If you wish to understand such a poem, you must have such a mind. If you wish to meet such a person, you must first meet yourself. How do you meet yourself? Take off the blinders. Set down the baggage. Look. Listen. See with the whole body and mind; hear with the whole body and mind; feel with the whole body and mind, and understand it intimately.
A monk once wanted to ask Master Yun-men a question and started to say1, "The light serenely shines over the whole universe..."2 Before he had even finished the first line, Yun-men suddenly interrupted3, "Isn't that the poem of Cho Hsiu-ts'ai?"4 The monk answered, "Yes, it is."5 Yun-men said, "You've missed it."6
When reasoning is exhausted and sayings are forgotten,
The light first appears.
Light does not illuminate objects;
Nor do objects exist.
Light and objects both forgotten,
Then what is this?
1. Before he even opened his mouth, he had already missed it.
2. If the eyes are closed, it can't be seen. Where are your own provisions?
3. What will he say? It's not a matter that can be explained.
4. The question is too lofty for this monk. He's sure to misunderstand.
5. What's he saying? He's not very alive. This one still lingers in duality.
6. Indeed. Suddenly the clouds part and the light shines serenely over the whole universe.
Art practice is one of the Eight Gates in the matrix of training we have developed at Zen Mountain Monastery. We regularly offer retreats on the artless arts of Zen, and use the creative process to study the self. Yet Zen art is not Buddhist art. It's not Eastern art, and it's not Western art. It's not modern art or ancient art. It's not self-expression, evocation, or communication. It is simply the endless spring revealed. Zen art is not just a matter of brush and paint, words and paper, music, movement, or image, but rather the unfolding of a single blossom from beneath ten feet of snow.
Although many arts grew in close association with Zen -- tea, flower arranging, bamboo flute, calligraphy -- it is perhaps poetry that plays the most important role in Zen. In Zen arts we sometimes find poems attached to calligraphy or paintings. Moreover, poetry is a significant dimension in Zen training. There is no way you can get through formal Zen training without being intimately involved with poetry. Poems are used in Zen liturgy, during funerals, memorials, birthing ceremonies and eye-opening ceremonies. There are appreciatory, congratulatory, enlightenment, and death verses. From beginning to end of a Zen practitioner's life, poetry punctuates the practice.
Poetry appears from the very beginning of practice as capping phrases used in koan study. A capping phrase is a poem, short saying, or verse that students are asked to present to the teacher once they have passed through a koan. It is another way of showing the koan as a manifestation of everyday life. These capping phrases are everyday sayings and have a familiar feeling. They are not intended as dharma words. Often they come from sources far away from the formal Dharma, yet they contain the wisdom of the Dharma. The writings of Lewis Carroll or Walt Whitman, for example, have been used.
Poetry is also used in the presentation of the koans themselves. Almost all of the 700 koans we deal with in training here at Zen Mountain Monastery are accompanied by a poem or an appreciatory verse. The verse is always added as a way of illustrating the point of the koan by the master who gathered together that particular koan collection. These added poems are a way of helping students see the heart of a koan.
A koan is a paradoxical question that Zen students sit with and try to penetrate. One of the classic koans familiar to many people is, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" You know the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of one hand clapping? Do not tell me. Show me. Another familiar koan is: "What is your original face, the face you had before your parents were born?" Again, do not tell me about it. Show me.
Koans, these apparent paradoxes of Zen, are specifically designed to frustrate, or short-circuit, the whole intellectual process. You cannot solve them through linear, sequential thinking. You need to make an intuitive leap of consciousness to see them. And although they may sound very different, koan questions are no different than the questions: "Who am I?" "What is truth?" "What is reality?" "What is God?" "What is life?" "What is death?" All these questions are about the same thing: the ultimate nature of reality. Koans are like a lancet that pierces the bag of skin we call the self.
Sometimes the poem associated with a koan is used as a pointer, a kind of introduction which clarifies the points the koan raises. Sometimes the poem appears as a teaching itself. We could say, for example, that Dogen's Shobogenzo is a poetic expression of the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. In this koan, "Cho Hsiu-ts'ai's Poem," the koan itself is based on a poem: A monk once wanted to ask Yun-men a question and started to say, "The light serenely shines over the whole universe..." Before he had even finished the first line, Yun-men suddenly interrupted and asked, "Isn't that the poem of Cho Hsiu-ts'ai?" The monk answered, "Yes, it is." Yun-men said, "You've missed it." How did he miss it? Why did Yun-men say that? The monastic did not even finish asking his question before Yun-men interrupted him.
The author of this poem was Chang-cho Hsiu-ts'ai (Jap., Chosetsu), a high government official in ancient China. He studied and came to realization under Master Shih-shuang. "Chang" was his family name, and "Cho Hsiu-ts'ai", which literally means "unskillfulness" was his given name. One day, when Cho Hsiu-ts'ai came to see Master Shih-shuang, the master asked, "What's your name?" "My family name is 'Chang,' and my given name is 'Cho Hsiu-ts'ai,' replied Cho Hsiu-ts'ai." The master immediately said, "Skill is unattainable by seeking. Where does 'Cho Hsiu-ta'ai' unskillfulness come from?" On hearing this, Chang-cho Hsiu-ts'ai was fully awakened to the nature of the self, and he composed the following poem:
The light serenely shines over the whole universe.
Ignorant, wise, and living creatures are all in my abode.
When no thought arises, the whole is fully revealed.
If the six senses move even a little, it is obstructed by clouds.
If you cut off your ignorance, your ailment will increase.
If you look for the truth, you are also in the wrong.
Living in accordance with worldly affairs, you will have no obstructions.
Nirvana, life and death are like colors in a dream.
The monastic in this koan had obviously heard of this poem, as Cho Hsiu-ts'ai and his poetry were well known throughout China at the time. When the monastic came to visit Master Yun-men to ask about Cho Hsiu-ts'ai's poem, he did not need to identify the author. He simply started to say, "The light serenely shines over the whole universe..." Before he had even finished the first line, Yun-men suddenly interrupted, "Isn't that the poem of Cho Hsiu-ts'ai?" The monk answered, "Yes, it is" Yun-men said, "You've missed it."
The prologue to this koan says, If you wish to understand such a poem, you must have such a mind. What kind of a mind is that? The prologue is referring to Cho Hsiu-ts'ai. In other words, if you wish to meet a person who has realized himself and see where he is coming from: "you must first meet yourself." What is the self? What is the self that is expressed in self-expression, in art practice? How do you meet yourself? Take off the blinders. Remove the plugs from your ears. Set down the baggage. Look! Listen!
What are the blinders? The blinders have to do with those things that obstruct our vision. They have to do with all the words and ideas we use to describe things. In conceptualizing meaning we usually miss the direct experience of the thing itself. The blinders have to do with our expectations and preconceived notions. When I teach a photography workshop the first day students are asked to create a photograph with a visual koan: for example, make love with light. I ask them to go out and let the subject discover them, without any prior notion of what they are going to photograph. If they go out with a fixed notion or expectation, two things can happen: one, they find what they are looking for, or two, they do not find what they are looking for. Those are the only two possibilities. In either case, they make themselves blind to everything else because of their fixation on the expectation. These are the blinders.
How do you go out in a spirit of openness and receptiveness? When the mind moves, heaven and hell are separated. Good and bad, up and down, subject and object are separated. When the mind stops moving, the ten thousand things return to the self, where they have always been. That is what it means to see with the whole body and mind, hear with the whole body and mind, feel with the whole body and mind, and understand intimately. Intimacy means no separation, not two. The hearer and the thing heard are one reality.
I have added line-by-line footnotes to this koan to clarify what is going on. The first line says, A monk once wanted to ask Master Yun-men a question, and started to say... The footnote says, Before he even opened his mouth, he had already missed it. How is that possible? How is it possible to know such a thing? What does it mean to have missed it?
The second line says, "The light serenely shines over the whole universe..." The footnote says, If the eyes are closed, it can't be seen. Where are your own provisions?
The next line says, Before he had even finished the first line, Yun-men suddenly interrupted... The footnote says, What will he say? It is not a matter that can be explained. Where this monk has gone wrong cannot be explained by words. That is why Zen teachers use skillful means -- upaya.
Upaya are employed by all of the schools of Buddhism. Skillful means are necessary because each of us already has what we seek. Each of us is perfect and complete lacking nothing. The first words the Buddha said on his own realization were: "All sentient beings are enlightened." That being the case, what can you give anybody? What could you possibly receive? Buddha, at first, did not want to teach because he did not know where to begin. When he was beseeched to do so he wondered how he could teach something people already had. After awhile, he began to find the skillful means to communicate, and this was the first turning of the Dharma Wheel. The first teaching he expounded was the Four Noble Truths: the wisdom of suffering, the wisdom of the cause of suffering, the wisdom of the cessation of suffering, and the Eightfold Path. That was the beginning of upaya.
In the 2,500 years that followed, the different schools of Buddhism have developed various kinds of upaya. In a sense, everything we do is upaya. Zazen is upaya. Liturgy is upaya. Art practice, body practice, academic study, work practice -- all of it is upaya. All of it is the skillful means to get us to see what is real. Much of what we call the Zen arts is the upaya the ancient masters used to help their students see the truth.
This koan is no different. The minute you name the truth, you miss it. Truth is not the words and ideas that describe reality, but the reality itself. Truth cannot be talked about; it can only be experienced. We can point to it, but we cannot give it to anyone; we cannot receive it. It reaches everywhere. It is beginningless and endless. No one lacks it. There is no creature on the face of this earth that fails to cover the ground on which it stands -- perfect, complete, lacking nothing.
That is what this koan is pointing to: Yun-men asks, "Isn't that the poem of Cho Hsiu-ts'ai?" The footnote says, The question is too lofty for this monk. He's sure to misunderstand. Why is it lofty? Master Shibayama says:
What a surprisingly great master Yun-men is. The phrase, before he had even finished the first line, graphically shows his incomparable capability. It's this phrase that makes the koan superb. If one fails to appreciate it, he's not only missed the koan's intrinsic value, but has failed to appreciate Master Yun-men's wonderful, drastic means, which overflow with compassion.
When Yun-men asked, "Isn't that the poem of Cho Hsiu-ts'ai?" and the monk answered, "Yes, it is." The footnote says, What's he saying? He's not very alive. This one still lingers in duality. Yun-men was aiming to uncover the monastic's clinging to duality, which was obvious as soon as he started to ask the question. When he started quoting Cho Hsiu-ts'ai he did not even have to finish the first line. It was obvious. Yun-men had no choice but to kill the monastic, to take away everything he was holding on to.
Yun-men said, "You've missed it!" The footnote says, Indeed. Suddenly, the clouds part and the light shines serenely over the whole universe. How? How, with Yun-men's words, "You've missed it!" does the light shine serenely over the whole universe? Isn't that precisely the true picture of all beings, of our essential nature? The problem was that while this monastic's whole body was in the midst of the light, he was foolish enough to look for it outside himself.
"The light serenely shines over the whole universe." Before Chang-cho Hsiu-ts'ai said it, before Shakyamuni was even born into this world, this light was the original truth of the whole universe. To be more exact, there is no before and no after. As soon as the monastic moved his tongue, he missed it. Asking the question misses it. Answering, Yun-men misses it. How can you avoid missing it? How would you respond to Master Yun-men?
The capping verse says, "When reasoning is exhausted and sayings are forgotten, the light first appears." The thing that blinds us and deafens us is the ceaselessly moving mind, the preoccupation we have with our thoughts. It is the incessant internal dialogue that shuts out everything else. That is the problem with trying to take a preconceived photograph. Before you even walk out of the building, you blind yourself. All day long we talk to ourselves. We preoccupy ourselves with the past, or we preoccupy ourselves with the future, and while we preoccupy ourselves, we miss the moment and miss our lives. Looking, we do not see. It is as if we were blind. Listening, we do not hear. It is as if we were deaf. Loving, we do not feel. It is as if we were dead. Preoccupied, we do not notice the reality around us. How can we be present? How can we taste and touch our lives?
Life swiftly passes by. Before we know it, it is gone. How can we appreciate each moment, moment-to-moment? The breath is in the moment. Taste it. Feel it. Feel the tactile sensation of breathing, not the thought of breathing. With zazen, little by little, the internal dialogue begins to slow down; and when it does, the cup begins to empty out and we become open and receptive to everything. But it is important not to attach again to the new things that continually arise. No matter what you attach to, it is a delusion, because it involves duality, separation. To attach you need the thing that is attaching, and the thing it attaches to. It does not matter whether it is chocolate, a Mercedes, enlightenment or Buddhism. If you are holding on to it, you are separated from it. Light does not illuminate objects. But that statement doesn't seem to make sense. But from the point of view of the Dharma the light and the object are not two separate things. Self and other are not two separate things. Light does not illuminate objects; nor do objects exist. Self does not exist. Other does not exist. When light and objects are both forgotten, what is that?
The third line of Cho Hsiu-ts' ai's poem reads: "When no thought arises, the whole is fully revealed." Dogen said: "To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things." The ten thousand things are the whole phenomenal universe. What does it mean to be enlightened by the ten thousand things? It means to be the ten thousand things. This is no different than being the breath with the whole body and mind, seeing form with the whole body and mind, hearing sound with the whole body and mind.
So how did Yun-men know that the monastic was way off? Was the monk, indeed, way off? How did he miss it? Without speech and without silence, tell me, how did he miss it? If you open your mouth just a little, like that monastic, you miss it. Don't tell me about Mu or the sound of one hand clapping. Bring it to me. Show me. All things reduce to the one. All sounds, all music, reduce to one note. All sutras, all poems reduce to a single word. All ideas, to one thought. All gods, demons, saints and buddhas become the one. What is the one? Not the word, not the idea, not the sound, but the very thing itself. What is it? Speech misses it. Silence misses it. Neither speech nor silence misses it. Both speech and silence miss it.
The answer to these questions is not outside yourself. To see this truth requires the backward step, going very deep into yourself to find the foundation of reality and of your life. To see it is not the same as understanding it or believing it. To see it means to realize it with the whole body and mind. To realize it transforms one's life, one's way of perceiving the universe and the self, and of expressing what has been realized.
So please, when you practice the Zen arts, practice your life -- trust yourself completely. Trust the process of sitting. Know that deep within each and every one of us, under layers of conditioning, there is an enlightened being, alive and well. In order to function, it needs to be discovered. To discover this buddha is wisdom. To make it function in the world is compassion. That wisdom and compassion is the life of each one of us. It is up to you what you do with it.
©2003 Zen Mountain
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