Setting Down the Fan

Zen Master Ryokan wrote:
My hand is
tired of fanning,
but where should I set it?

At the end of Dogen’s Genjokoan, Dogen relates this story:

As Zen master Pao-ch’e of Mount Ma-yu was fanning himself, a monk came up and said, “The nature of wind is constancy. There is no place it does not reach. Why use a fan?” Pao-ch’e answered, “You only know the nature of the wind is constancy. You haven’t yet grasped the meaning of it reaching every place.”
“What is the meaning of its reaching every place?” asked the monk.
The master only fanned himself. The monk bowed deeply.

Shinshu’s Commentary:

Master Ryokan is probably referring to the story of Pao-ch’e and the monk in his poem. The monk asked Pao-ch’e about the relationship between our essential buddha nature and practicing. Buddha nature means we are all in a family relationship…the whole world is making effort to enact life. This life is always present, but if we are to bring forth the beauty of our family situation, we must engage with our life and the lives of others. It is only through actually doing practice that our (and all beings) can enjoy this life. This practice is called “fanning.” Where is the breeze created by fanning when we are not swishing the fan back and forth? Is it gone? Is it always available? The state of buddha nature (breeze) is always present, but the activity of practice (fanning) is necessary in order to enact wisdom and compassion (raise and move the air).

In Ryokan’s poem, he is expressing his frustration with his practice. Ryokan was a great Zen master so it is heartening to hear that he too sometimes felt discouraged. I think it is human nature to say “I need a rest!” If we feel that fanning is too hard, we should look at how we are engaged in our effort. But there is also the last line of Ryokan’s poem which expresses a deep faith in practice. He asks “But where should I set it down?” We can’t set it down. Our life calls to us to pick up the fan, keep going. Since our practice goes on endlessly, we want to find a way to do this practice that is sustainable. How we make effort is sometimes a great koan. If we push too hard and are critical of our effort, it sets us back. If we make too little effort we do not progress. Examining the “how” of our activity is key to maintaining our effort.

Please be kind to yourself and others…but not too lazy!

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