Wednesday Zen with David Weinstein

A student asked Qinglin, “When a student goes along the path, what about that?”
Qinglin said, “There’s a poisonous snake on the path. I advise the student not to run into it.”
“What about when the student runs into it?”
“She must mourn her life.”
“What about when she doesn’t run into it?”
“But there is no way to avoid it.”
“Then how about at that moment?”
“It completely disappeared.”
“I wonder where it went.”
“The grass is so deep that we can’t find it anywhere.”
“You too should protect yourself against it.”
Qinglin rubbed his palms together and said, “Both you and I are poisonous snakes.”

—Book of Serenity Case 59

I have been enjoying the various ways this koan has been translated regarding the word “snake.” The title of this piece sums it up. There are two characters in question: one means “dead” or “death,” and the other means “snake.” In a number of places, the title is translated as “Dead Snake;” in others, it is translated as “Snake of Death” or “Death Snake.”

The word “poisonous” does not appear; it is an interpretation by the translator. I imagine the thinking was something along the lines of, “If it is a snake of death, it must be poisonous.” While my mind played around with these words, their various permutations and combinations, I noticed some questions arising:

What is this in my life? 
Have I run into a snake on my path?
Had I ever been bitten and died?

What came to mind was my first meeting with Yamada Roshi. I went in prepared to die when I told him that I did not practice with koans. Instead, the one who thought he was going to die died.

It was an act of kindness that was the coup de grace: not something harsh, but no less surprising than getting struck or yelled at. It was Yamada listening to me tell him that I did not practice with koans, a practice that he was a master of, and his responding by encouraging me to follow my own path to awakening. At that moment, the one who felt alone, unseen, and misunderstood “completely disappeared” and didn’t go anywhere at all.

This brought up the way the “Dead Snake” translation struck me. As I go along the path, I not infrequently run into dead snakes. The snakes, that when they were alive, had hindered my progress. I couldn’t figure out how to get past them. Now, they are still here, like the one who felt unseen and misunderstood, but they’re not alive. All I have to do step over them. Admittedly, sometimes I step on them and they’re slippery and sometimes I fall.

More to come …

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