References: The Blue Cliff Record, Case 53

Pai Chang’s Wild Ducks


The whole world does not hide it-his entire capacity stands alone revealed. He encounters situations without getting stuck-with every move he has the ability to assert himself. In his phrases there’s no partiality-everywhere he has the intention to kill people. But say, in the end, where do the Ancients go to rest? To test I’m citing this old case: look!


Once when Great Master Ma and Pai Chang were walking together they saw some wild ducks fly by. The Great Master asked, “What is that?”2 Chang said, “Wild ducks.” The Great Master said, “Where have they gone? ” Chang said, “They’ve flown away.” The Great Master then twisted Pai Chang’s nose.6 Chang cried out in pain. The Great Master said, “When have they ever flown away?”


l. Two fellows in the weeds. They’re rolling around in the weeds. Why suddenly notice the ducks?

 2. You should know, Teacher. This old fellow doesn’t even know his nostrils. 

3. Chang’s nostrils are already in the hands of the other man. He just offers the actual facts. The second ladleful of foul water will be even more poisonous. 

4. His first arrow was still light, but the second arrow is deep. A second enticing peck. Here too Ma Tsu should know for himself. 5. He just rolls along behind Ma Tsu. He’s stumbled past what’s right in front of him.

 The nostrils born of his parents are in the hands of someone else. Ma Tsu turned the spear around and twisted Chang’s nostrils around. 

7. It’s right here. Can it be called wild ducks? Aie you conscious of pain?

 8. Better not deceive people. From the beginning this old fellow has been mak ing his living inside a ghost cave. 


 If you observe this case with the correct eye, unexpectedly it’s Pai Chang who has the correct basis, whereas Great Master Ma is creating waves where there is no wind. If all of you want to be teachers of Buddhas and Patriarchs, then study Pai Chang. If you want to be unable to save even yourselves, then study the Great Master Ma. Observe how those Ancients were never absent from Here, twenty-four hours a day. 

At a young age Pai Chang left behind the dusts of worldly life and became well versed in the three studies (discipline, meditation, and wisdom). When Ma Tsu (known as) Ta Chi was teaching at Nan Ch’ang, Pai Chang set his heart on joining him. For twenty years he served as Ma Tsu’s attendant, until the time of his second calling (on Ma Tsu, as related in the commentary to Case , when he was finally greatly enlightened at Ma Tsu’s shout. 

But these days some say, “Where there is fundamentally no enlightenment, they construct the gate of ‘enlightenment’ and establish this affair.” If you view it in this way, you are like a flea on a lion’s body feeding itself on the lion’s flesh. Haven’t you seen where an Ancient said, “If the source is not deep, the stream is not long; if the wisdom is not great, the vision is not far-reaching.” If you entertain the understanding that enlightenment is a construct, how could the Buddhist Teaching have come down to the present?

Look: once when Great Master Ma and Pai Chang were walking together they saw some wild ducks fly by. How could the Great Master not have known they were wild ducks? Why did he nevertheless ask like this? Tell me, what does his meaning come down to? When Pai Chang merely followed up behind him, Ma Tsu then twisted his nose. Chang cried out in pain and Ma Tsu said, “When have they ever flown away?” At this Pai Chang had insight. But these days some people misunderstand: as soon as they’re questioned, they immediately make a cry of pain. Fortunately they can’t leap out of it. 

Image of Mazu Daoyi (Baso)

When teachers of our school help people, they must make them penetrate through. You see that Pai Chang didn’t understand, that he didn’t avoid cutting his hand on the point. Ma Tsu just wanted to make him understand this matter. Thus it is said, “When you understand, you can make use of it wherever you are; if you don’t understand, then the conventional truth prevails.” If Ma Tsu hadn’t twisted Pai Chang’s nose at that time, the conventional truth would have prevailed. It’s also necessary when encountering circumstances and meeting conditions to turn them around and return them to oneself; to have no gaps at any time is called “the ground of nature bright and clear.” What’s the use of one who just haunts the forests and fields, accepting what’s ahead of an ass but behind a horse?

Observe how Ma Tsu and Pai Chang act this way; though they seem radiant and spiritual, nevertheless they don’t remain in radiance and spirituality. Pai Chang cried out in pain; if you see it as such, then the whole world does not hide it, and it is perfectly manifest everywhere. Thus it is said, “Penetrate one place, and you penetrate a thousand places, ten thousand places all at once.” 

When Ma Tsu went up to the hall the next day, as soon as the congregation had assembled, Pai Chang came forward and rolled up the bowing mat. Ma Tsu immediately left his seat. After he had returned to his abbot’s quarters, he asked Pai Chang, “I had just gone up to the hall and had not yet preached; why did you roll up the mat right away?” Chang said, “Yesterday I had my nose twisted by you, Teacher, and it hurt.” Tsu said, “Where were you keeping your mind yesterday?” Chang said, “Today the nose no longer hurts.” Tsu said, “You have profound knowledge of Today’s affair.” Chang then bowed and returned to the attendants’ quarters, crying. One of his fellow attendants asked, “Why are you crying?” Chang said, “Go ask our Master.” The attendant then went to ask Ma Tsu. Tsu said, “Go ask Pai Chang.” When the attendant returned to their quarters to ask Pai Chang, Chang laughed loudly. The attendant said, “You were just crying-now why are you laughing?” Chang said, “I was crying before, now I’m laughing.” Look at Pai Chang after his enlightenment; turning smoothly, he can’t be trapped. Naturally he’s sparkling clear on all sides.

From the blue cliff record translated by Thomas Cleary and J.C. Cleary