But Unmon asks, “Why?”
Some background: There is a Buddhist saying that whatever comes in through the gates is foreign. The gates are the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch.
As the story goes, if we move and act guided only by the senses, we are following foreign commands. If we see with our eyes only and hear with only our ears, we are living at the command of something other than who we really are—our authentic self.
Some commentators remark on this koan that to really understand our self, we need to see sound.
See sound? This is where you need to break the chains of concepts and free your mind to see what that means to you.
How can you use this koan in everyday life? The best way to put this koan to work is to use Unmon’s question as a mantra for a while. Why? Ask yourself, “why?”
Are your days lived following the ‘commands’ whispered to you by social norms? Other people’s professional or personal expectations of you? The siren call of commercialism? The need to be acknowledged or liked through habitual Facebook or Instagram posts and comments … and instant text message responses?
In response to those ‘bells’ in your environment, are you regulated to move, speak, or react without thinking? Without asking, “Why?” Do you frequently feel pressured, nervous, frustrated, or angry? Do you think it may be because you’re doing things based on foreign commands?
Maybe those foreign commands are the only ones you’ve ever heard. Maybe you haven’t looked to see the sound of what’s inside you in a long time—or ever!
Try this: Before the next thing you are about to do … or the next words you are about to say, ask yourself, “Why?” Then look inside to see the sound of the answer. YOUR answer.
I will end with Rev. Gyomay Kubose’s ending comments on this koan:
“…if one settles down firmly in one’s inner life, all actions, feeling, and deeds come from deep within. The unenlightened one does things because he MUST do them; the enlightened one acts because he wants to. Freedom lies in the center of life. Unmon points to the center.”
Overview of Koans for Everyday Life: Living Clearly, Simply, and Directly for Happiness and Success
On January 1, 2016, I began a practice for the new year: Reading, reflecting, and meditating on a Zen koan each day. I am using the book Zen Koans, by Rev. Gyomay Kubose, the father of my teacher, Rev. Koyo Kubose, and the founder of our school and center, The Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism.
A Zen koan is, in essence, a problem that can’t be solved by the intellect. In trying to understand it, you run up against the limitations of thought and, hopefully, tap into a direct and non-verbal awareness of reality. Koans plumb a dimension deeper than the five senses that keep us attached to things, conditions, and concepts—preventing us from being aware and resilient in the face of challenge and change.
We typically intellectualize and conceptualize our life—both personally and professionally. When we do that, we shackle ourselves to concepts. Concepts seem so real that our mind gets confused about whether it’s a concept or an absolute. These concepts harden like concrete, keeping our minds trapped and our forward momentum stuck.
We may classify or conceptualize certain people as “trouble” or “wrong” or “bad.” We may categorize a task or activity as “beneath us” or “too hard.” We may look to escape our job because the company our department is “behind the times.” Once that concept has repeated in our thoughts long enough, then that person IS trouble for us … the project impossible … and the company useless and of no value, even though we receive our paycheck from them.
Our minds have become victims to those perspectives and we freeze that person into a characterization, a concept, rather than a living being capable of change. And no task is beneath us, really. If a task that is a part of our job or our family life and it needs doing, then it is our responsibility to life to do it. Is a company or organization really not capable of change? Or did we make it not capable by giving up and looking to get out—essentially abandoning any help we can offer.
As part of my practice, I thought I would repackage and share a few of the koans, as brief blog posts offering a different way for you to view and respond to your professional life. Sometimes a new way of looking at things can help you solve a work problem, overcome a challenge with a co-worker, be more productive, or—if you’re a job seeker—bring a new, more positive energy to the challenge.
I was intrigued from the first moment I read the bold claim accredited to Socrates that "the unexamined life is not worth living" and it has been a touchstone throughout my life. And, through the power of hindsight, I see its influence powering many of my career choices and life activities.