Book of Serentity, Case 6

Mazu’s ‘White and Black’

The case:

A monk asked Great Master Mazu, “Apart from the four propositions and beyond the hundred negations, please directly point out the meaning of living Buddhism”

The Great Master said, “I’m tired out today and can’t explain for you. Go ask Zhizang”

The monk asked Zhizang. Zhizang said, “Why don’t you ask the teacher?”

The monk said, “the teacher told me to ask you”

Zhizang said, “I have a headache today and can’t explain for you. Ask brother Hai”

The monk asked Hai. Hai said, ” Now, at this point, I don’t understand Buddhism”

The monk related this to the Great Master. Mazu said, Zang’s head is white, Hai’s head is black”


The four propositions derive from Nagarjuna and are:

It exists

It does not exist

It both exists and does not exist

It neither exists nor not exists

These propositions, which appear to exhaust the possibilities of expressing the nature of reality, or living Buddhism, in words, are said by Nagarjuna to be incapable of describing things as they are.

So the monk’s enquiry appears to rule out an answer in language, and of course, he doesn’t ask for this, he asks only for Mazu (Baso) to “directly point out”. If he misunderstands the answers, do the Masters misunderstand his enquiry? Or is something else going on?

If it were Rinzai or his descendants, one might picture a shout or a blow, but Baso simply describes his actual state. Does he answer the request or not? Does his tiredness make any difference, or not?

Does he answer the request in his second response?

‘White’ suggests differentiation and ‘Black’ suggests non differentiation. Hai is ‘unable’ to ‘understand’ the reality of which he is a part, because he is not separate from it. Both black and white have their place and function within dependent origination.

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