The Han

by Kuden Paul Boyle

A talk given during the June, 2011, Practice Period

 

Practice at the Chapel Hill Zen Center is modeled loosely on Zen monastic forms. For example, we use various bells, clappers, and other instruments to signal that something is about to happen. We use a densho bell to signify the start of a ceremony or Dharma talk, there are clappers to signal the end of temple cleaning. One of my favorite forms is the use of the han to let people know that zazen is about to start. I love the sound of the han, particularly in the early morning. It is a sharp and definitive sound but at the same time, a warm and inviting sound. The han doesn’t just call an individual to zazen, the striking of the han gathers us to sit zazen together. The han gathers the power of the sangha. In an analogous way, practice period calls and gathers the power of the sangha as well. Dogen writes of the coming together for practice period as,

Clouds settle on the mountain,
like children with their father.

(Eihei Koroku, Leighton and Okumura, p. 183)

"Clouds" symbolizes Zen monks, and the mountain refers to the monastery. So, we are the clouds gathering around Red Cedar Mountain Zen temple. I like this image very much. In our everyday lives, we are clouds following the currents of our own lives. But, during practice period we make that special effort to gather around the mountain.

On the han, there is an inscription which reads:

Great is the matter of
Birth and death
Quickly passing, gone, gone
Awake each one, awaken
Don't waste this life

This verse, I think, offers excellent guidance regarding the attitude we should cultivate toward practice. It cuts directly to the point – we will die some day. Every one of us will die. There is no escape. Our mortality is an important backdrop which can help us frame our practice. The more we hesitate and procrastinate, the closer death comes and the less time to practice, less time to live our lives vividly. This verse can also be used to guide our attitude and effort during practice period. We can re-evaluate our priorities, and bring formal practice into focus and make it more vivid.

The han is one of the ways we mark the sitting schedule at monasteries and Zen centers. The schedule in Zen practice isn’t about rigidity, but is a way to encourage selfless practice. Tenshin Reb Anderson, a teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center, relates a story in his book, Being Upright. He talks about practicing at a monastery where the practice period was headed by a frail and elderly Japanese monk named Narasaki Ikko Roshi.. Tenshin noticed that even though they lived equal distances from the meditation hall, the elderly monk always seemed to beat the relatively youthful and spry Tenshin in getting to the zendo first. He observed that when the han started the elderly monk started directly to the meditation hall, while Tenshin observed himself enmeshed in some activity which he was unwilling to let go of. This behavior contrasted poignantly with the practice of giving himself over to the schedule of the elderly monk.

Before I started a practice period at Green Gulch Farm, I asked Sojun Roshi if he had any advice about how practice in a residential practice period. He said, "Follow the schedule completely." This turned out to be great advice. When I was a Tassajara I tried to follow the schedule wholeheartedly, noticing whenever my mind asserted a notion of "my time." Eventually, it became easier and easier to give up that notion of "my time." It turns

out that what we take as "our time" is really only an idea that we superimpose on any moment. Monastic practice is an excellent way to bring clarity to this process of dividing up the moments in a day. When we follow the schedule completely, we don’t need to bother ourselves with these conceptions. For me, there is a sense of relief at letting go of these conceptions.

Giving ourselves over to practice means, letting go of the "me" centered agenda. So, when the han begins to sound, it reminds us to let go of our conceptions of "I, me, and mine." To let go of finishing my cup of tea or coffee, or that moment of my quiet time on the back porch.

To get back to the verse on the han, I read the first part "Great is the matter of birth and death," with several levels of meaning. The phrase ‘birth and death’ can refer to samsara. Samara refers to the way we live our lives when we are living it from the standpoint of ignorance and unconscious reactivity. Our lives can look like a ball in a pinball machine bouncing off a bumper, getting hit by a paddle, bouncing off another bumper. The trajectory of the ball depends on what hit it most recently. This is an important or "great" matter because the life we live is our real life. There is no other life that’s somewhere "out there" waiting for us to live.

‘Birth and death’ can also mean our physical lives. Human beings are like snowflakes. There are and have been innumerable ones; and yet, everyone of them has been unique and non-repeatable. This is the reality of our lives. So, the important question arises, ‘How do I want to live this unique, non-repeatable life? Do I want to live just being jerked around, bouncing from one circumstance to the next? How we respond to these questions is the great matter.

At a more subtle level, ‘Birth and death’ also, I think, refers to the insight of Buddhist wisdom – which is discerning phenomena as they are. The Buddha gives this definition of wisdom:

And what, monks, is the faculty of wisdom? Here, monks, the noble disciple is wise; he possesses wisdom directed to arising and passing away, which is noble and penetrative, leading to the complete destruction of suffering. This is called the faculty of wisdom. (Samyutta Nikaya, 48:9)

The ‘arising and passing away’ refers to the arising, or birth, and passing away, or death, of dharmas, or moments of our experience. This is the reason why we practice zazen. To see reality as it is – the rising and falling of our experience – it’s impermanence and lack of self. So, the han is directing us to get to the cushion and to the direct experience of this Buddhist wisdom.

Practice period is how we create an opportunity to put all of these aspects of the ‘great matter’ into focus. But, we don’t do this by ruminating about the great matter. We do it, at least in the Soto Zen way of practice, by wholeheartedly engaging in the activity of the moment. One of the hallmarks of Soto Zen practice is that we try literally to embody our practice intention. We sit upright in zazen because that is an embodiment of Buddha’s mind. When we engage the schedule by saying ‘yes’ and just doing the current activity, moment after moment, we embody selflessness in our practice. Whether we may be conscious of our selflessness or not is irrelevant to the wholehearted engagement in the activity.

To get back to the han verse, the next line continues:

Quickly passing, gone, gone

Our human lives pass all too quickly. In the history of our planet or our solar system, 70, 80 or even 90 years is not all that long. I am noticing that the older I get, the quicker it goes. As the earth blinks an eye, my life will be gone. Our lives are fragile. It is too easy for our lives to be pinched off by accident or natural disaster. Our circumstances are fortunate. We live in a comfortable and relatively safe part of the world. We have a nice Zen Center with a good teacher and many nice sangha members around us. It could be different. If we lived in a different part of the world, like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, our temple could be blown up by a drone attack and the loss of our precious human lives may be simply dismissed by some as ‘collateral damage.’ The sharp cracking sound of the han reminds us that our precious opportunity to practice the Buddha Way will all too soon disappear.

All practice periods are like an individual human life. It is the group life of the sangha which has assembled for that practice period. Each practice period is unique and non-repeatable. Our practice periods are only a few weeks long. They are Quickly passing, gone, gone all too soon.

The last couple of lines of the han verse read,

Awake each one, awaken
Don’t waste this life

"Awake each one, awaken" means we are responsible for our own practice and awakening. "Don’t waste this life" is the final reiteration of the most important point – that our lives will end. We can either waste our lives, our unique, non-repeatable lives, or we can exert our full effort. The more effort we put into our practice during practice period the more we will receive from our practice. No one else can do it for us, and we can’t share in another person’s enlightenment experience. The han reminds us of our responsibility for our own effort. Yet, our effort is not only our own individual effort. We are practicing in sangha. So, our individual efforts create the sangha effort and the sangha effort supports our own individual effort. Dogen put this poetically when he said,

Many selves are peacefully dwelling within one self; the one body within the many bodies engages the way.
Everyone, do you want to understand this truth? We must eat rice with the mouth of the assembly; our vitality must be the strength of the assembly.
(Eihei Koroku, Leighton and Okumura, p. 481)

This reminds me of what Thich Nhat Hahn wrote about the Third Refuge, of taking refuge in Sangha. He said something to the effect, "I take refuge in Sangha and the Sangha takes refuge in me." Practice period only exists because people have signed up for it. If no one signed up for practice period, then there would be no practice period. So, when Dogen said, "our vitality must be the strength of the assembly" it could be read a couple of ways. One way, that our vitality gives strength to the sangha. Or, the other way, that our vitality (in our practice) comes from the sangha’s practice. Either way, it is true.

So please, enjoy your practice period. To give it your all is to receive your all and more. You receive your effort back amplified by the power of sangha. Thank-you.

© Copyright Kuden Paul Boyle, 2012

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