Thoughts Without a Thinker

Many years ago I had read a book by Mark Epstein called Thoughts Without a Thinker, which is about psychotherapy from a Buddist perspective. I enjoyed the book immensely of course, but there is something in the first chapter that I cannot resist quoting in full.

In the early days of my interest in Buddhism and psychology, I was given a particularly vivid demonstration of how difficult it was going to be to forge an integration between the two. Some friends of mine had arranged for an encounter between two prominent visiting Buddhist teachers at the house of a Harvard University psychology professor. These were teachers from two distinctly different Buddhist traditions who had never met and whose traditions had in fact had very little contact over the past thousand years. Before the worlds of Buddhism and Western psychology could come together, the various strands of Buddhism would have to encounter one another. We were to witness the first such dialogue.

The teachers, seventy-year-old Kalu Rinpoche of Tibet, a veteran of years of solitary retreat, and the Zen master Seung Sahn, the first Korean Zen master to teach in the United States, were to test each other’s understanding of the Buddha’s teachings for the benefit of the onlooking Western students. This was to be a high form of what was being called dharma combat (the clashing of great minds sharpened by years of study and meditation), and we were waiting with all the anticipation that such a historic encounter deserved. The two monks entered with swirling robes — maroon and yellow for the Tibetan, austere grey and black for the Korean — and were followed by retinues of younger monks and translators with shaven heads. They settled onto cushions in the familiar cross-legged positions, and the host made it clear that the younger Zen master was to begin. The Tibetan lama sat very still, fingering a wooden rosary ( mala) with one hand while murmuring, “Om mani padme hum” continuously under his breath.

The Zen master, who was already gaining renown for his method of hurling questions at his students until they were forced to admit their ignorance and then bellowing, “Keep that don’t know mind!” at them, reached deep inside his robes and drew out an orange. “What is this?” he demanded of the lama. “What is this?” This was a typical opening question, and we could feel him ready to pounce on whatever response he was given.

The Tibetan sat quietly fingering his mala and made no move to respond.

“What is this?” the Zen master insisted, holding the orange up to the Tibetan’s nose.

Kalu Rinpoche bent very slowly to the Tibetan monk near to him who was serving as the translator, and they whispered back and forth for several minutes. Finally the translator addressed the room: “Rinpoche says, ‘What is the matter with him? Don’t they have oranges where he comes from?”

The dialog progressed no further.

Kalu Rinpoche’s response simply cracks me up.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts Without a Thinker

  1. sarat Thursday February 23, 2006 / 11:18 am

    hahaha

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  2. Parvati Thursday February 23, 2006 / 12:43 pm

    Hahahaha.
    Indeed, we often forget the obvious truths and get lost in the esoteric and the complicated, not to mention the spiritual glamour, of underlying truth and reality.

    The Lama keeps our feet firm on this earth.
    His words are important and very useful like those of much forgotten common sense, which when remembered can remove a lot of dross in any situation or any problem-solving needed, and lead us to the core issues, and first principles of understanding.

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  3. nomad Thursday February 23, 2006 / 6:00 pm

    There is a lesson for all of us here. What may look trivial may infact be of enormous significance and the other way round as well. Nothing in this world is too big or too small, everything and everyone has their own space and importance.

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  4. deep Thursday February 23, 2006 / 10:11 pm

    I’d be willing to wager that this was a cleverly staged act, and that the two Masters and the attendant monks were all in on it.

    But of course, point of act well taken.

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  5. amar Friday February 24, 2006 / 9:45 am

    🙂 Good one!

    The Tibetan monk answered the question of the Zen monk without answering it!

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  6. Ted McGrath Thursday March 2, 2006 / 9:41 pm

    The beauty here is in the simplicity of the response. Simple is hard but simple can often be easy. “The eyes only see and the ears only hear, what the mind is thinking”

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  7. Domingo Tuesday June 20, 2006 / 5:06 am

    The Zen Master’s Stench was unbearable!
    The Lama was too kind… He should have given him thirty blows and then forced him to eat the orange… skin and all!!! He, he, he!

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