Who am I? What should I do?

BuddhismcompassionkoanTorontoWho am I? What Should I do?Zen

Tonight we’re going to mull over this koan: “What is the core of Buddhism?” a student asks. Qinguan (the teacher) replies, “What is the price of rice in Luling?” If this koan were laid out today it might say: “What is the meaning of your life?” “What is the price of the Keystone XL pipeline?”


In Zen training koans are used to intensify one’s experience. Once you’ve achieved some calmness and stability in practice (shamata), the student is often given a question to work on that is designed not to make them squirm but to drop the bottom out of their thinking. Koans date back to tenth century China, they’re a stylized form of storytelling. I’m going against the orthodoxy here, but I feel there is no single way to answer each koan. You breath the question, you wrestle with loose conversations, old grief, habitual ways of thinking, old arguments used against the self. And like iron filings to a magnet, the koans will eventually attract the place where you are stuck and drag them into your heart. The way you are hiding from an old pain.

Roshi John Tarrant “Over and over again, Zen is not about having the answer but about moving in the darkness of what is unknown and uncertain and trusting both your moves and the darkness that opens as you enter it.”

**Koan School**

Last week June asked me: Is there a traditional form of koans? Yes, they run in series, like a curriculum in school. You can do one series after another, in this order:
The Gateless Gate (48 koans).
The Blue Cliff Record (100 koans).
The Book of Equanimity (100 koans).
Transmission of the Light (enlightenment from the Buddha to Dogen) (53 koans)
Five Ranks of Master Tozan (50 koans)
Then finally there are 100 koans that test your understanding of ethics, the sixteen bodhisattva precepts.

When you hear a koan, at first you could memorize it. Then, you could reflect: what part of the koan is the most important? Is it the question or the punch line? The koans are stories about our life. Koans are stories that want to be told. Not unlike the stories we tell in therapy. They don’t always come through your vocal chords. They emerge in your body, they arise in silence, they occur when you look at someone you love or someone you hate. We live and breathe stories. The koans break up those stories so new ones can come to light.

Let’s start at the beginning. At the beginning there was a wound. The wound appeared as a question. To me there are only 2 questions: What am I? and What should I do? Koans are stories designed to interrupt your traditional stories. Our practice allows us to generate more creative stories, so we don’t have to get stuck in the old grooves, the old ways of saying no. Our most repetitive stories often come from some kind of wound. When we are young we have so many questions, could these be boiled down to these two essential questions: Who am I? What should I do? Or: What am I supposed to do?

Often when we have a question an adult arrives and answers it and that shuts the question down. In koan practice the hope is to drive the question deeper. When the student asks a question in the koan, the teacher doesn’t provide an answer, but another question, which (hopefully) deepens and complicates the initial query. We need to honour questions. You should never answer a question that has power in it. A real question deserves a response that drives the question deeper.

What am I? What should I do? Those two questions are not separate. This practice is about waking up. Every morning we wake up to these two questions. And every morning we wake up to a broken world. This is our koan. Who are we? What should we do? What we do comes from our nature. Who are you really and what are you supposed to be doing? It’s not just personal. What is it to be a human being? What is right action? What’s the best thing to do?

People fascinated with religious life might get caught up in the question: Who am I? While extroverts might ask: What should I do? I think you can’t separate the two questions. Who you are and what you do are the same – and when you understand this, then your whole life becomes a koan. And the koan invites you to realize this every day.

There is a verse before the koan. It goes like this:
Though you cut off your flesh for your parents, like Siddhartha did, you won’t be written up in the books on filial piety. Though you tried to crush the Buddha with a boulder, like jealous Devadatta did when he started a landslide, you won’t be struck by lightning. Having walked through the sharp bramble thickets, and then through a forest of fragrant flowers, you will still come to the end of the year. As of old, spring begins with cold. Where is the body of the Buddha?


The verse says: you learn something by suffering consequences. The remorse you feel after trying to crush the Buddha, or your own Buddha nature, is a great practice. The verse says: do good actions like the Buddha, but don’t hold onto them. Show up for your parents at dinner time, bring them blankets if they’re cold, or show up to dinner with the elderly relative who is losing his mind. When someone is dying we can give and give and give and after they die you don’t get written up in the books. How do you give your life to your aging parents without holding onto that?


In spiritual communities there can sometimes be pathological altruism – trying to be a perfect caregiver one can lose the sense of a self that is giving. Scientists have come up with a term called “compassion fatigue” but I think it would be better named “empathy fatigue.” In compassion we’re not just responding, we’re mobilized, the situation includes us. Empathy becomes compassion when it enters your body and you take action. Tania Singer is a social neuroscientist, she noticed how *the body’s visceral experience of itself (heart rate, breathing) primes us to become more empathetic*. They monitored people who can’t access internal states, and noticed a decrease in empathy. If I’m cut off from myself, I’m cut off from you. The step from empathy to compassion means including yourself, otherwise you get the doormat syndrome: I give and give and then people walk all over me.

Gary Pasternack is a doctor with a practice who works in palliative care with cancer patients: “I’m up late admitting patients to the inpatient hospice unit. Just when I think I’m too old for these late nights without sleep, a person in all their rawness, vulnerability and pain lays before me and as my hands explore the deep wounds in her chest and my ears open to her words, my heart cracks open once again . and this night a sweet 36-year-old woman with her wildly catastrophic breast cancer speaks of her acceptance and her hope for her children, and she speaks with such authenticity and authority. And her acceptance comes to me as the deepest humility a person can experience and then again, once again, I remember why I stay up these late nights and put myself in the company of the dying.”

Dalai Lama: “In Tibet we say that many illness can be cured by the one medicine of love and compassion. These qualities are the ultimate source of human happiness, and need for them lies at the very core of our being. Unfortunately, love and compassion have been omitted from too many spheres of social interaction for too long. Usually confined to family and home, their practice in public life is considered impractical, even naive. This is tragic. In my view point, the practice of compassion is not just a symptom of unrealistic idealism but the most effective way to pursue the best interest of others as well as our own. The more we – as a nation, a group or as individuals – depend upon others, the more it is in our own best interests to ensure their well-being.”


When we’re in touch with who we are, we’re also in touch with what to do. This gives us hope, and with hope we can create a new story. Hope is not optimism (the toxic belief that everything will be fine), in hope we can be surprised, tell a new story in a new way. My psych mentor James Hillman put it this way: You’re looking for the moment when the patient gets tired of their story and wants to tell it in another way. Hope and despair are contagious. But despair is a dead end, it makes no demands on people, it’s easy when you have comfort. Despair is predicated on certainty. But hope demands everything. Hope is radical. Hope means: being able to tell a more radical story than the culture offers. The word “radical” is from the same root word as “radish,” it means going underground to discover new stories opposed to a culture of distraction.

Rebecca Solnit writes: “The North American tradition seems to focus its activity on the exposé, the telling of the grim underside of what we know: the food is poison, the system is corrupt, the leaders are lying, the war is failing. There is a place for this, but you cannot base a revolution on the bad things the status quo forgot to mention. You need to tell the stories they are not telling, to learn to see where they are blind, to look at how the great changes of the world come from the shadows and the margins, not center stage, to see where we’re winning and that we can win something that matters, if not everything all the time.”