Book of Serenity, Case 98

Book of Serenity, Case 98

The case:

A monk asked Dongshan “Among the three Buddha Bodies, which one does not fall into any category?”

Dongshan said, “I am always intimate with this.”


In Mahayana Buddhism, the three bodies of the Buddha are the dharmakaya, which is identified with all existence, the sambhokaya, which is identified with practice and the fruits of practice, and the nirmanakaya, which is the body of the historical Buddha. It is quite conceptual, and the monk’s question seems be be enquiring into the relationship between the conceptual (“category”) and the ineffable.

What should be make of Dongshan’s reply? What is the ‘this’ that he is always intimate with?

Frequently in Chinese Buddhism, words like ‘this’ or ‘what’ or ‘that’ refer to ineffable reality, reality before thinking. So we might imagine Dongshan’s response means something like ‘unlike you, with your conceptual question, I am always intimate with the ineffable’. But I don’t think that is what he means. Dongshan is making a point about practice. So, when we sit, often we imagine that thinking is bad; but that feeling sensing, being-ness is good. The ineffable is good. But somehow we can’t stop thinking. We could say that Dongshan’s intimacy is with both the conceptual, exemplified here by the schema the monk is putting forth, and also ineffable reality. And that the conceptual and the ineffable are intimate with each other.

This is a very important point about practice. The head is not suspended in mid-air, and practice is not nullified by the natural movements of the karmic mind. But, as it were, we see the smoke of our thoughts through the flames of our being.