For whom do you bathe and make yourself beautiful?
The cry of the cuckoo is calling you home;
hundreds of flowers fall, yet her voice isn’t stilled;
even deep in jumbled mountains, it’s calling clearly.
Zen koans and psychoanalysis are both paths toward freedom, and both ways lead to freedom through inquiry and dialogue. Koans and psychoanalysis are two great passions of my adult life, constantly in dialogue with one another, illuminating and endarkening each other. My path to and through the way of psychoanalysis is narrated by koans, lit by them, fed by them. I can’t tell one story without the other, so I’ll tell them together.
Koans are an ancient Zen Buddhist way of enlightenment. Students take a koan into their meditation and let it change and grow in and with them. Very often koans take the form of a dialogue between teacher and student, fellow monks or with oneself. The cliché about koans is that they are inscrutable, but actually engaging with a koan requires that you make an ally with the unpredictability of your mind and approach the koan and your life as works of art. Koans light up parts of life, relationships, and the mind that lay dormant, that are surprising, that demand doubt and inquiry and creativity. In these ways they are a lot like psychoanalysis. So I’m hoping we can play with some koans together. Please don’t be intimidated, and know that there isn’t a right answer. Just notice what grabs you about a koan, where your associations take you. It’s more like reading a poem then a riddle.
Dongshan’s koan starts off with an interesting question: “For whom do you bathe and make yourself beautiful?” For whom do you feel desire, and how do you make yourself desirable? There is a strong sense of eros here. I imagine a woman enjoying a langorous bath, dreaming of the lover she will meet later. In a sense, this is a koan about desire, what inspires it and what it inspires in us. (More. What it means to place sexuality at the center, as this koan does and as Freud did. Perhaps link to Meltzer and the aesthetic mother; Bollas and transformational object. Rituals often involved in sexuality (bath), spirituality, creativity. So this koan invites us to take up this question of desire and how we prepare for it, how we make ourselves active and receptive to it.)
The reply to this question is so evocative and beautiful. “The cry of the cuckoo is calling you home.” We are being called home by the call of the cuckoo, the red-winged blackbird, the pigeon outside the window. But what is this home we are being called to? In psychoanalysis we often think of this home as the early relationship to the mother, or even to a state of union with her. (more-Winnicott, Milner). In Zen our true home is with the vastness, shunyata. (need to explain this.) Interestingly, shunyata is often compared to a pregnant woman. (more on this—what does it mean to see our original home in these ways?)
Hundreds of flowers fall, time passes, yet her voice isn’t stilled. Whose voice are we talking about here? Her voice is suddenly much vaster than the call of the cuckoo. This is the voice that is always calling to us, always calling us home. The call of our original Mother is there, if we can hear it. And, this koan tells us, that beckoning call home is itself the source of desire. There is a kind of siren song, inspiring longing, and reminding us to return to our source. The voice can take many forms, it may be that of our child or our barista or a helicopter overhead. But when we hear the voice we are sparked. And it is so important to feel like Mother’s soothing and beckoning voice is always with us, we can always hear it and respond to it. When we bathe and make ourselves beautiful we do it for Her.
Even deep in jumbled mountains, it’s calling clearly. What are the jumbled mountains? These are the states when our logical primary process minds are not dominating. Dream states, contact with the unconscious. Our deep states of confusion, disassemblement, and other assorted weirdness and pain. Even there she is calling clearly. Even there! This is an invitation in both meditation and psychoanalysis to regress, to go backward toward this voice, or to the states of not hearing it as much as we needed to. And then being able to truly take it in now. Even deep in jumbled mountains, in the places that don’t make sense. Even there we can always look for the voice that is calling us home. We don’t need to wait until things become clear, until we are enlightened or fully analyzed. Right now, how are you engaging with your jumbled mountains?
So, this koan offers us both an invitation and an experience. The invitation is to look into the deep sources of our desire, and to listen for her call. The experience will be different for each of us. And, were we to take up this koan together, we would create something unique again, and something that would partake of a combined eros. Isn’t this what we do in psychoanalysis? We look into the deep roots of desire and its vicissitudes, we hear the voices that call to us, the old longings. And, we do it with another person, who inevitably intermingles her own desire, and who becomes a co-author of the experience.
Megan Rundel is the resident teacher at the Crimson Gate Meditation Community in Oakland, CA..