We want to conquer time. We do this by positing things, including this thing of the self. We want this self to somehow get beyond time. We want to protect ourselves from the decay of form, from the shifting sense of what meaning is. We do that by positing other realms that go beyond this somehow limited, defective realm—realms that are pure ideas, realms where the essence of our being will reside. These realms sustain our conviction in the inherent continuity of life: things are the same things from moment to moment. We expend an inordinate amount of energy to maintain the appearance and feel of that solidity.
Buddhism brings all of this into question by asking, “What is this?” Within that question, we are instantaneously offered space. We habitually reach for the thingness of things, and we rely on their apparent concreteness and visibility to verify them. On some very basic level, it’s quite obvious to us that we are the same thing that was here ten years ago as well as five minutes ago. But Buddhism dispels that illusion and reveals how our pursuit of such concreteness is actually the source of all of our suffering.
The basis of this koan is Buddhism’s commitment to dismantling our delusion regarding the thingness of a thing. It’s important to realize that this tendency extends into making a thing of emptiness itself. Yanyang is doing that unconsciously, and Zhaozhou is attempting to wake him up, to show him that he is as stuck now—as a monk with some understanding—as he was before. We can be attached to plain things, like the toys of our lives, or relationships, or any way we define ourselves. But we can also become attached to and concretize the very teachings on emptiness and impermanence themselves.
Hongzhi says that in order for you to play with the immortals—in order for you to conquer time, to step outside of time, to become time itself—you must clean and purify the most concrete things available to you: your very ordinary bones. The bones that allow you to move, to sit there the way you do, the most solid thing about you, the thing that remains the longest after you die: he says, purify there. Purify what is most solid. Clean that. To the degree to which you are able to do that, you will be able to play with the immortals.