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Dharma Talks : The Kwan Um School of Zen and Providence Zen Center

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Four Walls of the Cage - Anecdotes for our practice  

Excerpted from a Dharma Talk at Providence Zen Center on December 9, 1989.

In the Kwan Urn School of Zen we teach that the four walls that lock us in our cages are wanting mind, attaching mind, checking mind, and holding mind.


There is a man in Los Angeles, Michael Josephson, who has established a training institute in ethics for lawyers and business men. He tells a wonderful story illustrating wanting mind.

Two yuppies go out with their backpacks into the Santa Barbara mountains on a hike. They come around a bend and find a mountain lion sitting on a ledge staring down intently and hungrily at them. They stand terrified for a moment, then one yuppie slowly starts taking off his pack. The other one says "What are you doing? You can't possibly outrun this mountain lion." The first yuppie looks at him and says, "I don't have to outrun the lion. I just have to outrun you!"

This is the mind of selfishness, the mind that says, "I want!"


Another wall of this cage is attaching mind. As a boy I used to listen to the Jack Benny radio program and I remember a routine that is a good metaphor for this mind. Sheldon Leonard, the great character actor, did a routine with Benny that began with the sound of footsteps going

down a dark alley. 'Men Leonard would say in his best gangster voice, "Your money or your life!" There would be a dead silence. And then he'd say again, "Your money or your life!" And Jack Benny would finally reply, "I know ... I'm thinking, I'm thinking."

That is attachment mind. We seem to come into this world with predispositions, already programmed for wealth, fame, sexual conquests, or whatever.


Yet another side of the cage is checking mind, and I know this mind well as a university professor. Zen Master Seung Sahn has hit me many times about this mind!

One of our students in Seattle told me a wonderful story illustrating checking mind. An American went to Japan to train in Zen after sitting in America. He did hard training for a long time, and received transmission from his Rinzai master. But he happened to be the only American in the temple among many Japanese monks. As fate would have it, a short time after giving him transmission the Zen Master got quite ill. The temple was starting a lengthy training period, so the American had to assume leadership.

During the training period the monks were not supposed to eat anything in the evening. But this American teacher was concerned about his energy, so every night he went into his room and ate just a little bit to keep his energy up, so he could give clear interviews the next day. One night he was eating some M&Ms when the door crashed open, and there stood the head Dharma teacher looking quite fierce. "What are you doing? What's that you're eating?"

The American said, "These are enlightenment pills."

A puzzled look came over the monk's face. He looked down and of course they had an "M" on them, so the monk asked, "What does this 'M" stand for?"

"Mu!!"

The monk ran out, and the next morning at interviews, everyone wanted an enlightenment pill.

That is checking mind: the mind that is bound up in constant evaluating and comparing.


And lastly, we have holding mind. A man I know in the psychology department at U.S.C. tells this anecdote to his patients when they are caught by this kind of energy.

A man and woman got married, and they seemed to get along very well until one day they argued about how to open letters. The wife said it was proper to use a knife; the husband said to use scissors. This argument escalated over the years until eventually they no longer spoke rationally to one another. One would say, "Knife!" and the other would reply, "Scissors!"

One day they went out on a boat, and the man bent over to pull up the anchor. The woman saw her chance. She got the paddle and POW! Over the side he went. He could not swim, so he started to sink. The first time he came up she yelled, "Knife!" He said, "Scissors!" and sank again. The second time, "Knife!" "Scissors!" Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle. Third time, "Knife!" "Scissors!" And she hit him over the head with the paddle. She then peered intently into the water and could barely make out his fingers making a scissor motion as he sank all the way to the bottom.

Even until death this holding mind can possess us.


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