Book of Serenity, Case 47

Book of Serenity, Case 47.

The case: Master Joshu is asked, “What is the true meaning of Zen?” And he replies, “The cypress tree in the courtyard.”

This is a variant of a question he was frequently asked: “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?” Joshu, famously, is often asked questions about Buddha nature. The best known koan of all is probably the question to him: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”

And not just a dog. In his recorded sayings (no. 305), a monk asked Joshu, “Does the cypress tree have Buddha nature or not?” 

Joshu said, “It does.” 

The monk said, “When will it become Buddha?” 

Joshu said, “When the sky falls to the ground.” 

The monk said, “When will the sky fall to the ground?” 

The Master said, “When the cypress tree becomes Buddha.”

What are we to take from that?

What do we understand the cypress tree to be? It seems easy enough for us to see how the roots of the cypress tree extend into the deep ground underneath our constructed world. 

But it’s harder for us to see how the branches of the tree vigorously extend into space, into ‘emptiness’. 

Yet when we talk of the empty sky or space falling to the ground, isn’t that the real experience of the cypress tree? 

The cypress tree, in its wholehearted, undivided activity, is both fully engaged with this ground of all being, and equally is fully engaged with emptiness, and makes both intimate within its undivided activity. Likewise the practitioner.

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