Our deep conditioning is constantly telling us to look outside of ourselves for everything that we sense we lack. The solutions to our problems, the answers to our questions, the wisdom we hunger for, the compassion we feel we lack; it’s all out there, outside ourselves. When we enter into Zen practice we begin to sit zazen and follow the breath. Although our breath is clearly inside of ourselves, it can feel very distant. Our emotions—the anger we feel arising—we perceive as not really ours, it’s being caused by someone else, it’s something that’s happening to us. As we chant the sutras, we give voice to words that express the truth about the self, about reality, yet they are someone else’s words. We go to meet face-to-face with the teacher and want him or her to give us what we need, or take away what is binding us. And all the while, every teaching, every practice is pointing relentlessly back to our own body and mind with the challenge to let go of all that creates the illusion of separation and experience true intimacy. To do this, we must let go of everything. When everything drops away, the whole universe—one unified body—is revealed as the true body.

“Isn’t that the poem of Zhangzhuo?” The monastic says, “Yes, it is.” “You’ve missed it!

In the commentary, Wumen says:

If you can grasp how lofty and unapproachable Yunmen’s Zen working is, and why the monastic missed it, then you can be a teacher in heaven and on earth. In case you are not yet clear about it, you will be unable to save yourself.

To see how the monastic missed it one has to be heaven and earth itself. This can only happen when there’s nothing creating the illusory sense of separation. If one doesn’t see it, then one is still trapped in the self-created sense of “me.”

When working on this koan, a student must present something for the monastic who missed it. What would you say in response to Yunmen’s “You missed it!”? When we know, as Zhangzhuo says in his poem, that Ignorant, wise, and living creatures are all in my abode, then we are no longer seduced into looking outside of ourselves. We see that this great body of reality contains the whole universe, nothing is hidden. Thus, When no thought arises, the whole is fully revealed. The seeking mind is a wondering and wandering mind. It’s looking for an answer, for an explanation, for someone to provide us with what we obviously don’t possess ourselves. This places us in great jeopardy, because it makes us dependent upon—and potential victims of—others who may be lost in their own delusion.

What does it mean to make this practice, this dharma, life itself, our own? Zhangzhuo says, Living in accordance with worldly affairs, you will have no obstructions. Making this practice one’s own doesn’t mean throwing away the profound wisdom tradition that is Buddhism, and creating something new. We have the notion that we need to create what’s never been created, do what’s never been done, go where no one has ever gone. The real journey is inward, this is the frontier into which very few have the courage to travel deeply. It is here that we truly understand what it means to make it our own. Once we’ve made it our own, then we can see more clearly what’s helpful and not helpful, how to provide what is helpful to others rather than create more bondage. But we have to know this from within. Living in accordance with worldly affairs, we are in accord with the universe. How? By being in accord with ourselves. If we don’t have peace at home, there’ll be no peace outside. They’re not different.

“Isn’t that the poem of Zhangzhuo?” Yunmen says. “Yes it is.” “You’ve missed it!” All the teachings, all the practices that we engage in are all directed back to ourselves, to the self. To practice at all is to reveal that self. It’s like the moment when you’re chanting the “Heart Sutra” as you’ve done hundreds, thousands of times, and suddenly you realize what you thought were the Buddha’s words are really your words.