Gettan asked a monk, “If Keichu (the ancient mythological wheel maker) made one hundred carts, and if we took off the wheels and removed the hub uniting the spokes, what would then become apparent, what does this clarify?
If anyone can answer this question instantly, his eyes will be like a meteor and his mind like a flash of lightning.
When the hubless wheel turns,
Even the master would be at a loss what to do,
It turns above heaven and beneath earth,
South, north, east, and west.
Gettan was a teacher in the Lin-Chi (Rinzai) line who flourished during the late eleventh or early twelfth century. Gettan was Mumon’s great-grandfather in Dharma lineage. Very little is known of him except this case and his lineage. We don’t have his dates of birth and death, but judging from this case he must have been a great teacher.
We have different understandings regarding the first line of the koan, because wheel and cart have the same Chinese ideograph. So, Keichu made carts 100 fu (fu means spoke), and some translators consider that he made a cart whose wheels had hundred spokes. Others consider that the translation is ’a hundred spoke of carts’, like for example ’a hundred head of cattle’. Anyway, it is not sure which one is correct, but it doesn’t matter since the koan concerns the question about taking off the wheels and the axle. And what becomes perfectly clear when we do this?
The four cardinal points mentioned in the koan refers in the original szü-wei (shiyui) to the four half-points of the compass: northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest. Together with the above and below and north, south, east and west, the half-points form the Ten Directions, which in Chinese stands for ‘everywhere’. Szü-wei also means the four cardinal virtues, propriety, righteousness, integrity, and modesty. This meaning is an overtone in Wu-men’s verse, suggesting the nobility of the master. And, in doing so, he is asking ‘Where does the wheel turn? Where does that cart go?’
If we take a cart and remove both the wheels and the axle, and if we make the analogy with our body (being the wheels), and our brain (being the axle) and we have discarded them both, we will have a description of what actually happens in absolute samadhi. Both bodily sensation and mental activity fall away. In absolute samadhi, jishu-zammai (ji, self; shu, being one’s own master; sammai [-zamai], the action of consciousness ceases and absolute stillness reigns throughout the body and mind. But the master of the mind is still aware.
When we come out of absolute samadhi we are freed from our deluded condition of mind. We have regained pure consciousness. After samadhi, his eyes will be like a meteor and his mind like a flash of lightning. In this context, “eye” represents the quality of cognition of the enlightened consciousness, which penetrates the universe like a shooting star.
His spirit like a flash of lightning. Spirit represents Zen-ki, that is, the keen spiritual power (ki) of the Zen mind. This is the instantaneous action of a Zen master’s mind, his Zen-ki illuminating everything about him as does lightning on a dark night.
The “spiritual wheels” represent the action of the free Zen mind, which knows no restriction. Samadhi transcends time and space. there is no time in an everlasting present. There is no fixed point in boundless space.
Many take this koan to be about shunyata, i.e. everything is primarily empty. But Gettan does not ask what became of the cart. Instead Gettan asks, ”… what will it be?”
There is a cart whose wheels have a hundred spokes.
Remove the spokes and remove the axle then what will it be?
If we have a car and we remove the wheels and the motor and the transmission and the body and the fuel tank etc…. Where would the car be?
If we have a body, and we take away the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue, the arms, the legs, the heart and the rest of the organs, what will that body be?
photo credit : susancohangardens