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Keichu Makes Carts

The Gateless Gate

[translation by Yamada Koun; Center Publications 1979. copyright Zen center of Los Angeles 1979]

Master Gettan asked a monk, "Keichu made a hundred carts. If he took off both wheels and removed the axle, what would he make clear about the carts?"

  • Mumon's Commentary:
  • If you realize this at once, your eye will be like a shooting star and your spiritual activity like catching lightening.

Wu-men's Verse

  • Where the active wheel revolves, Even a master fails. It moves in four directions:above and below, South and north, east and west.

In Chinese mythology, Keichu was the man who invented the very first cart, so this story starts off in a way that asks us to look at what is true about carts from the very beginning, what is their very essence, and with this metaphor is asking us to examine our own original nature or essence. Taking all the parts away, what is made clear about the essence of the cart? Is what is essential what the cart is made from? or is it what the cart DOES? In Mumon's commentary and in the verse, the important words are "activity" and "the ACTIVE wheel." All of us, most of the time are preoccupied with our parts: parts of our personal history, parts of our self image, of our body .... And we are continually judging ourselves on how we think these various parts measure up to some ideal standard of how we think we should be. We proud of this part, ashamed at that, and so forth. We get so preoccupied with the parts that we lose sight of what our function in life is. Keichu could have made his hundred carts in a hundred different shapes and sizes; what mattered was that in the end they could carry or haul what they had to. It's not easy to sum up in one word what our functioning is that comparable to the hauling function of a cart, but "compassion" or "responsibility" are two word Buddhists have traditionally used to express this most basic human functioning.

Aristotle is trying to describe the soul used an analogous metaphor. He said that our body was like a shapeless mass wax a and piece of string. The soul was the arrangement of these objects in the shape of the candle and its wick. In this metaphor the essence of the candle, its soul, isn't some additional thing added to wax and string, it simply its functional organization, assemblage of its parts so it can function in giving light. And what particularly nice about Aristotle candle is that once it is functioning , the function is maintained enough as the actually shape and size of the candle constantly changing by being burned.

Each moment the candle is slightly different from the way it was the moment before, yet the light remains steady. It is as if the cart was in constant use, even while its various parts were being continuously repaired or replaced or transformed. That how our lives go, who we are, in terms of the PARTS of our lives, is in constant change; but all the while we function compassionately, responsibly using whatever is at hand. Most of you know that my mother died suddenly last week, so part of who I am, part of my personal cart, today is sadness. But I try to integrate that part into my overall functioning and use it as part of the ongoing exploration of our life, which is my function here. Sadness gets woven into my daily life the way my telling you about it is woven into the content of this talk. None of this means we're supposed to keep functioning at any cost, ignoring our feelings. Ongoing maintenance, attention, repair are all necessary to keep the cart functioning. The main thing is the willing to incorporate everything that is at hand, moment by moment into your cart, and then to be willing to take that cart, to function in every direction in our lives.

Today I want to end by reciting a version of that exhortation usually given at the very end of a sesshin, when everyone is about to take what they've experienced on their cushion out into their daily lives:

  • Listen everyone!
    Life and death are of supreme importance. Time passes quickly,
    and with it, our only chance.
    Pay attention to each moment's teaching. Do not squander your life.