by Rachel Boughton
Koan: No! (Gateless Gate)
Koan: The Abbot said to an attendant, “Bring me the rhinoceros horn fan.” “It’s broken,” said the attendant. “Then bring me the rhinoceros!” (Blue Cliff Record)
Zen Koans are my favorite meditation practice. They are a way of entering into an understanding of the world that’s normally hard to reach. Koans each have their own core message to deliver, but the experience of a koan changes depending on what life is delivering at the moment. As a woman in recent times I’ve been made brilliantly, blindingly aware again of the challenges we face. My practice has needed to stretch to include all this.
Women have had a tough go of it over the last, say, three thousand years. Sometimes things are a little better, sometimes worse, some places it’s worse or better, but ours is not a world where we can reliably walk tall and proud and free. And when women are being treated badly, it’s almost certain that anyone who is culturally other: minority, disabled, queer or in some way different, is also having a difficult time.
It’s hard to know why women, so powerful and central to life on the planet, have been so systematically disenfranchised, hated, blamed, made small, regardless of who else is oppressed at any particular moment in history. It hasn’t always been this way (see my article on this) but it certainly is now. And in order to change things, to survive and thrive, to burgeon into our rightful role again and balance a torn ecology, we need a practice. Perhaps many practices. An important practice for me has been meditation and Zen koans. Meditation, which has been a nearly lifelong companion, is plain, like breathing. Koans introduce the mystery of what might be possible, just out of reach, the places I don’t even know are there.
There are two koans that have been particularly helpful and surprising to me in the regard. The first one is the mainstay of the koan tradition. The koan No. Sometimes it’s said in its Japanese form, “Mu” or the earlier Chinese, “Wu”. In its earliest form, the Chinese character we use for no meant “dance”. It’s the koan that obliterates concepts and sweeps away barriers to understanding. It shows things as they are. And it’s also a word that women and others, and supporters of equality and balance, need to have close at hand.
In meditation, the koan No clears everything away, all the dithering and the disapproving, the judgments and evaluations, the endless fuss with reality. I breathe and notice the sun on the tree, the sound of the birds. The world spreads out around me, in me. As a woman I notice the koan No also allows me to stop making excuses for the way things are and to check in with my body and my heart/mind and speak what needs to be said and do what needs to be done. It lets me breathe and it makes obstacles disappear. It means that I stop accepting and colluding with poor treatment by other people or the culture, because that’s just more fussing with reality.
To make this clear: a meditation practice doesn’t mean I don't react, it means that the separate self I’ve carried around, the one that has learned to be fearful and ashamed, may reveal itself to have no substance, and my true native force and energy will appear.
It’s a good thing to feel that strength. It’s a river, the kind that surges over rocks and is clear to the very bottom.
Another koan that has a lot of power is the one about the rhinoceros.
The director of a famous temple said,
“Bring me the rhinoceros horn fan!”
The attendant answered,
“Then bring me the rhinoceros!” said the director.
I was thinking recently about how, when I was young, I tried to attend self-defense classes for women. But I always dropped out because the scenarios presented to the class made me frightened rather than courageous. Thinking about it recently, I noticed that good self-defense isn’t just knowing how to carry my keys in my fist facing outward through my fingers while I walk down the middle of the street late at night, although that’s cool. It needs to be much bigger than that. It needs to be a matter of learning about, and feeling deserving of, a life that’s good for me. To realize that it’s crazy for me to have to be prepared for violence just because I’m a lady, among other things.
There aren’t a lot of models for how I can relate to the outside world in this way. How does it even work? How do I feel proud and free in solitude? In desire? In love?
Awakening must have something to do with it.
Some years ago I spent a lot of time with the rhino koan. “Bring me the rhinoceros!” I told myself. I repeated it in meditation and I noticed the way it gave me confidence. I had had that confidence all along, I just needed to tap it and it was right there. I called on the koan when I was fencing with a much taller male opponent. The energy to make the touch was inside my chest first, then in my arms and my foil. It taught me to be tricky, to give myself the advantage because I deserved it, or because I didn’t not deserve it. And I could feel the rhinoceros in me as I walked down city streets alone at night, when I reached for it. This rhinoceros was alert and untouchable and unafraid. Holding my ground in the world, placing my large heavy grey feet deliberately on the ground and moving forward, feeling the wondrous horn on my forehead, that’s the spiritual practice. This force is called sila in Sanskrit. Rhinoceros horn is associated with sexual potency. The metaphor is strong (and, taken literally, much to the detriment of actual endangered Rhinos).
When I drop the sense of difference between a separate me, and the “other” I can feel that rhino force already inside me. It is the inexorable force of longing to connect with the ineffable, to understand what it’s all about. It’s the same force that’s needed now, by all of us. It’s objectively true and it’s right here.
Rachel Boughton, Abbess, Flower Mountain Zen
and here are a few more voices on the subject:
No by Meghan Traynor
(excerpt from a song)
I be like nah to the ah to the no, no, no
My name is NO
My sign is NO
My number is NO
You need to let it go
You need to let it go
Men often react to women's words as if they were acts of violence; sometimes men react to women's words with violence. So we lower our voices. Women whisper. Women apologize. Women shut up. Women trivialize what we know. Women shrink. Women pull back… [my work] does not say, forgive me and love me. It does not say, I forgive you, I love you.…forgiveness and love must be subtext. No. I say no. –Andrea Dworkin Intercourse
won’t you celebrate with me by Lucille Clifton
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.