References: Book of Serenity, Case 47

Case 47:  Zhaozhou’s “Cypress Tree” 


The cypress tree in the yard, the wind-blown flag on the pole–it’s like one flower bespeaking a boundless spring, like one drop telling of the water of the ocean. The ancient Buddhas, born periodically, go far beyond the ordinary current, not falling into words and thought. How can you understand verbally? 


 A monk asked Zhaozhou, “What is the living meaning of Chan Buddhism?  Zhaozhou said, “The cypress tree in the yard.”

One day Zhaozhou got up in the hall and said, “This matter clearly cannot be got out of, even by immeasurably great men. When I went to Guishan, a monk asked what the living meaning of Chan is, and Guishan asked him to bring him a seat. If one would be a real teacher of the source, one must use the basic thing to deal with people.” A monk then asked Zhaozhou what the living meaning of Chan Buddhism is; Zhaozhou said, “The crpress tree in the yard.” The monk said, “Teacher, don’t use an object to guide people.” The master Zhaozhou said, “I’m not using an object to guide anyone.” The monk said, “Then what’s the meaning of Chan Buddhism?” Zhaozhou said, “The cypress tree in the yard.”

 Chan Master Huijiao went to Fayan’s place; Fayan asked “Where have you recently come from?” Huijiao said, “Zhaozhou.” Fayan said, “I hear Zhaozhou has a saying, ‘The cypress tree in the yard’–is it so?” Huijiao said, “No.” Fayan said, “Everyone who’s been around says a monk asked him about the meaning of Chan and Zhaozhou said, ‘The cypress tree in the yard’–how can you say no?” Huijiao said, “The late master really didn’t say this; please don’t slander him.” Everywhere Huijiao was called Iron Beak Jiao. Master Shengmo used to have people go through this story first, to clear away their intellectual views; he once said, “The three mysteries and five ranks are all within it.” Chan Master Zhenru Fang awakened to this story and went right into the abbot’s room to see Chan Master Langya Guangzhao Jiao. Guangzhao asked, “How do you understand it?” Zhenru said, “All night the bed mat’s warm–as soon as you awaken, dawn has come.” Guangzhao approved. Zhengru’s realization of this story was excellent; Tiantong’s versification of this story is not bad either.  Verse: The bank-eyebrows lined with snow,(Eating salt as much as rice.) The river-eyes contain autumn;(Hard to fool one bit.) The ocean-mouth drums waves,(If there’s a verbal expression, it’s not the fundamental message.) The boat-tongue rides the current:(Without words, cutting off holy and ordinary.) The ability to quell disorder,(This is the crpress tree.) the strategy for great peace(This is the cypress tree too.)–Old Zhaozhou, old Zhaozhou: (Why don’t you answer?)Stirring up the monasteries, never yet stopping. (Tiantong is number two.)Uselessly expending effort, still the cart is made to fit the groove:(Bring it forth, he uses it fittingly.) Originally without ability, still it fills the ravines and gullies.(Buying all the current fashions without putting down any money.

 Commentary: Over fourteen hundred months old, he’s been through a lot of things; that’s why his ‘bank-eyebrows are lined with snow.’ A man of ancient times represented eyebrows and eyes as crags and lightning; Tiantong, using ‘river eyes’ and ‘ocean mouth,’ makes a four-line verse-it is like seeing the living Zhaozhou pointing to the cypress tree. His eyebrows are like banks covered with white reed flowers; his eyes are like the blue of autumn water. An ancient verse says, “The rivers in the countryside are clearer than the blue of a monk’s eye; the distant mountains are dark as the indigo of Buddha’s head.” ‘The ocean-mouth drums waves, the boat-tongue rides the current’–waves can overturn a boat, a boat can ride the waves; one word can create a nation, one word can destroy a nation. Therefore next the uses a technique for quelling disorder and a formula for great peace. Zhaozhou once said, “Sometimes I take a blade of grass and use it as the sixteen-foot golden body; sometimes I take the sixteen-foot golden body and use it as a blade of grass.” This saying originally solved someone’s doubts, but now how many people have doubts about it! Did Zhaozhou want to stir up the monasteries?! People see Zhaozhou’s answer, responding immediately as the question is voiced, as if not needing effort–only Tiantong knows how he traveled for eighty years with the resolution to study from anyone who was better than him, even be it a three-year-old child; this was work done in free time, put to use in a busy time. Unless you’re someone who has suffered hardship, you won’t know that “The lying wheel has talent–it can cut off a hundred thoughts. Confronting situations, mind is not aroused; day by day enlightenment grows.” The Sixth Patriarch said, “I have no talent, I don’t cut off the hundred thoughts. Confronting situations, mind is repeatedly aroused-how can enlightenment grow?” When you look at it in this way, what about that which fills the ravines and gullies? Now it is thrown into West Lake. The clear wind of unburdening–to whom is it imparted?

From the Book of serenity by Thomas Cleary 

CASE 37 Chao-chou: The Oak Tree in the Courtyard


A monk asked Chao-chou, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?” 

Chao-chou said, “The oak tree in the courtyard.”

 WU-MEN’S COMMENT If you can see intimately into the essence of Chao-chou’s response, there is no Śākyamuni in the past and no Maitreya in the future. 


 Words do not convey the fact; language is not an expedient. Attached to words, your life is lost; blocked by phrases, you are bewildered. Bodhidharma brought Dhyāna Buddhism from India to China, where it became Ch’an Buddhism and then, in Japan, Zen. What was Bodhidharma’s mind as he journeyed from India to China? He made the hazardous trip by boat, it is believed, very near the end of his long life. He came with the message that one cannot depend upon words, and he urged seeing into true nature for the attainment of Buddhahood.

 That may have been his message, but we must distinguish this from his meaning, his essence of mind. If you are familiar with that fundamental ground, then Chao-chou’s response will also be intimate. Lin-chi, too, was intimate with the matter. But when asked the same question, he responded in a very different way. He said, “If Bodhidharma had had any meaning he could not have saved even himself.” This was also true of Chao-chou. If Chao-chou had had any meaning, there would be no such thing as a Zen path. It is also true of Wu-men. If Wu-men had had a meaning, he could never have composed his great book.

 Then is Chao-chou’s answer designed to show “no-meaning”? Not exactly. The point is that “meaning” is a word that invites a presentation of your heart of hearts and there are two basic ways to do this—as in Ma-tsu’s two responses to questions about Buddha. In Case 30 Ma-tsu says, “This very mind is Buddha.” In Case 33 he turns around and says, “Not mind, not Buddha.” Positively: “Oak tree in the courtyard.” Negatively: “If he had had any meaning, he could not have saved even himself.” Positive and negative are not opposites here; each includes the other. They are the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West, now by land, now by sea. Lin-chi presented the fact of the oak tree in the courtyard with his words, “If he had had any meaning, he could not have saved even himself.” Likewise, Chao-chou presented Lin-chi’s point. Dōgen says in his Genjō Kōan that we are confirmed by the ten thousand things.3 “Confirmed” is perhaps not a strong enough expression: 

A monk asked Yün-men, “What was Niu-t’ou after he met the Fourth Ancestor?” Yün-men said, “The moth in the flame swallows the tiger.”

 You might say that Niu-t’ou (Gozu) was “enlightened” when he met the Fourth Ancestor, but Yün-men would clobber you if you used such a stale expression. Even his word “swallows” is not clear enough. The moth in the flame devours the tiger and begins to roar! Take it in! Take it in! I have heard that an American teacher who no longer encourages kōan practice has said something like this: “It is easy enough to realize the oak tree, but how is this experience relevant to daily life?” I agree that our task is to embody kōans at home and on the job—this is our life work. But the first part of that teacher’s statement is incorrect. I do not realize the oak tree. Quite the contrary, in fact. If the practical implications of this intimacy are not as plain as day for you, then you are not yet a teacher of religion.

 Once again Wu-men abbreviates the original story, which has the monk continuing the dialogue after Chao-chou’s initial response:

 “Please don’t teach me with reference to outside things.”    The monk said, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?” Chao-chou said, “The oak tree in the courtyard.” 

The monk thought he knew enough to understand that Zen practice is a matter of looking within. Chao-chou’s first response seems to answer his question with reference to his environment. What is happening here? The monk couldn’t understand. Don’t suppose that the resolution of this point lies in the identity of inside and outside. That is philosophy. What is the true fact?

 Monks at that time were quite preoccupied with Chao-chou’s response. After his death, Fa-yen asked Chao-chou’s disciple Hui-chiao (Ekaku) about it: 

“I have heard that your late master had a saying: ‘The oak tree in the courtyard.’ Is that correct?” Hui-chiao said, “No.” Fa-yen said, “Anyone who has been around will say that a monk asked him about the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West, and that he answered, ‘The oak tree in the courtyard.’ How can you maintain that he didn’t say it?” Hui-chiao said, “He really didn’t say that. Please don’t slander him.”

 We can trust Hui-chiao. He was a formidable master, nicknamed “Iron Beak Chiao,” and during his lifetime and thereafter he had a splendid reputation—some teachers even declare that he surpassed his master.  He was Chao-chou’s faithful attendant during his teacher’s later years, so of course he knew all about the oak tree. Then what was his meaning when he said, “He really didn’t say that. Please don’t slander him”? There’s a wonderful Japanese story relating to this case that involves Shidō Munan (though it is sometimes attributed to Hakuin, his famous grandson in the Dharma): Munan had collected a large sum of gold for the establishment of a monastery and was returning home on foot with the money. A bandit, skilled in detecting travelers carrying valuables, followed him to an inn where both put up for the night. When all was quiet, the bandit came to Munan Zenji’s room and slipped open the sliding door. To his amazement he didn’t find a monk snoozing under his quilts but an enormous oak tree, rooted in the tatami mat, pushing its branches against the ceiling and walls! Trembling and confused, he withdrew to his own room.

 Next day, as the two men set out again, the bandit approached Munan and said, “I am a great bandit. I know in one glance when someone has gold or jewels concealed on his person. I can steal such valuables without my victim feeling a thing. But last night I met my master. I found that you had disappeared and an oak tree was growing there instead. I realize that I am your inferior. I beg you to accept me as your disciple.” Munan accepted him and the bandit went on to become a great monk. He knew true intimacy when he saw it. 

Regarding this case Kanzan, the founder of Myōshinji, said: “The kōan of the oak tree has the function of a bandit. It steals everything from you.” Kanzan was a marvelous Zen master who became the emperor’s teacher, but he left no writings at all and only this one saying is recorded of him. When Yin-yüan (Ingen), founder of the Ōbaku sect in Japan, came from China several centuries later, he visited Myōshinji and was told this story. Prostrating himself before Kanzan’s image he said, “This one saying is superior to ten thousand volumes of teishōs.” When I was a young student I visited Myōshinji with Nakagawa Sōen Rōshi. We were told the story about Kanzan and Yin-yüan, but it made little impression on me. Sōen Rōshi, however, got very excited, and bowed over and over to Kanzan’s image. He took it in, and I did not. If there was ever anyone rooted, who walked like a tree, it was Sōen Rōshi. Wu-men comments: “If you can see intimately into the essence of Chao-chou’s response, there is no Śākyamuni in the past and no Maitreya in the future.” Maitreya Buddha is the Buddha who is waiting in the Tusita Heaven to appear in the world. Your body, your mind, inside, outside, the years between Chao-chou and yourself, the miles between China and Hawai’i, the personages of past and future—all fall away and disappear. What remains?

 A monk asked Chao-chou, “Has the oak tree Buddha nature?” Chao-chou said, “Yes, it has.” The monk said, “When does the oak tree attain Buddhahood?” Chao-chou said, “Wait until the great universe collapses.” The monk said, “When does the universe collapse?” Chao-chou said, “Wait until the oak tree attains Buddhahood.” 

The great universe itself finds everything stolen away by this one kōan, “Oak tree in the courtyard.” Wait until the oak tree attains Buddhahood indeed! If everything is truly stolen away, the universe has collapsed right there. Wu-men’s verse begins: 

“Words do not convey the fact.” That’s true, isn’t it? In the pungent English proverb “Fine words butter no parsnips,” the word “butter” is neither smooth nor salty. “The oak tree in the courtyard” does not convey the real oak tree. 

“Language is not an expedient.” That’s true too—as Hui-chao hinted. “Oak tree in the courtyard” is not a device which Chao-chou summoned up to enlighten a monk. Don’t slander the great master. “Attached to words, your life is lost.” Yes. Words are the keys which program most people. Such people are used by words instead of using words. Their understanding is not experiential but merely verbal; instead of coming from life and using words, they act on the basis of concepts, which can destroy life.

 Follow Simone Weil’s way in dealing with this kōan: “Contemplating an object fixedly with the mind, asking myself, ‘What is it?’ without thinking of any other object or relating it to anything else for hours on end.” It is in this way that you must work on “The oak tree in the courtyard,” or on Mu, or on counting your breaths. “Blocked by phrases, you are bewildered.” That’s not altogether bad. How else can one practice? “The oak tree in the courtyard”—bewildered by that, you have a great chance.

From The Gateless Barrier by Robert Aitken

An idiosyncratic and interesting take on Joshu from a non traditional perspective.

chapter 36 of the shobogenzo