When Layman Pang was taking his leave of Yaoshan monastery, the Abbot ordered ten of his senior monks to accompany him to the temple gate as a gesture of respect.
As the party was walking towards the temple gate, snow started to fall. Layman Pang looked up and said, ‘this snow is wonderful, it falls only here’ The senior monk asked, ‘where does it fall?’ Layman Pang said to him, ‘even though you are a zen monk, the King of Death won’t let you go’
Who or what, in this context, is the King of Death?
The error the monk made was thinking that Layman Pang’s expression of wonder, astonishment and gratitude at the immediacy and beauty of the falling snow was a zen language game and so responding accordingly.
It’s a fundamental misunderstanding, and one that is replicated in many of the ways in which we talk about Buddhism generally and the koan stories in particular. We think of it as a kind of code that we need to crack, a text we need to interpret, but when we see in this way, the King of Death is standing so close to us that we can see nothing else. Nor him, other than as a kind of falling.