Tung-shan’s Three Pounds of Flax
A monk asked Tung-shan, “What is Buddha?” Tung-shan said, “Three pounds of flax.
Old Man Tung-shan attained something of clam-Zen. He opened the two halves of his shell a bit and exposed his liver and intestines. Be that as it may, tell me: where do you see Tung-shan?
WU-MEN’S VERSE Thrusting forth “three pounds of flax!” The words are intimate, mind is more so; if you argue right and wrong, you are a person of right and wrong.
The name “Tung-shan” simply means “East Mountain.” Zen teachers are commonly named for their locations, and there are many “East Mountains” in China. Fourteen “Tung-shans” are listed in my directory of ancient Chinese Zen masters.1 Best known is Tung-shan Liang-chieh, revered as founder of the Ts’ao-tung or Sōtō school. In this case, however, we again meet Tung-shan Shou-ch’u, who in Case 15 showed Yün-men that he had a good grip on his rice bag. Here he shows the brilliance that was not yet evident then. In those halcyon days of Zen training, a good teacher had more students than could be seen individually in private interviews. Everyone, however, had a chance for interaction during the evening meetings. The teacher would step to the high seat and deliver a few well-chosen words. Monks would then come forward, one by one, and each would ask a question or make a presentation and thus set up an exchange. It seems that most of the dialogues recorded in Zen literature come from this setting, and the ceremony survives in the so-called Dharma Combat (hōsen or shōsan) meetings in modern centers, including our Diamond Sangha. Tung-shan’s preliminary words are not recorded. A monk stepped forward, made his bows, and asked, “What is Buddha?” This question appears four times in the forty-eight cases of The Gateless Barrier and countless times throughout Zen literature. The Buddha is the first of the Three Treasures of Buddhism—the other two being Dharma and Sangha. The name refers first to Śākyamuni, the founder of our Way, the Enlightened One. It also refers to many other figures in the Buddhist pantheon. We recite the so-called “Ten Names of the Buddha” during our mealtime service:
Vairocana, pure and clear, Dharmakāya Buddha; Locana, full and complete, Sambhogakāya Buddha; Śākyamuni, infinitely varied, Nirmānakāya Buddha; Maitreya, Buddha still to be born; All Buddhas everywhere, past, present, future; Mahayana Lotus of the Subtle Law Sutra; Mañjuśrī, great wisdom Bodhisattva; Samantabhadra, Mahayana Bodhisattva; Avalokiteśvara, great compassion Bodhisattva; All venerated Bodhisattvas, Mahāsattvas; The great Prajñā Pāramitā.The first three entries on this list are the archetypal Three Bodies of the Buddha, standing for the three fundamental aspects of reality: Dharmakāya, the void that is charged with infinite possibilities; Sambhogakāya, the fullness and harmony of the universe and its beings; and Nirmānakāya, the unique individuality of each being and the infinite variety of the universe. Maitreya is the Future Buddha, potent in each of us and in the world; “All Buddhas” are at once the unknown enlightened ones and also all beings—every one enlightened; the Lotus Sutra, an allegorical, devotional text, is included, a mark of its widespread veneration in Mahayana Buddhism, even in relatively austere Zen practice; Mañjuśrī is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, holding both a book of learning and a sword for cutting off delusion; Samantabhadra is the Bodhisattva of Great Action, turning the Dharma Wheel with all beings; and Avalokiteśvara is Kuan-yin (Kannon or Kanzeon), the Bodhisattva of Mercy, the one who hears sounds of the world—enlightened by these sounds, she includes them all as she enters into the world’s work. Finally, all bodhisattvas are included, and all mahāsattvas (noble beings) as well, together with Prajñā Pāramitā, Perfected Wisdom. There are a great many more Buddhas, each with his or her particular quality of enlightenment and verity, found in The Sutra of Names of the Buddha, an early Chinese work in twelve fascicles. Patriarchs and matriarchs in our lineage are Buddhas as well, great spirits who enlightened themselves by their own efforts. The name is also given to the myriad monks, nuns, and lay people who followed their examples—and it is given to you and me and to all people who realize Buddha nature after long practice who are nonetheless Buddhas from the beginning. No library could hold all their names—all our names. And finally, “Buddha” refers to the spiritually instructive nature of the universe itself—totally void, every being reflecting and indeed including all other beings. There are likewise an almost infinite number of bodhisattvas, each of them bearing a name indicating a particular quality of realization and potency, like these listed in the Avatamsaka (Hua-yen) Sūtra: “Great Light, Eternal Light, Understanding the Seed of Buddhahood, Mind King, One Practice, Always Manifesting Spiritual Powers, Sprouts of Wisdom, Abode of Wisdom, Lamp of Truth, Illumining the World, Sustaining the World.” As bodhisattvas they are Buddhas too, as the “Ten Names of the Buddha” indicates, together with Prajñā Pāramitā—their wisdom and their teachings. The question “What is Buddha?” might be paraphrased: “What is the essential aspect of life in this world? What is the substance of life and death? Can you show it to me concretely?” However often the question is asked, it never fails to be a challenge. Regarding Tung-shan’s response, Yüan-wu remarks that some students suppose that Tung-shan was in the temple storeroom at the time, weighing out flax for the market. Thus they render Tung-shan’s reply to mean “This flax weighs three pounds.” Indeed, flax was important for monks as it was made into linen for their robes. But the words “this” and “weigh” do not appear in the original, which is simply Ma san-ching (Masangin—“Flax three pounds”). Senzaki Sensei’s poem is to the point:
What is Buddha? Masangin. What is Buddha? Masangin. What is Buddha? The third stick of incense has just burned off. That’s all, folks! As Wu-men says in another context, “Because it’s so very clear, / it takes so long to realize.” Tung-shan’s response is like that of the child who hears a siren and cries out “Fire engine!” No mistake, crystal clear! Altogether convincing! To be convincing is to communicate beyond the shadow of a doubt. If your manner conveys one message and your words another, you are not communicating. I recall going to Yamada Rōshi with what I was sure was the point of a kōan. He disapproved and sent me back to my cushions for more work. I explored the matter as deeply as I could, but did not find any other point. So I returned and made what I thought was the same presentation as before. This time he approved. I said, “That is exactly the response I gave last time.” The rōshi said, “I wasn’t convinced.” It seems that with my additional work I had grown more intimate with the kōan—and with the universe. And thus on the second try my manner was more in keeping with the fact. I was able to communicate at last. One reason we appreciate young children is that the pale cast of thought is absent from their responses—and they appreciate us when we can play their game. Many haiku, especially those of Bashō, are splendid examples of the directness of the child:
You light the fire and I’ll show you something nice— a huge ball of snow!
Yün-men is closer to Tung-shan than Bashō and just as straightforward, as I quoted earlier:
A monk asked Yün-men, “What is the discourse that transcends Buddhas and Ancestral Teachers?” Yün-men said, “Rice cake.”The fact and its rich presentation are one in Yün-men and in Tung-shan. With their “Rice cake” and “Three pounds of flax,” they evoke the unswerving candor they retained from the beginning. Thus they enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and without their spirit we cannot follow. Wu-men comments: “Old Man Tung-shan attained something of clam-Zen.” What is clam-Zen? Very simple. Open up and show everything! Close up and show nothing! “He opened the two halves of his shell a bit and exposed his liver and intestines.” Just a bit, just three words in the original—just three syllables: Ma san-ching. As Yamada Rōshi says, “Actually just Ma! would be enough. Just Mmmm! would be enough.”10 “Be that as it may,” Wu-men continues, “tell me: where do you see Tung-shan?” Trot him out! Wu-men exclaims in his verse, “Thrusting forth ‘three pounds of flax!’” What is this thrusting forth? Crack!11 “Three pounds of flax!” Don’t say, “Tung-shan was explaining in effect that by weighing out three pounds of flax he was Buddha in action.” Blasphemy! Here the greatness of Tung-shan becomes apparent. There is a noetic flavor, an insightful taste, to his “Three pounds of flax.” The flavor of knowledge, of wisdom, of understanding, infuses “Three pounds of flax!”—“Rice cake!”—“Oak tree in the garden!”—even “Kaaats’!” When someone begins a kōan presentation by saying, “Well, I think the teacher is saying…,” I want to interrupt: “Mistaken already!” “Well, I think he is saying…” begins a discourse that takes the subject back to its place in history a thousand or more years ago. The intimacy set forth by Wu-men—“the hair of your eyebrows entangled with theirs, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears”—is nowhere to be seen, heard, or felt. “Well, I think he is saying…” shows nothing of your liver and intestines, not even your skin. Showing and being shown is kenshō. Kenshō, however, is only the initial inspiration. It opens the way, and practice follows on cushions and in everyday life. Work in the interview room is one such practice—to tangle eyebrows with me and with Tung-shan. Only in tangling is there life. Discursive explanation is too often the way of death. “Words are intimate, mind is more so.” Intimacy is what we are about as Zen students. Standing off is misery. Notice your emotions. When you are standing off, for whatever reason, you are miserable. Some people decide that they are miserable, as a delinquent child might decide that he or she is bad. “That’s bad!” then confirms a mistaken self-image. I learned when I worked in a juvenile hall many years ago that if I said to a boy, “You seem to be straightening out pretty well these days,” he would immediately mess up in some way. Perhaps this was because I objectified him and distanced myself. But if I took him to task and gave him hell for something, he would come around a little later and ask, “Want to play a game of ping-pong?” This is hopeful, but a long way from true intimacy. Wu-men understood this human tendency very well. “If you argue right and wrong / you are a person of right and wrong.” It is very simple: when you hold yourself aloof from Tung-shan, then that’s the kind of person you will be. If you want to interpret, then you will be an interpretive person. If you decide you want to be right, then you will be a righteous person, self-righteous, in fact. If you decide to be intimate, then you and Tung-shan can squat on the same zafu—you and your protagonist in the family or on the job or in the Buddha Sangha can hold hands and work together. This is Zen on your cushions and in your daily life. This is Buddha if anything is. Wu-men and Freud tangle here. You do everything on purpose. What is your purpose? If you wish to present “Three pounds of flax,” then you can be a presentational person. You will have clam-Zen down cold. Open up and show!
Aitken, Robert. The Gateless Barrier . Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
Some information on samskara, The fourth of the five Skandas.