This kong-an [Jap.: kōan] has always touched me profoundly, and brings tears to my eyes, this sensitive exchange I encounter so often in the beautiful work of Zen (though its lessons apply to any teacher-student gesture, any motherhood, any apprenticeship-role).
It shows the tender intimacy of the Way-seeking mind, trapped in its shell of conceptual thinking, fear, prejudice, habit, and understanding, attempting to “peck out” of the hard shell of suffering. This is the mind applies for any position we are in where we attempt to gain liberation, or, less than that, some mastery of a teaching or a situation.
The teacher, the guide, like a mother hen, attends nearby, to “peck in” in a way that will assist the little chickie attain its birthright freedom. This is the way of all chickens; it is the way of the practicing mind. Too much pecking from the mother-hen might tap a hole in the chickie’s head, or poke out its enormous unprotected eye. A shard of overpacked shell can come gouging into the chickie-student’s soft, tender exteriors. The pecking must be focused, and clear, and “just-enough”. The pecking is not to dominate, or to do the entirety of the work of liberation for the chickie, either. Rather, the mother-hen mind strives — with deep intuition — to cause fresh openings in the hard shell where the student can advance their individual work further with greater effort. No pecking-in is ever the same, for every student.
The student expresses their tender wish: “I have come for teachings which will help to liberate me from my existential dismay and suffering. Please, teach me!”
“Are you alive or not?” is asking, “How is it going? Does this effort work for you? What have you really come for, and what is the ‘liberation’ you seek? What are your intentions in this work?”
In this case, in this kōan, the monk falls back into either/our dualistic thinking to describe their mind — alive/not-alive, self and other people, etc. The student is still fraught with the dead self-conceptualisation of the worldly philosophies. “Well, if I weren’t here for the right reasons, people would laugh at me.” My friends would criticise me. The sangha would disapprove. Or something like that: the birth of “this” and “that”, “good” and “bad”.
“Ohhhhhh,” the master laments. “You are worse off than I expected!”
Zen Master Seung Sahn’s commentary at the end is golden, and gives a sure key for anyone facing the dilemma of their stuckness. Rise out, embrace the situation as-it-is, greeting the person they meet with care and wonder and concern. “I’m OK, and how are you?” Bodhisattva connection is manifested — clear, simple, intimately part of everyday life. Our most authentic “liberation” is nothing than this everyday-mind-is-the-True-Way mentality, dissolving the false bonds of self/other, even of the struggle towards some idea of liberation itself.