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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”

Commentary:

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.

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213. A true person of no rank

Master Rinzai said that there is a true person of no rank, always entering and leaving, through our face.

It is tempting to interpret this as fantastical or symbolic, rather than a description of actual experience.

Note that he didn’t say the heart – which extends everywhere – but the face.

People often imagine that underneath all our conditioning is a true person, and the purpose of spiritual practice is to get there, but Rinzai’s expression is entirely contrary to that. The true person is not you. They are not someone else.

It is as if metallic casts of our masks were suspended in Emptiness, like wind chimes.

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195. This great person

In the Avalokiteshvara chapter of the Shobogenzo, there is a famous exchange between Master Ungan and Master Dogo about how best to describe the bodhisattva of compassion.

When asked by Dogo, Ungan describes Avalokiteshvara in a particular way. Dogo then says “your words describe the situation nicely, but only about eighty or ninety percent”, and then gives his own description.

Dogo’s description seems better, but if we think that he’s described the situation perfectly, or at least better than Ungan, we’re missing the point.

There’s always something missing. And because of that, the Dharma will not perish.

It is not that there aren’t teachers and students, but we need to understand what a teacher is.

He’s not someone who shares his knowledge. That’s a scholar. Neither is he someone who shares his wisdom. That’s a guru. It’s not that there isn’t a difference between teacher and student, but only in function, not essence.

They are like 2 points, which delineate a whole person, a great person. This real person fully occupies the Buddhist space, moving forward and backward, according to circumstance. Sometimes he is the teacher and student. Sometimes the sangha. Sometimes the whole world.

The teacher is not a great person, but sometimes he is part of a great person. The responsibility of a teacher is to teach with great vigour for the rest of his life. Not from his own vigour, which is puny, nor from the vigour of his student, which is likewise puny, but from the vigour and expression of this great person, which is inexhaustible.

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181. The sixth ancestor

All the Zen lineages trace their ancestry back to the sixth ancestor Huineng, who, so the story goes, obtained a secret transmission from the fifth anscestor Hongren. In the story, Hongren asks his monks to write a poem about zazen. His chief disciple, Shenxiu, was the only one who responded. Huineng criticised the poem. In response, Hongren recognised Huineng as his true successor, and gave him transmission.

This is the poem, as often translated into English:

The body is the bodhi tree
The mind the bright mirror
At all times we should polish it
And not let dust collect

However, the original Chinese reads something like:

Body is bodhi tree
Mind like clear mirror stand
At all times diligently polish
Do not let dust settle

When we first hear the poem in its normal translation, we imagine that Shenxiu is talking about your body and your mind, and that your mind is like a bright mirror which needs to be kept clear of the dust of thoughts by the effort of Zazen. That ties in with an individualistic, mindful, psychological sense of what zazen is.

Except, the poem doesn’t actually say that.

Let’s consider the actual text.

The body is the bodhi tree. The bodhi tree is the tree under which the Buddha attained his enlightenment. So it is associated with that, obviously. But also, it is an unusual tree because it’s hollow. So it’s also a symbol of interdependence.

Is this the personal body, or not? Or both? Or neither?

When we hear that the mind is like a mirror, we form an image of a mirror, on a stand, in a room, that we polish through our effort, and so keep bright. But where in this image is the bodhi tree? Is it in the room, with the mirror, or not? And shouldn’t the (personal) body be the stand of the mirror? And what is the stand anyway, and how does it relate to the mirror/mind?

The original text doesn’t make clear who or what is being polished. The translations do, and it seems clear why. What would we be polishing, if not a mirror? It’s obvious, isn’t it?

But obviousness is the co-conspirator of deception.

If we rephrase it as something like “with vigorous effort, the dust does not settle anywhere”, we may start to get somewhere.

If dust appears in vast space, moved here and there by the vigorous life of the air, both illuminated by light, there’s no problem. The problem arises when the dust settles. Not because it becomes anything different, but because space is eradicated. There’s just dust, and the dust becomes fixed. And what it comes to rest on becomes fixed too, as ‘me’, ‘objective world’, ‘mirror’, and so on.

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Kusen

Blue Cliff Record, Case 63

The Case: at Master Nansen’s temple, two groups of monks were arguing about a cat. Nansen held up the cat and said “If you can speak then I will not kill it”. The monks were silent. Nansen cut the cat in two.

Commentary:

1. Who is the one person within the temple who carries a sword? Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. He sits on the altar, atop the lion of courage.

1.1. So is it a real sword? Or a real cat? Given that a humble pillow can symbolise dependent origination, what more could a cat signify? What are monks really likely to be arguing about?

2. Dogen, in Zuimonki, asks his students what they would have said in response to Nansen’s demand. And then volunteers that he would have said to Nansen, “Why don’t you cut the cat into one?” Wouldn’t you be happily cut in two if you could say something this brilliant?

2.1. Isn’t Dogen’s point that the cat -reality- has already been cut in two? Nansen does not kill it, because it has already been ‘killed’ by the sword of duality, wielded by the disputatious monks. But Manjusri’s sword is different. It cuts into one. How?

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167. The Shin Jin Mei

The Shin Jin Mei, The Verses of Faith Mind is attributed to Sosan, the Third Patriarch. The first line is “The Great Way is not difficult, only avoid picking or choosing.”

Well, we may readily think Sosan is being ironic, because when we start practicing, The Great Way seems very difficult indeed. Not just difficult, but impossible to see at all. It’s as if all we experience is a repetitive cascade of thought and emotion.

Yet somehow, with enough practice, we will step through this, and then The Great Way will be visible. And will be ours.

Sosan uses the term ‘faith mind’, because the faith is that this mind, this body, this experience is Buddha.

And we don’t see that, because in encountering what we deem this repetitive cascade of thought and emotion, we have already stepped forward into duality.

Our task is not to imagine that we can step forward further, this time into non duality, wholeness, but rather to fall backwards –

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Kusen

This very mind itself is buddha

Is it a mandarin duck
Or a seagull bobbing?
I can hardly tell:
White plumes rising and falling
Between the standing waves

This poem by Dogen is entitled ‘This very mind itself is Buddha’

When buddhists say that mind is Buddha, or world is mind, or suchlike, they don’t mean that the world is inside your head. They mean that there is no ‘inside’. Everything is this one piece of exertion/expression.

We are not caught by our imaginings, floating in front of us like gossamer, but by ‘reality’. The world is not a corpse, waiting to be identified truly or falsely. It is the illuminating cascade of momentary expression/exertion. In this moment, the duck. In this moment, the seagull. In this moment, the drumming of the rain. In this moment, the flooding of the heavens.

If you wish to lift up the head of the world, lift this head.

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Kusen

Book of Serenity, Case 48

The case:

Vimalakirti asked Manjusri

‘What is a Bodhisattva’s method of entering non duality?’

Manjusri said, “according to my mind, in all things, no speech, no explanation, no direction and no representation. Leaving behind all questions and answers. This is the method of entering non duality.”

Then Manjusri asked Vimalakirti – ‘What is the Bodhisattva’s method of entry into non duality?’

Vimalakirti was silent.

There are three senses of Satori, Enlightenment, and this koan deals with the first. It is sometimes called Practice/Realisation, or Practice/Verification.

Both are an abbreviation of a longer phrase, which means hearing, accepting, practicing, verifying. So: we hear the Buddha’s teachings on non duality, we accept these teachings, we practice, and through practice those teachings are verified as true.

The story is a representation of the mind and sincere practice of Vimilakirti, although there appears to be two people. But Manjusri of course is not a person, but is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.

And the two questions are subtly different.

Vimalakirti asks ‘What is the Bodhisattva’s method of entering non duality?’
So this refers to the teaching stage. Which is why Manjusri answers.

But Manjusri’s question, ‘What is the Bodhisattva’s method of entry into non duality?’ is the practice stage. Which is why it is met with silence.

So neither answer is the right answer, but the story portrays a progression from teaching to practice.

The teachings are the door that we have to go through, but we have to let go of the handle to experience the vast room.

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Kusen

134. An Empty House

Sekiso said that Enlightenment is like a thief breaking into an empty house.

Many people talk about practice as the cultivation of something: wisdom say, or compassion.

Is the thief trying to find the gold, or trying to find the light switch? Either way, he’s a thief.

We need to understand that practice is not the cultivation of compassion. It’s not the cultivation of anything.

It is compassion.

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Kusen

130. Bring Me Your Mind

Artwork by Blair Thomson
Kusen 130 collaboration ‘mountains and waters no.290’ by Blair Thomson

Eko said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is not at peace, please pacify it.”

Bodhidharma said, “Bring me your mind and I will pacify it.”

After a while Eko said, “I have looked everywhere for my mind and I cannot find it.”

Bodhidharma said, “There! I have pacified it.”

In Eko’s question, we might easily pass over the most important word, ‘My.’ ‘My mind’ — but if we don’t pass over it, if we see the fiction of ‘my’ mind, ‘my’ experience. What is there to pacify?

We should be grateful for everything in the flood of experience, because it is that, and that alone, which clarifies the great matter.