“How long are the horns on a rabbit”? I first came across this saying when I was studying Soto Zen in Japan. I had long thought, mainly because it is sort of whimsical, that it was strictly a Zen saying. I just recently found out the source of this saying, i will get to that later. First though I will present the how it was taught in a Zen way because although they are both profound and point essentially to the same thing they are different.
Zen is appealing to many who begin to study Buddhism due to its direct and often humorous manner. Who can forget?”
“In China, a monk calling on Zen Master Yun-men asked, ‘What is the Buddha?’ Yun-men replied, ‘A shit-stick.’”
In this statement there is humor and what can easily be mistaken as irreverence. A “shit stick” was a predecessor to toilet paper. Or how about Zen Master Bassui;
Bassui”: “In the sutra of the Perfect Enlightenment it is written: ‘Virtuous men, even those minds which realize the wisdom of the Tathagata and verify the pure unstained Nirvana are all aspects of ego.’”
Questioner: “Then if you attain an empty mind straight away, will you advance on the fundamental path toward enlightenment?”
Bassui: “Though students of the way attain an empty mind and remain tranquil, when it comes to seeing with the true Dharma eye their empty mind takes them even deeper into a hole.”
Questioner: “What about passing directly through the ten thousand barriers and going beyond the empty mind?”
Bassui: “A cloud above Godaisan mountain, rice streaming, a dog in front of the old Buddha hall urinating in heaven.”
So Bassui compares Buddha Nature to “a dog in front of the Buddha hall urinating in heaven”. When we, come to be interested in Buddhism we bring with us all sorts of baggage and assumptions, from our previous religions or cultures, about what Buddhism SHOULD be or what we would LIKE it to be. The problem is that because of this baggage we often miss what Buddhism IS! The Zen masters through their directness break down our assumptions and point us directly to the heart of the Buddha Dharma.
Early in the Pali scriptures when the Buddha was asked questions such as “After death will I still exist?” the Buddha would respond with silence. Why would he not answer? Did he not know the answer to the question? It is not the answer that is the problem, it is the question! The question is incorrect! The reason the question is incorrect is that it is based on a false notion of the questioner that there is an “I” to exist after death. The Buddha taught Anatta (Not-Self) which says there is no abiding, permanent, or separate self. Which means there is no “I” and therefore the question is formed incorrectly and baseless. So the Buddha in response to the question sat in silence. To answer the question, it was thought, would only further or add to the questioner’s false understanding.
This response of silence was not just applied to questions of the self but any question which displayed an ignorance or false understanding of the particular relevant teaching. It was the Buddha’s “Upaya” or skillfull means being used to convey the baselessness of the question. I like to think of a ship leaving a port for a destination on the other side of the ocean. If the ships direction is just a degree off from where it should be when it departs it will end up hundreds of miles away from the intended destination.
In Zen if the same question was asked “After death will I still exist?” they would answer it with a question “How long are the horns on a rabbit?” This is also “Upaya”. They are pointing out that the original question was based on a false understanding but returning to the questioner an unanswerable question themselves. Rabbits do not have horns so therefore the question of how long they are cannot be answered. To our modern minds we may ask “why not just answer and explain the teaching of Anatta to the questioner. I believe that since our thoughts are formed by making connections to other thoughts and experiences the teachers of old thought it important to get the student to realize that the previous knowledge that they brought with them was formed on a series of false notions. These thoughts had to be broken down and the questioner had to be made to question what he was previously sure to be true. They had to understand this before they could be taught the correct teaching.
I have wanted to get a copy of the Lankavatara sutra for my personal study for a very long time. Many Zen masters refer to this sutra in their own teachings. I finally got a copy of a translation and to my surprise when I opened it and was looking through the table of contents there was a chapter called ”Logic on the hares (rabbits) horns”! So of course I went straight to this chapter to learn the source of this old saying (How long are the horns on a rabbit). I was surprised again because at first read it seemed like what they were teaching a different meaning to this old saying.
“Said the Blessed One: Mahamati, there are some philosophers who are addicted to the negativism, according to whose philosophical view the non-existence of the hares horns is ascertained by means of discriminating intellect which affirms that the self-nature of things ceases to exist with destruction of their causes; and they say that all things are non-existent just like a hares horns.
Again, Mahamati, there are others who, seeing distinctions existing in things as regards the elements, qualities, atoms, substances, formations, and positions, and, attached to the notion that the bull has horns.”
The Lankavatara Sutra, Chapter two
This seems to be pointing more to the problem with the mind only school, a discriminating mind, or the non-duality of all phenomenon. But a little further on the Buddha continues:
“And because of this dependence of discrimination upon the idea of the horns, Mahamati, and because of this relationship of dependence and apart from the Anyananya relationship, one talks of the non-existence of the hare’s horns, surely not because of the reference [to the horns of the bull]. If again Mahamati , discrimination is different (anya) from the hares horns, it will not take place by reason of the horns [and therefore the one is not different than the other]; but if it is not different (ananya), there is a discrimination taking place by reason of the horns [and therefore the one is different from the other]. However minutely the atoms are analyzed, no horn [substance] is obtainable (found in the horn); the notion of the horns itself is not available when thus reasoned. As neither of them [that is, the bulls nor the hare’s] are existent, on reference to what we should talk of non-existence.”
The Lankavatara Sutra, Chapter two
Red text is my own addition
This is one of those cases where modern science is just recently catching up to the Buddha’s teaching. What the Buddha is saying is that there is no difference between the bull with the horns and the rabbit with the horns. If we look deeply all form is an aggregate and if we go to an atomic level there is no substance that we can call a horn. A horn, like all form, is made up of a collection of atoms, there isn’t actually a substance called horn. There is only something called a “horn” when the causes and conditions are right to make it so. At this level (which is reality) there is no horn (there isn’t a bull or a hare either) so in fact the horn on a rabbit and the horn on a bull are really no different.
The human mind is inundated with a constant flow of information. It is an overwhelming amount of information and it is not possible to process it all. Therefore our brain has adapted itself to pay attention to only parts of this information or to summarize or skim over the information so that it can handle the important information that it needs to protect itself. It is more convenient to not get all bogged down in the detail of things if I can more quickly discern the gist of the information and it is enough for me to function not perfectly but effectively. The problem with this way of functioning is that we learn to assume things are a certain way, the way our brain is interpreting them, instead of how they really are.
If we look at our dining room table we quickly ascertain this solid, fixed, unmoving, unchanging object that has the function that we eat on it. But if we look deeply are any of those things the reality? If we look at it at an atomic level it is made of a collection of atoms that are constantly moving, changing, vibrating and not solid or fixed at all! Well I guess we do eat on this constantly moving collection of atoms! J The point here is our mind just accepts an untruth as truth for the convenience of its function. It is understandable why our brain functions this way but we just have to stop its normal functioning in order for ourselves to be aware of it. It is difficult to break out of this way of thinking. This is in fact what Buddhist practice is designed to make happen. So we can begin to learn to see things as they really are.
So in the sutra it is pointing out that our normal way of perceiving things is not in line with reality. In the end that is what the Zen response to the questioner’s incorrect question was also trying to point out. That there question was not based in reality and therefore could not be answered as if it were. Their question was not in line with reality.
So wasn’t it also reality when Zen monk Yun-men was asked, “What is the Buddha?” that Yun-men replied, “A shit-stick”? As disrespectful as it may sound to our western minds if what the Buddha says about the horns on a bull or a hare is true is there really any difference between the Buddha and a “shit stick”? The reality is that all things are interconnected and made up of the same elements including a Buddha and a “shit stick”! There is no separation as we would like to think between something we want to think of as holy as the Buddha and something as vile as a “shit stick”. So the reality there is no difference between us and a shit stick! How humbling.