Boshui Benren said to the assembly, “Normally we don’t want to confuse men and women descendants by talking about what is before sound and after a phrase. Why so? Sound is not sound. Form is not form.”1
A monastic said, “What is sound that is not sound?”2 Benren said, “Can you make it form?”3
The monastic said, “What is form that is not form?”4 Benren said, “Can you make it sound?”
The monastic could not say another word.5 Benren said, “Let me say that if you understand this, I will approve that you have entered the place.”
*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.
[View Footnotes]In the teachings of the Way, the phrase “the transmission outside of words and letters” is commonly misunderstood as the negation of the expression of sounds in communicating the dharma. Here, Master Benren points to the truth that precedes sound and to the intuitive perception that follows a phrase. In the buddhadharma this is called intimate talk: expression that can be recognized and understood even though it has no sound. However, we should appreciate that although there is no sound, it cannot be called silent, for this is not a matter that exists in the realm of yin and yang.
Master Yunju, when asked by a government official, “What is the World Honored One’s intimate speech?” said, “Minister…” The official said, “Yes?” Yunju said, “Do you understand?” The official said, “No, I don’t.” Yunju said, “If you don’t understand it, that’s the Honored One’s intimate speech. If you do understand it, it’s Mahakashyapa’s not hiding it.”
Do not mistake the calling and answering as intimate talk, because in intimate talk no communication whatsoever can take place. The great Master Dogen says, “If you don’t understand, it means to sanction a course of quietly learning and practice. If you do understand, it means not grasping it as intellectual understanding.”
Just as sound contains not-sound, so, too, does form contain not-form. Each is unified in a single, ineffable reality, right here, right now. Spirit and matter are the same reality. There’s not some special spiritual force that exists separate from the phrases we utter or the forms we perceive. If you can understand this, you have entered the place Benren speaks of. If not, you must then study the place that is before sound and after a phrase.
The Capping Verse
The Buddha gave an intimate discourse,
Mahakashyapa did not conceal it.
Flowers open in a night of falling rain,
Valley streams at dawn fill with spring fragrance.
This koan features teachers in the Soto lineage, the lineage of Master Dogen. It goes back to the time of Dongshan, who was the founder of the Soto lineage in China. Benren was a successor of Dongshan. In this case, he is addressing the aspect of the dharma that cannot be expressed, the teaching that is not present in what is said, but in what precedes and follows that expression. What’s transmitted in Zen doesn’t come from the outside. The realization of the buddhadharma is a discovery; it’s making real that which is already present. All communication can do is catalyze a process of discovery that ultimately takes place within each individual.
The commentary says, In the teachings of the Way, the phrase “The transmission outside of words and letters” is commonly misunderstood as the negation of the expression of sounds in communicating the dharma. Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, said, “Zen is a special transmission outside the scriptures with no reliance on words and letters, a direct pointing to the human mind and the realization of buddhahood.” Throughout the centuries, people have misunderstood this as a total renunciation of words and scriptures in communicating the dharma. This is unfortunate because the words of the scriptures and the teachings are a rich source of the dharma. Rather than negating expression, Bodhidharma was pointing to the fact that the connection between reality and expressions of reality happens within each person.
Because of Bodhidharma’s statement, the phrase “Painted cakes do not satisfy hunger” arose in the lore of Zen. That is, painted cakes are just a representation, the words and ideas that describe a reality, not the reality itself. Master Dogen took up that statement and, in his teachings, turned it upside down. He said painted cakes do satisfy hunger. The symbol and the symbolized are the same reality. How else can we communicate the dharma? My photographs are painted cakes. My poems are painted cakes. This discourse is a painted cake. Aside from painted cakes, there is no other way to communicate the dharma. But we should attend to and understand how that communication takes place. It’s not something that is going from A to B.
The commentary continues, Master Benren points to the truth that precedes sound and to the intuitive perception that follows a phrase. In the buddhadharma this is called intimate talk: expression that can be recognized and understood even though it has no sound. In intimate expression something happens that has nothing to do with the sound, that has nothing to do with the word, that has nothing to do with the image. We meet these expressions with a truth that is already present within us.
There are certain forms and shapes that have independently appeared in various cultures all over the world, since the beginning of human history. If you show a circle to anyone and let them get in touch with how that shape makes them feel, whether it’s a Park Avenue sophisticate or an aborigine in Australia, the feeling will be essentially the same. They will connect with a sense of wholeness and completeness. Why? There are all kinds of explanations. One relates to the roundness of the moon, for example. Human beings have always gazed up at the moon. There’s something very beautiful and tranquil about an evening with a clear full moon. The reality of that complete, whole, bright moon is already within us.
During a recent performance by Meredith Monk, I closed my eyes, leaned my head back and just let the sounds in. I was transported to a place that was familiar, yet somehow primordial. I experienced something that was within me that I didn’t know was within me. Was it the sounds? Was it that which proceeded those sounds? Was it the intuitive understanding that followed those sounds? Or was it all three?
However, we should appreciate that although there is no sound, it cannot be called silent, for this is not a matter that exists in the realm of yin and yang. The realm of yin and yang is the life where we oppose one thing against the other: good against bad, up against down, heaven against earth, this against that, self against other, form against emptiness, speech against silence. This is not a matter that exists in the realm of yin and yang points to the place where there’s a merging of opposites. In the Identity of Relative and Absolute we chant: “Within light there is darkness but do not try to understand that darkness. Within darkness there is light, but do not look for that light.” Light and darkness are opposites, yet each one of them contains the other. They’re mutually arising and interdependent. There’s no separation between them. We tend to see them as separate, but they’re not. That’s also the same point that the Heart Sutra is trying to get across to us: form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form. Can it be any more specific and clear than that?
Yet, this doesn’t make sense. How can form be empty? How can emptiness be form? Of course, this doesn’t make sense. Your normal daily consciousness is dualistic. You have to go to a very different place in your own consciousness in order to see this. You need to experience that emptiness directly. Even then, you still won’t be able to explain it to somebody else. You will realize it, but the best you will be able to do is “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” just like the Heart Sutra.
The commentary introduces Master Yunju, who was asked by a government official, “What is the World Honored One’s intimate speech?” The World Honored One is Shakyamuni Buddha. On Mount Gridhrak¯uta, the Buddha addressed an assembly of thousands. He didn’t say a word. He picked up a flower and held it up for everybody to see. Out of the entire assembly, only Mahakashyapa smiled and blinked his eyes. Noticing Mahakashyapa’s smile, the Buddha said, “I have the all-pervading dharma, the exquisite teachings of formless form. It has no reliance on words and letters. I now hand it over to Mahakashyapa.” That’s the intimate speech in this koan.
Master Yunju, when asked by a government official, “What is the World Honored One’s intimate speech?” said, “Minister…” The official said, “Yes?” Yunju said, “Do you understand?” Their exchange, and the koan, should have been completed right there.
The official said, “No, I don’t.” Yunju said, “If you don’t understand it, that’s the World Honored One’s intimate speech.” Just don’t understand. Just abide in not knowing. In order to have knowing, in order to have understanding, you need the knower and the thing that the knower knows. In intimacy, there’s no knowing. There’s no reference system from which to know. There’s no outside or inside. There’s no thing that can be known or person that can know it. Not knowing fills the universe. There’s no place to put this gigantic body. It contains everything.
If you do understand it, that’s Mahakashyapa’s not hiding it. Mahakashyapa’s “not hiding it” is a smile. His smile is how he affirmed what he saw. Of course, his “not hiding it” is also his transmitting the dharma from generation to generation, through India, China, and Japan, to us here on this mountain. All that is “not hiding it” — the manifestation of the dharma in the world of phenomena.
On one side we have the absolute of not knowing. On the other side we have its manifestation in the world. And the truth of the dharma is not in either of these extremes. It’s in the place where they merge and resolve, like “the foot before and the foot behind in walking,” in the Identity of Relative and Absolute. Two aspects of the same reality.
Do not mistake the calling and answering as intimate talk. The calling and the answering are ripples on the surface. They are not the intimate talk. In intimate talk no communication whatsoever can take place. Communication requires two points and something to go from A to B. In intimacy there are not two distinct entities and nothing to go from A to B. In the transmission of the dharma nothing is transmitted; nothing goes from A to B. B already has what A has. B already is A. You already have what the Buddha has. It just needs to be awakened, brought to life. Intimate talk brings it to life. Painted cakes bring it to life.
Master Dogen said, “If you don’t understand, it means to sanction a course of quietly learning in practice.” If you don’t understand it, just take the backwards step — zazen. Just sit in that quiet. “If you do understand it, it means not to grasp it as intellectual understanding.” That is our tendency. The minute we figure we have it, we name it. The minute we name it, it’s no longer it. It’s a name. It’s like the summer breeze blowing through the windows and across the zendo. You feel it. When you fill a jar with it and label it “summer breeze,” you’ve lost it.
Just as sound contains not-sound, so, too, does form contain not-form. Each is unified in a single ineffable reality, existing right here now. What we say about sound and no sound, we can also say about form and no form. This intimate talk, the expression that can be recognized and understood even without sound or form, is a constant teaching of the insentient.
Dogen said that “life is nothing more than searching for and acting out the myriad possibilities of meaning with which the self and the world are pregnant.” We do this through expressions and activities. This involves not only the human world, but the nonhuman and nonliving worlds. Sit openly in the presence of a tree. Is nothing happening? Sit with an immobile and mute rock. Is nothing communicated?
Dogen elaborated further: “Even dreams, illusions, and imaginings are not eliminated from these possibilities of meaning, even though we may reject those areas of human experience as illusory or unreal.” The fact is that the whole catastrophe is illusory and unreal. What’s happening right now in this zendo is illusory and unreal. We create it with our minds. The three worlds are nothing but mind. The object of perception (the form, the sound), the organ of perception (the eye, the ear), and consciousness together create what we call reality. Take away any one of these three factors — organ of perception, object of perception, or consciousness — and that reality disappears. [Holds up a stick.] Close your eyes and the stick doesn’t exist anymore. Keep your eyes open, take away the stick, and it doesn’t exist anymore. The stick is here, and your eyes are open, but if consciousness falls away — a condition we call samadhi — the stick doesn’t exist anymore. So, what’s real? What is reality? Spirit and matter are the same reality. There’s not some special spiritual force that exists separate from the phrases we utter or the forms we perceive.
I added footnotes to this case. When Benren says, Normally we don’t want to confuse men and women descendants by talking about what is before sound and after a phrase. Why so? Sound is not sound. Form is not form, the footnote to this says, This matter simply cannot be discussed, so why bring it up in the first place? Benren is bringing it up because it’s an opportunity to point to the places that cannot be discussed, so that they can be personally examined and experienced.
The monastic said, What is sound that is not sound? The footnote to that says, When a bell is struck, its resounding is sure to follow. That’s what teachers do. It’s called Zen fishing. You bait a hook, throw it out, and wait for a fish to grab it, to respond.
Benren responded, Can you make it form? The footnote says, If you say so. But so what?
The monastic continued, What is form that is not form? The footnote adds, This monk is now in it up to his nostrils. He just keeps following after.
Benren pressed on, “Can you make it sound?” The monastic could not say another word. The footnote says, This monk is now in a pit six feet deep with no way out.
The truth that precedes sound and the intuitive perception that follows a phrase. Think about the stillness, then the sound, and then the perception that follows that. Nothing comes from the outside. It’s like the koan. The koan does exactly the same thing. When you really see a koan clearly, nothing has come in from the outside. A good teacher tries to avoid derailing the process of discovery that the student can experience. When a student discovers it for themselves, they own it. Otherwise, the koan becomes an intellectualization, just another idea to grasp. Bodhidharma was warning about this when he said, “Words and ideas do not convey the truth.”
One day, Master Dongshan said to his assembly, “Experience going beyond Buddha and say a word.” A monastic asked him, “What is saying a word?” Dongshan said, “When you say a word, you don’t hear it.” The monastic said, “Do you hear it?” Dongshan said, “When I’m not speaking, I hear it.”
Dogen commented on this: “When speech is uttered ordinarily, there is no immediate hearing at all. Hearing immediately is realized at the time of no speech, but no speech does not wait for the time of special occasion, while hearing immediately does not look on speech as if speech and no speech were dualistically separated.” It’s like reading between the lines, or hearing between the lines. The lines themselves are not communicating the truth. The truth is what happens in each one of us.
Spirit and matter are the same reality. The form or sound we experience contains a spirit that’s beyond those forms or beyond those sounds. They are not separate. There’s not some force that exists outside the phrases we utter or the ordinary forms we perceive. This very body is the body of the universe. That’s why transmission is possible. Your very voice is the voice of the Buddha.
Art can facilitate making visible this invisible aspect of reality. Powerful art allows us to tap into places in ourselves that we haven’t yet touched. Familiar sounds, forms, and colors expand in our consciousness when the artist creates a space for us to discover them. On the other hand, there’s art that does all the work for you; it doesn’t leave anything to the audience and is rather dull. In good Zen painting, haiku poetry, shakuhachi flute music, there’s always much that’s left to the imagination. The art piece is not complete until there’s an audience, until the audience hears it, sees it, experiences it, and participates wholeheartedly.
The dharma is a way of making the invisible visible. That’s the whole point of practice. We are all Buddhas. We are all complete, lacking nothing. This was the first teaching of the Buddha. Some may realize the truth of this perfection, some may not, but nevertheless, we are all Buddhas. The dharma is a way of making that fact visible. Practice is a way of making that fact visible.
The capping verse:
The Buddha gave an intimate discourse,
Mahakashyapa did not conceal it.
Flowers open in a night of falling rain,
Valley streams at dawn fill with spring fragrance.
Flowers open in a night points to the same reality as “within light there is darkness, within darkness there is light.” Light and darkness are metaphors for absolute and relative. In darkness, the absolute, all things are equal. You can’t distinguish one thing from another. Darkness is “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind.” Light is a manifestation of the difference, of phenomena. In light there is eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind. Light and darkness are two parts of the same reality. It’s the same with speech and no speech, sound and no sound, form and no form. Flowers open in a night of falling rain, valley streams at dawn fill with spring fragrance. It all takes place at dawn, which is filled with alive, vibrant light.
One of the major difficulties for western practitioners is the intensity of our need to articulate what we have experienced. Rather than simply experiencing the practice, we want to label the process and the accomplishments. Just let the dharma ooze into you and fill your body and mind. It will slowly begin to manifest in everything you do. You don’t need to name it or understand it. The buddhadharma is not about knowing; it’s not about understanding, and it’s not about believing. It is about realizing. Realizing means to make real. You make real through your activity. When we talk about awakening, we imagine that we should be aware of this event. It doesn’t necessarily happen that way. Sometimes it does, but not always. Sometimes the transformation is so gentle and subtle that we can’t possibly see it. Perhaps others around us can see, but we should be practicing for the pure joy of practice, not for some goal.
The best we can do is be open and receptive. Whether we’re
receiving the dharma or receiving a work of art, we can let it in, taste it,
experience it, let it penetrate our cells, our pores, our breath, our being and
then leave it be. Don’t analyze or judge it. Trust yourself. Trust the
1. This matter simply cannot be discussed, so why bring it up in the first place?
2. When a bell is struck, its resounding is sure to follow.
3. If you say so. But so what?
4. This monk is now in it up to his nostrils. He just keeps following after.
5. This monk is now in a pit six feet deep with no way out.
John Daido Loori, Roshi is the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery. A successor to Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, Roshi, Daido Roshi trained in rigorous koan Zen and in the subtle teachings of Master Dogen, and is a lineage holder in the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen.
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