the still, small voice

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Many of you have encountered what contemplative literature generally calls “the still, small voice” – that sound within that guides and warns and encourages us all in our quest to live full lives. Well, here is a fun koan scenario that may represent that still, small voice in the language of our Zen tradition. This is Case 72, “Chuyu’s ‘Monkey,’” from the Shoyoroku (The Book of Equanimity).

Kyozan asked Chuyu, “What does buddha nature mean?” Chuyu said, “I will explain it for you by allegory. Suppose there is a room with six windows. Inside there is a monkey. Outside, someone shouts, ‘Monkey! Monkey!’ It immediately responds. If someone calls, ‘Monkey!’ through any of the windows, it responds just the same. It is just like that.” Kyozan said, “How about when the monkey is asleep?” Chuyu descended from his Zen seat, grasped Kyozan and said, “O monkey, monkey, there you are!”

This koan is, at first glance, pretty transparent. But let’s look a bit deeper. First of all, Kyozan’s question “What does buddha nature mean?” seems a pretty elementary inquiry for a Zen student. None of us can give a precise definition because, as has been said in many traditions and in many ways, “the God I can define can’t really be God.” So, Chuyu (whom we can assume to be the Master in this story) answers by way of an allegory. He doesn’t try to give a definition; rather, he illustrates his understanding in pictures.

He puts a monkey (it could probably have been any creature) inside a room with six windows. We can take the monkey to be our essential self – that which originates, underlies, and animates our living being. The six windows we can take to be the six senses we know as sentient beings: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and thought. The monkey is inside, and outside are the various features of the phenomenal world. (Let’s not confuse this monkey with the proverbial “monkey mind” we’re always trying to quiet. Maybe it’s a tortoise instead of a monkey. Whatever…)

So, if some person tweaks us from outside, what’s inside responds – immediately and, we hope, appropriately. Likewise, if some sight, sound, or other stimulus piques our attention, what’s inside again responds. As Kyozan says, “It is just like that.” Now, Chuyu throws a monkey wrench (so to speak) into this otherwise transparent scenario. He asks: “How about when the monkey is asleep?” This time, the Master offers an unmistakable response: He grabs him and says, “O monkey, monkey, there you are!”

So then the question becomes, “What happens to our essential nature, our true nature – to that which originates, underlies, and animates our living being –  when we are not conscious to direct our actions?” In the language of the contemplatives, what does the still, small voice say when our conscious minds are not active, are not awake? What is It being and/or doing when we are asleep? Or for that matter, when we are dead? Is it really saying anything, or is it just there as the profound stillness, the emptiness, that is our being, our Universe – interior and exterior, essential and phenomenal? This koan can lead us to experience being at many levels. It leads us, in fact, to consider the great matter that all Zen practice – all spiritual practice, really – deals with: the matter of life and death. So, I invite you to engage the existence that rests within and that responds in and to your living being. Isn’t that what it means to be awake? And isn’t that the reason for our practice?

Thank you.