Here, as reported by those who recorded the words of Zhaozhou, his “lips emitted light.”

First, the meeting. It is a rare thing to meet, to share love, to become intimate with life. The universe is vast and mysterious as we make our way. We begin, then, to ask questions of life: Why? What is the meaning? Looking for sign posts, something to point the way. This is the position of the student in today’s koan: What is the meaning? she asks. If I had a nickel for every time I began such a search. There is something apart from this life that I hope will fill my life with meaning, with purpose, with hope. So the student begins her search and asks one who seems to know, “What is the meaning…?” I make similar demands of life, searching, and sometimes it comes out like Camus, recalling The Myth of Syphisis, rolling that boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down again: absurd, meaningless. And sometimes I might take up belief putting all of my eggs in some kind of religious basket. Zhaozhou offers so much more than absurdist existentialism or religious belief. Zhaozhou offers to meet in the Garden. He makes that offer today. How can you meet Zhaozhou?

Using words as pointers, koans tempt us towards meaning. We want to explain or elaborate. My temptation is to make this koan something dear, something to hold onto -- something like a belief or some kind of absurdist somersault. That would be to miss the meeting, to abdicate my relationship with Zhaozhou, with life. Sometimes it helps me to consult Zhaozhou again. One time Zhaozhou was asked,

What is spiritual? A puddle of piss in the Pure Land. Can you show me? Don’t tempt me!

The oak tree, a puddle of piss. Yunmen said, “a dried shit stick.” Maybe “a pot on the stove, or, the cat sleeps on the couch.” Nothing sacred or precious. Just life as it comes. Maybe Camus was right, “No meaning.” And then there’s Zhaozhou in the garden. Wanna meet?

Once Jesus was walking along with some of his friends when a bird caught his eye: “Look at the birds,” he said. Then a flower, “Look at the flowers.” We can meet him there.





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