One night master Yakusan Igen of Reishu had no light. He preached his disciples: I have something to say. When an excellent ox is about to bear a calf, then I will say it to you.
At this a monk walked forward and said: An excellent ox has borne a calf, so Master, why don’t you speak?
The Master said: Bring me a light.
The monk returned to the group of disciples.
Commentary by Nishijima
Master Dogen called the order of Master Yakusan Igen a “Dai Sorin” (great Buddhist temple), although the member of the order numbered no more than ten, and apparently there was sometimes not even enough money to buy oil for the lamps.
Master Yakusan Igen was a buddha. He lived in reality, and he wished to communicate the simple nature of reality of his disciples. He said that he would not tell them what he had to say until “an excellent ox is about to bear a calf.” The ox was frequently used as a symbol of Buddhist practitioners. The birth of a calf symbolises a person who has grasped the truth. So the Master was saying that he would wait until the one of the monks could grasp the truth before he spoke.
The monk stepped forward said that the calf had already been born, or in other words that the monk had already grasped the truth, and he asked the Master to say what he wanted to say.
The Master’s reply, “Fetch me a light,” is a natural enough thing to say in a dark room, except for the fact that there were no light to be had in a whole temple. In asking them impossible, the Master was pointing out the fact; there was no light.
The truth of the situation was simple and obvious; it didn’t really need expressing. The truth is not something mystical or abstract; it is the real situation, just in this place, just at the moment.
In the darkness of the old temple the monk took his place among his fellow disciples. He had grasped the truth in his Master’s wordless teaching.
Commentary by John Fraser
In the literal sense, Yakusan is puncturing the religiosity of the exchange by pointing out a concrete fact : the absence of light.
But also, he is recalling Buddha’s admonition to his disciples “be your own light”; he has to be his own light, and his own darkness, because there is no light which the monk can bring to him.
And additionally, there are similarities with the exchange between Ungan and Dogo [Book 2, Case 5] : the darkness suggests non discrimination, and so the suggestion is that ‘light’ [duality, discrimination] occurs within the wider embracing ‘darkness’ of non discrimination.
And with regard to the excellent ox ; does the teacher give birth to the student, or does the student give birth to the teacher, or both, or neither, or something else?