In this lecture, we will be covering the Tang dynasty Zen master Linji (~810 – 866).  Please read and contemplate the second 8 koans (8-15), with commentary, of the Gateless Gate.

The House of Linji & The Silent Transmission


Linji (~810 – 866), known in Japan as Rinzai, is the central grand master of Zen as his teachings and followers created the texts and practices that have been core to the Zen tradition for the last thousand years.  The House of Linji made “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “If a tree falls in the forest when no one is around, does it make a sound?” the paradoxical objects of contemplation they remain today.  Huairang told Mazu, “If you try to sit like the Buddha, you kill the Buddha,” as if it’s a bad thing.  Linji infamously said, “When you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha,” as if it’s the thing to do.  Linji said in a sermon to monks:

Buddha teaching followers

Followers of the Way, don’t take the Buddha to be some sort of ultimate goal.  In my view, he’s more like the hole in a toilet.  Bodhisattvas and arhats are all so many collars and chains, things for tying people up.

The way I see it, we should cut off the heads of the buddhas.  Those who have completed all stages of bodhisattva practice are no better than hired fieldhands.  Those who have obtained high stages of enlightenment are prisoners, shackled and bound.  Sages and arhats are just so much crap in the toilet.  Enlightenment and freedom are hitching posts for donkeys.

Mahayana Buddhists believe in nonduality and identifying with all conscious beings.  Huineng tore up sacred texts and said that the Buddha is and isn’t.  Huairang said that trying to be Buddha is killing the Buddha.  Mazu pulled noses, kicked people and said “mind is Buddha” and “no mind no Buddha”, acting as if everything as well as its opposite is true.  Out of this line comes Linji who said we need to have greater faith in ourselves, so let’s kill the Buddha while basely insulting everything that is holy.  Why would a revered Zen master who takes Mahayana vows of compassion for all living beings tell us to kill, and the Buddha of all people?

laozi water buffalo

Chan (Japanese: Zen) had some support in the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), the time when the revered masters Huineng, Mazu, Linji and Zhaozhou taught, but the imperial court supported other Buddhist sects such as Tiantai and Huayan far more.  Some intellectuals and artists turned from these and the northern schools of Chan to the southern protest of Huineng, who tore up sutras and taught that the lowliest born could be the greatest master.  After the imperial support for Tiantai and Huayan ended with the fall of the Tang, the legend of the incomprehensible and unconquerable Chan master took hold in the Five Dynasties period between the Tang and Song (907 – 960), a new incarnation of the zany Daoist sage beyond all borders and boundaries popularized in the Han.  By the time of the Song dynasty (960 – 1279), a century after Linji’s death, Linji’s followers had collected and created texts that connected Bodhidharma and Huineng, popular with all Five Houses, to Mazu, Huangbo and Linji himself.

Chinese Song Dynasty street

The Song dynasty supported many Buddhist sects, including southern-style Chan.  Some scholars have claimed that the Song was the first modern society.  A new gentry class replaced the old aristocracy, the urban middle classes expanded and printing, invented in the Tang and improved with movable type in the Song, spread literacy and Buddhist texts such as the traditional Mahayana sutras and a new type of Chan text, the records of sayings (yulu), compilations of exchanges between masters and others that display enlightenment and individual freedom, also known as koan (Chinese: gong-an), cases for judgement.  The Transmission of the Lamp, the primary source of koan material, was compiled in 1004 by Daoyuan of the House of Fayan but published by Yang Yi, a Linji supporter and major scholar in the Song royal court, as the Fayan school was being absorbed into the House of Linji.

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

mahakasyapa buddha holds up a flower

After Mazu shouted and struck as wordless responses, Linji spoke of the “silent transmission outside the scriptures” which Huineng brought south and Mazu maintained.  Linji was not regarded as the heir of Mazu’s tradition before the Song, but his followers worked to establish him as the “True Man” of their true House of Chan.  By 1029 the House of Linji had risen above the other four Chan houses and all other sects of Buddhism in China to become the favored spiritual and intellectual tradition of the Song imperial court.  The story of the Buddha silently holding up a flower was added with many others to the stories from the Transmission of the Lamp, which already had the Song imperial seal of approval, such that a complete record of Linji’s “silent transmission” lineage was established as Zen canon with the Blue Cliff Record (1125), 250 years after Linji’s death.  This was followed by the Gateless Gate (1228) and official records of the life and teachings of Huineng, Mazu, Linji, Zhaozhou and others.

Huineng tears up sutras

Chinese philosophy, like Indian and Greek philosophy, is based in recorded interactions between the wise and the foolish, found in the core Confucian and Daoist texts long before Chan in China.  Mythical tricksters, shamans and sages have said puzzling things across human cultures to lead others to wisdom, but the koan records are some of the most puzzling words yet written, intentionally defying all expectations and understandings.  While culture is always counter to other cultures, Chan in the hands of the House of Linji became a very unorthodox orthodoxy, a tradition of texts that is opposed to textual traditions, an intellectual rejection of intellectualism.  Versions of koan texts show that many of the stories were redacted in stages to cut exposition and explanations that detracted from the “turning word” of the unforeseen, simple and brilliant response that displays the master’s enlightenment, making the koan cases even less like the previous detailed philosophical explanations of the Buddha and Buddhist scholars in the sutras and commentaries on them.

Muso zen master

Zen appears to radically reject all study of texts and devotional worship, but this is because Linji’s house made koans central to Zen history and practice.  While the Tiantai and Huayan were more focused on texts and rituals, Chan focused on sitting meditation and koan contemplation.  Without understanding the traditional sutras and rituals, which the Zen tradition still reveres, much of the context is lost, leaving the koans even more puzzling than intended.  Some say the koans have no solutions or are designed to upset reasoning entirely.  Others say there are solutions, but shifts in understanding and perspective cannot be entirely described in words, just as the act of pointing can’t be put entirely into words, nor does it need to be.  Many modern counterculturals such as Transcendentalists, Dada artists, Surrealists, Existentialists, Beatniks and Hippies have admired the absurdity and creativity found in the koan encounters.

Linji Ribs His Masters


According to the legendary record, Linji studied with Huangbo for three years but feared requesting a private meeting as he did not know what question to ask the master.  After the head monk encouraged him, Linji met and asked Huangbo three times, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?” and each time Huangbo struck him and said nothing.  Linji told the head monk he was too stupid to understand Huangbo’s wisdom and was leaving.  Hearing this, Huangbo told Linji to visit master Dayu.  When Linji arrived at Dayu’s place, Dayu asked Linji how Huangbo teaches Chan, and Linji told him about being struck three times.  “What a kindly old grandmother Huangbo is!” said Dayu.  “He wears himself out trying to help you, and you still think of yourself and look for your own faults.”

Zen master strikes student

Linji was greatly enlightened and said, “Huangbo’s teaching is no big deal after all!”  Dayu picked up his staff and threatened Linji, saying, “You bed-wetting devil!  You just finished saying you don’t understand Huangbo, and now you say it’s no big deal!  Which is it?  Speak!  Speak!”  Linji grabbed the end of Dayu’s staff and punched him in the ribs.  Linji didn’t answer master Dayu’s demanding question, but rather ribbed his superior playfully as if he was a familiar friend and equal.  Dayu pushed him away, saying, “You’re Huangbo’s student, not my problem,” as if Linji remained a failure, but the insult seems to be a sign of Dayu’s approval before sending him back.  Linji returned to Huangbo, who said, “You’ve come back so soon?”  Linji said, “Because you’re so kind to me, Grandma!” and told him what happened.  “The next time I see that old rascal Dayu, I’ll give him such a wallop!” said Huangbo.  “Why wait?” Linji said, “I’ll give you a taste right now!” and slapped Huangbo, who laughed out loud and said, “This fool has come here to pluck the tiger’s whiskers!”

tiger painting

Linji goes from fear to fearless and gets approval for striking two superiors.  At first, Linji treats Huangbo as a superior sage and himself as a foolish failure, fearing and revering something outside himself, much as Shenxiu worried and fretted he would not receive the teaching as he wrote his verse on the wall before Huineng’s.  Each time that Huangbo struck Linji, Linji saw it as a sign that he failed to understand, but Huangbo was trying to show him that it isn’t about him but rather how the mind we all share can make us tied up in ourselves.  Even as Linji scolds himself he is concerned with only himself and not with the mind in general, either philosophically or as lived experience.  When Dayu said that Linji is being selfish looking for his own faults, Linji realized that from the detached view of a single mind in common everyone is quite similar and interchangeable and Huangbo striking Dayu is much the same thing as Linji striking Huangbo.

linji tilling the soil

Later Linji was master of his own monastery, and he told his monks that when he was at Huangbo’s place he asked about Buddhism three times and Huangbo was nice enough to hit him three times.  Linji said it was like being brushed with a branch of fine herbs, and thinking of it makes him wish he could be hit like that once more.  He asked if anyone could give him such a beating, and when one monk stood and offered, Linji offered him his staff, then struck the monk with it as the monk reached out to take it from him.  Much like Mazu, who called out to monks as they left the room, Linji enjoys interrupting people.

The True Sage of No Rank

emperor has no clothes

In the well-known story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, con-artists lie to the emperor and say they have made him the finest clothes that only those who deserve their position can see.  When the naked sovereign parades in public, a young boy points out that the emperor is naked, breaking everyone else’s self-imposed silence.  The original story, The Three Impostors, comes from Islamic Spain, the emperor is a sultan, those who don’t deserve their positions are bastards not entitled to their family’s inheritance, and the boy is an African slave who tells the enraged sultan that he has no position in society and so it doesn’t matter who his father is.  Because the slave has no rank, he has nothing to lose and is the only one free to speak.  The Daoist Zhuangzi said things can be stolen but no one can steal the world itself from us, and Liezi said that each slave is in some way superior to the emperor.

Linji by Hakuin painting

Linji taught his radical Huineng and Mazu style of Chan as the Tang dynasty was collapsing, and he suggests many times in his sermons that students do not need to be concerned with conventional Buddhist teachings, rules or practices.  Just as Zhuangzi spoke of the “true sage of ancient times” who did not fear death or worry about life and Huineng taught that lowest in rank might be the wisest, Linji spoke of the “true sage of no rank”, neither above nor beneath anyone.  This is often translated as “true man”, but the word ‘man’ is used to mean general person, and it does keep somewhat in the spirit of egalitarianism to be gender-neutral, assuming that wise sages of the Daoist variety do not hold themselves in distinction above others.

Linji said to the assembly, “This mountain monk is telling you that within that lump of red flesh of yours is a true sage of no rank, constantly entering and exiting the openings of your face.  Any of you who haven’t figured this out yet, look!  Look!”  Linji chose to call himself a country monk rather than a cultured master, opening with a simple country lawyer routine much like Socrates did at his trial, and tells the ordained monks that they are red flesh-lumps with a nameless wise mind moving through their faces all day.  We take the world in through our eyes, ears, nose and mouth, and we put our minds out into the world for others primarily through the use of our mouths, as well as the gestures we can make with our other organs.

Chengling_Pagoda linji temple

A monk in the assembly asked Linji, “Who is the true sage of no rank?”  Linji stood up from the lecture seat, walked over to the monk, grabbed him by his robe and said, “Speak!  Speak!”  If Linji is correct, the rankless sage just exited the monk’s mouth and is likely still lurking somewhere behind his eyes.  The monk asked his superior who the rankless sage is, not getting the common connection, so Linji imitates the monk and asks the superior sage coming out of the monk’s mouth who he is, as if he himself doesn’t get the common connection.  Linji reverses the direction of the question but remains the master, demanding an answer as a superior rather than requesting as a subordinate.  The monk opened his mouth to speak again, but Linji let go of him and said, “The true sage with no rank!  What a dried up piece of shit!” and left the hall.  Some translate the last phrase as “dried up asswipe”, a stick used to wipe one’s ass.  Song dynasty nobles were some of the first in the world to enjoy the luxury of toilet paper.  Either way, Linji first says the sage is true, then treats the sage as a subordinate and says the sage is some shitty thing to be excluded and ignored.

zen temple guardian

There are two ways we can interpret the single wise mind Linji speaks of, a traditional Buddhist way and a modern psychological way.  To a traditional Buddhist, this cosmos is one conscious mind and our individual minds are mere pieces of the larger whole.  Many would say that this is similar if not the same thing as pantheism, the belief that a godlike cosmic consciousness is the world itself rather than its external cause and designer.  Buddhism does, in this way, resemble a pantheistic monotheism, although unlike Christianity and Islam it is not explicitly identified with theism.  Muslims in India have called Buddhism both pantheist and atheist, neither nicely.

patriarchs of zen

To a modern skeptical psychologist, we cannot know that the world beyond our minds is conscious, but we can say that the part of the world we experience is constructed by each of our individual minds.  As the Buddha himself said in the Dhammapada, “With our thoughts we make the world.”  When we identify with others, we speak and act as if we share their mind insofar as we share their intentions, making no distinction between themselves and ourselves, between their identities and our own.  As Wittgenstein would say, if we do draw a distinction between ourselves and others with our “minds” and interests, it is only for specific purposes, for ways that our interests may differ from theirs.  The modern psychologist might suggest that the mind, feelings and thoughts that a team “shares” are not a shared experience of underlying cosmic consciousness, but rather the experience internal to the mind of each individual on the team, experienced in each as shared experience.

Kanzan and Jittoku zen

Linji is a traditional Buddhist who likely has faith that we all share one consciousness, but even if Linji was well versed in modern skeptical psychology he could still argue that we should train ourselves to identify more with the mentality we share than with our individual selves.  The Buddha taught that when we settle our minds we can experience the extinction of fear, hate and greed.  Linji taught that if we trust ourselves and others we share a wiser deep mind that fulfills us more than our selfish individual interests.  We can learn to experience the world and our interactions in it as playful fighting between friends rather than gaining or losing particular positions.  We cannot train ourselves to trust shared feelings with mere shared words and concepts, but rather by direct attention to experience, particularly interactions with each other.

Monk Meditating by Zen Rock Garden

Insulting the Buddha as a Good Friend

Kanzan jittoku screen japan

When we insult enemies we are trying to weaken them and their attempts against our interests, but when we insult friends we are trying to strengthen them, their attempts to help us in our interests as well as the bond of friendship we share.  Even the simple, humble “dad joke” is a small attempt to toughen the child’s endurance of the frightening absurdities of everyday existence.  Linji says that the Buddha himself is no better than a hole in the toilet and should have his head cut off, as if he is an unpardonable criminal and a terrible burden to the whole community.  Similarly, Linji says that the greatest saints and sages are crap in the toilet, are prisoners rather than free, shackle others rather than free them, and are no better than cheap hired labor.  In the same way, Linji mocks monks who revere the great Buddhist teachers as their superiors rather than insult them as they would a close, trusted friend.

theravada temple procession

Followers of the Way, you take the words that come out of the mouths of a bunch of old teachers to be a description of the true Way.  You think, “This is a most wonderful teacher and friend.  I have only the mind of a common mortal.  I would never dare try to fathom such greatness.”  Blind idiots!  You go through life with this kind of understanding, betraying your own two eyes, cringing and faltering like a donkey on an ice road, saying, “I would never dare speak ill of such a good friend.  I’d be afraid of making mouth karma!”

Followers of the Way, the really good friend is someone who dares to insult the Buddha, insult the patriarchs, pass judgement on anyone in the world, throw away the scriptures, despise those little children, and in the midst of disagreement and agreement seek out the real sage.

painted Bodhidharma

The real sage to be sought out is likely the same true sage of no rank who moves through faces all day.  When Linji insults the greatest Buddhist teachers, he is using words freely as if he is among familiar friends, much like the overused trope of the long lost friends who pretend to be sworn enemies in front of the whole frightened bar but call of the fight at the last moment and hug instead.  Linji even ended a sermon with the words, “The world can insult me all it likes!” before thanking the monks for standing so long and leaving, welcoming everyone to insult him as he insults them.  In the story of the monkey trainer, Zhuangzi suggests that we should not try to stop the world from judging us in insane ways.  Linji would not only let the monkeys chatter away, but have us think of them as friends who may not have any idea how they are helping us.


When Linji traveled to the monastery in Hobei, the governor asked for a lecture.  After Linji had spoken to the assembly of government officials and monks, the monk Mayu stepped forward and asked, “Which is the true eye of the thousand-eyed Avalokiteshvara?”  Linji asked Mayu the same question, and begged him, “Answer me!  Answer me!”  Mayu grabbed Linji, pulled him down from the lecture seat and sat in it himself.  Linji approached Mayu and said, “How do you do?”  Mayu opened his mouth to answer, but hesitated.  Linji grabbed him, pulled him down from the lecture seat and sat in it again.  Linji again interrupts a monk who doesn’t know what to do when put in a position, but unlike the previous monk who didn’t know how to answer at all, Mayu first answered Linji by taking his place just as Linji took his, and only hesitated after Linji unexpectedly went along with it.  Perhaps Linji sensed that Mayu feared failure, just as Linji had feared failure at first, second and third when hit by Huangbo.

Demons & Beasts

Rinzai zen skeletons

Linji mentions many ranks and positions that we and others who share a mind somewhat like ours take, some quite low and others quite high, including in an ascending but imperfect order: demons, ghosts, children, slaves, criminals, fools, commoners, monks, teachers, masters, sages, arhats, bodhisattvas, buddhas, and the Buddha himself.  Linji even treated people as things with no mind at all, such as calling the Buddha a shit-hole.  When Linji visited one monastery the master saw him coming and sat in the gateway of the temple with his staff across his legs.  Linji walked up, knocked three times on his staff, and walked past him through the gate, treating him as one should a proper, well positioned door.



Demons are an interesting phenomena found in cultures all over the world, an idealized terrible other-self, humanoid and beast-like intertwined together.  In the ancient cosmology Buddhists share with many other cultures, demons, hungry ghosts and animals are desirous and wrathful, which is why they naturally live in the lower, miserable levels of the cosmos.  Linji told his monks that even a bit of Buddhist teaching can turn them into demons, for, “As soon as you acquire a little of such understanding, you start treating others with scorn and contempt, fighting and struggling with them like so many demons, blinded by the ignorance of self and others, forever creating karma that will send you to hell.”  Truly, “the ignorance of self and others” can be found in the idealized images of demons themselves, projections of our own worst aspects.

Linji also compares humanity to animals, as Zhuangzi, Aesop and countless other ancient sages have done in the earliest of stories and teachings the whole world over.  Linji said that monk who tried to please masters are like donkeys on an ice road.  Much as Nietzsche, one of my favorite modern European philosophers, compared humanity to sheep and said truth is only for the bold who break away from the herd, Linji mocked monks for behaving like foolish and cowardly sheep who fear straying far from the others and thus live in ignorance.

sheep in field

Students today haven’t the slightest understanding of the Dharma.  They’re like sheep poking things with their noses, putting anything they find immediately into their mouths.  They can’t tell royalty from servants or guests from hosts.  People like that come to the Way with twisted minds, rushing in wherever they see a crowd.

Linji compares most Chan masters to cowardly, conniving foxes who con Buddhism out of food and board, and says that true sages are ignored and driven out of Buddhist monasteries, just as they are driven out of everywhere else for speaking the truth.  Just as the northern Chan master Shenxiu was portrayed by Huineng’s southern followers as a nervous wreck and thus a false teacher, Linji says that unlike Chan masters who are false foxes those who truly make breakthroughs are lions that the foxes fear.

chinese lion

Those Chan masters who are as timid as a new bride are afraid they might be expelled from the monastery and deprived of their meal of rice, worrying and fretting, but from times past the real teachers, wherever they went, were never listened to and were always driven out.  That’s how you know they were sages of worth.  If everyone approves of you wherever you go, what use can you be?  Hence the saying, let the lion give one roar and the brains of foxes will all split open.

Linji mentions the positions of guest and host many times in his sermons, and particularly when he talks about interviewing students in the manner of many koan cases.  Later we will study Dogen and the Soto school, who broke away from Rinzai (Linji) Zen in Japan but still make much use of koans as well as Linji’s roles of guest and host in their teachings and practices.  The Soto school explicitly tells students that the guest is the “subjective” individual and the host is the “objective” world or true buddha-nature, and teaches the student to merge these two roles in a series of stages.

japanese official

Linji repeatedly says that masters such as himself test students to see who is guest and who is host, who fear their particular position and who confidently takes on any possible position.  Linji compares monks to sheep, masters to foxes and the one true mind to a lion.  Heraclitus, the skeptical Greek philosopher compared by many to the Buddha, said that there are common sleepers in the darkness, clever experts who see some of the light and scheme against others who claim to have some other part of it, and those who are awake who see that we all share one world and light in common, who don’t need to scheme.

burning house lotus sutra buddhism

In the Lotus Sutra, the central text of Tiantai Buddhists and well known in the Zen tradition, the Buddha uses the parable of children in a burning building lured outside by the promise of fancy chariots to teach that there are many who are ignorant, inside in darkness much like the masses in Plato’s cave, there are those lured outside by the promise of fancy chariots, Buddhists who are drawn to this or that teaching and sect, and then there are those who are like the Buddha, the sun itself, shining compassion and wisdom down on everyone without discrimination, regardless of what they may or may not deserve.

Buddha sunset spectrum

The Buddha says that those lured outside are bound up in becoming, watching good turn into bad and bad turn into good, true turn into false and false turn into true, but those who are like the sun are released from becoming such that everything is good, bad, true and false, without ceasing or changing in the slightest.  Buddhists symbolize the Buddha and wisdom with lions and the sun.  Linji is saying that we should shine equally on everyone like a courageous lion, above fearful fox-like scheming, which for Linji means confusing insults and friendly rib punches as well as compassion, blowing the foxes minds wide open.

Chinese ornate ox

Linji asked a visiting monk, “How about that white ox on the bare ground?” referring to the Lotus Sutra teaching of the burning house and the ox that stands for the Mahayana tradition.  The monk said, “Moo!  Moo!”  Linji asked, “Have you lost your voice?”  The monk replied, “How about you, your grace?”  Linji said, “This beast!”  The monk went into beast-mode, as Puhua did when Linji called him a donkey.  Linji pretended to seek a traditional answer, and the monk suggests that seeking traditional answers is losing one’s voice, accusing his master of this as well without fear or hesitation.  Linji calls him a beast, which is surely a compliment and Linji trusts will be taken as such.  Subtly, this text establishes Linji approving of monks from other schools, verifying that there is enlightenment among the various houses following Huineng.

The Crimes of Enlightenment

devadatta tries to kill buddha

Like demons and beasts, criminals are typically shunned as associates.  Devadatta, the evil monk who released the elephant up the path from the Buddha, was the first to try to kill the Buddha, and he tried several times before realized the error of his ways but was sadly sucked down into a hell realm on his way to apologize.  Many Buddhists believe there are five horrible crimes that condemn someone to a next life in a hell realm as punishment.  Linji told the assembly, “only when you have committed the five crimes that bring on the hell of incessant suffering will you finally gain freedom.”  When asked by a monk what these five crimes are, he said killing your father, injuring your mother, bleeding the Buddha, disrupting the harmony of the sangha, and burning the sutras and images, the traditional Mahayana list of five crimes.

blue manjushri

When the same monk asked about each of these in turn, Linji said that ignorance is the father, greed is the mother, non-discrimination is the blood of the Buddha,  the emptiness of desire is disrupting the sangha, and the emptiness of everything else is the burning the sutras and images, describing each terrible crime as a wonderful achievement, a blow of Manjushri’s sword against ignorance and attachment.  Linji said, “Even if you’re faced with bad karma left over from the past, or the five crimes that bring on unending hell, these will themselves become the great sea of freedom.”  Against all Buddhist cosmology and in spite of the fact that Linji repeatedly said that typically monks acquire karma that sends them to hell, he also said, “though I’ve looked for this thing called karma, I’ve never found so much as a particle of it the size of a mustard seed.”  If concerns about karma cause discrimination in monks such that they don’t identify with Devadatta who would kill the Buddha, it could be useful to say that karma, like all things, is empty and doesn’t exist.

robber ungerer

Linji repeatedly calls monks thieves.  Thieves are known for taking things, but a thief, unlike a law abiding friend or customer, doesn’t just take but fails to give, borrows things without returning them or offering compensation in exchange.  The crazy monk Puhua, whose life is found in Linji’s record, was chewing raw vegetables in front of the hall one day when Linji saw him and said, “Just like a donkey!”  Puhua brayed like a donkey.  Linji said, “This thief!”  Puhua cried out, “Thief!  Thief!” and left.  Puhua does not resist taking the role of a donkey, but acts as if he either doesn’t know that Linji is talking about him or that Linji himself is the thief, and he is calling for others to come help as a shopkeeper does when catching a thief in the act.  It is common in Zen practice for masters to seize monks who ask questions and cry thief twice as if asking a common Buddhist question is a crime that requires the local police.

Puhua zen master trickster

Later, just as a monk was saying that Puhua wanders the streets each day behaving like an idiot or a madman and it is impossible to tell whether he is a common fool or a sage, Puhua strolled in.  Linji asked him, “Are you a common fool or a sage?”  Puhua said, “You tell me.  Am I a common fool or a sage?”  Linji gave a shout.  The first time a question was reversed, Linji called the monk who hesitated and the sage of no rank a piece of shit.  The second time a question was reversed, Mayu pulled Linji out of his chair and sat in it himself.  This third time, when a question is not reversed by Linji but on him, he shouts, calling attention to himself and his shout when asked about how wise Puhua is.  Puhua pointed to one monk and called him a new bride, pointed to another monk and called him an old Chan granny, then pointed to Linji and said, “Linji is a little brat, but he’s got an eye!”  It could be, as Puhua says, that Linji is a little brat who can’t stand others getting attention, but it could also be Puhua insulting a fellow friend and master in a way that would shake someone with an inferior understanding.  Linji said, “This thief!”, as if it is Puhua himself who is stealing the spotlight.  Puhua cried out, “Thief!  Thief!” and left.

katsu zen shout caligraphy

Linji’s favorite tool was the shout, which he would do often as a reply that stands out without clear signification, a thief that steals everyone’s attention without leaving meaning behind.  Linji said, “At times, my shout is like the sword of the Diamond King (Manjushri, bodhisattva of wisdom).  At times my shout is like a golden lion crouching on the earth.  At times my shout is like a pole searching for fish and the grass where the fish hide.  At times, my shout doesn’t work like a shout at all.  Do you understand?”  A monk began to answer, and Linji gave a shout.

robber king with snake japan

A monk asked about the meaning of Buddhism, and Linji gave a shout.  The monk bowed, and Linji asked if he thought it was a shout of approval.  The monk replied, “The robbers in the countryside have been completely defeated!”  Linji asked, “What was their crime?”  The monk said, “A second offense is not permitted!”  Linji gave a shout, possibly of approval.   Linji asks the monk to be more specific about the crime of the thieves, and the monk suggests that this is the thieves’ crime itself.

Deshan with stick

Chan monks would often speak of “Linji’s shout and Deshan’s stick”, as Linji liked to shout at his students and Deshan liked to give them a whack on the shoulder with his staff, much like Mazu.  Deshan would tell his students, “If you can speak, thirty blows!  And if you can’t speak, thirty blows!”  Linji told a monk to go to Deshan and ask him why those who can speak get thirty blows, and then when Deshan hits him, to grab his staff and give Deshan a jab in the ribs as Linji did to Dayu.  The monk went to Deshan, and when Deshan hit him as Linji predicted the monk jabbed Deshan, who left without a word.  The monk returned and reported everything to Linji, who said, “For some time now I’ve wondered about that guy, but regardless, did you understand?”  The monk hesitated, and Linji struck him.

Buddhist Monk chases a demon

Notice that in the last case the monk hesitated, showing weakness and fear, and Linji hit him as if he lost the dharma-battle, even though Deshan is trying to teach monks that life whacks good people and bad people alike without meaning.  In the previous case there is no clear winner, just like in the case of a friendly conversation.  Perhaps this is how life truly is, which the wise like fine.  Commentaries on the koan texts will tempt the reader to make a judgement call as Daoist texts do by offering a choice between one or the other, sometimes saying that the winner or loser in the case is clear to anyone but the stupidest people to scare stupid people into making a choice without knowing what they are doing.  Being decisive out of a fear of displeasing others is exactly what Linji is trying to teach his monks to avoid.

Monks & Masters, Students & Teachers

Linji temple

Linji said, “Here at my place we don’t talk about who is a monk and who is a lay believer,” as if ordination goes completely unmentioned, a hyperbolic joke that suggests there is no true difference in rank between lay commoners and ordained monks if they share the same wisdom.  Linji posed monks with the question, “Someone sits on a lonely mountain peak but has not removed themselves from the world.  Another is in the middle of the city, but has no likes or dislikes.  Which one is ahead, and which one is behind?”  This is similar if not the source of the short Zen story of the monk who becomes enlightened at the top of a peak but then becomes angry when he is jostled in the marketplace, failing to put liberation into practice when placed in a distracting environment.

rock garden observation

Similarly, Linji asked, “Someone is always on the road but never leaves home, while another leaves home but is not on the road.  Which is worthy?”  Leaving home commonly refers to becoming a monk or nun and renouncing everyday life, and being on the road commonly refers to practicing Buddhism.  Linji says that monastic practices are not Buddhist ways, much as Huairang told Mazu that sitting in meditation trying to be someone else is killing the Buddha.  Instead, Linji suggests doing nothing in particular.

zen temple path

There are a bunch of blind bald-headed fools who, having stuffed themselves with rice, sit doing Chan-style meditation practice, trying to arrest the flow of thoughts and stop them from arising, hating clamor, demanding silence, but these aren’t Buddhist ways!

The teachings of the buddhas calls for no special projects.  Just act ordinary, without trying to do anything in particular.  Take a crap, piss, get dressed, eat your rice, and if you get tired, lie down.  Fools may laugh at me, but the wise know what I mean.

Linji does not expect his students to understand anything he teaches them completely, but he does expect them to understand things somewhat and then somewhat more, making progress by degree.  Unfortunately monks fail to believe in themselves, which makes them seek something outside of themselves and miss the truth that is right in front of them.

Puhua carrying coffin

The teaching of the buddhas is profound and abstruse, though one can understand it to some degree.  I spend all day explaining it in detail to you, but you students pay no attention.  A thousand, ten thousand times you trample right over it with your feet, but you are sunk in darkness.  It has no shape or form, yet its lone brightness gleams forth.  But students don’t have faith enough, and instead base their understandings on words and phrases.  Their years pile up to half a hundred, and all they do is go off on side roads, carrying their dead corpses on their backs, racing all over the world with their load of baggage.  The day will come when they’ll have to pay for all those straw sandals they’ve worn out!

Zen flute Japan

Fellow believers, do not use your minds in a mistaken manner, but be like the sea that rejects the bodies of the dead.  While you continue to carry such dead bodies and go racing around the world with them, you only obstruct your own vision and create obstacles in your mind.  When no clouds block the sun, the beautiful light of heaven shines everywhere.  When no disease afflicts the eye, it does not see phantom flowers in the empty air.

You lug your alms bag and this sack of shit that is your body and you rush off on side roads, looking for buddhas, looking for the Dharma.  With all this clashing and searching you’re doing right now, do you know what it is you’re looking for?  It’s vibrantly alive, yet has no root or stem.  You can’t gather it up, you can’t scatter it to the winds.  The more you search for it the farther away it gets, but don’t search for it and it’s right before your eyes, its miraculous sound always in your ears.

Yama Lord of Death

There’s a bunch of old bald-headed fools who can’t tell good from bad but who spy gods here, see devils there, point to the east, gesture to the west, say that they love a blue sky or say that they love when it rains.  They’ll have a lot to answer for one day when they stand before old Yama (the lord of death) and have to swallow a ball of red-hot iron!  Folks from good families let themselves be bewitched by this gang of wild fox spirits.

japanese zen temple peeking

You throw away your head and then hunt for a head, and you can’t seem to stop yourselves.  You’re like a bodhisattva who, in the midst of the Pure Land, still hates the state of common mortals and prays to become a sage.  People like that have yet to forget about making choices.  Their minds are still occupied with thoughts of purity or impurity, but the Chan school doesn’t see things that way.  What counts is the present moment.  There’s nothing that requires a lot of time.  Everything I am saying to you is for the moment only, medicine to cure the disease.  Ultimately it has no true reality.  If you can see things this way, you will be true men who have left home, free to spend ten-thousand in gold each day.  Don’t let just any old teacher put his stamp of approval on your face.  Don’t say you understand Chan or the Way, spouting off like a waterfall.  All that sort of thing is karma leading to hell.

There’s no teaching outside, and even what is on the inside can’t be grasped.

mahakasyapa bodhisattva

When students today fail to make progress, where is the fault?  The fault lies in the fact that they don’t have faith in themselves!  If you don’t have faith in yourself, then you’ll be forever in a hurry trying to keep up with everything around you, you’ll be twisted and turned by whatever situation you’re in and you can never move freely.  But if you can just stop this mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something, then you’ll be no different from the patriarchs and buddhas.

Unsurprisingly, Linji questions the abilities of masters and teachers, such as himself.  Linji mocked his students for taking notes, saying, “In a big book they copy down the rantings of some old fool… Don’t be too taken up with my pronouncements either.  Why?  Because pronouncements are without basis or underpinning, something painted for a time on the empty sky, as with a painter and their many colors.”  He is likely thinking of the Lankavatara Sutra and the story of Huineng’s verse painted on the wall.  Many great sages such as Laozi, Heraclitus of ancient Greece, Jesus and others throughout history have told others to look and see for themselves rather than hang on particular words “literally”, an idea the Buddha and other ancient Indian sages could easily find in the Vedas and Upanishads.

The sea of breath below the navel stirs itself into motion, the teeth batter and mold it, and it comes out as a statement of an idea, so we know for certain that these are mere phantoms.

Buddhas & Devils

manjushri lotus tibet

Linji said, “There are some who go to Mount Wutai looking for Manjushri (the bodhisattva of wisdom).  They’re wrong from the very start!  Manjushri isn’t on Mount Wutai.  Would you like to get to know Manjushri?  You here in front of my eyes, carrying out your activities, from first to last never changing, wherever you go never doubting, this is the living Manjushri!”  Of course, if Manjushri is everywhere he is on Mount Wutai, but not exclusively, so it makes sense to tell those who seek him specifically there that he is not there, specifically speaking.  Linji also said that buddhas and demons, desires and fears, are the unavoidable furniture of our existence, blended together as everything.

Hamsa Goose

Suppose there were a substance made of buddhas and devils blended without distinction into a single body, like water and milk mixed together.  The legendary hamsa goose can drink only the milk and leave the water behind, but keen-eyed followers of the Way thrust aside buddhas and devils alike.  While you love sages and loath common mortals, you’re still bobbing up and down in the sea of birth and death.

If you have doubts in your mind for an instant, that’s the Buddha devil, but if you can understand that the ten-thousand things were never born, that the mind is like a magician’s trick, then not one speck of dust, not one thing will exist.  Everywhere will be clean and pure, and this will be Buddha.  Buddha and devil just refer to two states, one stained, one pure.

Magritte Le Rossignol The Nightingale

You who come from here and there, you all have a mind to do something.  You search for Buddha, search for the Dharma, search for emancipation, search for a way to get out of the threefold world.  Idiots, trying to get out of the world!  Where will you go?  The Buddha and the patriarchs are just praiseful words and phrases.  Do you want to know what the threefold world is?  It is nothing other than the mind, the ground that you who are no listening to the Dharma are standing on.  When you have a moment of greed in your mind, that is the world of desire.  When you have a moment of anger in your mind, that is the world of form.  When you have a moment of ignorance in your mind, that is the world of formlessness.  These are the pieces of furniture in your house.

zen rock garden situation

Koan Practice: Reading & Testing Students

zen rock garden situation fancy

Teaching consists of two things: instructing and testing.  Linji and other Zen masters who follow his line give confusing lectures to instruct and inform students, and then interact with students to interview and test them.  Teachers often makes words with the mouth and then watch and listen to students with the eyes and the ears to see if they understand the words from the mouth.  While the mouth is not the only thing that instructs and the eyes and ears are not the only things that test, Linji would likely say that the true wise sage mind of no rank that we can learn to trust typically comes out of teacher’s mouths and other assorted gestures when lecturing and instructing and comes into the teacher’s eyes and ears when interviewing and testing.

tearing up laing knots

Linji said, “I have no teaching to give to people.  All I do is untie knots.”  Schopenhauer, the German philosopher who studied the Upanishads and Indian Buddhism, called the divide between self and other“the knot of the world”.  R.D. Liang, the psychiatrist of 60’s counterculture, wrote a book called Knots about recurring problems that entangle people in repetitive thoughts and unhappy situations with others.  Buddhists are concerned with desire and fear, attachment and avoidance, and Linji is concerned with the ways we enter into situations with preconceptions and expectations, with interests that we feel we share or do not share with others, causing us to try to please them or oppose them rather than act with greater freedom.  In order to untie knots, you must first look at how people are bound up, and then strike through the knots to show them that they can move beyond them.

indonesian puppets

Look at the puppets performing on the stage.  Their every movement is controlled backstage.

When someone comes to me, I can tell exactly what they are like.  Whatever circumstances they come from, I take all their words and utterances to be so many dreams and ghosts, but when I see someone who has learned to master the situation, I know that here is the secret meaning of the buddhas.

There’s never been one of these students of the Way who come from all over who didn’t appear before me depending on something, so I start right out by hitting them there.  If they come with a raised hand, I hit the raised hand, if they come mouthing something, I hit them in the mouth, and if they come making motions with their eyes, I hit them in the eye.  I have yet to find one who comes alone and free.  They’re all caught up in silly devices of old men.

courtyard garden Ken-nin-ji zen temple

Whoever comes here, I never let them slip by me, always seeing where they come from.  If you come in a certain way, you’ll just lose track of yourself, and if you don’t come in that way, you’ll tie yourself up without rope.  Whatever hour of day or night, don’t wander around recklessly passing judgements!  Whether you know what you’re doing or not, you’ll be wrong in every case.  This much I state clearly.  The world is perfectly free to criticize or condemn me all it likes!  Thank you for standing so long.

zen temple room

Linji told the assembly, “Sometimes we take away the person but not the situation, and sometimes we take away the situation but not the person.  Sometimes we take away both, and sometimes we take away neither.”  A monk asked what it is to take away the person, and Linji said, “Warm sunshine spreads over the earth, and a little child’s hair hangs down.”  The monk asked what it is to take away the situation, and Linji said, “The king’s commands have spread throughout the realm, and generals beyond the border no longer taste the smoke and dust of battle.”  The monk asked what it is to take away both, and Linji said, “All word is cut off from the outer regions, and they stand alone and apart.”  The monk asked what it is to take away neither, and Linji said, “The king sits in command of his jeweled hall, and old folks in the country sing their songs.”

zen temple screens

These words are cryptic, but Linji tells us several things in sermons that speak about the roles of guest and host and the dynamic of the koan encounters and interviews that we will continue to examine next.  When reading the puzzling koans, it is good to return to his words.

Followers of the Way, in the view of the Chan school, dying and living proceed in proper order.  Those engaged in study must pay strict attention to this.  Thus, when a host and guest greet one another, there will be an exchange of remarks.  Perhaps one party will respond to something and assume a certain form, or perhaps perform some activity with his entire body, perhaps try tricking the other by feigning delight or anger, perhaps reveal half of his body, perhaps come riding on a lion or elephant.

zen crossword comic

If the student truly knows what they’re doing, they’ll give a shout and then first try holding out a sticky trap.  The teacher, failing to recognize this as a mere situation, proceeds to climb up on top of it and begin striking poses or donning attitudes.  The student gives a shout, but the teacher refuses to abandon his approach.  In this case the sickness is located above the diaphragm and below the heart, where no cure can get at it.  This is called the guest seeing through the host.

Or perhaps the teacher will not come out with any object of his own, but will wait for a question from the student and then snatch it away.  The student, seeing his question snatched away, won’t let go but holds on for dear life.  This is a case of the host seeing through the guest.

good cop mixed cop

Perhaps there is a student who, responding with a clean, pure situation, presents himself before the teacher.  The teacher can tell this is just a situation and grabs it and throws it down a hole.  The student says, ‘A truly great teacher!’  Instantly the teacher says, ‘Hopeless!  Can’t tell good from bad!’  The student gives a low bow.  This is called the host meeting up with a host.

Or there may be a student who puts a collar on his neck, binds himself in chains, and then comes before the teacher.  The teacher proceeds to shackle him with another set of collars and chains.  The student is delighted, unaware of what has happened.  This is called the guest meeting up with a guest.  Fellow believers, these examples I have cited are all meant to enable you to spy the devil, sort out what’s improper, and learn to tell the crooked from the straight.

linji temple zen

Followers of the Way, when students come here from various regions and we have finished greeting one another as host and guest, the student will make some remark to test the teacher.  The student comes out with these tricky words and thrusts them into the teacher’s face, as if to say, ‘See if you can understand this!’  If you were the teacher and realized that this was just a situation, and you grabbed it and threw it down a hole, then the student would act normal again and after that would ask for the teacher’s instruction.  The teacher would then snatch that up too and treat it as he did the earlier remark.  The student then says, ‘Very wise!  A truly great teacher!’  The teacher says, ‘You certainly can’t tell good from bad!’

Japanese zen monk 1500

Again suppose the teacher comes out with a certain chunk of environment and dangles it in front of the student’s face.  The student sees through this and at every step acts the master, refusing to be misled by the situation.  The teacher then reveals half of his body, and the student gives a shout.  The teacher now enters the place where there are all kinds of differences and distinctions, battering the student around with words.  The student says, ‘This old bald-headed fool who can’t tell good from bad!’  The teacher exclaims in admiration, ‘A true and proper follower of the Way!’

When students come from here and there, I classify them into three categories according to their ability.  In such cases, if a student of less than average ability comes to me, I snatch away the environment but leave him his existence.  If a student of better than average ability comes to me, I snatch away both environment and existence.  If a student of truly superior ability comes to me, I do not snatch away anything, neither environment nor existence, nor person.  If a student appears whose understanding surpasses all these categories, then I deal with him with my whole body and take no account of his ability.


The way I do things now is to go about truly and properly creating and destroying, toying and playing with supernatural transformations, entering every kind of situation but doing nothing wherever I am, not permitting the environment to lead me astray.  Whoever comes to me seeking something, I immediately come out to size them up, but they don’t recognize me.  Then I put on various different robes.  The student forms an understanding on that basis and begins to be drawn into my words.  Hopeless, this blind bald fool without any eyes!  They concentrate on the robe I’m wearing, noting whether it is blue, yellow, red or white.  If I strip off the robe and enter a clean, pure place, the student takes one look and is filled with delight and longing.  If I throw that away too, the student becomes muddled in mind, racing around wildly in a distracted manner, exclaiming that now I have no robe at all!  Then I turn to him and say, ‘Do you know the person who wears this robe of mine?’  Suddenly he turns his head, and then he knows me at last.  Don’t get so taken up with the robe!  The robe can’t move of itself.

guan yu statue china

The Record of Linji begins exactly as the Platform Sutra of Huineng does, with the governor of the local region arriving at the monastery and asking for Linji’s life story and a sermon that contains his teaching.  Linji stood in front of the assembly hall and said, “If I were to discuss the central point of Buddhism from the viewpoint of the Chan patriarchs, then I would not even open my mouth and you would have nowhere to plant your feet,” as if saying anything would be saying nothing.  He then invited the assembly to ask questions, saying, “Perhaps there are some valiant generals here who would like to draw up their ranks and unfurl their banners,” as if asking a question is a military campaign, the pushing of particular interests.

chinese painting lotus long

A monk rose and asked what the meaning of Buddhism is and Linji gave a shout.  The monk bowed, and Linji said, “This monk is the kind worth talking to!” as if either had said a word after the question.  Another monk asked, “Master, whose style of song do you sing?  Whose school do you carry on?” asking about lineage.  Linji said that when he was at Huangbo’s place he asked a question three times and got a beating three times.  The monk began to reply, and Linji struck him, saying, “You don’t drive a nail into the empty sky,” interrupting the monk’s attempt to narrow down his understanding of the open source of Linji’s understanding and teaching.

A high-ranking monk of another school, possibly Tiantai who divide the sutras and teachings into periods, said, “The Three Vehicles and twelve divisions of the teachings make the Buddha-nature clear enough, don’t they?”  Linji said, “They’re wild grass and weeds that have never been cut.”  The monk said, “Surely the Buddha would never deceive people!” as the Buddha taught self-cultivation and discipline.  Linji said, “The Buddha… Where is he right now?” wondering where a person who is perfectly understood could be.  The monk had no answer.  Linji said, “Are you trying to fool me right in front of the governor?  Step aside!  You’re keeping others from asking questions!” as if praising the Buddha is lying to people.

modern zendo practice hall

Linji turned back to the assembly and said, “This gathering today is for the sake of Buddhism.  Are there any others who want to ask questions?  Come forward quickly and ask them, but even if you open your mouths, what you ask will be completely beside the point.  Why do I say this?  Because Shakyamuni said, did he not, that ‘the Dharma is separate from words and writings, and is not involved with direct or indirect causes.’  It is because you don’t have enough faith today that you find yourself tied up in knots.  I’m afraid you will trouble the governor and other officials and keep them from realizing their Buddha-nature.  It’s best for me to withdraw,” as if the ordained are holding the commoners back rather than leading the community to liberation.  He gave a shout, thanked them for standing so long, and left without offering a satisfying position, just as Bodhidharma did to Emperor Wu.

japanese zen temple sunset pond

Linji suggests that students become formless, taking all positions fluidly.  This means flowing like water as well as standing fast like earth, both moving and not moving as Huineng said of the mind that the monks arguing over the flag and wind share.

If your mind doubts, it is blocked by earth.  If your mind craves, it is drowned in water.  If your mind seethes, it is seared by fire.  If your mind rejoices, it is tossed by air.  However, if you grasp this you will not be swayed by your situation, using the elements wherever you are.  You can pop up in the east and vanish in the west, pop up in the south and vanish in the north, pop up in the heartland and vanish in the borderlands, pop up in the borderlands and vanish in the heartland.  You can walk on water as though it were earth, and walk on earth as though it were water.

Van Gogh Tree Whipped by the Wind

Every plant and tree knows how to move back and forth, so does that mean they constitute the Way?  To the degree that they move, it is due to the element air.  To the degree that they do not move, it is the element earth.  Neither their moving nor their not moving come from any nature innate to them.  If you look toward the area of motion and try to grasp the truth there, it will take up its stand in the area of non-motion, and if you look toward non-motion and and try to grasp it there, it will take up its stand in motion.  It is like a fish hidden in a pond who now and then slaps the surface and leaps up.  The moving and unmoving are simply two types of situations.  Those who are of the Way who depend on nothing who cause the situations to be in motion or be motionless.

wooden post carving

As Linji was entering an army camp for a banquet, he pointed to one of the large wooden gate posts and asked the officer on duty, “Is this a common mortal or an immortal sage?”  The officer couldn’t think of what to say.  Linji struck the post with his staff and said, “Even if you could possibly reply, it would still be just a wooden post!” and entered the camp.  The mind of the master is free to flow like water from one interpretation and reality to another, and also free to return to “the world of common sense” whenever it is needed to screw with everyone in all sorts of wonderful ways.

zen rock garden waves