A student asked Master Zhaozhou, “What is the meaning of the Ancestor’s coming from India?” In other words, “What is the real truth of Buddhadhama? Is there a truth that isn’t the result of someone’s project or ambition or philosophy? Is there a truth by which we can live?” Master Dogen said that we should learn from this that the cypress tree in the garden is not an object. Anyone standing there could see the tree that Zhaozhou was pointing to. The student saw it, and so did Zhaozhou. But what did Zhaozhou see that he answered this way? What did the student not see? How do we look at this tree and not lose ourselves, not become upside-down? The way we engage that question in practice is to first recognize that we are actually upside-down, that we have become lost to ourselves. The one thing that we would rather deny, we have to thoroughly admit.

The student sees a tree. It’s not the same as him; it’s not the same as the next tree. It’s separate from himself; it’s separate from everything. And in seeing the tree as something that is distinctly not him, he is actually seeing the tree as the constructed self. What does this mean? The student is looking with his eyes. Zhaozhou sees the tree with his eyes, too, but he’s not relying on that. He sees without distance, without a name, without a category. But he does say, “Cypress tree in the garden.” He uses the name. Even though Zhaozhou uses these words, he’s not deceived by them. The koan challenges us to do just the same.

There is a lot of language in Buddhism about illusion, relating our perception of the world to the sleight-of-hand of a magician. Something appears, but it’s not what it appears to be. There is something in front of me, a kind of shadow of something that takes on the characteristics, not of you, but of my mind. I endow you with the characteristics of my own mind and I call it you. And so, oddly, rather than protecting myself from you, it binds me to you, but this is really my idea of you. And it binds me to you in fear, in a kind of distress, because all attachments are unstable and thus fearful. When we see something or someone who offends us and we negate that thing or person, or we turn away, we turn that person or that thing into the self. How?

If the tree is not what I think it is, then what is it? If we are not who we think we are, then who are we? If we’re not made up of this mistaken sense of continuity that we experience through our senses, then who are we? This is the essential question. This is the place where we begin. Ching-Ching says, “People these days are upside-down. They lose themselves and follow after things.” And yet, Ching-Ching himself knew, nothing in the world is actually lost.

One of the things people teach about survival in the woods is that if we have lost our way, we need to get rid of the idea that we’re “lost.” You’re right here! Nothing in the world is lost, and nothing in the world is upside-down. Only in the mind do things appear this way, and they do so resolutely and tenaciously. And yet it’s here that we experience our disconnect and separateness. It is within this experience of disconnection that we can discover the true nature of this self as an essential inquiry.