A monk asked, “What is liberation?”
Shitou said, “Who has bound you?”
Another monk asked, “What is the Pure Land?”
Shitou said, “Who has polluted you?”
Another monk asked, “What is nirvana?”
Shitou said, “Who has given you birth and death?”
As we’ve been spending time with Shitou this week and last, I’ve been struck by a couple of things. First, the way he sounds Jewish to me. Asking all those questions, “What makes you think you have lost it?”; “Why are you asking me?”; and then all these questions about “Who has … ?”—I can hear him speaking with a Yiddish accent, saying, “Nu, who’s bound you?” I was raised Jewish and have wondered if that is connected to the way my mind generates so many questions. My parents told me that my first words were “wat dat?”
The Jewish tradition has been about asking questions from the beginning. Abraham asking God questions about his desire to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah as he attempted to persuade God not to do it. I can feel a resonance with the Chan spirit of inquiry and questioning of koan practice. I also like the idea of being able to argue with God. In the Jewish tradition some of the highest praise you can receive is to hear someone say to you, “That’s a good question.”
The second thing I was struck by was the way I found Shitou sounding like Socrates—that Socratic method of asking questions in response to questions, as a way of directing the questioner back to themselves for the answer. The method of answering questions with questions, in order to let the questioner realize that they can find the answer that was in them all along is called maieutics. It comes from the Greek word that means “to give birth.”
Again, I’m reminded of koan practice. Appreciating that Socrates was practicing his questioning inquiry style of teaching a thousand years before Shitou. Awakening has no time or country.
What does this conversation with Shitou stir up for you? What resonates in your life?
Go ahead, you can’t be wrong.