Asian Philosophy 12: Zen – Zhaozhou, Koans & Stories

This lecture covers the Tang dynasty Zen master Zhaozhou (778 – 897), koan cases from the Blue Cliff Record (1125) and Gateless Gate (1228), as well as Zen folk stories from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (1957) and Zen Speaks (1994).  Please read the 48 koans of the Gateless Gate.


Now that we have covered the central patriarchs and historical development of Chan Buddhism in Tang and Song China, including the canonization of koan (Chinese: gongan) literature by the House of Linji, we can turn to master Zhaozhou (pronounced “Zshaow-Zshow”, Japanese: Joshu, 778 – 897), my favorite Zen master and the most prominent figure in the koan collections.  While Linji’s sermons are the central source of understanding the puzzling practice of interviews between masters and students, Linji does not appear often in the central koan cases that are the focus of study.  Rather it is Zhaozhou, the very-Daoist Zen stand-up comedian, who gave the Zen tradition many of its favorite cases to study for centuries, far more than any other master.  This is why we study Zhaozhou as the last of the Tang masters, even though he was a generation before Linji.  Then we will look at cases of “Dharma combat” from the two central koan collections, the Blue Cliff Record (1125) and Gateless Gate (1228).

Bodhidharma > (4 China) > Huineng > Huairang > Mazu > Nanquan > Zhaozhou

Bodhidharma > (4 China) > Huineng > Huairang > Mazu > Baizhang > Huangbo > Linji

Zhaozhou’s place in the lineage is puzzling because he lives before Linji but is not in the line between Mazu and Linji.  Rather, Mazu had two prominent students who became famous masters, Baizhang and Nanquan (pronounced “Nawn-Chuwan”, Japanese: Nansen, 709 – 788 CE).  The koan literature was written to show two things, first that the silent transmission Linji spoke about passed from the Buddha, Bodhidharma and India to the Song China House of Linji, but second that the teachings flourished across the land, leading to masters sprouting up in multiple places.  Zhaozhou is the greatest master of the final tenth generation recorded in the Transmission of the Lamp koan collection (1004) just before the House of Linji came to dominate the intellectual scene of Song China.  While Zhaozhou was not of the House of Linji, his brilliance was used by Linji’s followers to cement the position of the southern Chan of Huineng and Mazu, which Zhaozhou and Linji share in common.

When a monk asked master Zhaozhou, “Who is the patriarch of this land?”  he replied, “Bodhidharma has come, so here we are all patriarchs.”  The monk asked, “What generation in the Chan lineage are you?”  Zhaozhou said, “I do not fall into any position.”  The monk asked, “Then where are you now?” and Zhaozhou said, “Inside your ears.”  Like Linji, Zhaozhou speaks as if we are all part of the same mind that moves out of our mouths and into our ears, and thus do not keep particular positions entirely to ourselves.

Zhaozhou is a “holy fool”, a trickster found throughout human cultures, and it is debated how much he was inspired by Daoist sages because Zhaozhou, the site of a stone bridge from which the Chan master got his name, was a popular site for Daoist hermits who sometimes camped out under the bridge in the shade.  Zhaozhou quotes Zhuangzi the Daoist patriarch more than once, telling one student, “Ships cannot sail where the water is too shallow,” implying that a shallow mind doesn’t have space for grander understandings.  Both Zhaozhou and Linji lived and taught where Daoism was particularly popular, along with the legend of the Daoist sage who disregards human conventions and expectations to live beyond all borders and boundaries.  Many of Zhaozhou’s koan cases sound like jokes, and sometimes Zhaozhou’s final word is simply laughter.  His record is by far the most entertaining to read, though Linji’s comes close.

Nanquan Kills the Cat

In one of the most studied and discussed koan cases in Zen, the fourteenth case of the Gateless Gate, the monks of the eastern and western halls were fighting over who owned a stray cat that many of the monks had been feeding.  The cat may not know it, but splitting the Sangha, dividing the Buddhist community, is a serious crime.  Master Nanquan held up the cat and said, “If any of you monks can say a turning word, you can save this cat,” perhaps attempting to teach them impermanence in a rather unorthodox fashion for a Mahayana Buddhist.  None of the monks knew what to say, so Nanquan split the cat in two.  Later Zhaozhou returned from a task outside the monastery and Nansen told him what had happened while he was gone.  Zhaozhou took off one of his sandals, put it on top of his head and walked out without a word.  Nanquan said, “If only he had been here, he could have saved that cat.”  

According to legend, when Bodhidharma’s grave was opened only a single straw sandal was found, a lower dead form empty of higher living meaning, a dead object like a corpse without life, the living “silent teaching outside the transmission” according to Linji.  Nanquan killed a conscious being to preserve Chan Mahayana Buddhism, breaking the literal laws and vows to preserve the unity of the sangha, and in response Zhaozhou pretends to be Bodhidharma, carrying the silent teaching (sandals are often quite quiet) from the Buddha, represented by Zhaozhou’s master Nanquan, to China.  Nanquan says that Zhaozhou truly said something while saying nothing, which Zhuangzi said a true sage can do, and thus Zhaozhou could have saved the cat.

When Zhaozhou walks away from Nanquan he is splitting the sangha, like Bodhidharma did when he left India, the land of the Buddha, and brought the silent transmission of Chan to China, like the cat unwittingly did when it wandered into Nanquan’s monastery.  Nanquan put the unity of the community over the unity of the cat, so Zhaozhou put the silent transmission of Bodhidharma over the unity of the community, splitting from Nanquan as Bodhidharma did from India.  Perhaps Zhaozhou is suggesting that Bodhidharma is much like a cat, as well as Zen itself, an inquisitive, mischievous being without a particular purpose that wanders inexplicably eastward causing problems.

Did Nanquan kill the cat, or is the story fictional and simply symbolic?  Did he break the rule of nonviolence, placing the unity of the monastery over the unity of the cat, or is the story merely instructional, an imaginary example someone made up to teach Chan that became part of the record and legend?  There are a two other similar violent incidents in the Chan records that may or may not have happened which monks and masters puzzled over.  According to one account, the second Chinese Chan patriarch Huike cut off his left arm to show Bodhidharma he was serious, unlike Zhaozhou who doesn’t even take this incident seriously.  When a monk asked him, “The second patriarch cut off his arm.  What sort of act is that?”  Zhaozhou said, “He was throwing his whole self into it.”  The third incident is Juzhi cutting off a monk’s finger, another funny and terrible story we will examine in the Gateless Gate.  Linji did tell monks to cut off the heads of the buddhas and patriarchs.

Does A Dog Have Buddha Nature?

Mahayana Buddhists teach that all of our reality, including all sentient beings, have a common conscious buddha-nature (Indian Pali: buddha dhatu), the common mind which Linji calls the true sage of no rank.  Bodhidharma said that the highest thing is the self, but the widest thing is the mind and its wisdom, the buddha-nature we share in common.  A monk once asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have buddha-nature or not?” possibly unclear on the basic Mahayana concept of “all sentient beings”.  Zhaozhou replied, “Wu” (Japanese: Mu), which does not mean “no” that the dog does not, but “meaningless,” “empty,” “not that” or “Nothing”.  This is the first koan of the Gateless Gate, the most popular Zen koan collection.  Like the cat koan, Zhaozhou responds to the negative judgement of animals by casting the situation aside, “throwing it down a hole” as Linji said, but managing to make a particular point as well.

My friend and colleague Justin Lipscomb studies nothing, as he likes to say, as well as its use in Eastern and Western philosophy, and he assures me that this word of Zhaozhou’s is one of the great examples of the place of nothing and nothingness found in human thought.  Zhaozhou seems to say that whether or not a dog has buddha nature is “nothing”, unimportant to someone with an enlightened understanding, but he could also simultaneously be saying that the nothingness and open emptiness of what we, the dog, buddha-nature and reality all are is itself the “nothing”, the nothing-in-particular, that unites us all, the dog included.  The monk is trying to decide if a dog is like us, and Zhaozhou uses a single word to circumvent his judgement, excluding the judgement and including us and the dog together with buddha-nature.

Two Water Buffalo on Mount Tiantai

There is a third case involving Zhaozhou and animals that finds its way into the Gateless Gate, case eleven of the forty eight.  Zhaozhou found the sages Kanzan and Jittoju while wandering on Mount Tiantai and said, “For a long time I have heard about Kanzan and Jittoju, but having come here I just see two water buffalo.”  The sages put their fingers on their heads like horns.  The master waved his arms at them and said, “Shoo!  Shoo!”  The sages gnashed their teeth and glared at each other, happy to become water buffalos when accused but reluctant to leave when shooed.  When asked about this later, Zhaozhou laughed heartily and said nothing.  When Linji compared Pahua to a donkey Pahua brayed at him, and Linji called a monk who mooed at him, “This beast!”  If you asked these masters an educated, scholarly question you would likely be ridiculed, but if you acted like an untamed animal you just might meet their approval.

This gong-an is very simple and short, but like the rest it contains meanings that sprout up when you look them over carefully and consider that for thousands of years these particular cases were preserved as teaching devices.  We typically pick humans over water buffalos, so calling two sages water buffalos is insulting, even if it is innocent and playful, like the sages response to effortlessly take up the role of water buffalo, a muddy and supposedly dimwitted beast.  If we are all somewhat water buffalo, why not embrace it?  It is very easy to miss that after Zhaozhou shoos them, they refuse, which is moving from obeying Zhaozhou to disobeying Zhaozhou.  However, once this thought occurs, it then opens up to the next thought that a disobedient water buffalo is a ‘good’ water buffalo in that it is more true to life, so when Kanzan and Jittoju disobey, are they obeying Zhaozhou or not?  Zhaozhou simply laughs.  It is quite human to be inhumane.  Is a broken, unusable vase still a vase?  If not, why call it such?  How can our minds share these negative forms, what Hegel could call determinate negation, so easily and fluidly?

Seven Pound Hemp Shirt

We do not often enjoy being treated as beasts with little awareness and unimportant interests, nor being treated as mere things with no awareness or interests to consider.  A monk asked, “The many things return to the One.  Where does the One return to?”  Zhaozhou said, When I was in the state of Chou, I made a hemp shirt.  It weighed seven pounds.”  Even the Great Dao, the source of all things, is humble enough to take the position of seven pound shirt whenever the need arises.

A monk asked, “What is Zhaozhou’s master?”  Zhaozhou said, “You hooped barrel!”  The monk said, “Yes?”  Zhaozhou said, “Well done, hooped barrel!”  Perhaps Zhaozhou is congratulating the first barrel to speak words in recorded history, but he is certainly congratulating the monk on happily taking up the role of a barrel and not being hooped in by fear of insults or his own ignorance.  We are all as ignorant as a dead, closed container in countless ways and there is nothing that can be done about it, requiring acceptance.  A monk asked, “What is an imbecile?”  Zhaozhou said, “I’m not as good as you.”  The monk said, “I’m not trying to be anything.”  Zhaozhou said, “Why are you being an imbecile?”  A monk asked, “What is the perfect question?”  Zhaozhou said, “Wrong!”

Avoid Picking & Choosing

In the second case of the Blue Cliff Record, Joshu says to the assembly, “The ultimate way is without difficulty.  Just avoid picking and choosing.  As soon as there are words spoken, ‘This is picking and choosing’ and ‘This is clarity’.  This old monk does not abide in clarity.  Do you still preserve anything or not?”  A monk asked, “Since you do not abide in clarity, what do you preserve?”  Joshu replied, “I don’t know either.”  The monk asked, “Since you don’t know, why do you say that you do not abide in clarity?”  Joshu said, “It is enough to ask about the matter.  Bow and withdraw.”  In the first case of the Blue Cliff Record, Bodhidharma brings the silent transmission to China and tells the emperor he does not know anything that is holy nor who he himself is.  In the second case, Zhaozhou says he does not know what Bodhidharma brought that he himself preserves and when questioned further acts as if he does not need to know whether or not he knows anything at all.

When Zhaozhou says he does not know what he preserves he is avoiding picking and choosing what he preserves, but the monk misunderstands him and accuses him of choosing to live in obscurity and confusion, confused by his rhetoric.  Zhaozhou does not correct this misperception to distinguish himself from confusion, but rather complements and extends it by acting like a confused and embarrassed jerk, making the error look like his own rather than the monk’s, a fancy way of not choosing himself over the monk even as it seems he has stupidly chosen his own pride over the monk’s further education.  It seems as if Zhaozhou lost, fretting and sweating like Shenxiu did before Huineng out-versed him, but if this stands in the record it is likely that Zhaozhou is feigning being foolish, as Linji says a master does to test monks.

Wide Open Spaces

A monk asked, “What about it when the three-pronged sword has not yet fallen?” referring to the sword of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.  Zhaozhou said, “Densely packed together.”  The monk asked, “What about after it has fallen?”  The master said, “Wide open spaces.”  Zhaozhou taught that we are our situation, including the good and the bad, the true and false, and the known and unknown.  While we often fear and reject the bad, false and unknown, acceptance of these as a part of ourselves is to understand what Linji called the furniture of our own house.

As the Buddha taught, it is not the feelings themselves or awareness of them that is the problem, but obsession over what we cannot change that is the problem.  Just as the Buddha taught that Jains try to rid themselves of selves, and thus are one-sided in spite of their skeptical principles, just as Nagarjuna taught that enlightenment is not the absence of thoughts and feelings but freedom in our involvements with them, Zhaozhou taught that freedom and happiness are not the absence of desire and passion, which works well with his comedic character.  We do not escape desires or concepts entirely, but merely become less entangled and obsessed with them, not freedom from them but freedom with them, each situation and individual a wide open space.  Mazu grasped a student by the nostrils to show him how to grab hold of empty space.  If we are the house, we are the whole situation, the furniture and the space they sit in.  We can look around it, speak about it and move about in it as we freely please.

A monk asked, “What is the Buddha’s true experience of reality?” and Zhaozhou replied, “Is there anything else you don’t like?”  The monk thinks he is choosing the best of the best in a positive way, but Zhaozhou acts as if he is being exceedingly negative, rejecting a great number of things, limiting himself with exclusive picking and choosing such that he is not free in his own wide open space.  Good and bad are funiture in our house, parts of the situation we live in.

A monk asked, “What are honest words?”  The master said, “Your mother is ugly.”  If your mother isn’t beauty incarnate, and sadly no one’s mother or anyone else is ideal perfection, then your mother is ugly to some degree in some ways.  If the monk wanted honest and pleasing words, Zhaozhou gave him honest and ugly words, just like truth itself, which is not simply pleasing or beautiful.  Linji said he sees where people come from and hits them there.  The monk asks about truth because he wants satisfaction, so Zhaozhou shows him that truth is not really the satisfaction he is looking for.  Pleasing and displeasing come in many forms, including but not only true and false, and these are parts of the space we inhabit.

We do not live by truth alone, cannot escape falsehood, nor need to.  A monk asked, “How can you not lead the multitudes of the world astray?”  The master stuck out his foot.  The monk took off one of the master’s sandals.  The master brought back his foot.  The monk could say nothing more.  The single sandal again suggests the transmission of Bodhidharma passing from India to China.  Similarly, when a monk told Linji that the Buddha would never deceive people, he told the monk to sit down and avoid deceiving people.

When Zhaozhao came to Baizhang’s place in his wanderings, Baizhang asked him, “Where have you come from?”  Zhaozhou said, “From Nanquan.”  Baizhang asked, “What has Nanquan been teaching people?”  Zhaozhou said, “One time he said, ‘One with no attainment should be strict and solemn.’”  Baizhang scoffed with disdain.  Zhaozhou looked startled.  Baizhang said, “That’s a fine ‘strict and solemn’.”  Zhaozhou did a little dance and left.

A monk said, “I don’t have an extraordinary question.  Please don’t give an extraordinary reply.”  Zhaozhou said, “How extraordinary.”  Even as the monk tries to be normal, everything normal is abnormal, just as the Daoist Liezi said that in some way every slave is superior to the emperor.

The Depth of the Deep

A monk asked, “What is the unending depth of the deep?”  Joshu said, “Your questioning me is the unending depth of the deep.”  Linji said that formlessness is the ignorance of our own minds, but formlessness and ignorance are also freedom and depth, space that is undetermined and thus open to possibility.  Sometimes we are happy to be free and sometimes we are sad to be ignorant, but the known and unknown are also part of the situation of human life.  The nothingness that is buddha-nature and the dog is the nothing-in-particular-ness that is our own free and open existence.  Linji says we can be free to rise in the east or in the west, where the day begins or ends, to come as the beginnings or endings of things, seeking their arrival or their destruction.  When we seen the answer to a question, we are often coming from a beginning seeking an ending, but Zhaozhou presents the monk seeking the closure of an ending and answer with his own ever-present open-ended beginning, that he is formless and endless, the depth of the deep, found in his own act of questioning.

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “What is the fact that I accept responsibility for?” and he replied, “To the ends of time you will never single it out.”  Another monk asked, “If the Great Way has no root, how can it be expressed?”  The master said, “You just expressed it.”  The monk said, “What about ‘no root’?”  The master said, “There is no root.  Where is it that you are being bound up?”  Linji said that there’s no teaching on the outside or self on the inside that can be completely grasped.  A monk asked, “I have just come here and know nothing.  What are my duties?”  Zhaozhou said, “What is your name?”  The monk said, “Hui-han,” and Zhaozhou said, “A fine ‘knowing nothing’ that is!”  We can’t manage to know, grasp or single out anything completely, nor can we be perfectly ignorant either.

Zhaozhou declared to the assembly, “I can make a single blade of grass into a sixteen-foot tall golden Buddha, and I can make a sixteen-foot tall golden Buddha into a single blade of grass.  Buddha is compulsive passions.  Compulsive passions are Buddha.”  The Buddha taught that desires, aka “compulsive passions”, cause suffering and that there is thankfully a way out of them to peace and happiness, so an understandably confused monk in the assembly asked, “Why would the Buddha become compulsive passions?” thinking it should surely work the other way around, with desire becoming enlightenment.  Zhaozhou replied, “The Buddha becomes compulsive passions for the sake of all.”  The monk asked, “How can they be escaped?”  Zhaozhou said, “What’s the use of escaping?”  If we are not densely packed together with things, but rather in wide open spaces, why do we need to escape or flee anything?

A Puddle of Piss in the Pure Land

A monk asked, “What is the spiritual?”  Zhaozhou said, “A puddle of piss in the Pure Land.”  The monk said, “I ask you to reveal it to me.”  The master said, “Don’t tempt me.”  Zhuangzi said that the Dao is in piss and shit, the lowliest of things, and a generation later Linji said that the Buddha is like the hole in a toilet.  Another monk asked Zhaozhou about the meaning of Zen.  Zhaozhou said, “I would tell you, but right now I have to take a piss.  It’s such an insignificant thing, but I can’t order you or anyone else to do it for me.”

A doctor from the town asked Zhaozhou, “Does an accomplished person go to hell or not?”  The master said, “I cut in at the head of the line.”  The doctor asked, “You are an accomplished person.  Why do you go to hell?”  The master said, “If I had not gone, how could I have met you here?”  Linji said that the pure lands and hell realms are all right here, and Zhaozhou moves about in them freely.

It is not simply hell or a particular place that we fear and flee, but also our own selves and desires.  Zhaozhou and a local government official were walking the monastery garden and a rabbit dashed out from under a bush and ran away.  The official said, “You are a great and accomplished person.  Why did the rabbit run away?”  The master said, “Because I like to kill.”  Linji said kill the Buddha, and Zhaozhou might enjoy it.  Both the doctor and official revere Zhaozhou as an ordained monk, an “accomplished person”, but Zhaozhou acts like a liberated person, not the distinguished and refined person they expect.

A monk said, “I’ve dropped everything and come with a peaceful heart.”  Zhaozhou said, “You’d better let go of it.”  The monk asked Zhaozhou how he could let go of it if he’s already dropped everything, and Zhaozhou said, “Fine, keep it!”  This is remarkably like the incident when Confucius’ student Zigong came to him and said, “I do not want to treat others the way I do not want to be treated!” and Confucius told him, “You’re not that far yet.”  Linji said he hasn’t yet met anyone who doesn’t come in a particular way and he hits them right there.  Zhaozhou tells the monk who tells him he is unattached that he is still attached, as the monk enters into the situation trying to be unattached, which isn’t being unattached, just like Zigong.

The Blue Cliff Record

The Blue Cliff Record (1125) is the second most popular and central koan collection after the later Gateless Gate (1228), containing 100 koans, 82 of which were taken from the earlier Transmission of the Lamp record (1004).  Yuanwu composed the Blue Cliff Record at Blue Cliff Cloister of Lingquan (“Ling-Chuwan”) temple, near the Blue Cliff Springs famous for pure waters used in tea, taking koan cases, questions and comments from his lectures he gave between 1111 and 1112 CE, “Turnabout Chan”, in Yuanwu’s words, which allows the wise, the “sage and a half”, to freely and instantaneously change directions between any things in any situation.

Yuanwu says in intro to the first case, “Being shown one corner and finding the other three, sizing up fine grains and lead weights with a glance, all this is the tea and rice of patch-robed monks.”  Nagarjuna, Buddhism’s central logician, teaches the Four Things (Catuskoti), which can be placed as four corners on a square diagram: things are, are not, are and are not, and neither are nor are not.  If we have four overlapping positions available in every situation, then we are free to move no matter how we are boxed in if we are unstuck.

We have already covered many of the Blue Cliff Record’s hundred gong-an cases.  The first case is Bodhidharma arriving in China and upsetting Emperor Wu.  Zhaozhou’s picking and choosing is the second case of the text.  Mazu’s Sun Faced Buddha is the third.  In the twelfth case, a monk asks Tung Shan, “What is Buddha?” and Tung Shan says, “Three pounds of hemp,” which is quite similar to Zhaozhou’s seven pound hemp shirt, the forty fifth case.  Mazu twisting Baizhang’s nose after ducks flew away is the fifty third.  Nanquan killing the cat is case sixty three, and Zhaozhou walking out with a sandal on his head after hearing about case sixty three is case sixty four.  

In the 17th case, a monk asked, “What is the meaning of the patriarch coming from the West?” and Hsiang Lin said, “Sitting for a long time becomes tiresome.”  Meditation can be a pain in the ass.  This is not the only thing that Buddhism means, but because Buddhists, and particularly Chan-Dhyana meditating Buddhists, sit a great deal, Bodhidharma’s lineage means a great deal of things, which includes sitting for a long time being tiresome quite often.  It isn’t the single truth of Buddhism, but even the question, “What is the single truth of Buddhism?” could be interpreted to mean, “What is the single truth of Buddhism right now, for you or whomever you think you are?”  The question can always be interpreted universally, and it can always be interpreted particularly.

In the 22nd case, Hsueh Feng said to the assembly, “On South Mountain there’s a turtle-nosed snake,” a strange unexplainable beast.  “All of you here must go take a good look.”  Yunmen took his staff, threw it to the floor, and pretended to be terribly frightened of it.  This sounds nonsensical at first but contains obvious sense when we slowly take in its situation.  In the Hindu Nyaya Sutra judging a rope or stick to be a snake is an example of our senses leading to mistakes of judgement.  Hsueh Feng says that there is a strange creature on a mountain and we should all look, but the only possible candidate for turtle-nosed snake in the situation is Hsueh Feng and his strange story, taking our attention with his words and simultaneously redirecting it, casting it away from himself out onto some strange mountain to look for an unseen creature.  Hsueh Feng, his words and his purpose are known and unknown, a strange living being that is opposed to itself, like a turtle-nosed snake.  Yunmen throws down his staff and pretends it is a snake, imitating Hsueh Feng throwing out words and pretending they are a living creature on a mountain we should all be concerned about, showing us that he understands Hsueh Feng’s tricky meaning and is free to turn it against him.

In the 25th case, the hermit of Lotus Flower Peak, a strange arhat-like character who comes in to lecture monks after doing his own thing on a mountain by himself, held up his staff before the assembly and said, “When the ancients got here, why didn’t they agree to stay here?”  No one answered, so he replied, “Because they gained no strength on the path.”  He then asked, “In the end, how is it?”  No one answered, so he replied, “With my staff across my shoulders, I pay no heed to people.  I go straight into the endless mountains.”

In the 31st case, Maku went to Zhangzhing’s place, circled Zhangzhing sitting in the central meditation seat three times, and shook his ringed staff once and took a proud stand.  The khakkhara staff, known in China as the xizhang (tin stick) and in Japan as shakujo, is a staff for traveling Buddhist monks topped with several jangling metal rings that scare away ghosts and demons, warn animals so they won’t be surprised and scared, and call out to people who need help and teachings.  By circling three times and shaking his staff, Maku is likely taking a protective and compassionate stand in the name of Buddhism and all conscious beings in the face of the endless circles of birth, existence and death, the number three used by many cultures to signify endlessness (…).  Zhangzhing said, “Correct, correct.”  Maku went to Nanquan’s place, master of Zhaozhou, and did the same.  Nanquan said, “Wrong, wrong.”  Maku said, “Zhangzhing said ‘correct’.  Why do you say ‘wrong’?”  Nanquan said, “Zhangzhing is correct.  It is you who is wrong.  This is what is turned about by the power of the wind.  In the end it breaks down and disintegrates.”

In the 52nd case, a monk said to Zhaozhou, “For a long time I’ve heard of the stone bridge of Zhaozhou, but now that I’ve come here I just see a simple log bridge.”  Zhaozhou said, “You just see the log bridge.  You don’t see the stone bridge.”  The monk said, “What is the stone bridge?”  Zhaozhou said, “It lets foolish donkeys cross and lets fine horses cross.”

In the 60th case, Yunmen held his staff up in front of the assembly and said, “This staff has changed into a dragon and has swallowed up the entire universe.  Where do mountains, rivers and the wide earth come from?”  Yunmen the magician can make the universe disappear simply by holding up a single thing.  Even when reading about the stick Yunmen talked about over a thousand years ago, we can lose sight of everything else.  Then Yunmen pulls mountains, rivers and the entire earth out of his hat, and no one spoke of the mighty dragon stick again.

The 77th case is cake.  A monk asked Yunmen, “What is talk that goes beyond buddhas and patriarchs?”  Yunmen said, “Cake.”  He makes us think of cake, imagining it’s sweetness, texture and satisfaction, a strange ghost that can be raised with a single word.

In the 80th case, a monk asked, “Does a newborn baby have all six kinds of mind?”  Zhaozhou said, “It is like throwing a ball into swift rapids.”  Is Zhaozhou referring to the mind of the baby, his own mind seeking an answer, or the mind of the monk who asked the question?  Trying to figure out which of these is the ball is like some sort of thing in some sort of swift moving water.

In the 81st case, a monk said, “On the grassy plain there are deer large and small.  How can I shoot the greatest deer of all?”  Yaoshan said, “Look!  An arrow!”  The monk fell to the floor as if dead.  Yaoshan said, “Attendant!  Drag this dead fellow out of here.”  The monk leaped up and ran out.  Yaoshan said, “How long will this fellow play with a mud ball?”  The monk is asking a violent question, in tune with the song of Linji, possibly about the greatest When Yaoshan says there’s an arrow, he could be talking about the monk’s question, or he could be talking about calling attention to the monk’s question by saying there’s an arrow himself.  You could only consider the second thought after considering the first, and the monk sees both which is why he plays along and falls to the floor as if dead, acting as if Yaoshan’s statement is an arrow aimed at him.  Yaoshan plays along with the monk, and asks if someone can drag him out.  

In the 85th case, a monk came to the hermit Tongfeng and asked, “What if you suddenly were face to face with a tiger out here?”  Tongfeng roared like a tiger.  The monk pretended to be frightened.  The hermit laughed loudly.  The monk said, “You old thief!”  Tongfeng said, “What can you do to me?”  The monk could say nothing.  The monk created an imaginary tiger, asking Tongfeng what he would do.  Tongfeng took the role of the tiger, stealing the monk’s imaginary beast from him like a thief, and the monk similarly stole the role of Tongfeng, which was temporarily vacant while Tongfeng was employed as a tiger.  The monk accuses Tongfeng of stealing his imaginary role, and Tongfeng asks what the monk will do with Tongfeng’s ‘actual’ imaginary role as himself, showing that he doesn’t fear his own self stolen.

In the 89th case, Yunyen asked Daowu, “What does the bodhisattva of compassion need so many hands and eyes for?  Daowu said, “It is like someone groping behind their head for a pillow in the middle of the night.”  Yunyen said, “I understand.”  Daowu said, “How do you understand it?”  Yunyen said, “The body is covered with hands and eyes.”  Daowu said, “You have said quite a bit there, but only four fifths of it.”  Yunyen asked, “How would you say it, elder brother?”  Daowu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”

In the 94th case, the text quotes the Surangama Sutra, “When I do not see, why do you not see my not seeing?  If you see my not seeing, that is obviously not simply not seeing.  If you don’t see my not seeing, then it obviously isn’t anything.  How can this not be yourself?”

In the 98th case Tienping was traveling around and dropped in on Xiyuan (“Hsee-yuwan”), who would often claim that he could not find anyone who could quote a single saying of the true Buddhist teaching.  Xiyuan saw Ping coming and called out his name.  Ping raised his head, and Xiyuan said, “Wrong!” much as Zhaozhou did when asked, “What a perfect question?”.  Ping took three steps towards Xiyuan and stopped.  Again said Xiyuan said, “Wrong!”  Ping approached, and Xiyuan asked him, “These two wrongs just now… Were they your wrongs or my wrongs?”  Ping said, “My wrongs.”  Xiyuan said, “Wrong!”  Later Ping told the monks in his temple, “I did not say it was wrong then, but I already knew this was wrong when I set out for the South.”

In the final 100th case, a monk asked, “What is the sharpest sword?”  Baling said, “The moon sits on each branch of coral.”

The Gateless Gate

The Gateless Gate (Chinese: Wumen Kuan, Japanese: Mumonkan, 1228) is the most popular collection of koans cases in the Zen tradition, followed by the Blue Cliff Record.  It contains many of the central moments of Zen in its 48 cases, including many we have already covered in the last few lectures.  Zhaozhou’s dog is the first case.  The Buddha holding up a flower and Mahakasyapa smiling is the sixth.  Nanquan killing the cat and Zhaozhou walking out with a sandal on his head, two cases in the Blue Cliff Record, are together the 14th case of the Gateless Gate.  Dungshan’s three pounds of flax is case 18.  Huineng asking Huiming about his original face after being chased down on a mountain is case 23.  Huineng saying it is neither wind nor flag but mind that is moving is case 29.  Mazu saying this mind is Buddha is case 30, and Mazu saying no mind, no Buddha is case 33.

The 48 cases were compiled by master Wumen (1183 – 1260) for teaching at a monastic retreat, who claims in his introduction to the text that the collection, including the title, was thrown together without much thought and the koans are in no particular order.  Wumen contemplated the koan about the dog and Zhaozhou’s “nothing” for six years until he experienced great enlightenment.  Like a crazed Daoist sage, he was known for letting his hair and beard grow out, wearing dirty robes and working in the fields by his temple.

The traditional title of the work, “Gateless Gate”, is somewhat of a mistranslation, but the title has become fossilized in English-speaking references to the classic Zen text.  Wumen’s own name (Wu-men) is the first word in the title (Wumenguan, Japanese: Mumonkan), and it refers to lacking a door, entry point or way of practice (wu – no, men – door/way), not to lacking a fence or a boundary that includes a gate.  The second word in the title (guan) means wall, barrier or checkpoint, a boundary set up to block or allow passage, so the entire title of the work is somewhat a gateless gate, but also a doorless wall or a checkpoint without point of entry.

Wumen wrote in the preface to the text that the “doorless wall” is the door into the Buddha’s teaching.  How do you pass through a doorless wall?  Wumen says that anything that passes through cannot be the treasure without beginning or end, independent of causation and time.  It seems that we are not supposed to think of passing through the door by going from one side, through the door, and out the other, but rather passing through the wall by simultaneously finding ourselves on both sides of it.  Wumen says that fools who depend on words and concepts are trying to hit the moon with a stick, scratching their shoes when their feet itch, glimpsing a fine horse running past a window, but those who unflinchingly cut straight through the barrier cannot be stopped by the the eight-armed demon king and will cause all the Indian and Chinese patriarchs to fear and beg for their lives.

In the third case of the text, whenever master Juzhi (Japanese: Gutei) was asked about the Buddha’s teachings or the meaning of Zen he would simply raise one finger.  Long before, he had been enlightened when a traveling monk had raised a finger and told him, “All truths are here.  This finger is now the smiling nun and her hat, and now it’s the cries of humanity, now its a babbling brook, and now it’s a lofty mountain peak towering above everything.”  Unfortunately, many young monks began imitating Juzhi by raising a finger every time they were asked a question, including one boy who would watch Juzhi all day and imitate him in every way.  Juzhi asked the boy about the meaning of Zen, and when the boy raised his finger Juzhi sliced off the top of it with a knife.  As the boy ran away screaming, clutching his bleeding finger, Juzhi called out him.  When the boy turned, Juzhi held up one finger.  He asked the confused and frightened boy what the meaning of Zen is, the boy raised what remained of his severed finger, and was greatly enlightened, in a way that hopefully compensated him for his rather severe and traumatizing work-related injury.

In the fifth case, Xiangyan (Japanese: Kyogen) told his students, “It is as though you are up in a tree, hanging from a branch with your teeth.  Your hands and feet can’t touch any branch.  Someone appears beneath the tree and asks, ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the west?’  If you do not answer, you are impolite and irresponsible, and if you do answer, you fall and lose your life.  How can you escape?”  In a longer version of the case, one of the monks asked him, “What was the one in the tree like before he climbed up there?” and Xiangyan laughed heartily.  Perhaps if we reassuringly hear that, like a true-to-life obedient water buffalo, we are each as rude as Linji, Pahua and Zhaozhou, perhaps we can learn to keep our fool mouths shut.  However, let us say you can’t help but speak.  When you open your mouth in an imaginary thought experiment where you are hanging from a tree by your teeth, which way do you fall, down?  Why down?  Assuming there is gravity in your imagination, and you do fall down, how long does it take for you to fall and die?  When you die in your mind, if you do, does everything vanish?  How many ways can you be brought back to life in an imaginary universe?

In the 12th case, Shiyan (Japanese: Zuigan) talked to himself constantly.  Every morning when he woke, he would say to himself, “Master!” and answer himself, “Yes, sir!” – “Become sober!” – “Yes Sir!” – “And do not be deceived by others!” – “Yes, sir!  Yes sir!”  Clearly there is no fooling him.

In the 20th case, Sungyuan asked the assembly, “Why can’t someone with incredible strength lift up a single leg?  It is not with the tongue that you speak.”  When we lift a leg we lift a part of ourselves, and thus haven’t lifted anything above ourselves at all.  How high can we lift a leg above itself and ourselves?  We do not speak with a tongue alone, but with lips, lungs, air and countless other things involved.  If we only have a leg in mind when Sungyuan asks us about it, we think about lifting the leg and not ourselves.  If we think about speaking with something other than a tongue, we do not think about speaking with a tongue and other things together.  With the leg, we think about it and not ourselves.  With the tongue, we think about something other than it, and not ourselves, it and everything together with us.

In the 38th case, Wuzu (Japanese: Goso) told the assembled monks, “It is like a water buffalo passing through a window.  It’s head, horns and four legs all pass through.  Why can’t its tail pass through along with the rest of it?”  If we think in the widest terms possible, existence is like a window, our senses and thoughts and living existence looking out onto to the world, and the beginning of things seems past and the middle of things present, currently passing through the window, but the end of things, the interwoven ways that things cause other things, doesn’t come through, leaving the beast suspended in mid-air.  Existence is a wonderful and strange unexplainable beast that absurdly remains in process, without end or graspable conclusion, unable to be tamed, weeded or singled out according to Linji and Zhaozhou.

In the 44th case, Bazhiao told the assembly, “If you have a staff, I will give you a staff.  If you don’t have a staff, I will take a staff away from you.”  Jesus similarly said he takes from those who don’t have and gives to those who already do.  What does it feel like to have a staff?  What does it feel like to not have one?  When Bazhiao says we have a staff or not, what does he give or take?

In the 45th case, Wuzu of the windowed water buffalo said, “Shakyamuni and Maitreya,” the original Buddha who came at the apex of our era and the future buddha who will come at our era’s end, “are servants of another.  Tell me, who is their master?”  Perhaps their common master is somewhere near Linji’s true sage of no rank, and just down the road from Huineng’s original face.

In the final 48th case, a monk asked Ganfeng, “All Buddhas of the universe enter nirvana by one road.  Where is it?”  Ganfeng drew the number one in the air (a horizontal line in Chinese rather than a vertical one, like a flat road) and replied, “Here it is.”  The monk went to Yunmen and asked the same question.  Yunmen held up a fan and said, “This fan will reach to the thirty third heaven and hit the nose of the presiding deity there,”  striking the mind of the monk in front of him in an unexplainable way, pulling his nose much like Mazu.

Stories from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

One of the mediums employed for teaching Zen monks and common folks alike is the short anecdote, the story with a lesson that is often a koan-like shift of focus.  Zen Flesh Zen Bones (1957) is now a classic, a book compiled by the American author Paul Reps as beatniks and others were getting into Zen, and it was one of the first I encountered in grade school.  After reading some of these stories, particularly the two monks and the girl in the kimono, I knew that there was something quite extraordinary in Zen, wisdom that sounded similar to things Jesus and others considered wise have said.  In this short and inexpensive book Reps has collected some of the most striking stories and koans from over 700 years of the tradition to make them available to the modern English reader.  Here are some of my favorites.

Two monks were traveling in the rain down a muddy town road.  Around a bend, they found a beautiful girl in a kimono unable to cross.  One offered his help, picked her up and carried her over the mud.  After the monks had reached an inn later, the second turned to him and scolded him for dangerously becoming involved with the girl, and the first replied, “I left the girl back there.  Why are you still carrying her with you?”

An old woman in China had supported a monk in a hut in her yard for over twenty years.  She decided to test his progress.  She told a young girl to embrace and caress him.  When she did, the monk replied, “An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter.  Nowhere is there any warmth.”  When she heard this, the woman was outraged that, while he had done nothing passionate, he had done nothing compassionate towards the girl either, and she promptly burned down the hut.

Mokusen visited a wealthy miser who hated spending money.  Mokusen clenched his hand in a fist and asked him, “What if my hand were always like this?”  The miser replied that it would be deformed.  Mokusen stretched out his hand and asked the same question, and the miser again said it would be deformed.  Mokusen nodded and left.  From that day on, the miser was both generous and frugal, helpfully giving but wise in spending.

One night Shichiri was meditating when a thief broke in and demanded money.  Shichiri replied that the money was in the drawer and he was not to be disturbed.  As the thief was taking the money, Shichiri asked that some be left, as he had taxes to pay.  As the thief went to leave, Shichiri added that he should be thanked for the gift.  Later, after the thief was caught, Shichiri told the officials, “This man is no thief.  I gave him the money and he thanked me.”  After getting out of prison, the thief became Shichiri’s devoted student.

Hogen was visited by traveling monks who were arguing about subjectivity and objectivity.  He asked them about a large stone in the yard, and whether it was inside or outside the mind.  One said that from a Buddhist viewpoint the stone was inside the mind.  Hogen replied that his head must be very heavy to carry around a stone like that around in his mind.

Sengai was asked to write calligraphy for the prosperity of a rich man’s family.  On a large sheet of paper, he wrote, “Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.”  The rich man became angry, but Sengai explained that if each generation passes away in the proper order, it would be the happiest course for the entire family.

Stories from Zen Speaks

Zen Speaks is another marvelous modern collection of Zen stories and koans by the author and artist Tsai Chih Chung that I highly recommend which contains wonderful cartoon renderings of many of the koans and stories we’ve already covered.  

You can watch the entire work as a cartoon in Cantonese with English subtitles:

The wrestler Onami (Great Wave in Japanese) was unbeatable in practice matches, throwing all of his teachers, but easily defeated in tournaments.  He sought the help of a Zen master who lived in a temple in the mountains who told him to imagine he was a tidal wave sweeping away everything in his path.  Onami meditated that night in the temple, and slowly he felt the roll of his breathing turn into waves.  First they swept away the flowers in the offering vase in front of the Buddha statue, then they rose higher and swept away the vase, then swelled into a flood that swept the Buddha and bodhisattvas out of the temple.  After that night, Onami was invincible.  When we feel fear and anxiety interacting with others, it is useful to imagine that we and they are all the fluid, rolling motions of the larger situation that surrounds us, fearing neither they nor the situation as something external to ourselves.

Master Jingqing asked a monk about the sound outside the monastery, and the monk replied, “That is the sound of rain.”  The master said, “All beings are upside-down, losing themselves as they chase things.”  The monk asked, “Master, how should I feel?” and the master replied, “I am the sound of the rain!”  Much as a tree falling in the forest with no one around doesn’t make a sound, and neither does a tree falling when someone is around but there is no air to serve as medium for it, every sound we hear is the entire circuit of karma and causation in the situation, including ourselves.

Huineng’s student Xiquan was asked what he gained from studying with Huineng, and Xiquan said, “I didn’t lack anything before I went.”  Asked why he went to Huineng if nothing was lacking, he replied, “How would I have known I lack nothing if I hadn’t gone?”

A master posed his monks with a problem: “Two monks went walking in the rain.  One didn’t get wet.  Why?”  The monks suggested that one had an umbrella, that the rain was scattered in places, that one walked under the cover of awnings, but the master said that the students were too focused on the words.  When the monks finally gave up, the master told them that both got wet.  “Two monks went walking in the rain.  One didn’t get wet.  Two got wet.”

The joke works just as well in ancient Chinese as it does in modern English because language has grey areas and ambiguities.  When the master said, “One didn’t get wet”, he could mean that it is the case that one didn’t get wet, such that one remained dry, or he could mean that it isn’t the case that one got wet, rather two got wet.  All of the solutions proposed by the monks assumed that one didn’t get wet, the first case, making them blind to the second.  It isn’t that the first case is the literal meaning of the words and the second metaphorical or derivative, but rather that we do not expect to hear about one monk and not the other if both got wet or both stayed dry.  The joke would also work if the master said both stayed dry, as one didn’t get wet, and the other didn’t get wet either.

When master Danxia was staying at Huilin temple, the winter cold was so bad that he broke and lit a wooden statue of the Buddha to keep warm.  When the head monk saw what was happening he demanded to know why Danxia would do such a terrible thing, and Danxia said that he wanted to see if there were any sacred relics inside.  The head monk said that it was stupid to think that there would be relics of the Buddha’s body hidden inside the statue, and Danxia said, “If there are no relics in them, let’s burn them all!”  According to the legend, the head monk’s eyebrows fell out, a sign that he was falsely professing the dharma.  A later master was asked if what Danxia did was wrong, and the master said, “When it’s cold, sit by the fire, and when it’s hot, sit in the shade.”

Once there was a snake whose tail spoke up and asked the head why it always gets to lead.  The head replied that it has eyes to see where it is going.  The tail protested that without its power they wouldn’t be able to move, and firmly circled a thick tree.  The head strained and strived but it could not break away from the tail or break the tail’s grip on the tree, so finally the head agreed that the tail could have its turn.  The proud tail charged ahead and then off of a cliff, with the head helplessly following after.

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