A Fish Story

Kuei-shan (Isan) (771-853) woke up one morning and was still in bed when his lead disciple Yang-shan (Kyozan) came in. Kuei-shan said, “I had a dream last night. Would you interpret it for me?” Yang-shan picked up a bowl of water and a towel and handed them to Kuei-shan. Then another disciple – Hsiang-yen (Kyogen) – came in. Kuei-shan said, “I just had a dream and your Dharma brother Yang-shan interpreted it for me. Would you interpret it for me, too?” Hsiang-yen, seeing Kuei-shan already had a basin and towel, gave him a cup of tea.

This is an interesting little story. Even though in this version Kuei-shan makes no final comment on his disciples’ responses, I think it’s understood that he approves. Why does he approve? In a classical Zen framework, you could say the moral of this story is that acting in the moment is the appropriate response, rather than being snared by the teacher’s invitation to get sucked into a story. Appropriate function beats the interpretation of a dream. A man wakes up and what does he need? To wash his face and have a cup of tea. Take care of it! Great.

Kuei-shan’s asking for interpretations of his dream is also significant because it alludes to the Buddhist teaching that what we think of as our life is itself a dream: that we’re dreaming and interpreting the dream instead of actually being awake. So the Kuei-shan story is also about that dichotomy. Are you dreaming? Are you awake? You may remember the story of Zuigan who asked himself every morning, “Master, are you awake?”

It also addresses the relationship between student and teacher. In the story, both Kyozan and Kyogen stand on their own two feet. Technically speaking, literally speaking, they’re not directly meeting their teacher’s request. “Would you interpret it for me?” Apparently not. While their responses don’t literally meet the teacher’s request, they do directly meet the teacher himself. They sidestep the form of the request and meet the moment more deeply and intimately. In this sense, nearly any question from the teacher can be understood as an invitation: “Please show me your mind.” What will you do?

I think we should be careful about how we interpret this story. There’s a temptation to take it as disparagement of thinking, analysis, and interpretation. Many many Zen stories lean in this direction. Such leaning is essential because we’re often (if not mostly) dreaming and would benefit from waking up. Our practice is waking up and acting accordingly. But there’s also some temptation to demonize thinking and analysis. If thinking and analysis are our only tools, we won’t wake up. But without thinking and analysis our lives won’t work. As we wake up, we can think and interpret and analyze more clearly. So please be careful about thinking that thinking’s no good.

At the same time, Kuei-shan is fishing. He’s seeing whether and how is disciples might get caught. That’s a good thing for a teacher to do. In this case, Kuei-shan is working with two disciples who went on to become very deep teachers. Kuei-shan has to know about the depth and steadiness and readiness of their practice and understanding. Whether your teacher works with you in this way or not, on a personal practice level, it’s good to know when and where and why and how you get caught. How you are snared by interpretation of your dreaming and forget to offer a cup of tea in the moment. Each of us has his/her particular ways of getting lost in dreams and interpretations. Lost in the dream. Snagged. Hooked.

Some years ago, I used to fly fish for trout. The basic concept of fly fishing is using bait that’s constructed to look to the trout like food, but that’s not food. Thus the fly in fly fishing. You buy or tie bits of material together to resemble as closely as possible the kinds of insects the trout is used to eating, and embed a hook in the fly. In fly fishing terms, you try to match the hatch with the fly you tie.

Once your fly is set on the line, there are a couple of ways to fish. One is to cast the fly onto the surface and let it drift, waiting for a fish to rise to the bait. The other is to use a weight on the line and let the fly drift below the surface in the current like a sunken bug. This was my preferred style. You try to find a place where trout are hanging out below the surface and cast your fly so it drifts along in front of them. If the fly is sufficiently tempting, a fish will take it into its mouth for just a split second before spitting it out – it takes just a sec for the fish to recognize “Wait, this isn’t food!” In that second, if your eye and hand are keen enough, you’ll detect the motion on the line and give it a tug to set the hook while the fly is still in the fish’s mouth. Caught!

Our practice is like that. We’re like the trout. Thoughts, feelings, impulses, habits, and the like pass in front of us and some of them look very tasty. Fun tasty, sexy tasty, angry tasty, food for thought and emotion. But they have hooks inside and we get caught and pulled around and exhausted. So we learn in zazen not to swallow everything that passes in front of us. We learn which flies look like nourishment but actually contain sharp hooks. We learn by getting caught over and over and recognizing our tendencies to respond and bite. And over time, we slowly develop some wisdom. We spit it out faster. Eventually, sometimes we don’t even bite.

In fact, the trout are no different. I remember a fishing guide telling me once as I looked down from a bridge on a spot in a river where several very large trout were parked that it would be a waste of time to fish there. The trout were old and wise, savvy to the best flies and best fishermen. They just didn’t bite.

May we all live so long.