Wuzu asked, “The woman Qian and her spirit separated. Which is the true Qian?”
–Gateless Gate Case 35
Perhaps it is because this koan about Qian came along to keep me company with last week’s koan about finding shelter for the homeless person, or perhaps for no good reason at all that I find myself bringing this koan to our next gathering.
The Qian story is a Chinese folktale that predates Buddhism. The full-length version appears below. It is an example of the way the then foreign tradition of Buddhism got tangled up with and changed by the native culture, a process which continues to this day as we carry it on in our own practice.
As a young man, Wuzu studied Buddhist philosophy. One day a fellow student asked their professor, “If subject and object are one, how can that fact be realized?’’ The teacher responded, “It is like drinking water and knowing personally whether it is warm or cold.” Wuzu said to himself, “I know about warm and cold but I don’t know about ‘personally.’” Wuzu spoke about this to his professor, who recommended that he seek out a Zen teacher.
Not long after arriving at a Zen temple, Wuzu heard a talk in which the teacher said, “There are those who have had awakening experiences, and when asked to speak, they give beautiful talks. If you ask them about koans, they answer clearly. If you ask them to write commentaries, they do so nicely. Yet they have not attained it.” Hearing that, Wuzu was confused and at the same time could feel the connection to his desire to “know it personally,” which he did, eventually. The Qian koan speaks to that personal knowing and its importance to Wuzu. Because of that importance, we ask ourselves, “Where is the koan in my life?”
Here’s the long story about Qian:
There lived in Hanyang a man called Zhangken, whose daughter Qian was of peerless beauty. He also had a nephew called Zhao, a very handsome boy. The children played together and were fond of each other. Once Ken had jestingly said to his nephew, “Someday I will marry you to my little daughter.” Both children remembered these words —and they believed themselves thus betrothed.
When Qian grew up, a man of rank asked for her in marriage, and her father decided to comply with the demand. Qian was greatly troubled by this decision. As for Zhao, he was so much angered
and grieved that he resolved to leave home and go to another province. The next day he got a boat ready for his journey, and after sunset, without bidding farewell to anyone, he proceeded up the
river. But in the middle of the night he was startled by a voice calling to him, “Wait! It is me!” and he saw a girl running along the bank toward his boat. It was Qian. Zhao was unspeakably delighted.
She sprang into the boat and the lovers found their way safely to a remote province upriver.
There they lived happily for six years, and they had two children. But Qian could not forget her parents and often longed to see them again. At last she said to her husband, “Because in former times I could not bear to break the promise I made you, I ran away with you and forsook my parents, while knowing I owed them all possible duty and affection. Would it not now be well to try to obtain their forgiveness?” “Do not grieve yourself further,” said Zhao. “We shall go to see them.” He ordered a boat to be prepared and a few days later returned with his wife to Hanyang.
According to the custom, the husband first went to the house of Ken, leaving Qian alone in the boat. Ken welcomed his nephew with every sign of joy and said, “How much I have been longing to see you! I was often afraid that something had happened to you.” Zhao answered respectfully, “I am distressed by the undeserved kindness of your words. It is to beg your forgiveness that I have come.” But Ken did not seem to understand. He asked, “To what matter do you refer?” “I feared” said Zhao, “That you were angry with me for having run away with Qian. I took her with me to the province of Chuh.” “What Qian was that?” asked Ken. “Your daughter Qian” answered Zhao, beginning to suspect his father-in-law of some malevolent design. “What are you talking about?” cried Ken, with every appearance of astonishment. “My daughter Qian has been sick in bed all these years, ever since the time when you went away.” “Your daughter Qian” returned Zhao, becoming angry, “has not been sick. She has been my wife for six years, and we have two children—and we have both returned to this place only to seek your pardon. Therefore, please do not mock us!”
For a moment the two looked at each other in silence. Then Ken rose, and motioning to his nephew to follow, led the way to an inner room where a sick girl was lying. And Zhao, to his utter amazement, saw the face of Qian, beautiful but strangely thin and pale. ‘‘She cannot speak,” explained the old man, “but she can understand. Ken said to her, laughingly, “Zhao tells me that you ran away with him, and that you gave him two children.” The sick girl looked at Zhao and smiled but remained silent.
“Now come with me to the river,” said the bewildered visitor to his father-in-law. “For I can assure you, in spite of what I have seen in this house, that your daughter Qian is at this moment in my boat.”
They went to the river, and there, indeed, was the young wife, waiting. And seeing her father, she bowed down before him and sought his pardon. Ken said to her, “If you are really my daughter, I have nothing but love for you. Yet though you seem to be my daughter, there is something which I cannot understand. Come with us to the house.”
So the three proceeded toward the house. As they neared it, they saw that the sick girl, who had not left her bed for years, was coming to meet them, smiling as if much delighted. The two Qians approached each other, and then—nobody could ever tell how—they suddenly melted into each other and became one body, one person, one Qian, even more beautiful than before, and showing no sign of sickness or sorrow. Ken said to Zhao, “Ever since the day of your going, my daughter was ill and like a person who had taken too much wine. Now I know that her spirit was absent.” Qian herself said, “Really, I never knew that I was at home. I saw Zhao going away in silent anger, and the same night I dreamed that I ran after his boat. But now I cannot tell which was really me, the one that went away in the boat, or the one that stayed at home.”
Which “me” are you?
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David Weinstein Roshi, Director of Rockridge Meditation Community