The Old Woman of Taishan

Dharma Discourse by Abbot John Daido Loori

Master Dogen's 300 Koan Shobogenzo,* Case 29

Featured in Mountain Record 17.2, Winter 1998

 The Main Case

There was an old woman on Mount Tai path. A monk asked her, “Where is the path to Mount Tai?”1
The old woman said, “Go straight ahead.” 2 The monk went on. 3
The woman said, “My dear reverend, you too go off like that.” 4
Monks came, one after another, a sked the same question, and received the same answer. 5
Later, one of the monks told Zhaozhou about it and Zhaozhou said, “Wait here for awhile. Let me check her out.” 6
He went to the woman and said, “Where is the path to Mount Tai?”
The woman said, “Go straight ahead.” 7 Zhaozhou went on. 8
The woman said, “My dear reverend, you too go off like that.” 9
Zhaozhou came back and said to the assembly, “I have checked out that old woman for you.”10

[View Footnotes]

The Commentary

If the old woman’s eye was really open, why did she say, “Go straight ahead.”? Then again, if she did not have an eye, why did she say, “My dear reverend, you too go off like that.”?
If you’re able to see clearly how Zhaozhou saw through the old woman, then you will also see that the old woman saw through Zhaozhou as well. But say, what is it that Zhaozhou saw? If you can take a bite out of this point, then I will concede that you have eaten the full meal.

The Capping Verse

Before the question is asked,
you have already arrived.
Before taking a step,
you are already home.

The Footnotes

1. South of the North Pole, north of the South Pole. You can’t miss it.
2. She is being helpful, but not in the way one might think.
3. He does not know how deep the mud is right under his feet.
4. She hits him with a mud ball right in the back of the head.
5. It must be said she is dependable.
6. He needs to check the eye of the source.
7. Got it! But say, what did Zhaozhou see?
8. When the wind blows, the reeds bend.
9. He doesn’t seem to mind the mud on his sandals.
10. Now the whole assembly has grown horns.

[Return to Main Case]

Footnote: *300 Koan Shobogenzo is a collection of koans gathered by Master Dogen during his study in China. The koans from this collection, often called the Chinese Shobogenzo, appear extensively in the essays of Dogen’s Japanese Shobogenzo. These koans have not been available in English translation but are currently being translated and prepared for publication by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Abbot John Daido Loori. Abbot Loori has added a commentary, capping verse and footnotes to each koan.

Master Zhaozhou (Jpn., Joshu) was a spiritual descendent of Nanquan (Jpn., Nansen). He lived in China in 9th century, spending most of his years as a teacher in a small town of Zhaozhou from which he took his name. Though he settled in Zhaozhou, he did not maintain a temple. He did not even accept a temple when it was offered to him by the town officials. He threatened to leave the area if he was forced to comply. Later, a traveling monastic came through the region and planted thousands of trees, creating a beautiful grove. There, Zhaozhou finally established a permanent teaching place and remained for the rest of his life. The town of Zhaozhou and the grove temple were located in the vicinity of Mount Tai, the sacred mountain central to this koan.

Mount Tai, or Taishan in Chinese, was one of the five holy Buddhist mountains in China. It was reputed to be the home of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, and a frequent destination of pilgrimages by both monks and lay practitioners. To accommodate the throngs of travelers, many temples were built on Mount Tai.

This koan about an old woman and Zhaozhou presents a wonderful opportunity to deepen our appreciation of how to work with traditional koans. Frequently our tendency when confronting a barrier is to respond to what is on the surface. When we practice koans, we often only deal with what is immediately provided by the translator. We rarely investigate other sources and dig below the surface. And there is always a lot more to a koan, or any barrier for that matter, than first meets the eye.

Often, central parts of the ancient koans were extracted from other sources. The masters who created koan collections used source materials that were familiar to the people who were studying these koans. They were presented within a known cultural and historical matrix. The teachers assumed that listeners had a grounding in basic principles of Buddhism and local folklore. For us, ten centuries later, the challenge is to uncover the full spectrum of the koan, its breadth and depth.

On the surface of this koan we have an old woman who made a living selling tea on the roadside heading for Mount Tai. She would tell monastics on a pilgrimage to go straight on when they asked her for directions to Mount Tai. Her answer was always the same: “Go right ahead.” After they took a few steps, she would exclaim loud enough for them to hear, “You look like a good monk, but there you go, off like that.” One of these monastics told Zhaozhou about his encounter with the old woman, so Zhaozhou agreed to check the old woman out. He came back and told his monastics, “I’ve seen through the old woman,” but he did not say what he saw. That’s where the koan ends and many commentators stop there.

When I started to explore this koan, the first thing that caught my attention was the old woman. Who was she? Old women appear in various koans, frequently acting as catalysts of awakening for unsuspecting travelers. They are never identified, remaining nameless, yet clearly showing some appreciation of the Dharma. The most famous of them was the rice cake seller who challenged Master Deshan in dharma combat, bringing to life his doubt and facilitating the beginning of a real spiritual search.

These old women in Chinese Zen history were often matriarchs whose children had grown up, or whose families had been destroyed in the turbulent times of war and famine. They no longer had any family responsibilities and many entered monasteries. In fact, Iron Grindstone Liu, a successor of Master Guishan and an important teacher, was such a Zen adept. Many other women must have completed their studies and some of them must have started temples, but we know very little about the history of women in the Dharma, mainly because the translators and historians have been men who tended to ignore the accomplishments of women. There are still relatively few women Buddhist scholars, but as more and more appear on the scene, we will find out much more about the history of women in Zen and Buddhism.

After realizing themselves, many Chinese women entered hermitages in the mountains. They would build a hermitage and live out their lives practicing alone. Some of them, evidently, ended up as innkeepers along roadsides, making a living by selling refreshments and taking care of travelers along popular pilgrimage routes.

This particular woman of Taishan is said to have been a traveling companion of Wuxue (Jpn., Mujaku) accompanying him in and out of the temples on Mount Tai. We are told that she had fully gotten into Manjushri’s saying: “Front three, three; back three, three.” Wuxue was a successor to Yangshan (Jpn., Kyozan) who was in the lineage of Guishan (Jpn., Isan). That lineage became known as the Guishan school (Jpn. Igyo school) of Zen, one of the five major schools of Tang Dynasty. Yangshan was its cofounder and Wuxue was one of his successors. The woman of Taishan either studied with Wuxue formally or went on pilgrimages with him.

Wuxue appears in Case 35 of the Blue Cliff Record. In that koan he is portrayed during a visit to Mount Tai. When he came upon a wild and rough area of the mountain, Manjushri appeared to him, created a temple, and took him in for the night. During an evening conversation, Manjushri asked Wuxue, “Where have you come from?” Wuxue answered, “From the south.” Manjushri continued, “How is the Buddhist teaching doing in the South?” Wuxue said, “Monks of the last age have little regard for rules of discipline.” Manjushri said, “How numerous are the congregations?” Wuxue replied, “Some three hundred, some five hundred,” and then asked Manjushri, “How is the Buddha-dharma here?” Manjushri said, “Ordinary people and sages are dwelling together, dragons and snakes are intermingled.” Dragons are enlightened beings and snakes are deluded beings. In Manjushri’s place, they intermingle and live in perfect harmony. Wuxue said, “How numerous are the congregations here?” Manjushri answered, “Front three, three; back three, three.”

After having this dialogue Wuxue and Manjushri sat down to have a cup of tea. Manjushri held up a crystal tea bowl, and showing it to Wuxue, asked, “Do they have this in the South?” Wuxue answered, “No.” Manjushri said, “What do they usually use to drink tea?” Wuxue was speechless. Embarrassed, he began to take his leave. Manjushri ordered a young acolyte to see him to the gate. When they got there, Wuxue asked the boy, “Before, Manjushri said, ‘Front three, three; back three, three.’ How many is this?”

Wuxue did not ask this question in front of Manjushri. He didn’t want to appear stupid. That happens frequently in dokusan, the face-to-face teachings. I give instructions and people nod their heads, but they have no idea what I’m talking about. They leave with no communication having happened. Later, one can hear them in our dining hall engaged in a lively but misguided discussion about the Dharma. In the same way, Wuxue inquired of the boy, not Manjushri, “Front three, three; back three, three. How many is this?” The boy answered, “Oh worthy?” Wuxue responded, “Yes?” The boy said, “How many is this?” Wuxue didn’t understand and asked, “What temple is this?” The boy pointed and when Wuxue turned his head to look, the illusory temple and the boy vanished and the place turned into an empty valley.

Obviously, at the time when the encounter in this koan took place, Wuxue had no idea what was going on. Years later, after his practice matured and he realized himself, he was working as a cook at one of the temples on Mount Tai. It was said that he was able to see within the phrase “there is both provisional and there is real, there is principle and there is phenomenon.” He was able to see the merging that Manjushri was pointing to — dragons and snakes intermingled, sages and mediocrities living together. It’s not one side, it’s not the other side. It’s not up, it’s not down. It’s not absolute, it’s not relative. By the time Wuxue was working on Mount Tai as a cook, his appreciation and trust had evolved enough so that whenever he was cooking and Manjushri appeared in the steam rising out of the rice pot, Wuxue would take the ladle and chase Manjushri out of the kitchen. At the time of his first meeting with Manjushri, though, Wuxue was pretty immature, and Manjushri’s subtle teachings were wasted on him.

The old woman of Mount Tai, on the other hand, did fully get into and comprehend Manjushri’s “Front three, three; back three, three.” One reference to this woman was that she had an iron hook in her hand. When she addressed the monks heading for Mount Tai, she held this hook. How many intelligent monks did she ensnare with it? In Chinese, the character that is used for “hook” is also used for the Abhidharma, an important part of the canon that deals with Buddhist psychology. Abhidharma means “regarding reality.” “Iron hook” hints at where this woman was coming from.

Mount Tai represents Manjushri’s wisdom and knowledge. It was known as a pure and cool natural sanctuary. When someone is asking, “Where is Mount Tai?” There could be more to the question than inquiry about its geographic location. It could be a question regarding the meaning of Manjushri’s wisdom, wisdom that is not an accumulation of knowledge, but is a matter of seeing the nature of the self and reality.

The footnotes to this koan clarify its teachings. The koan starts, There was an old woman on the Mount Tai path. A monk asked her, “Where is the path to Mount Tai?” The footnote to that says, South of the North Pole, north of the South Pole, you can’t miss it. The old woman said, “Go straight ahead.” The footnote says, She is being helpful, but not in the way one might think. The monk went on. The footnote adds, He does not know how deep the mud is right under his feet. Those three comments tell you nearly everything you need to know about this koan. The woman said, “My dear reverend, you too go off like that.” The footnote says, She hits him with a mud ball right in the back of the head. Monks came, one after another, and asked the same question, and received the same answer. The footnote says, It must be said she is dependable. Later one of the monks told Zhaozhou about it and Zhaozhou said, “Wait here for a while, let me check her out for you.” The footnote says, He needs to check the eye of the source. Zhaozhou is not going to just take their word for it. He needs to examine the situation for himself. He needs to ask some questions.

He went to the old woman and said, “Where is the path to Mount Tai?” The woman said, “Go straight ahead.” The footnote says, Got it! But say, what did Zhaozhou see? Zhaozhou went on. The footnote says, When the wind blows the reeds bend. “Go straight ahead,” and Zhaozhou goes. “Stop there,” and he stops. “Turn right,” and he turns right. Zhaozhou was just responding to the instructions. The woman commented, “My dear reverend, you too go off like that.” The footnote says, He doesn’t seem to mind the mud on his sandals.

Zhaozhou did not mind the mud. Our problem is that we do mind the mud. We don’t like the dirt, the complications, the confusion. For us the mud is usually the setbacks, the places we get stuck, our failures. The Buddha said, “All sentient beings are perfect and complete, lacking nothing,” and somehow we hear that as total absence of mistakes. We are never suppose to fail. The simple fact is that that is impossible. There is no such thing as lack of failure if you are a living being.

When people come to train at the Monastery, which is essentially a furnace that’s specifically designed to burn off all of the extra, life can become very difficult for them if they expect not to fail. Students who do koan study here have to be prepared for thousands of rejections, not one or two. That’s the kindness that’s given.

Part of practice, part of any real learning, is failing. There is nobody that can learn something flawlessly, not even geniuses. You don’t pick up a violin and suddenly start playing. It takes time, practice, and repeated mistakes. Every mistake is a gift because it tells you where there is a possibility of improvement. You need to learn through your own experiences. That includes success and failure. The key to practice is knowing how to recover from the failures; knowing how to get knocked down, roll over with the force of being knocked down, and come back up on your feet, again and again and again. That’s practice. It’s that process that finally brings us to a point of breaking through. That, in and of itself, is enlightenment. That’s what it means to be human. “Not minding the mud” is our practice.

In the last line of the koan Zhaozhou returned to the assembly and said, “I have checked out that old woman for you.” The footnote says, Now, the whole assembly has grown horns. The horn here is the rhinoceros horn of great doubt, always a necessary ingredient of practice.

The commentary asks, If the old woman’s eye was really open, why did she say “Go straight ahead?” There’s an important point here. If her eye was really open, and she really knew the way to Mount Tai; really knew the way to wisdom, knew what was pure and undefiled, why would she say, “Go straight ahead.”? How else could it be said?

The commentary continues, Then again, if she did not have an eye — that is, if she was not realized — why did she say, “My dear reverend, you too go off like that.”? She gave him instructions that are essentially wrong. They might be the right physical directions to Mount Tai, but they are the wrong instructions about the truth. Shall I direct myself toward it or not? If you direct yourself toward it, you move away from it. Why?

The fact that she chided the monastics for following these directions says something about her clarity. That’s the iron hook that she wielded. The commentary goes on to say, If you are able to see clearly how Zhaozhou saw through the old woman, then you will also see that the old woman saw through Zhaozhou as well. How did the old woman see through Zhaozhou? All you have is the information included in this koan. How could it be that Zhaozhou saw through her and she saw through him? Seeing through is a critical part of what you learn in Zen training. It is the ability to probe the depths of a person’s understanding without giving them a five page examination about Buddhist philosophy. It is the ability to discern clarity of mind by the way a person deports themselves — walks, talks, and lives their life. Seeing through not by the content of the answers to questions, but by the dialogue itself. Seeing through is seeing where the mind is moving and when an action is truly spontaneous.

It is important for all of us to learn to truly be ourselves. When we start becoming who we really are and stop hiding in postures and behind masks, that’s when the significant transformations begin to take place and things begin to change.

Then the commentary poses another question: What is it that Zhaozhou saw? We have only the barest facts here, but it’s enough for you to see how they saw through each other. So, what is it that they saw? Imagine yourself back at Zhaozhou’s monastery. By this time he was over a hundred years old. He was a serious Zen master who had been practicing since he was eighteen years old. He was deeply revered. His reputation reached throughout China. One monastic said, “This old woman did a peculiar thing.” Zhaozhou volunteered, “Wait here; I’ll check her out for you.” Off he went. The monastics were all waiting and talking, “I wonder what he’s going to find out.” “I think she’s enlightened.” “I don’t think she’s enlightened.” “No, she must be enlightened, or she would have...” “Yeah, but if she was enlightened...” Back and forth. Then he comes back and they all fall silent, waiting. “Well?” they ask. “I’ve checked out that old woman for you.” That’s all.

But what is it that Zhaozhou saw? The commentary says: If you can take a bite out of this point then I will concede that you have eaten the full meal. If you see that one point, you will see the totality of the koan with all its permutations and combinations. You will also see what Wuxue finally understood in terms of principle and phenomenon completely merging.

The Capping Verse:

The poem points to our intrinsic Buddha nature. It is making the same point that Master Dogen makes when he insists that the process of practice is not something that propels you to enlightenment. Practice is enlightenment itself. It is home itself. It is having arrived itself. Each one of us is born a Buddha and dies a Buddha. Some may realize that truth, some may not. Whether we do or don’t makes a big difference. Are we going to make the journey in fear and anguish, filling our lives with anger and anxiety, or will we journey freely and easily? We inherently know how to do it. We are born with all the equipment necessary to be free, to realize ourselves, to transform our own lives and to assist others in the transformation of their lives. So, why don’t we do it?

Many of us think that it is enough to place ourselves in the environment of Zen practice and that in itself will cause a magical transformation. Many people wouldn’t even go that far and will spend their lives deliberating about whether or not to practice. There are others who find their way here but as soon as the temperature of the furnace goes up, they disappear. Still others stick to form, doing the external part of practice. They look good, but are not really engaging. When sitting is only a imitation of a Buddha, it shows. You yourself will know that it shows.

Every step along the way is important, and it is transformative. It’s not just the breakthrough. It is every step. Keep that in mind, and take very seriously each moment of your practice, each precious instant of your life, not just when you are sitting cross-legged in zazen. Each moment of your day is an opportunity to bring yourself home to the reality that you live in. It’s no small thing to get in touch with that. Getting in touch with it is getting in touch with our own lives, getting in touch with the Buddha.

[Main Case] [Index of Dharma Discourses]

mountains & rivers order | training in the mro | zen mountain monastery | fire lotus zendo | dharma communications | zen environmental studies institute | society of mountains & rivers | the monastery store | | contents | contact us |

©2003 Zen Mountain Monastery
All words and images on these pages are protected by copyright