Buddhist Philosophy 10: Zen – Zhaozhou & The Blue Cliff Record

This lecture covers the Tang dynasty Zen master Zhaozhou (778 – 897) and cases from the Zen koan collection The Blue Cliff Record (1125).  Please read and contemplate the third batch of 8 koans (16-23), with commentary, of the Gateless Gate.

komyozenji rock garden b


zhaozhouNow 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 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

Nanquan with cat and Zhaozhou

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), who both gazed at the moon with Mazu before Nanquan shook out his sleeves and left.  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.

Zhaozhou printWhen 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.

Zhaozhou & Linji Wash Their Feet

Linji Rinzai on hoe

There is a koan case that appears in both Zhaozhou’s record and Linji’s record, but Zhaozhou and Linji’s positions are strangely reversed, possibly with purpose.  In the Zhaozhou lu, Zhaozhou arrives at Linji’s place and begins washing his feet.  Linji asks him, “What did Bodhidharma have in mind when he came from the west?”  Zhaozhou says, “As it happens, I’m washing my feet right now,” as if he is the first Chinese patriarch, bringing Buddhism to Linji.  Linji leans in and nods as if listening with great interest to an important person, and Zhaozhou says, “Fine!  I’ll throw out a second ladle of dirty water!”  Linji leaves without a word, possibly to avoid being doused in muddy foot water.

bahubali feet

The strange thing is that in the Linji lu it is Linji who is washing his feet as Zhaozhou arrives, as if Linji is pretending to be a traveler himself, and the dialog is the same but with each line attributed to the other speaker, such that Linji says he will throw out a ladle of dirty water and Zhaozhou leaves Linji’s place without a word, just after arriving.  Did Linji’s followers reverse this in the record to give Linji the final word?  It could be that the story was reversed to make both figures appear to be invincible, leaving us with no clear winner as koan cases often do when both are masters.  The reversal also sends Zhaozhou off to flourish elsewhere while Linji founds his house, perhaps to explain why these two masters, the culmination of Tang Chan zany brilliance, lived at the same time but did not study together.

Nanquan Kills the Cat

Nansen and the cat

Zhaozhou studied with Nanquan, who shook out his sleeves after Baizhang called gazing at the moon perfect practice.  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.”

Bodhidharma painting caligraphy

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.

cat zen circle

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.

huike cuts off left arm bodhidharma

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?

dog bone comic

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.  A monk once famously 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.  It is possible Linji was thinking of these cases of Zhaozhou and others when he used the expression.


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

Kanzan jittoku screen japan

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.

Two Water Buffalo

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.  Is it more obedient to the universe to be a crazy beast or a polite and proper person?

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?  Consider this mere image, two blind men on a log bridge, by the Rinzai Zen master Hakuin:

Hakuin two blind men crossing log bridge

Hakuin might ask us:  What does the blindness of these men look like?  Perhaps it looks like the slippery feeling of being blindfolded on a wet, algae-covered log suspended over a rushing stream that cannot be seen, either by us or by these blind images.

Seven Pound Hemp Shirt

Zhaozhou by Tsai Chih Chung

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.

Japanese rice barrel

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

Dazu Shakyamuni

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.


Linji said that the teachings of the buddhas calls for no special projects, simply acting ordinary.  Zhaozhou said that the true way is easy, simply avoid judging between things, picking one as good over others, including judging between judging things and not judging things, picking and choosing between picking and choosing or not picking or choosing.  If we are non-judgmental, we are non-judgmental about being non-judgmental, treating others who are judgmental as our equals even as we help them understand our common mind and interests with a wider view.  This is much as the Buddha teaches in the Lotus Sutra with the parable of the burning house, that the true one shines like the sun without discrimination on all, without picking or choosing.  Zhaozhou does not live in pure clarity, but rather the world and all its clarity and ignorance intertwined, which he embraces and plays with using humor, language and judgement, muddying the waters to see if monks can understand both together.

mindful silence comic.jpg

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

chinese landscape with bridge

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.

mazu grabs nostrils

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 monk 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.

Magritte personal values

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.

breakfast cereal philosopher comic

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.

zen gps

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 others.

Huike thinking

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.


When Baizhang scoffs at Zhaozhou’s master’s solemn advice, he is laughing but also being serious, negative about Nanquan just as Nanquan shook out his sleeves.  If Baizhang is being serious, then according to Nanquan he has no attainment, so by calling Nanquan a fool Baizhang himself looks like a fool, someone who picks and chooses.  Zhaozhou acts surprised, either because Baizhang called his master a fool or because Baizhang is acting like a fool himself.  Baizhang criticizes Zhaozhou for being surprised, for if Zhaozhou is a fool then he should be strict and solemn, and in doing so Baizhang again is strict and solemn, and looks like a fool himself again.  Zhaozhou does a little dance to show he understands and is neither strict nor solemn himself.  We are the serious and the silly ourselves, and free to be either as we like in the space we’re in.

Yin Yang Sideways

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

buddhist wood carving pure land.jpgA 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.

ooh I know this koan pick me

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, “Huihan,” 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

pure land buddha

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.”

pure land hell realm

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.

rabbit ogata gekko

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.

Fuji from the platform of sasayedo japanese painting.jpg

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.

Your Eyelids Hang Over Mount Sumaru

mount sumaru.jpg

A monk asked, “Two mirrors are facing each other.  Which is the clearest?”  The master said, “Your eyelids hang over Mount Sumaru,” the legendary mountain at the center of the universe in Buddhist cosmology.  The monk challenges Zhaozhou to pick which of them is more enlightened, and Zhaozhou points back to the monk as the center of any pride he feels others feel.  Just as ignorance is part of who we are, Bodhidharma said that the self is as high as the height of the cosmos.

Hoju asked Koteiko, “Aren’t you Koteiko?”  Koteiko said, “You’re too kind.”  Hoju asked, “Can you nail up the sky or not?”  Koteiko said, “Please try to nail up the sky.”  Hoju slapped him and said, “After this some jabbering scholar will explain this for you.”  Koteiko told Zhaozhou about what happened, and Zhaozhou replied, “Why did you make him hit you?”  At first, Koteiko seems like he is winning at spontaneous perspective shifting, making a joke out of his own mortal conceit, but he does not know how to respond to a request to nail up the sky, so he simply repeats it rather than flip it.  Linji scolded a monk with the words, “You don’t drive a nail into the empty sky.”  If identifying with our names “nails up the sky,” then we can nail up the sky or not, as Hoju says, but Koteiko acts as if we simply can’t, so Hoju slaps him to call Koteiko’s attention to himself the way a name does, but without a name, nailing up the sky as Koteiko asked him to do.  Thus, Zhaozhou asks him why he asked for it.

water vase

In case forty of the Gateless Gate, Hyakujo decided to test the assembly and put a water vase on the ground.  He asked, “Who can say what this is without calling its name?”  The chief monk said, “No one can call it a wooden shoe.”  Guishan the cook kicked over the vase and walked out.  Hyakujo smiled and said, “The chief monk loses.”  Perhaps only a jabbering scholar could see the similarity between cases here, but Hoju “names” Koteiko by slapping him in the face much as Guishan “names” the vase by kicking it over, calling attention to it as one does when calling out a name.

Have Some Tea

baiso makes tea

Zhaozhou asked a new monk if he had been to the monastery before, the monk said yes, and Zhaozhou told him to go in and have tea.  Zhaozhou asked a second monk, the monk said no, and Zhaozhou told him to go in and have some tea.  The elder monk assisting Zhaozhou got up and walked away, incensed that Zhaozhou was asking questions without purpose.  Zhaozhou called out to him, and when the elder monk turned Zhaozhou told him to go in and have some tea.  You can use speech to teach distinctions and differences, or use them to teach others that we seek distinctions and differences even when they are not necessary.

fist painting

Joshu went to see a monk and asked him, “What is, is what?”  The monk raised his fist.  Joshu replied, “Ships cannot remain where the water is too shallow,” quoting Zhuangzi, and left.  A few days later Joshu returned and asked him the same question.  The monk again raised a fist.  Joshu said, “Well given, well taken, well killed, well saved,” and bowed to the monk.  In the previous case of tea, Zhaozhou asks a question and the difference in the monk’s responses makes no difference in Zhaozhou’s response to their responses, much like the Buddha says about being like the sun in the Lotus Sutra.  In the later case with the fist, Zhaozhou asks a question and the monk’s same response makes Zhaozhou respond in a completely different way to no difference other than the repetition of the same.  In Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, a young girl becomes the next secret leader of the world by way of this koan.

komyozenji rock garden

The Blue Cliff Record

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.

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We do and don’t know who we ourselves are, so we could say any of the four at any time, and mean it.  When Huangbo struck Linji, Linji thought that he was bad, but Linji is bad, good, bad and good, and neither bad nor good, the neutrality towards all things that the Buddha taught, and we can come into a situation and set up shop from any of the four corners, but Linji will likely see where we are coming from.  Looking at things from all four corners allows us to size up fine grains, making better judgements about small things, as well as size up lead weights, making better judgements about the large, important matters that bring so much weight to what we say and do.

hakuin kannon bodhisattva

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 Dungshan, “What is Buddha?” and Dungshan says, “Three pounds of hemp,” which is quite similar to Zhaozhou’s seven pound hemp shirt, the 45th case.  Mazu twisting Baizhang’s nose after ducks flew away is the 53rd.  Nanquan killing the cat is the 63rd case, and Zhaozhou walking out with a sandal on his head after hearing about case 63 is case 64.

yuanwu zen master

Yuanwu’s commentary constantly subverts expectations, calling winners losers and vice versa.  Frequently Yuanwu concludes his commentary on cases saying that everyone, including the poet Xuedou who provides the accompanying verses to each case, gets it wrong or only partly right.  Yuanwu often throws the judgement on the reader, asking why puzzling behavior occurred and assuring us that if we understand it, we truly have the same mind and sight as the Buddha himself.  Those who studied with Yuanwu and other related Chan masters spoke of koan cases as encounters at the Dragon Gate, Longmen, the barrier where fish swim up a raging waterfall during a spring thunderstorm, and have the possibility of leaping past the peak and becoming dragons that fly through the air as fish swim through the sea.  Yuanwu wrote a single cynical verse at the end of the text with his case by case comments, pessimistic about the possibilities of teaching with language and the ability of humanity to understand:

koi carp edo 2

Filled with countless bushels of rice a boat effortlessly pulls away,

Holding just one grain of rice a jar entraps a snake;

When offering comments on one hundred transformative old cases,

Just how many people will end up with sand tossed in their eyes?

koi carp edo 3

In the tenth case of the text, Mujou asked a monk, “Where have you come from?” and the monk gave a shout, possibly to indicate that he comes from the House of Linji.  Mujou said, “You’ve shouted at me once before.”  The monk gave another shout, much like the monk who raised a fist twice in a row when questioned by Zhaozhou.  Mujou said, “After three or four shouts, then what?”  The monk had no reply.  Mujou struck him and said, “What a thieving phony you are!”  If the monk had given yet another shout in confidence, would Mujou have struck him?


In the 14th case, a monk asked, “What are the teachings of a whole lifetime?”  Yunmen said, “An appropriate statement.”  The two time lengths are similar to Mazu’s sun-faced buddha and moon-faced buddha.  Are the teachings of a whole lifetime to be found in a single appropriate statement, or is the monk’s open question itself an appropriate statement?  In the following fifteenth case, another monk asked Yunmen, “What is neither this mind nor this world?” and Yunmen said, “An upside-down statement.”  The two cases are meant to be read side by side.  The second monk is trying to take the neither/nor position, and it is not clear whether Yunmen finds fault in saying “upside-down”.

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.

japanese turtle and snake

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.

lotus flower peak

chinese hermit frog on his head

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 29th case, a monk asked Dasui, “The inferno at the end of the era sweeps through and completely destroys the universe.  I wonder, is this itself destroyed or not?”  Dasui said, “It is destroyed.”  The monk said, “If so, then this too goes along with it.”  Dasui said, “It goes along with it.”  Dasui says that total destruction is destroyed, the monk says that total destruction being destroyed will also be destroyed and will be gone, and Dasui says that this too continues to go on and on along with it, continuing to be right here while also gone.

Buddhist statue with shakujo ring staff

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.”  This is like the fist for Zhaozhou, but right to wrong instead of wrong to right.

Golden Lion China

In the 39th case, a monk asked, “What is the ultimate truth?”  Yunmen said “A flowering hedge.”  The monk asked, “What if I understand things the way you say?”  Yunmen said, “A golden-haired lion.”  Yunmen first says that true understanding is a beautiful flowering fence, and then that the monk’s understanding that understanding is a beautiful fence is itself a beautiful animal that moves, a pleasing plant that stops becoming a pleasing animal that goes.

Zhaozhou bridge drawing

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.”

koi carp edo

In the 57th case, a monk said, “The supreme way is not difficult.  It is simply not picking or choosing.  What is not picking or choosing?”  Zhaozhou, quoting the Buddha himself, said, “Above and below the heavens I am the only one, alone and exalted.”  The monk said, “That is still picking and choosing.”  Zhaozhou said, “You stupid fool!  Where is the picking and choosing?”  The monk could say nothing.  Just as when Zhaozhou told a monk to bow and withdraw after asking about picking and choosing, acting as if he is some kind of unenlightened jerk, when Zhaozhou says that he, like the Buddha, is the only one, does he mean only himself, or all of us conscious beings together?  It could be either, such that Zhaozhou could be acting like a supremely arrogant ass or like the all-encompassing Buddha.  The monk reads it the first way, saying it is still picking and choosing, namely Zhaozhou exalting himself over all others.  Zhaozhou decides to play along, and just as Baizhang did to him when discussing Nanquan he calls the monk a fool and thereby acts like a fool himself.  Is Zhaozhou picking and choosing when he acts like a jerk picking and choosing?  It could be either again.


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.

tiger_by_Kishi_Renzan 1842

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.

Yin Yang Sideways

In the 86th case, Yunmen told the assembly, “Everyone has their own bright light.  When you look at it, you can’t see it and it is darkness.  What is everyone’s bright light?”  None of the monks knew what to say, so Yunmen said, “The kitchen pantry and the main gate.”  None of the monks knew what to say, so Yunmen said, “The best things aren’t as good as nothing.”

thousand armed avalokitesvara

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.”

perspective six nine

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?”

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In the 98th case Tienping was traveling around and dropped in on Xiyuan, 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 it 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.”

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