This koan from the True Dharma Eye is easy to intellectualize. A child goes back to her parent seeking a time and a place of innocence, of protection, of being close to the source. But no longer being a child, we can’t go back. It’s like the mother bird who has to lure or push her young chicks out of the nest. Maybe the chicks are reluctant because they don’t know they can fly. Maybe they’re reluctant because they know very well that once they do leave the nest, they can’t come back. Those days are over. They just can’t sit and open their beak and wait for the good stuff to drop in. As they leave the nest they’re now in a different stage of life; leaving home, we cannot return. The fact is, we can never return to anything, ever. One moment arises, never to be seen again.
Years ago I had one dream that would recur over and over again. It was about a woman I’d grown up with, the first girl I really fell in love with. In the dream I was always trying to go back to that relationship, even though I had ended it. It was confusing to me because I knew I didn’t really want to go back. I wondered what it was I was trying to return to. It wasn’t that person; but rather the idea of that time in my life.
To give up all seeking of past or future, here or not here, this person or not this person, and die to the very self that seeks to return or escape; this is the great challenge of practice. We cannot be on a path unless we seek the dharma, and yet in that very seeking inevitably we turn away from ourselves.
In the koan, a child goes back to her parent. Why didn’t the parent pay attention to her? Caoshan said, “It’s quite natural just like that.” It’s quite natural that when the child returns to the parent the parent does not pay attention. The footnote to that says, “Although this is true, why does he call it ‘natural’?” The parent not paying attention has nothing to do with disregard. It has nothing to do with familiarity or strangeness. This is what Daido Roshi is pointing to in his commentary when he says, “In the middle of the night, before the moon has appeared, don’t be surprised that people meet without knowing each other. At this point the empty sky’s vanished and the iron mountain has crumbled, there is not an inch of ground to stand on.” He’s talking about a state of consciousness. There is a place that is not a place in time and space, but is in the middle of the night before the moon has appeared. There is no light there. In meeting another, there is no knowing. There is no ground to stand upon, it is not strange, and moreover, it’s home.