The monk Jinhua Juzhi lived in a remote hermitage and begged for his food among the villagers. One rainy night a nun named Shiji came to his hut. She walked right in without knocking and she did not take off her sedge rain hat. She circled around his meditation seat three times, holding up her traveling staff.
“Give me one word,” she said, “and I’ll take off my hat.”
Juzhi said nothing.
She circled around him three more times, and asked the same question, but he had nothing to say. And again, she circled around him, asked her question, and he said nothing.
As she went to the door, he said, “Wait! It’s late. Why don’t you stay here for the night?”
Shiji said, “If you say the appropriate word, I’ll stay.”
Again, Juzhi was speechless.
The nun walked out.
Juzhi sighed and said, “Although I inhabit the body of a man, I lack a man’s spirit.” He resolved to leave his hermitage in search of understanding.
After the 2016 presidential election in the United States I found a lot of people who were stunned, upset, and even traumatized. My own reaction was of dismay, and it took a few days before my feelings of shock and horror subsided enough to think about what it meant and how to react. It’s taken even longer for me to speak and respond publicly.
After much reflection and reading, I came to Juzhi’s experience. I’m not sure which koan collection this one appears in. My sources are Robert Aitken’s The Gateless Barrier and Florence Caplow and Susman Moon, The Hidden Lamp.
The name of the nun, Shiji, I’m told can be translated as “True World”, or, colloquially, reality.
So we are poor Juzhi, going about our business in a way that, if not comfortable, is familiar and, we think, safe. Until one day Shiji, reality, comes in and rudely interrupts our reverie and insists we pay attention to her. But we are paralyzed, the proverbial deer in the headlights. We can’t say anything, we can’t respond. We can only sputter out a poor and perfunctory invitation. But Shiji is having none of that – she’s not a typical guest, looking for polite interaction. She’s insisting on a response from deep inside ourselves.
Juzhi, to his credit, realizes he’s utterly unable to cope with this, and set out to change his life.
We, like Juzhi, should respond with action. We may not yet know what form that action will take, or where it will lead us, but we know we can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing and expect everything to go along fine. We see that reality has thrown us for a loop, and we cannot – must not – act as if things are normal. We can’t normalize this kind of abnormality.
My sources tell me that Juzhi, before he could set off on his quest, fell asleep and had a dream telling him to wait, that a teacher would appear and provide guidance. Some of us may have that luxury – to wait for the appearance of an outside force to launch us. Will this writing be your impetus? But it’s important to note that Shiji never gave any indication of what, exactly, she was expecting. All we know is that whatever it was, it wasn’t something Juzhi was able to do in the moment.
That is how many reacted to the election – we didn’t know any more what we are supposed to do, but we do know that whatever it is, it’s not the thing we’ve been doing. As each of us feels our way to our voice, our response, we must be sensitive to all the other Juzhis going around dumbfounded and perhaps a bit upset. Note that Juzhi, even in his inability to respond, did not get angry or cross with Shiji. We must not get angry or cross with others struggling to respond to the world, but look for allies and teachers who may guide us and energize our efforts.