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Speaking Through Closed Lips: a Zen Guide to Dialogue – Woo-Young Tetsugen Yang

Sensei invited Sarah and I to represent StoneWater Zen Sangha at the Greater Manchester Buddhist Convention where the theme this year was Dialogue. Our session was entitled “Shut up and Speak: The Zen approach to dialogue and how it influences two Zen practitioners”.  As a novice, I would not normally comment on or discuss koans outside the dokusan room. However, this talk was aimed at the audience who practise in Buddhist traditions other than Zen – I felt koans would be well-suited to convey the Zen approach, and Keizan Sensei graciously allowed me to use the koans just for this occasion. Here is what I said:

In my experience, Zen always emphasises that the practice is not separate from everyday life. So let me tell you my own experience of a difficult dialogue in my life. As well as being a lay Zen priest, I am also a head and neck surgeon. A big part of my job is talking to patients in outpatient clinics. As the title of the first part of history taking, ‘Presenting Complaint’, suggests, not all patients are exactly thrilled to see me, and understandably so. But even among these customers, some are especially unhappy. They tell me how long they had to wait (and for all those delays, my sincere apologies on behalf of the NHS!), how their illness has been making them so miserable, how not a single doctor listens to them(!), and how terribly their lives have been disrupted. Putting aside their look of irritation and discontent, or even the occasional air of disapproval, often these patients have what I would call the ‘pressure of speech’. As a rule I never open my mouth until one full minute of the consultation has passed first so that my patients can say what they want to say without interruption, but in this kind of situation I start getting stressed, because that one minute has long passed and the clock is ticking away; I have information that I need to obtain to find out what the problem is and to decide what to do; yet the patient is concentrating on the bits of the story that do not help me do so; and worst of all he or she has no intention of giving me the chance to butt in. Often, I am inwardly twiddling my thumbs, desperately biding my time to speak. And now you must be thinking, ‘No wonder these bastards don’t ever listen to me when I go to the hospital!’ So, what to do?

Before answering that question, let me talk about koans first. As you may have heard of already, koans are enigmatic and perplexing short stories which often involve an exchange between a master and a student. It is commonly said that koans cannot be understood using logic. Depending on the lineages of Zen, they are used to a varying degree as teaching tools, where a student is asked to present his or her understanding and practice of Buddhism based on the reflection on a particular koan in interviews with Zen teachers. So that the students cannot mechanically default to simply repeating ‘impermanence, no permanent self and unsatisfactoriness… impermanence, no permanent self and unsatisfactoriness…’, there are some 1,700 koans which include all sorts of different situations to test students from all angles. Among these, I would like to talk about three cases which are relevant to our topic today.

A master asks three of his students, “With your throat, mouth, and lips shut, how will you speak?” In the typical Zen koan style, the master makes an unreasonable request. If your throat, mouth and lips are shut, indeed how on earth will you speak? Any offers, anyone?

To this the first student answers, “Sir, rather I would like to ask how you will speak!” The master replies, “I don’t refuse to speak to you, but if I did I fear that I would be bereft of descendants in the future, and my Dharma lineage will die out.” I have to admit that I put some attitude in the delivery of this story, but gosh, they sound confrontational, don’t they? The student seems to suggest, ‘Well if you are so high and mighty, you show it to me’, and the master seems to retort, ‘I could tell you, but if I do that it will confirm beyond all doubt that you are so stupid and unaccomplished that you won’t be able to succeed my lineage.’ The second student goes one step further and says, “You shut up too, master.” The master replies, “Where there is no one, I will shade my eyes with my hand and gaze out towards you.” Never mind the breath-taking rudeness of the second student, just what does the master mean in his reply? Anyway the master presses ahead with the same question, and the third student answers, “Master, do you have any way to speak or not?” The master finally declares, “I have lost my descendants.”

So, what do you think? Are these monks in this story just insufferably rude individuals to begin with? Are they just the usual run-of the-mill strange and crazy Zen monks who enjoy insulting each other? Or is there something that is actually relevant to our topic today?

As I said before, the reason why I find koans very helpful is because they invite me to see how the Buddhist practice or ‘principles’ are played out in a specific life event. It is almost like a teacher would tell you how a maths formula works in the class, and for homework you have to solve a question by applying that formula. So in that sense, I think a good starting point is trying out what it really feels like to have your throat closed instead of just imagining it. As a head and neck surgeon, I can tell you that if you push your tongue as far backward and downward as possible, you will actually feel what it is like to have your throat closed. Anybody trying? As a demonstration, it sounds like this (demonstrate). As you can see, it is not pleasant. Never mind speaking, you can’t even breathe. In fact, it reminds me of being in that clinic, with the unhappy patients, desperately waiting for my turn to speak (demonstrate).And I think this is where the wisdom of the first student shines through. Rather than being desperate to speak whatever his agenda is and only his agenda, he asks instead, and this time I think with an interest and kindness rather than being plain rude, “What would YOU like to say?”

The second student then tells us what truly lets us ask that question with sincerity. His recommendation is for us to shut up. I don’t know if everyone at this convention meditates as a part of their practice, but my understanding is that, in any Buddhist tradition, meditation has an element of slowing down and concentrating the mind so that it becomes calm, quiet and silent. In fact, the practice of ‘just sitting’ meditation in our Japanese Zen lineage was originally called ‘silent illumination’ in China. Having taken the advice of his student, the master also tells us what a true silence really means. Instead of silence for the sake of silence, where one might say, “I am busy being holy with my awesome silence. I don’t want to communicate with you. You can talk to my hand” (hold up the hand), the master says, “I will look towards you”. So this silence allows the space for other things to come in, instead of literally being full of yourself. In this spirit, the Chinese Chan ancestors said when illumination is absent, the practice becomes wasted, and when silence is absent, discursive thoughts intrude. I think this non-static, dynamic silence is what allows me to ask, “what would you like to say?”, and this is what I practise when I sit in silence – well, at least when I am not too busy daydreaming.

Finally, the third student brings us out of the lull of the silence, or the attachment to the silence by asking, “do you have any way of speaking or not?” In a strange way, this final answer reminds me of listening to myself as well as listening to others. It is often said that “Zen enquires”, and this is reflected in many of the koans. Does a dog have Buddha nature or not? What is the meaning of Master Bodhidharma coming from the west? How do you jump off a thousand-foot pole? Sometimes a student asks a master. Sometimes a master asks a student. In order to answer any question, regardless of whether it is asked by myself or someone else, I need to reflect within and listen to myself to find the answer, even if it is something that is as simple as ‘what is the date today?’ In a way, it is not unlike having a little dialogue with myself. Do you have something to say? (cup one ear) Or, looking again, is there actually nothing much that you would like to say? WHAT would you like to say? Why do you want to say that? A-ha! OK. Then how would you best say it? Or would you like to wait a little? With the silence, I can finally also hear what “I” want to say. I can understand and embrace what that “Me” really feels, instead of being swept away by impulses and habits that I am unaware of. I don’t suppress myself and only take care of others just so that I can be a ‘good Buddhist who always listens to others’. Hopefully I can find a better way to have a good dialogue with those who might disagree with me. Well, that’s the theory! By the way, if you suddenly feel, ‘hang on, you started off with you and the patient, and effectively you are left with you and the patient again, it is exactly as it was!’, then it is probably because it is exactly as it is. I hear that’s like a ‘thing’ in Buddhism? If you are thinking ‘that’s not what the scriptures say about things as they are!’, this is a joke. Well, sort of.

Like all koans, I think these three koans also point towards the general principle of the practice as well as the specific situation about communication. I could even be very pompous and call it the ‘essence of the Buddhist practice’, which would be more like the general formula rather than individual questions. Indeed, many students ask their masters in koans ‘what is the essence of Zen Buddhist practice?’ In my understanding, in many Buddhist traditions, if not in all of them, it is often said that the essence of Buddha Dharma cannot be described in words or speech. After all, we say ‘no self’ all the time, but really, what does it ACTUALLY mean? I imagine it is a little bit like describing the taste of an apple to someone who has never tasted an apple. So how would you say what cannot be said? I think all koans point towards experiencing the Buddha Dharma yourself rather than discussing discursive theories for the sake of theories. The first student says, “Never mind what your ideas are about the Buddha Dharma. Why don’t you listen to others? Perhaps listening to their stories is just as important as fixating on your narrow understanding of what the ‘ultimate truth’ is, and that’s a good way of coming out of your self-centred way.” The second student says, “Try silence instead of speaking all the time. Maybe you will find the answer there.” The master interjects, “Don’t be stuck in static silence – it is a dynamic, living thing.” The third student says, “Well, it sounds impossible, but let’s keep asking ourselves until we find out”. But then again, in the end, any Zen teacher would tell me that my practice is not up to much if the so-called ‘essence of the Buddhist practice’ is separate from my everyday life, like the dialogues that I have with my patients.

So, on that note, let me come back to my patients. The clock keeps ticking away, the patient keeps talking, and I am getting stressed out. Do I embody all the awesome Buddhist wisdom that I talked about at length just now and skilfully execute the most beautiful consultation? Sometimes, and sometimes not. Sometimes the patients seem to appreciate my attempt to listen to them as sincerely as possible and also acknowledge that we are both under time constraints. Sometimes they won’t have any of it no matter how hard I try, and we both end up a little unhappy. But I think the take home message for me is to remember that unsuccessful consultations are also impermanent and not-self, and to keep practising when the next patient comes through the door.

Before I close, I would like to say one more thing. Mr Keith Munnings who kindly organised this convention asked us to give a brief description of what our talk was about in addition to the title in a few words. After some thoughts, I sent a reply – “The Zen approach to dialogue and how it influences two Zen practitioners” – but I was not comfortable with that, because the phrase ‘the Zen approach’ in itself felt like an oxymoron. While I hope that I managed to convey the ‘Zen spirit’ of practice, I would like to emphasise that these three koans do not represent ‘THE definitive approach to dialogue for the entire Zen tradition’. Even when faced with a general question such as ‘what is the essence of Buddhism’, masters and students alike recorded in koans do not bring out what’s written in the scripture to support their understanding, but rather directly show how it is borne out in their very lives and therefore come up with an answer that is unique to them. Ultimately, I believe we all need to answer the question in our own ways, because a koan is not something to theorise about but to actually DO ourselves. After all, the answer to “how do you speak when your throat, mouth and lips are shut” might be ‘well then unblock them!’ to some of you, and the next question would be ‘oh, ok – then how do you unblock them? Show me!’ or ‘were they really blocked to begin with?’ Even when I feel that I have reached the answer, tomorrow my life might be different and I may need to ask the question all over again. And just like that, the practice continues.