The Rhinoceros Fan is Broken

From the Book of Serenity, koan 25, the theme of brokenness is explored:

One day Yanguan called to his assistant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”
The assistant said, “It is broken.”
Yanguan said, “In that case, bring me the rhinoceros.”

rhinoceros dr
Often times, I cling to people, situations, ideas, dreams as if there is some point of “arrival” – a place in the future where everything I desire will coalesce and a state of ultimate and enduring happiness will be achieved.  This sort of thinking is usually characterized by a string of “if onlys” – “if only I had the right relationship”, “if only I had the right degree”, “if only I had the right job”, and so on.  At times, it seems I am single-mindedly driven towards attaining certain objectives that will, in proper combination, reveal the solution to a great puzzle that has been heretofore riddled by my ever-unending dissatisfaction.  Like Yanguan, I call for this object and I call for that object, and like the rhinoceros fan, it all appears broken.

This view, which is based in denial of the truth of impermanence, is fundamentally flawed.  Because everything and everyone is constantly changing and ever in a state of flux, it is a delusion that any fixed state of happiness comprised of fixed objects could be achieved.  From this wrong view, there is only brokenness – always something that must be fixed by being fixed.  Yet, like the broken rhinoceros fan, everything and everyone arises, stays for a while, and then passes away.  It is along the continuum of impermanence that life flows.  In my ignorance, I grasp and push – sometimes fighting against and sometimes clinging to this flow – and when I find that I cannot manipulate that which is impervious to my desires and aversions, dissatisfaction and sadness arise.  Yet my vehemence rarely falters – bring me the rhinoceros fan (or the perfect partner, or the perfect job, or perfect health)!

It is worth stating again – everything and everyone (including ideas, emotions, thoughts, my physical body, relationships, other people, and so forth) pass away.  In this seeming brokenness, however, there is a beautiful and mysterious rhythm that is pervasive.  The rising and falling, contraction and expansion, the breath of life – this is the rhythm upon which equanimity is cultivated.  This is the rhinoceros behind the broken fan in which birth and destruction unite in this very moment.  This idea was captured by the Buddha in the Heart Sutra as follows:

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
Emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness.
Whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form.

There is no brokenness, for everything is already broken.  And so, bring me the rhinoceros – that which is as it can only be in this moment; that which requires that I deeply embrace radical acceptance.  In another koan featuring Yangshan, we are admonished to practice in the Temple of Requited Blessings.  Byakuren Judith Ragir states that

[t]he temple of Requited Blessings is like finding the source, bringing the rhinoceros.  It is the temple where the essence and the form of the moment meet.  It is not in conventional reality that we find this blessing.  You must see Buddha-nature in each and every moment of your life.

Thus, true serenity may ultimately be found in the integration of the views of form and emptiness in our response to life.  A Thai meditation master observed:

Do you see this glass?  I love this glass.  It holds the water admirably.  When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring.  Yet for me, this glass is already broken.  When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.

For me, the master’s teaching points to the virtue of gratitude.  Can I find in each moment a sense of appreciation notwithstanding disappointments, sadness, and loss which are inevitably experienced in this human life?  Can I, with purpose and compassion, help others find refuge who, like me, often suffer because they see their lives as broken?  These questions go to the heart of spiritual practice and to the extent that I can answer them affirmatively do I believe that I will I find abiding peace and serenity.

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