Hogen Points to the Blinds

Preface to the Assembly

When doctors are numerous, diagnosis is confused; when rules are set up, trickery is born. Although to cure sickness where no sickness exists is extreme compassion, such cases are presented; why not then present an example?

Main Case

Attention! Hogen pointed with his hand to the blind. There were two monks present at the time. They both went and rolled up the blind. Hogen remarked, “One gains, one loses”.

Appreciatory Verse

Pines are straight, briars are bent.
Cranes are tall, ducks are short.
King Gi’s people forgot both peace and war.
That peace - A submerged dragon in the abyss;
that freedom - a soaring bird freed of tethers.
Nothing can be done about the Ancestor’s coming from the West.
Right here gain and loss are about half and half.
According to the breeze a mugwort leaf twirls in the air;
cutting across the stream a boat touches the bank.
If there’s a sharp Zen student here, observe Seiryo’s expedient means.

One gains, one loses

Some read the master’s words as commenting on what it says in the Heart Sutra - there is no gain or loss - and while that idea is present, it’s too easy and obvious for a koan. Certainly Fayen and the monks would have understood that, as well as the admonition to avoid unwise comparisons.

One did it “better” than the other? What does that mean? More zen? Is it really about comparisons? All the permutations of “better” or “worse” - did one monk try to look all “zen” about it, and thus really do it worse even though he may have done it better?

Immediately upon hearing that one monk gained and one lost our minds set about to find the difference, to discern which monk is which. But Fayen gives no clue. “Gain and loss are about half and half”. Insidiously, our own biases and condition begin to creep in to color our ideas in the comparison. Lacking any definitive indication, we fall into a trap.

There’s nothing here to indicate why one gained and one lost, but our minds are likely to start inventing differences. Even if they were subjectively identical, just being told one gains and one loses can engage our discriminating minds in a way that we begin to look for differences that aren’t there, and to treat these differences as real.

Looking deeper, we can suggest some motivations behind our desire to find and emphasize differences. Question: Who is comparing “better” and “worse”, and why? Are we judging better and worse to improve ourselves? Is that pride, or some other selfish motivation?

Can we look at our biases and find a proclivity to declare something better than another thing, even when there is no difference? Why do we constantly look for differences to compare?

Maybe we can learn to ask what flaws we fear and hate in ourselves and how we then wrongly attribute those flaws to others.

From a simple statement about gain and loss, we have traveled to points on the urge to make distinctions, the kinds of distinctions we make, how those kinds are rooted in distinguishing our self-loathing from our ideal self-image, to coming face-to-face with what we fear and despise most about our self.

Where we judge another as a “loser”, we lose ourselves.