In looking at ancient koans and events that took place 1,500 years ago in China, it is vitally important to understand that koans, if taken up with the right spirit, do not loose relevance. Each and every one of them addresses the fundamental questions and problems of human existence, questions and problems that haven’t changed since humans and human consciousness appeared on the face of the Earth. These koans have been here since the beginning of humanity. And they are a very personal matter, needing to be resolved by each individual. For the most part, except for a handful of people in each generation, they remain not only unresolved; they are rarely authentically engaged. They are not put to rest. Instead of using them to see into the nature of reality, we just keep reinventing them, giving new shapes to our confusion and delusion.
I added some line comments to this koan to clarify its points. In the first line, when Pangyun said, “Master, please look up at the unobscured original person,” the line comment states, What’s he talking about? Indeed, what is the unobscured original person? Who was he referring to? Mazu looked straight down. The line comment adds, The old man knows how to pull the rug out. That’s his job. Wherever the student sticks, the teacher goes right to that place and yanks the rug out from under her. The student falls. The teacher rushes over and helps her stand up. When she is solidly on her feet and sticks to something again, the teacher again pulls the rug out, and again the student falls. This process is repeated again and again and again, until the time when the rug is pulled out and the student doesn’t fall. At that point the teacher bows to the student.
Pangyun said, “How splendid is this stringless lute. Only you can play it.” The line comment to that says, But can you hear it? Did Pangyun hear the stringless lute? And then Mazu looked straight up. The line comment says, Do you hear it now? The koan continues: Mazu went back to the abbot’s room. The line comment states, Enough. And then, Pangyun followed Mazu into the room and declared, “You were skillful enough to do something clumsy.” The line comment to that concludes, Inept questions require clumsy answers.
So, what’s going on in this koan? What is it that Pangyun wants? What is he searching for in this exchange with Mazu? The layman was an adept who had studied with Shitou and Mazu, eventually becoming Mazu’s successor. He was a very famous lay practitioner living in China around 800 A.D. Not only was he an accomplished dharma practitioner; his wife and daughter were also considered to be very enlightened. He was called the Vimalakirti of China. He lived at a time when China was plagued by wars, floods, famines, heavy taxes and inflation. Somehow these hardships compelled Pangyun to let go of the worldly life and to bury himself in the dharma. At first, he built a hermitage separate from his residence and there he carried out his religious practices, sitting zazen and studying the sutras. When he reached mid-life, he gave his house away to be used as a temple and sank all of his possessions in a nearby river. He wanted to rid himself forever of material hindrances. He began to make his living by weaving bamboo baskets and other straw implements, selling them by the roadside as he and his daughter wandered the countryside, visiting various monasteries. Pangyun started his studies under Shitou, trained with a number of other teachers, finally seeing Mazu. Eventually, he became one of Mazu’s dharma heirs, one of the eighty-four enlightened disciples of Mazu.
Pangyun was an accomplished poet and he left behind many verses. One of the most frequently quoted was composed by the layman during an exchange with Shitou. Shitou asked, “Since seeing me last, what have your daily activities been?” The layman answered, “When you ask me about my daily activities, I can’t open my mouth.” Shitou continued, “It’s just because I know you thus that I ask you.” And then the layman offered a verse:
My daily activities are not unusual —
I am just naturally in harmony with them,
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing,
And everyplace there’s no hindrance, no conflict.
Who assigns the ranks of vermilion and purple?
The hills’ and the mountains’ last speck of dust is extinguished.
My supernatural power and marvelous activity
Is drawing water and carrying firewood.
Shitou approved and said, “Will you put on the black robes or will you continue wearing white?” The black robes were the robes of a monastic and white were the robes of the lay practitioner. “I do what I like,” replied the layman. So he did not shave his head, nor did he dye his clothing. He remained a lay practitioner for the rest of his life. The obvious question arising from this exchange that needs to be addressed in our practice is, what is the activity of “I do what I like?” Is it simply pursuing endless desires and wishes or is it a manifestation of the mind of clarity?
The anecdotes about the Pang household give us a rare glimpse
into the life and workings of an enlightened family. One recorded conversation
from around the dinner table went like this:
Layman Pang exclaimed, “Difficult, difficult, difficult. Like trying to scatter ten measures of sesame seeds all over a tree.”
“Easy, easy, easy,” returned Mrs. Pang, “Just like touching your feet to the ground when you get out of bed.”
“Neither difficult nor easy,” said the daughter, “On a hundred grass tips the ancestors’ meaning.”
The daughter was very sharp, maybe the sharpest among them. When Pangyun was about to die, he said to her, “See how high the sun is and let me know when it’s noon.” She quickly reported, “The sun has already reached the zenith but there’s an eclipse.” While the layman went to the door to see this eclipse, she took his seat, put her palms together and passed away. The layman smiled and said, “My daughter anticipated me.” As a result, he postponed his dying for several days.
So, they were a pretty extraordinary family. He was an extraordinary practitioner and teacher. At the time of this koan, he was already a successor of Mazu. He had accomplished a lot and was recognized for his wisdom. And, maybe he was a little bit caught up in his clarity, flaunting it. Mazu had to deal with that.
Pangyun came carrying the unobscured original person and Mazu turned it upside down for him. Don’t you see that a non-doing unconcerned person is still oppressed by golden chains in the deep pit of liberation. What does it mean to be an unobstructed original person? What makes such a person unobstructed or original? What’s he talking about?
One of the basic koans we study in our tradition deals with the original face. What is your original face, the face you had before your parents were born? Don’t tell me about it; show me that original face. Don’t present the idea of the original face; display the vivid reality of the original face that is unborn and unextinguished, that is beginningless and endless. Inevitably, people working with this koan come to see me in dokusan, smile and point to themselves. I ring the bell and throw them out. If you take yourself as the original unobscured person, you are a thousand miles from the truth. So what is it?
Mazu turned it upside down for him. When the student points to one side, the teacher reveals the other side. When sides dissolve, when there’s no longer active distinguishing of this from that, self from other, up from down, the sixteen-foot golden body of the Buddha is manifested in a pile of shit and garbage. The question is, how do you manifest the sixteen-foot golden body? How do you not perpetuate your delusions and superimpose your dualistic framework on your life and the universe?
Our country is in the midst of shit and garbage. Where is the golden body of the Buddha? We are on our way to becoming the imperialists of the twenty-first century. We started a war in Iraq against a people who have not fired a single bullet at us. We justified it and will continue to do so. The Bill of Rights and the Constitution are going down the tubes. What do you do about it? Do you sit, contemplating your navel? Is that what the buddhadharma is teaching? That’s the non-doing, unconcerned person that’s oppressed by the golden chains and is in the deep pit of liberation, unable to respond.
When Mazu looked down, why did Pangyun call it playing the stringless lute? What is the stringless lute? It is akin to a felt-pounding board, a han that’s made out of felt. Of course, if a han is made out of felt, no matter how hard you strike it, you’re not going to hear it. Just like we can’t hear the flute with no holes. All these references are pointing to the realm of expressing the inexpressible, the ineffable.
When the shakuhachi master Watazumi Doso visited the Monastery some twenty years ago, he did play the iron flute with no holes. He was an amazing student and teacher of the bamboo flute who regarded it not as a musical instrument but a “breathing tool.” He was a bit crazy and very delightful, gruff but with a real sense of humor. We took him on a tour of the grounds when he got here. There was a plumber working at the bathhouse, pieces of galvanized pipe lying all around. Watazumi Doso picked up a five-foot section and started playing it. He had a melody and a whole range of tones coming out of the pipe. But is that expressing the inexpressible?
What is the unobscured clear original person and where is it to be found? What is the soundless sound of the stringless lute? There’s a truth that precedes sound and there’s an intuitive perception that follows. Before the sound even happens, the truth is present. And it is intuitively grasped. In the buddhadharma, this is called intimate talk or intimate sound, that is, 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 said that it is silent. For this is not a matter that exists in the realm of dualities. It’s non-dual.
Although there is no sound, it cannot be called silent. It can’t be called silent because it communicates. We can’t even say it communicates in the usual sense because nothing comes from the outside. There is no outside. That’s the way the buddhadharma is transmitted. You already have it; all of it. That is why you can’t obtain it. It needs to be discovered; it needs to be realized. When that really happens, it doesn’t arise from all of the skillful means — discourses, face-to-face teaching, liturgy. It just emerges out of your own being. You suddenly see that it has always been there. You are born with it and you go to your grave with it. Some may realize it and some may not, but the fact is, it’s there. Not just a part of it, not one side of it — the whole thing.
Pangyun bowed, but his bow only drove Mazu back to the abbot’s room. Mazu was saying, “Go away. You don’t understand what I’m talking about.” Pangyun followed and said, “You were skillful enough to do something clumsy.” What was he talking about? How would clumsy be skillful?
The commentary says, If you can say a turning word here, I will acknowledge that you have seen through this old koan. You need to understand the statement, “You were skillful enough to do something clumsy.”
In pursuing our conventional way of thinking and living, our natural tendency is to be attracted to extremes. We come into practice brimming with all sorts of activities, defined by all sorts of credentials and desires, attached to the trappings of the world. Once we start to practice, we want to throw all that away. We go to the other extreme, just like Pangyun. He took his belongings and threw them all into the river — money, furniture, clothing. And there probably were hungry and needy people around who could have used that stuff. Why didn’t he give it to them? In his fanaticism, he was a bit blind.
Many Zen students tend to start their practice with a touch of the dramatic and the extreme. And sometimes, their vision narrows. I started that way. I succeeded in the world of business and commerce; had the house and two cars. When I decided to move into the Zen center, I got rid of everything. I had a vision of what Zen training would be like and, at first, reality matched my expectation. I was close to my teacher, studying intensively with him. I wore my brand-new jeans and happily worked scraping and painting buildings, delighted under the California sun. I was not behind a desk and answering telephones.
Then, one day, my teacher discovered what I was avoiding. It took him about a month to figure it out. He called me over and said that he had a new job for me. I was now the Vice-President of External Affairs. Incredulous, I said, “What?” He announced, “We have a nice new office for you.” I just kept repeating, “What?” He showed me the office, which actually looked like the office from my business days. I implored, “Roshi, I don’t want to do this.” He did not budge, “No, no, no. You do it. You have nice experience; you do it.” “Roshi, no. This is not what I want to do.” And he said, “I know. That’s why you must do it.” He followed that with, “Now, your first job is to go to the Chamber of Commerce meetings and represent us.” I said, “Roshi, you know those meetings don’t mean anything. Everybody just sits around and drinks. No, no.” He said, “Yes.” I said, “I can’t go. These are all the clothes I have.” “I buy you a suit.” And he bought me a three-piece suit and a brief-case. So, I started my new job and found myself, of course, resisting it. I sulked. I did everything to fail. For months, I kept hanging onto an idea of “real” Zen training. Slowly, I got the message that the only way to do it was to go right through it — do a bang-up job.
Whatever we are running away from, whatever we desire, whatever side we are falling into, we’ve got to see the other side as part of the process. When finally neither side gets in the way, that’s when the golden body of the Buddha manifests of itself.
The capping verse:
The moon above the pines is full on this cold spring
Music of the iron flute fills the air.
If you know its sound, we can listen together.
The moon above the pines is full on this cold spring night. The full moon is the symbol of enlightenment. The cold suggests the emptiness of the absolute. The spring is life and rebirth. So here there are these two polarities that are part of the full moon. The full moon is absolute and it’s filled with the relative.
Music of the iron flute fills the air. If you know its sound, we can listen together. You can’t hear the soundless sound with the ear. The music of the iron flute is not in the realm of conventional hearing. But it’s also not silent. It communicates. It communicates that you yourself are a buddha, that inside of you beats the great heart of compassion, that you yourself have the power to change the world.
1. What is he talking about?
2. The old man knows how to pull the rug out.
3. But can you hear it?
4. Do you hear it now?
6. Inept questions require clumsy answers.
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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