What is progress?

A monk says to Jingqing, “I am pecking from the inside, I beg you master, please peck from the outside”. Jingqing says, “But will you be alive?” This quote appears in the Blue Cliff Record, Case 16.

The monk then says, “I am vigorously working this way, if I were not alive, I would be laughed at”. 

Jingqing responds, “You half-baked fellow.” 

In this case it sounds a bit like the monk is thinking in a processual way to achieve awakening. If you peck and I peck, we will get there. Get where? It is difficult not to think of things in this way in our practice, as each step along a timeline that we take, the closer we get to our goal. We don’t feel that we are experiencing it now, so therefore it must be somewhere in the future. But thinking like this is an obstacle, what we awaken to has always been here, right here in this moment, not progressed along the timeline of pecks or steps. This is difficult to understand when coming from our usual concept of what progress means. But how can we progress towards what we already are? It doesn’t make sense. 

Jingqing responds to the monk with a question, “But will you be alive?” There’s a peck that goes right through. What he wants to see is, is the monk completely free from the trap he is in? Can he be liberated from these ideas of getting it, not getting it, progress, and no progress, and be fully alive and free in this moment? 

But the monk doesn’t get it. He says, “I am vigorously working this way, if I were not alive, I would be laughed at”. He is saying that he is vigorously pecking from the inside of the shell. It is ok to practice vigorously at times and it can be important for our practice if we seek to awaken to our true nature, to awaken to who we are. In the Shodoka we read, ‘students of vigorous will hold the sword of wisdom’. But even so, we need to be careful. If it is our thought that we will get what we want by exerting great effort, this isn’t it. What is it you are going to get? Perhaps a better way to think about it is that we will have great resolve. If awakening is important to us, we can’t be too comfortable. Absolute resolve does not mean we are half hearted. It means that we are willing to do the work. Also, in addition to great resolve, we need to have faith. It is faith that enables us to step beyond the limits of the intellect and to be open to the essential nature of all things. Faith enables us to remain open so an act of grace may occur. 

If our effort is misdirected we are wasting our energy. When the monk says, “I am vigorously working this way”, it is like saying I am vigorously working within the confines of my ideas about it. Getting, not getting, inside, outside. It is like he is in a shell chipping away at the wall with all his energy, not knowing that the shell doesn’t actually exist, and it is just his ideas at work. So, Master Jingqing says, “you half-baked fellow.” It is a rejection of the monks approach, what else could the master say or do? “That’s not it, that’s not the way, wake up.” 

If we want to be vigorous, be vigorous about being right here. When we ask the question, “Who am I?”, we are not asking the question who am I next year, or who am I next week, or after 30 steps? We want to know right now. And who is going to answer this? No amount of pecking from anyone else is going to do it, which is what the monk seems to be asking of Jingqing. 

These Encouraging Words were written by apprentice teacher Will Moon for the August September Newsletter 2023