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The Gateless Gate, Case 3

The Gateless Gate, Case Three: Chu-Chih raises one finger

The Case

Whenever Chu-Chih (J: Gutei) was asked a question, he simply raised one finger. One day a visitor asked Chu-Chih’s attendant what his master preached. The boy raised a finger. Hearing of this, Chu-Chih cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. As the boy ran from the room, Chu-Chih called to him. When the boy turned his head Chu-Chih raised a finger. The boy was suddenly enlightened.

When Chu-Chih was about to die he said to his assembled monks, “I received this one finger Zen from T’ien-lung. I used it all my life but never used it up.”

Commentary

This is a koan story that is greatly commented on in the Rinzai tradition and the focus of that commentary is usually suchness. When we make a gesture such as raising our finger, we’re not doing it in a symbolic or representative way – it’s just natural. It’s a complete expression of our present state. That perspective is part of a wider discussion within the Zen tradition about the uses and dangers of language.

However, the key to understanding this story is understanding the background detail. Which, given this case also appears as case 19 in the Blue Cliff Record, is available to us. In that background detail, we’re told that prior to his enlightenment, Chu-Chih assiduously practised zazen by himself. One day he was visited by a nun who demanded of him that he say something appropriate but he was unable to do so. And so the nun left. The name of that nun was True Encounter.

Chu-Chih was upset by this. He intended to go and find a master but he heard a voice saying that, in fact, a master would come to him. And several days later that’s exactly what happened. Chu-Chih related the story to this person who in response simply held up one finger. And that resulted in Chu-Chih becoming enlightened.

In his subsequent teaching, was Chu-Chih holding up his own finger? Or was he holding up his master’s finger? And what are we to make of him simply teaching in this one way?

In the incident in question why was it that in this situation the boy was enlightened, but on previous occasions when he witnessed the teaching he was not? And whose finger this time was Chu-Chih holding up? Was it his finger? The boy’s finger? His master’s finger? Or all three? Or something else? Classical Chinese leaves all these interpretations open.

I think this is a teaching about interdependence. So when we lift our finger, or an eyebrow, or our heart – then we are also lifting the fabric of the whole universe – all being, all space, all time – because we’re part of that fabric. The severed finger (whether or not Chu-Chih is holding that finger up and that’s what causes the boy to become enlightened) similarly is not separate from this fabric of being. And is always communicating and expressing: severed or unsevered.

Nothing is severed.

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The Blue Cliff Record, Case 43

The Case:

A monk asked Master Tozan, “When heat and cold come, how can we avoid them?” Tozan said, “Why don’t you go to the place where there is no heat or cold?” The monk asked, “How do I get to that place?” Tozan said, “When it is hot, heat kills the monk. When it’s cold, cold kills the monk.”

Tozan perhaps could have added, zazen kills the monk. And zazen kills zazen.

This koan, which is very well known, is symptomatic of a difficulty in Zen. It isn’t that there isn’t an enormous amount of commentary on this and the other well-known koans. It’s just that a lot of that commentary, to us at least, is grand but empty; sonorous but meaningless. 

And the reason for that is that we fundamentally misunderstand these various Masters. We imagine that Baso, Tozan and all the other great Tang Dynasty Zen monks represent a rupture with Buddhism up to that point. When in fact they copiously quote from sutras and other sources, but they tend to have assumed that their audience was aware of the source. And so, the quote isn’t specifically referenced.

In this case Tozan is directly alluding to a passage which the Buddha talked about our state in meditation where he said: our state of perception is not no-perception. It isn’t disordered perception. And it isn’t ordinary perception. So the question obviously remains: what is it?

After zazen we chant the Heart Sutra, where we refer to the five skandhas. They are form, sensation, perception, mental fabrication and consciousness; they describe the human being. And, as in lots of Buddhist formulations, they build on each other.

Because our society has such a psychological bent we’re inclined to think that non-attachment occurs at the level of the fourth skandha (mental fabrication). So in the case of the monk, for instance, we might imagine that he should say, “Oh I’m sitting zazen. I’m very hot. Oh, I notice that’s making me irritable. I shouldn’t attach to that. I shouldn’t go off into a trail of thoughts and emotions. I shouldn’t love or hate the condition.” And so on. So, we locate non-attachment there. We don’t go off into mental fabrication. Our perception of thoughts, feelings, objects and actions is there, but we try not to do anything with them. This is often how people (mis)understand mindfulness.

Non attachment to our perceptions is helpful as a preliminary practice – one that can go on for years, and which, in some sense, is always with us as our preliminary practice today – because it steadies us. But if we think that’s what zazen is, we’re completely wasting our time. And if I tell other people that’s what zazen is, I’m completely wasting their time.

The non-attachment which Tozan is referring to is at the level of the earlier skandha ( sensation ). So we’re not saying, “Oh I’m sitting in a room in a blue chair, with the sunlight coming through the window, feeling a bit melancholy, hearing birdsong, having intermittent thoughts about yesterday, practising non-attachment.” No: we are not at the level of perception. We are not sitting in the world constructed and pictured by our mind and culture, yet maintaining detachment from it. We’re at the skandha below that: the skandha of sensation. Obviously, we bounce around through all of them. We can’t stop having thoughts. We can’t stop having thoughts about thoughts. But we can let them go.

So, at the level of the second skandha, we’re feeling, we’re sensing all this activity and expression in ourselves and the world. But we’re not fixing it, we’re not conceptualizing it, we’re not picturing it. We’re not within our familiar world. We’re just feeling what we feel. And when  – as they must – perceptions of objects and thoughts arise,  and thoughts about those thoughts and objects and emotions arise, we have the space of embodiment in which they can come and go freely. Which is why we emphasise the importance of the body so much. If we practice zazen but we’re not embodied, our experience can’t be earthed. There isn’t the spacious container of body, breath and space, there’s just the mind, with an unavoidable focus on and attachment to the level and type of mental charge, which is often accompanied by an acquisitive spirituality, the quest for enlightenment, higher states, evolved consciousness, and the various other bright things in the junk shop of spiritual capitalism.

But it’s important to note that the state that Tozan is referring to isn’t a final state. There isn’t a final state. All five skandhas are empty. We understand that our perceptions are constructions (and doubly so for what we then weave with these perceptions) and hence empty, but the two earlier skandhas, Form and Sensation, are empty too, but in a slightly different way. It’s plain that our sensations are coming and going within this greater body of alive embodiment, and hence are ‘empty‘, but the first skandha, Form, is empty too. How so? Because the body in Zazen, in its spacious, balanced aliveness, is not separate. We do not experience our body as a lump of form, or as a parcel of energy, separate from all beings, but, indeterminately, part. Not as something thought, but as something experienced.

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Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 91

The case:

One day Dogo asked Sekito, “What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?” 

Sekito said, “It isn’t obtainable. It isn’t knowable.”

Dogo said, “Is there a more realistic expression?” 

Sekito said, “The wide sky does not hinder the flying white clouds.”

Commentary:

The metaphor of sky (spacious awareness) and clouds (thoughts) is very common in Zen. Originally the meaning was fairly specific: just as the sun may be temporarily obscured by clouds yet we know it’s always there,  likewise, although our mind may be in turmoil, we can sit in confident faith in our intrinsic Buddha Nature.

That came from the East Mountain School of seventh century Zen. But the metaphor gradually changed. Instead of a specific faith in our intrinsic Buddha Nature, the faith became that when we do zazen (no matter how turbulent our mind is) we can always rest within this great expanse of spacious awareness, which does not belong just  to us, but to all beings. Clouds don’t hinder the sky.

In Japanese there’s a play on words, because the word for ‘sky’ and the word for ‘emptiness’ is the same word, ‘ku’.

In his response, Sekito seems to be turning that around by saying that the wide sky doesn’t hinder the clouds. What’s he getting at?

In our normal karmic experience, when thoughts and emotions arise we want to identify them and we want to interpret them. We want to stop them in their tracks, as it were, so we can work out what the thought or the emotion is about. And when we do that, we no longer have clouds (thoughts and feelings) freely coming and going and living their own life. It’s as if we freeze the clouds to scrutinize them, and collapse the sky. We attach to our thoughts. We hinder the clouds.

In zazen we don’t do this, because we drop our tendency to fix, to conceptualise, to like, to dislike, to interpret – all of that. Then the clouds can manifest freely. And when they manifest freely we see, not just that the sky makes the clouds possible, but that the clouds make the sky possible. Without clouds there’s no sky. There’s no emptiness without form.

This apparently simple picture that Sekito paints has a lot packed into it. So it’s urging us not to cast out what we think and feel, what is living through us at each moment, for a picture of quietism and tranquility, as that’s just a more subtle form of attachment.

We just allow this life and this space flooding through us to live.

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Master Hongzhi’s Practice instructions. Number 9: The Misunderstanding of Many Lifetimes

Emptiness is without characteristics. Illumination has no emotional afflictions.’

With piercing, quietly profound radiance, it mysteriously eliminates all scars.  Thus,one can know one; thus the self is completed. We all have the clear, wondrously bright field from the beginning. Many lifetimes of misunderstanding come only from distrust, hindrance and screens of confusion that we create in a scenario of isolation. With boundless wisdom journey beyond this, forgetting accomplishments. Straightforwardly abandon stratagems and take on responsibility. Having turned yourself around, accepting your situation, if you set foot on the path, spiritual energy will marvously transport you. Contact phenomena will total sincerity. Not a single atom of dust is outside yourself.’

For practice the most important thing is faith. Not belief, faith.

Specifically, faith in two things.

Firstly that when we read descriptions of practice such as this, no matter how apparently fantastical they first appear, we should understand them as a sincere attempt by a practitioner, a practitioner like ourselves, to express their actual experience.

Second, that the actual experience that this practitioner has had is experience which is  also available to us. What we should not do is make the language of description literal. We should not for instance, think that we must experience the bright field that Master Hongzhi talks about and if we can’t experience that, our practice is worth nothing.

We need to understand that the experience that Master Hongzhi and other practitioners write about in their own way is available to everyone, but the experience of each person will be different, and hence the expression. Master Hongzhi  experienced a bright field. Other  people might experience a profound connectedness, or a great, luminous silence, or a sense of a dynamic interconnected body. If you wait impatiently for the bright field to appear, you will remain in darkness forever.

We are always striving to express our experience in language, but we must understand that our language and the language of all our teachers is descriptive language, and hence, to a greater or lesser extent, unique. It is not telling us  what we should experience. Each experience is another brushstroke in creation.

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The Gateless Gate, Case 18: Tozan’s Three Pounds of Flax

A monk asked Tonzan, “What is Buddha?”

Tozan replied, “ three pounds of flax.”

Three pounds of flax is the amount of material required to make a monk’s robe. But Tozan didn’t say the Buddha was a monk’s robe, he said, ‘3lbs of flax’.

Three pounds of flax is limitless in its expression and application; it could be a garment for a monk, but equally a garment for a warrior or for a merchant, a shroud for a dead person, and so on.The fourth of the five skandas is translated – usually badly – as ‘will’ or ‘mental fabrication’ but it’s a very important element of the human being; it’s that aspect of us which takes this experience here and now and makes something out of it. We literally fabricate something.

We do this because what we always want to do is to grasp each aspect of the world as it appears and make it something specific. ‘Buddha’ is prior to this fabrication. We can grasp a monk’s robe, but we can’t grasp the fabric of emptiness.

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Book of Serenity, Case 47

Book of Serenity, Case 47.

The case: Master Joshu is asked, “What is the true meaning of Zen?” And he replies, “The cypress tree in the courtyard.”

This is a variant of a question he was frequently asked: “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?” Joshu, famously, is often asked questions about Buddha nature. The best known koan of all is probably the question to him: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”

And not just a dog. In his recorded sayings (no. 305), a monk asked Joshu, “Does the cypress tree have Buddha nature or not?” 

Joshu said, “It does.” 

The monk said, “When will it become Buddha?” 

Joshu said, “When the sky falls to the ground.” 

The monk said, “When will the sky fall to the ground?” 

The Master said, “When the cypress tree becomes Buddha.”

What are we to take from that?

What do we understand the cypress tree to be? It seems easy enough for us to see how the roots of the cypress tree extend into the deep ground underneath our constructed world. 

But it’s harder for us to see how the branches of the tree vigorously extend into space, into ‘emptiness’. 

Yet when we talk of the empty sky or space falling to the ground, isn’t that the real experience of the cypress tree? 

The cypress tree, in its wholehearted, undivided activity, is both fully engaged with this ground of all being, and equally is fully engaged with emptiness, and makes both intimate within its undivided activity. Likewise the practitioner.

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The Gateless Gate, Case 2

The Gateless Gate, Case 2 also appears as Case 8 in the Book of Serenity, which was compiled about 100 years before it. But the interesting thing is that the case in the Book of Serenity is truncated, so it doesn’t have the section about the deceased Monk/Fox being given a Buddhist burial. And it doesn’t, crucially, have this final exchange between Hyakujō and Ōbaku.

But before getting to that, I think it’s helpful to clarify a couple of things that make this story a little bit more comprehensible. Firstly, in East Asian folklore, the Fox is a shapeshifter. So a fox can assume, among other things, the form of a human being and successfully pass himself off as a human being. 

Secondly, the abbot of a monastery will be named after the mountain on which the monastery is. So both the Fox/Monk, who was the abbot in a previous life, and the present Hyakujō, are called Hyakujō. Which obviously leads one to question how many people are appearing in this initial part of the story.

The other funny thing is that the Fox appears to have knowledge of the 500 lifetimes in which he was incarnated in the body of a Fox. But this is curious, as traditionally only the Buddha, or arguably an enlightened person –  a great person – has knowledge of their past lives. And of course the 500 lives that the Fox says that he’s been within a Fox body mirrors the 500 lives which the Buddha is said to have had before attaining Buddhahood.  

It’s also helpful to know that in Zen parlance, somebody falsely claiming enlightenment, falsely claiming to be a great person, or who is enlightened or wise but is unbalanced by that, for reasons that we’ll come to, is referred to as a Wild Fox. 

The general commentary in this story focuses on the two answers given by the earlier Hyakujō and the later Hyakujō. That commentary doesn’t say that the first answer is wrong, but somehow that it’s incomplete. So the two answers are often referred to as two sides of the one coin.

If we take the first Hyakujō’s answer literally, that a great person doesn’t fall into cause and effect, then an enlightened person could do whatever they liked without consequence. That’s plainly wrong, but that’s not generally the meaning that’s ascribed to the answer. The suggestion is that a great person cannot fall into cause and effect is because  a great person is never separate from cause and effect. There is no illusion of Self separate from cause and effect.

But of course that answer is vulnerable to misinterpretation, because a naive person could think that an enlightened person is capable of acting without consequence. So the second Hyakujō’s balancing answer is necessary because it makes clear, not that cause and effect doesn’t exist for the enlightened person, but rather that for the enlightened person there is no enlightened person.  

With that in mind, here is my take on what I think is the hidden message within the story, which is clarified by the addition of these two sections of the Gateless Gate. And that message, which I think is hiding in plain sight, concerns the difference in the relationship between the first Hyakujō and the Monk who asks the original question, and the relationship between the second Hyakujō, our Hyakujō, and Ōbaku, in the exchange at the end. 

In the earlier exchange between the Monk and first Hyakujō, so far as we can see, the Monk simply respectfully asks a question and accepts the answer. There’s a kind of hierarchical relationship between the Teacher and the Monk. The Teacher is the guy that knows, and he’s giving the benefit of his wisdom to the Monk, the guy that doesn’t know. Teachers are very vulnerable to falling into the body of a Wild Fox if the relationship they have with their students is one of unquestioning acceptance.

Moving on from that, there’s a homonym in Mandarin; the word for “beard” and the word for “fox” have the same sound. And of course, a Fox is red-cloured. So there’s a suggestion in the final exchange between Hyakujō and Ōbaku that both the Great Teacher (Bodhidharma being a red bearded barbarian) and the Wild Fox exist within the one person. And existing within the one person, yet being able to recognise that, stops the emergence of the Wild Fox usurping the Teacher. Your teacher is a fox if they are operating under the illusion that the Teacher is the Great Person, because the Great Person is the whole body of the Sangha, which is carrying the Buddhist teaching forward.

And I think that this is the symbolic function of the funeral, that it’s a collective effort that Hyakujō and the monks are all making, to recognise the body of the Fox. And in accepting  it, giving  it Buddhist funerary rites, is also to cast it out. For now.

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Blue Cliff Record, Case 53 (adapted)

Kusen collaboration by Margaret Kerr

The Case

When Master Baso and Hyakujo were out walking, a flock of ducks flew overhead. Baso said “where have the ducks gone?”. Hyakujo replied “they have flown away”. Baso grabbed Hyakujo’s nose and twisted it, causing him to cry out in pain.

Commentary:

In what way was Hyakujo’s answer deficient, if it was? Well, we could say that his answer was conceptual. It didn’t describe his immediate, momentary experience because it imposed space and time onto it. In a similar vein, we can say it was dualistic. The ducks had only flown away from his perspective. From the perspective of the ducks, Hyakujo had flown away. From the perspective of the sky, neither had.

There is, arguably, a deeper dualism there, which can often be missed: the dualism of container/contained. We are familiar with the dualisms of mind/body and self/world, but this is more insidious. In his answer, the Sky is the container and the birds are the contained, but it works more generally. We can equally say that in his reply Time is the container and the flying birds are the contained. Dogen identifies it in the Genjokoan, when he talks about Spring. And in our own lives, we imagine that there is a container called My Life, within which all the events of this life occur.

The problem with all dualisms is they leave a gap, through which our vitality gradually seeps away.

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Blue Cliff Record, Case 63

The Case

One day in master Nansen’s temple two group of monks were arguing over a cat. Nansen came across them, grabbed the cat and said, ‘if you can say one true word about the cat I won’t kill it.’ The monks were silent and Nansen cut the cat in two.

This koan story also appears as case 14 in ‘The Gateless Gate,’ which was compiled about 100 years after ‘The Blue Cliff’ record and which has a coda. In that coda, Master Joshu, who is Nansen’s successor, has been away whilst this incident happened. Master Nansen relates the incident to him and Nansen says, ‘what would you have said?’  Joshu without saying anything, takes off his sandals, puts them on his head and walks out. Nansen approvingly says, ‘if you had been there the cat would have been saved.’

Dogen comments extensively on this Koan in the ‘Zuimonki,’ where he imagines himself in the position of Nansen and the position of the monks.

 In the position of Nansen, he would actually sharpen the monk’s dilemma by saying to them, ‘whether or not you can say a true word, I will cut the cat.’ But then the teaching purpose having been served, he would simply let the cat go.

From the position of the monks he would have challenged Nansen by saying ‘you can cut the cat in two but why don’t you cut the cat in one?’ From this brilliant proposition we can see why Dogen says that Nansen cuts the cat in two with the sword.The other stories refer to a knife or don’t say how the cat was cut. However, so far as a sword is concerned, the only ‘person’ in the monastery likely to have a sword is Manjushri ( The Bodhisattva of wisdom) whose statue we usually find on the altar.

Manjushri is wielding the sword which cuts delusion. From Dogen’s perspective the cutting of delusion is the restoration of wholeness. Manjushri is mounted on a lion, a very big cat.

Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of wisdom, but ‘wisdom’ is something of a misnomer because what is translated as wisdom is – prajna – pre-knowing which is equivalent to -hishiro – before thinking or beyond thinking that we were talking of previously. The point Dogen is making is that by making the cat an object, both the monks and arguably Nansen have already cut the cat in two; because they have created the cat as an object of thought and discrimination in the world, and the restoration of the wholeness of prajna is what cuts the world and the cat into one.

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Book of Serenity, Case 36: Master Ma Is Unwell

Kusen Collaboration Book of Serenity Case 36, artwork by Blair Thomson

The Case: One day, Master Ma’s personal attendant asked him, “How is the master these days?”

Master Ma answered, “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.”

This case is also Case 3 in the Blue Cliff Record.

Master Ma is Mazu or Baso, who along with Sekito, is one of the great masters of 8th Century Chinese Zen. The reference to “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha” comes from the Buddha Names Sutra, where Sun Face Buddha is said to have a lifespan of 1800 years, and Moon Face Buddha has a lifespan of only one day and one night. Baso would die shortly after this exchange.

On the face of it, Baso is talking about two aspects of his experience, and of all our experience, namely that from one perspective we experience our lives as particular and  karmic, limited in place and time. And from the other, we experience ourselves as part of the great body of all being, unlimited, universal. Rather like we may see a particular stitch on cloth as being, on the one hand, just that particular stitch, and on the other hand, part of the fabric of great being, so we can see our lives in the same way.

It seems to me that we can also look at the answer in another way, which is pointing out two aspects of experiencing non-duality. 

When we experience things in sunlight, everything in this vast world is illuminated, except for the sunlight, which is invisible. We see the manifold vibrant things of the world, but the light of the Self is invisible. 

In moonlight, by contrast, we see all the things on which moonlight shines as being somehow part of the moonlight. They lose their distinctiveness and their separateness and they all become part of the moonlight.

Similarly, I think when we are in Zazen, sometimes the Self drops away and we’re aware of this vast dynamic world, this vast body of all-being. And other times, our experience is quite different. It’s quite soft and intimate, particular in both place and time. It’s as if the whole of existence is taken within the soft light of the non-egoic Self and the world, as it were, disappears.