Supposedly Hsueh Tou came to Chih Men early in his training and asked something like, “When one doesn’t give rise to a single thought, before the mind moves to grasp something, how can there be any fault?” Chih Men responded by asking Hsueh Tou to come closer, and indeed the moment Hsueh Tou approached, Chih Men hit him across the mouth with his whisk. In a sense Chih Men was provoking Hseuh Tou, because at the moment after he hit him, Hsueh Tou was about to ask something else, and Chih Men hit him a second time. At that instant—just as Hsueh Tou was about to ask another question, to frame his reality in a particular way—Chih Men’s strike pointed him precisely toward the very place Hsueh Tou was asking about: the moment before a single thought forms.
What does it mean to remain unmoved? What does it mean to be unmoved in the face of a reality that demands that we respond? What does it mean to remain resting before that single thought appears? Before we put a mark on a canvas? Create a brush stroke? You’re putting a brush stroke on a canvas at this very moment—the canvas of your mind—with the language that’s moving across the scope of your mind. And so it goes, and will go for the rest of your life. You are challenged to come up with the miraculous activity of your life within every moment; you are continually composing this painting.
What does it mean to rest in that space before a single thought arises, before reality is broken into a body and function, into wisdom and compassion? How do we tolerate the tension? What is it to take a step backward into the inner experience of your mind? What is the boundary of the inner experience? What is “engaged Buddhism”? What is non-engaged? Can there be a Buddhism that is not engaged? Can there be a genuine practice of realizing wholeness that somehow leads to separation? Conversely, can we, waving the banner of deliberate engagement, remain smugly self-centered in our thoughtful activities?