The Many Masks of Zuigan



Tesshin used his talk this week to take us through the 12th case of the Mumonkan collection of Koans.  This case is unusual in that it does not follow the normal flow of a conversation between a master and a student or between masters, but rather is between a master and himself.  Below are the case, commentary, and verse…


Every day Zuigan used to call to himself, “MASTER!  MASTER!”

and would answer “Yes?”


“Awake! Awake!” he would cry,

and “Yes! Yes!” he would answer.


“From now onwards, do not be deceived by others!” 

“No, I will not!”


Mumon’s Commentary

The master, Zuigan, sells out and buys himself. He has a lot of puppets of gods and devils that he plays with. Why is this so? With one mask he asked, and with another he answered. With another mask he said, “Awake!” and another, “Don’t be cheated by others!”

If you adhere to any one of these, you are totally mistaken. If, however, you imitate Zuigan, then all these are no other than the fox’s disguises.


The Capping Verse

Those is search of the Way do not realize the existence and true nature of the self;

This is because they recognize only the relative mind,

Which is the origin of our eternal transmigration;

Foolish people take it for the true original self.


First, a bit of background on Zuigan.  He was active in China between 830-900 CE which would put him about 40 years after Lin-chi who founded the Rinzai school.  He appears in a number of koan collections including “Records of Serenity,” “Gateless Gate / Mumonkan,” and the Shobogenzo.  


So what is going on here?  Is Zuigan crazy to be talking to himself?   He calls out “Master! Master!”  so this must mean he is the student – right?  But then he answers the call himself – so that makes him a master – right?  We see this pattern over and over in Zen koans.  Is it “A” and it is “Not A”  If you think it is A, you are mistaken and if you think it is “not A” you have missed it.  So is Zuigan a Master? – “Mu!”  is he a student “Mu!”  So who is he?  This is what we must penetrate in this koan!


Tesshin commented that people understand themselves by compiling lists of attributes.  “I am a teacher, a man, a father…..”  However is this really who you are?   The world is fluid – things are always changing.  We try to create a solid persona, but it is like building a sand castle against the rising tide.  It just does not work.  We build our persona by wearing many masks in many different situations.  You may wear the mask of “manager” at work in order to get people to complete tasks.  You may wear the face of “mother” when interacting with your children.   Down deep, when alone, however, you may ask who am I really?  – if this is your question – then this koan is for you!  


This koan is famous and loved in Zen as it is so direct in its message.  We begin to see the futility of identifying with our masks.  As we meditate on the dropping our “ego masks” we begin to get a glimpse of what real liberation looks like.  Once we realize that these masks are not real – anything is possible in life!  We can break the old habits of our false personas.  We don’t need to act the same way every time because we believe it is expected.  We can act spontaneously!  


Awake! Awake!”  Realize the truth – Zuigan calls out to himself.  Do you see it?  Do you see it?  This is the challenge of Zen.  It is the constant question we ask.  Can you see reality for what it is?  We are confronted with this question when we meditate in Zazen, when we work, when we eat.  It is always there.  Even Zuigan tests himself constantly to make sure he has not become complacent.  Has he forgotten?  Does he still understand?  Awake!  Remember reality for what it is!!


Tesshin next moved onto a very moving story which really hits at the fluidity of our personas.  The story starts out with a starving chicken walking along a lake.  A fox jumps out ready to eat the chicken.  The chicken begs the fox not to eat him, but rather to give him a bite to eat.  The fox figures, “Why not – let me fatten up the chicken and then eat him later!”  The fox proceeds to nurse the chicken back to health.  


Later the chicken is out by the lake again and the fox secretly follows in order to attack.  “Now is my big chance!” – he thinks.  Just when he is about to attack the chicken turns to him and introduces a sick duck.  “Mr. Duck, here is the kind fox I was talking about.  He helped me and he will probably help you!”  The fox thought, “Wow!  nobody ever called me kind in the past.  Well, what the heck – I can fatten both of these guys up and then have a ready supply of food for the winter.”  So the fox did just that.  


A few weeks later the chicken and the duck were walking by the lake and again the fox followed in the shadows figuring now is the time for that promised meal!  The chicken and duck came across a small and weak bunny.  The duck and chicken start going on about the kindest fox in the world.  At that moment a fearsome wolf jumps out ready to eat all three.  Suddenly at the last second the fox jumps between the three small animals and the big wolf and fights it off.  (Wow!  in all the world, that last animal one would expect to do this is a fox!!)  However, in the process the fox is mortally wounded and dies.  The chicken, bunny, and duck are grief struck and bury the fox while considering the possibility that the fox was really some sort of divine spirit.  


What is especially moving in this story is how the identity of the fox changed as people treated him differently.  This is especially relevant for all of us in today’s society.  What we are reacting to are simply people’s masks – it is not their true nature.  If we change the way we treat people, perhaps they will begin to change the way they act.  Tesshin encouraged us to keep this in mind as we deal with people in our everyday life.