Is This Article Really Long Or Short?

The Heart Sutra says,
‘Form is not different from emptiness;
Emptines is not different from form.’
The Middle Path is in between.

Stonepeace | Get Books

In a surprise test for wisdom, in one of the zenniest story I had encountered so far, a Zen master holds out a stick and yells to his disciple, ‘Long or short? What is this?’ Now, put yourself in the position of the disciple. How would you answer? Do take a few moments to contemplate, or take more time to meditate upon this, before scrolling to see the ‘model’ answer…

In reply, the disciple grabs the stick from him, breaks it in two, and shouts back, ‘What is this?’ Do you comprehend the rationale of this answer? Again… Do take a few moments to contemplate, or take more time to meditate upon this, before scrolling to see the ‘model’ answer…

Before making sense of the answer, you need to understand why the teacher asked what he did. The abrupt question was an attempt to break the disciple’s habitual thinking mind, while checking if his intuitive mind was ready for some awakening. It was a his way to ‘force’ out an answer. It is natural to be stumped by the question, like I was, till I ‘cheated’ by using my thinking mind to figure out the nature of this ‘trick’ question – that purposely limited the options to ‘long or short’. It is impossible to answer with either, but you tend to want to pick one of them – due to being habitually attached to relative values as absolute ones – which clearly clash. This is while the question could never be answered conventionally; but only in an ultimate way.

The master’s question actually did not make sense as there was nothing to compare the length of the stick with, in order to label in as relatively long(er) or short(er). It was essentially meaningless in itself. The disciple, realising this, ‘thought’ (or realised) out of the box (or beyond the stick), by demonstrating the ridiculousness of the question by literally breaking that which is being questioned, showing that he had ‘shattered’ relative fixations. He retorts with a more ridiculous question, by asking in return of what remains – e.g. whether the pieces are long or short, without saying the unbroken piece was either, as perhaps expected. Now, each piece can indeed be labelled long or short – but only in relation to each other.

This is an intriguing way of simultaneously breaking attachment to the relative by showing the ultimate senselessness of such labels, while reminding us that absolute suchness (the way thing naturally are), which is beyond labels, can manifest with meaningfulness as the relative too. The fully enlightened would not be attached to either the relative or absolute, while being able to function skilfully when needed in balanced ways, according to the Middle Path. For example, the master could, with ease, teach about the absolute in this world despite most being attached to the relative, while the disciple could, also with ease, show the relative with what represented the absolute.

Here is a related zenny riddle – ‘How do you shorten a line drawn in the sand without touching it?’ If your mind had sharpened a little by now, after having reviewed the above koan (‘public case’ expressing enlightenment), you ought to find this easier to answer. Again… Do take a few moments to contemplate, or take more time to meditate upon this, before scrolling to see the ‘model’ answer…

The answer is much simpler than expected, with no need for any dramatic or ‘mysterious’ Zen gesture… Just draw a longer line in the sand next to it. Again, it was a trick question. Instead of asking it to be long or short, its wording forced you to assume the line to already be ‘long’ in the first place, which is why you habitually think of erasing it as the only way to make it shorter. Yet, this clearly breaks the rule of not touching it – which is why you found yourself in quite a fix! (Was this ‘worse’ than the koan?) Something is long only when with what is shorter, and something is short only when with what is longer. Nothing has any meaning in itself. All things make sense only in relation to one another, to other things in a web of interdependence.

What are some practical applications of these truths for living a more enlightened and happier life? Beyond merely long and short, likewise, for relative and thus worldly ‘objects of envy’, such as wealth, status, looks, possessions, relationships that lead to much jealousy, strife and conflict, well, useful as these ‘objects’ might be at times, under other conditions, they might even condition suffering. They are not as ultimately substantial or fulfilling as we habitually assume them to be, being fleeting and therefore false refuges. Why trap ourselves with cyclical greedy and hateful politics of empty comparisons in terms of them? The true refuge is in the Middle Path’s immovable wisdom of the way things are, while being able to relate to all with great ease, functioning with unconditional compassion for one and all. The Buddha himself set the best example.

Now, for the last and bonus question, which is really the first… about this article – ‘Long or short? What is this?’

The Heart Sutra says,
‘Form is the same as emptiness;
Emptines is the same as form.’
The Middle Path is in between.

Stonepeace | Get Books


  • Another way to make the line on the sand “shorter” is to change one’s angle of view – bring your eyes lower (nearer to the ground) and the line will get shorter. 🙂

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