Zen koans are a kind of dream for us to experience and begin to understand. When we work with a koan, we can’t just take it up as a problem to be solved. We must live it emotionally, relationally, socially. Each koan is a marker for a type of contact with the vastness. Of course in Zen there is nothing separate from Buddha nature, it is fully present right now. But in our human lives, we lose sight of this, and we live in the dream (or nightmare) of our lives. Working with koans helps us keep our eyes open for the dream navel present in every moment.
Yunmen showed his staff to the assembly and said, “This staff has become a dragon. It has swallowed up the whole universe. The mountains, rivers and great earth, where do they come from?”
In this koan-dream, Yunmen invites us along on a breathtaking, fantastical journey into the inconceivable. He shows us the swooping movement between the three kayas. We start out in the ordinary world of form, the staff. In Zen, the presentation of the staff is often seen as a complete presentation of the dharma. This is what we call tathagata, thing-in-itselfness. Before we know what hits us, the staff becomes a dragon, a swoop into the sambhogakaya, the dream. It is a fantastical beast from the big dream, the big unconscious. And then, another swoop, the dragon swallows the whole universe. Nothing left. There is a feeling of spaciousness, emptiness, and at the same time fullness. This is the feeling of tipping into the dharmakaya, the realm of the vastness.
Then, with this mind of holding the three kayas as simultaneously existing, we face the mystery. The mountains, the rivers, the great earth, where do they come from? What is the source? Our practice is to sit in that mystery, to really look into this great matter with love and curiosity and fearlessness.
V. Dream Navel Redux
Where might we locate the dream navel of this koan? In one sense, we might find it in the action of swallowing up the universe, the movement of the dream from the dragon into the swallowed-up universe. A movement into something vast and still and beautiful.
We might notice, as would Freud, that the action here is one of swallowing. It is an image of what we would call in psychoanalytic terms, incorporation, taking something in from the outside. The dragon swallows the universe. This points to a link with the early relationship with the mother, in which we might have a lived experience of swallowing the whole universe, the feeling of completeness that could be had. Here we have a feeling that something infinitely vast can be taken in and swallowed in one gulp. Then the universe and the staff and the dragon and the swallowing all disappear. In this way the dream navel is a poignant connection to the original mother, who we can swallow and take completely in. And then, swallowing even swallows itself up, folds in on itself, and disappears.
In another way, this dream is full of navels, it is made of navels, nothing but navels. When we work with koans, we practice in the dream navel. We sit in the tidal zone, in the transitional zone of meditative space. We watch the dream, and that watching is always interpenetrated with an awareness of what Freud calls the unknown, the Great Mystery. We watch as we eat mangoes or make love or undergo an emergency dental procedure. We show up fully for the dream, for the beautiful and heartbreaking experience of being human. But we also feel an awareness of the navel, of the vastness from which the dream streams, and to which it returns.
Zen training is fundamentally about changing our identity. Many of us live primarily in the theater of the dream of the separate self. We live as though how we feel, what we want, is the most important thing. But through practice, we begin to identify with the process of transformation from staff to dragon to universe and back again. We experience how we are always rippling in this dance between materiality and the vastness. We don’t have to get stuck in a cul-de-sac of repetitive habits of mind and heart. Instead, we know that we are just the pattern of flow swirling between form, emptiness, and dream, and our task is simply to step into the dance.