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.


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.


Blue Cliff Record, Case 42 (adapted)

The case:

When Layman Pang was taking his leave of Yaoshan monastery, the Abbot ordered ten of his senior monks to accompany him to the temple gate as a gesture of respect.

As the party was walking towards the temple gate, snow started to fall. Layman Pang looked up and said, ‘this snow is wonderful, it falls only here’ The senior monk asked, ‘where does it fall?’ Layman Pang said to him, ‘even though you are a zen monk, the King of Death won’t let you go’


Who or what, in this context, is the King of Death? 

The error the monk made was thinking that Layman Pang’s expression of wonder, astonishment and gratitude at the immediacy and beauty of the falling snow was a zen language game and so responding accordingly.

It’s a fundamental misunderstanding, and one that is replicated in many of the ways in which we talk about Buddhism generally and the koan stories in particular. We think of it as a kind of code that we need to crack, a text we need to interpret, but when we see in this way, the King of Death is standing so close to us that we can see nothing else. Nor him, other than as a kind of falling.


Book Of Serenity, Case 36

The Book of Serenity Case 36.

The case:

Master Ma (Baso) was unwell. His attendant asked “Master, how are you?”. Ma replied “sun face Buddha, moon face Buddha”


By the time of this exchange, Baso had foretold his own death, and would die shortly afterwards. Sun face Buddha had a lifespan of 1,800 years. Moon face Buddha lived just a single day and night. So, at one level Baso is talking about the dual aspect of our life: the particular and karmic, and the Universal. The same theme appears in Uchiyama’s poem (adapted):

Though poor, never poor
Though sick, never sick
Though aging, never aging
Though dying, never dying
Reality before separation:
Endless depth

but on another level, he is talking about our experience as human beings prior to that separation. In the sunlight, the vast alive body of the world is illuminated yet the light is, in a sense, invisible. In the moonlight, by contrast, everything is absorbed by the moonlight, becoming a part of it, tranquil and beautiful.


Master Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse number 453. (Adapted)

Polishing a tile to make a mirror is our reward for accumulating merit and virtue. Polishing a mirror to make a tile certainly depends on the nourishment from wisdom. Polishing a mirror to make a mirror brings a laugh – how are my hands and the Buddha’s hands similar? Practising Zazen to make a Buddha is putting our jagged karmic stones at the site of awakening – why is it like this?

(After a pause) When one cart is hit, many carts go quickly. One night a flower blooms and the world is fragrant.

Master Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse number 453. (Adapted)


He is plainly talking about our practice. The tile is our karma – a chaotic concatenation of selves which we become all too aware of when we start sitting. And understandably wish to be free of. Even though it’s just noise.

The mirror is Buddha, and we imagine that through practice we can make the tile a mirror. Yet he didn’t say that. He never said that. Paint a Buddha face on the tile if you wish, but it will never go.

In our sincere and wholehearted practice a true person appears. Sometimes, this person is like vast space. And the noise doesn’t matter, at all.


Master Dogen’s dharma discourse number 441.

“Having questions and answers, we smear everything with shit and piss. Not having questions and answers, thunder and lightning crash. The great Earth in ten directions is leveled and all of space is torn open, not allowed to enter from outside, not allowed to leave from inside.

A gavel strikes the sounding block and the ten thousand affairs are completed.

At such a time how is it?

(After a pause, Dogen said) time and again everything exists within a painting. Even allowing for what falls apart snow falls at midnight.”

Master Dogen’s dharma discourse number 441.

This discourse, delivered in the last part of his life, in all its vigour and iconoclasm seems quintessentially Dogen, but in fact, prior to the pause, Dogen is directly quoting the words of his Master, Tendo Nyojo.

By this time his master had been dead for more than a decade and he had not seen him for more than 15 years.

Are the words Nyojo’s or Dogen’s, both, or neither?

It is the responsibility of the teacher to teach with great vigour, and to do so for the rest of their days.

Yet the personal vigour of a teacher – even a great teacher like Dogen – is puny. Yet it is as if sometimes the entire lineage – not just the visible lineage, but the lineage of all times – and the entire universe seen and unseen is all congregated around this person, and given voice.

Whether you believe it or not, you are like this, I am like this and, to live without doubt, it is necessary only once.


Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse 463 [adapted]

Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse 463 [adapted]

Dropping off body and mind; dropping off this skin, flesh, bones and marrow; dropping off this vivid waterfall of experience: How can this be you? How can this be other?

Breaking into a smile, nothing has ever been separated.

(after a pause)

In other days, we have mapped out this entire miraculous world, but this day, we are as innocent as children singing


Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 1, Case 13

A monk asked Master Jisai – “How is the moon when not yet round?”

The master said, “swallowing three or four moons”

The monk said, “And when the moon is round?”

The master said, “vomiting seven or eight moons”.

In this story the moon is a symbol of enlightenment, so the monk’s question really is: what is the person like before and after enlightenment?

The Master’s answer seems to be that before enlightenment the person is primarily conceptual. So, the various concrete moons the person experiences – the harvest moon, the waxing moon, the present moon and so on – all arise within [swallowed] the concept of ‘moon’, whereas for the enlightened person, the actual limitless manifestations of moon are – as it were- liberated [vomited] from the concept of moon.

This interpretation isn’t wrong but it can lead to a terrible literal Zen, where there is an unbalanced emphasis is on concrete reality and a lot of banal and formulaic talk about the Here and Now. And in this block of concrete Zen, delusion is considered as the other: thoughts, dreams, imaginings, visions and so on.

In his commentary on this koan, Dogen says that the whole world is expressed in the act of swallowing and the whole world is expressed in the act of vomiting. We should swallow the self and the whole world. We should vomit the self and the whole world

Or, to put it slightly differently – there is a dynamic folding and re-folding between wholeness-ising everything [swallowing], and releasing everything in its own vivid expression-ing [vomiting]

Which is our practice.


Blue Cliff Record, Case 42 (adapted)

The Case:

When Layman Pang left Yao Shan’s monastery, the Abbot ordered ten of his senior monks to accompany him to the temple gate. As they approached the gate, snow started falling. Layman Pang said, “These are good snowflakes. They only fall here.”

One of the monks asked him, “Where do they fall?”

Layman Pang replied, “Even though you are a zen monk, the King of Death won’t let you go”


In Suchness, it is not that we disappear. Rather, boundaries disappear. Separation disappears. Without erasing difference, all things participate in the wholeness of this moment.

The King of Death appears in many forms. If it were just one form, we could see him easily. In this case, the monk takes Layman Pang’s simple statement of wonder and gratitude – the snowflakes do not fall on the monastery, they do not fall on the temple gate, they fall here – and misunderstands it, as a game, as an invitation to dharma combat, or something similar.

It is not just the snowflakes, obviously. Everything is falling and rising here, and the mind which places this here within a greater everywhere does so from a dream.


Book Of Serenity, Case 23 (adapted)

The case:

When students came to see Master Luzu, he simply turned to face the wall in zazen.

Hearing this Master Nansen said – “this will carry on until the year of the donkey”

Nansen then said “when students come to me, I tell them to experience the state before discrimination. However I don’t even have half a student”


This koan is about teaching.

In Chinese astrology there isn’t a year of the donkey.

Nansen is saying that zazen is eternal but also that this way of teaching is eternally deficient.

It is not just a matter of gestures.

But then Nansen, although a great teacher himself, seems to suggest that his verbal teaching was also deficient.

It is not just a matter of words.

We need to understand that neither Luzu or Nansen, or anyone else, are teachers; because the true teacher is a momentary person.

Sometimes he conceals himself within the teacher. Sometimes within the student.

Sometimes partially in one and partially in the other. Sometimes in brightness. Sometimes in memory.

The true teacher always manifests only in this relational space. Because this relational space is without limit, likewise their manifestations.