Featured in Mountain Record 21.4, Summer 2003
This monk asked Guishan to expound the dharma. Guishan said, “I have already
exhausted myself for you.” What was his meaning? If you wish to understand
Guishan, you first of all need to realize that expounding the dharma is not
necessarily limited to expression in words nor does wordlessness imply the lack
of expression. Haven’t you heard Master Zhaozhou’s saying, “If you spend a
lifetime not leaving the monastery, sitting in stillness without speaking for
ten years or for five years, no one can call you mute. You might be beyond even
the Buddhas.” Therefore a lifetime without leaving the monastery is a lifetime
of expounding the dharma. Sitting in stillness without speaking for five or ten
years is expounding the dharma for five or ten years. Tell me then, what is the
dharma that Guishan has expounded for the monk? What Guishan is imparting does
not enter through the gate. It is a truth that does not reside in words, sounds,
gestures or silence. It does not spring from the realm of intent. In intent, the
mind moves, there is communication. In the teaching of the essential matter, no
communication whatsoever takes place. When I examine this matter closely, it
seems that it’s not so much that Guishan has used up all of his provisions as it
is that he never had any to begin with. The monk bowed. Did he get it? Do you
get it? If so, say a word.
Guishan was a famous Tang Dynasty master, co-founder of the Igyo School, one of the five houses of Zen during the Golden Age of Zen in China. He was an extraordinary teacher and had a very subtle way of communicating the dharma. Among his many successors were Kyogen, Kyozan and Iron Grindstone Lu.
To clarify each line in the koan, I added line comments. Guishan sat on the teaching seat. A monastic came up and said, “Master, please expound the dharma for the assembly.” The line comment says, Don’t be greedy. He already has given everything he has to give. Guishan said, “I have already exhausted myself for you.” The line comment adds, Poor old teacher. There’s nothing left of him. Then, The monastic bowed. The line comment asks, It’s easy to bow, but what does he really mean by doing so?
The key to this case is Guishan’s statement, “I have already exhausted myself for you.” He hadn’t raised a finger, he hadn’t done a thing. Yet he said, “I’ve given you everything that I have to give.” What is it that he was saying? What is it that he was implying? What kind of giving was it that took place?
Guishan’s response reminded me of an old song by Leon Russell, “Hummingbird.” In it, he sings, “I’ve given you everything that I have to give.” Somehow, giving isn’t always obvious. Frequently, the presence of giving can easily be missed. Giving of love may be very subtle; it can simply be an openness that permeates the atmosphere. It may have to do with the way a person looks at you, or a gesture they make, or a phrase they don’t say, or even something less tangible.
The commentary states, This monastic asked Guishan to expound the dharma and Guishan said, “I’ve already exhausted myself for you.” The only information we are offered in this koan is that Guishan was sitting on his teaching seat when the monastic asked him to expound the dharma. How are we to get a sense of what he did or how he exhausted himself for the assembly? The next line elaborates, If you wish to understand Guishan, you first of all need to realize that the expounding of the dharma is not necessarily limited to expression in words. If that is so, how is the dharma expounded? It’s said that the Buddha, during the forty-seven years of teaching in the world, never uttered a single word. So, what was his dharma? What was his teaching?
There are a couple of cases in Dogen’s 300 Koan Shobogenzo similar to this koan, but not quite the same. In one of them, priest Langtan was making rice cakes for a living. When he met master Taowu, he bowed to him. Taowu said, “Be my attendant. From now on I will teach you the essential dharma gate.” So Langtan agreed and left the household. After a year passed, Langtan inquired, “When I arrived, you said that you would teach me the essential dharma gate. I haven’t received any of your instruction as yet.” Taowu answered, “I’ve been teaching you for a long time.” Surprised, Langtan asked, “Where have you been teaching me?” Taowu explained, “When you greet me, I join my palms together in gassho. When I sit, you stand beside me. When you bring me tea, I receive it from you.” Langtan was silent for a while and Taowu added, “When you see it, you just see it. When you think about it, you miss it.” At that, Langtan had an enlightenment experience.
In another case, master Yaoshan had not given a dharma discourse for some time. Finally, the monastery director approached him and said, “The assembly has been waiting and wanting to receive a teaching from you. Please give a discourse to the assembly, Master.” Yaoshan asked him to hit the bell to announce the talk. The monastics came together. Yaoshan got up and took the high seat. He sat there for a while and then he got down and went back to the abbot’s room. The monastery director followed him and protested, “Master, you agreed to give a discourse to the assembly. Why didn’t you say a word?” Yaoshan said, “Scriptural teachers are for scriptures. Commentary teachers are for commentaries. What do you expect from this old monastic?”
If you wish to understand Guishan, you need to realize that expounding the dharma is not necessarily limited to expression in words nor does wordlessness imply the lack of expression. I ask you, what does the Way itself express? What does practice itself express?
This fall, for the 90-day intensive, we are working with the chapter from Dogen’s Shobogenzo titled “Dotoku: Expressing the Way.” In the opening lines of “Dotoku,” Dogen says, “The Buddhas and ancestors are the expression of the truth. Therefore, when Buddhas and ancestors are deciding who is a Buddhist ancestor, they always ask, ‘Do you express the truth or not?’ They ask this question with the mind, they ask this with the body, they ask this with a staff and a whisk, and they ask this with a pillar and stone lanterns. In others than Zen Buddhist ancestors, the question is lacking and the expression of truth is lacking — because the state is lacking. Such expression of the truth is not accomplished by following other people, and it is not a faculty of our ability.”
In the original manuscripts of “Dotoku” on the back of the paper with calligraphy of the text, there was a footnote that said, “Twenty or thirty years is the time taken for expression of the truth to be realized. These years and months, with all their energy, cause the truth to be expressed.” This must have been a note Dogen jotted to himself. It reminds me of the effort and meticulousness in practice that is necessary to truly embody and express the awakened reality. To pass a koan or to grasp some point of the dharma is not considered to be complete until it is fully absorbed and manifested as kyogai. Until the truth of that point of the dharma or that koan — of that realization — has been manifested in every facet and relationship in one’s life, practice needs to continue. Realization needs to become a fluent aspect of the practitioner’s behavior. It needs to be displayed in every action without deliberate effort and self-consciousness. It needs to be present in the body so that the body itself teaches without words, without explanation.
“Nurturing the sacred fetus” is a phrase used to describe a specific phase of spiritual training. Dogen brings it up in “Dotoku” but does not elaborate extensively on it. There’s a period of time in the training of Zen practitioners when they sit for years, deepening their involvement in liturgy and work. They study the sutras. With the passing of time, it becomes clear that kyogai has manifested and they have embodied the dharma. It is at this point that the “nurturing of the sacred fetus” begins. They step out of the training matrix so that all traces of realization, all traces of Zen, all traces of the dharma have disappeared, and in their very ordinariness, the profound teachings of the Buddhadharma are manifested in every action. The practice expresses itself; the Way expresses itself.
The commentary continues, Haven’t you heard Master Zhaozhou’s saying, “If you spend a lifetime not leaving the monastery, sitting in stillness without speaking for ten years or for five years, no one can call you mute. You might be beyond even the Buddhas.” Dogen elaborates on this in “Dotoku.” He says, “So when we are ten years or five years in a monastery passing through the frost and flowers again and again and when we consider the effort in pursuit of the truth, which is a lifetime not leaving the monastery, the sitting in stillness, which has cut all interference, by sitting, has been innumerable instances of expressing the truth. Walking, sitting and lying down without leaving the monastery may be countless instances of no one being able to call you mute.”
The commentary goes on to say, A lifetime without leaving the monastery is a lifetime of expounding the dharma. Sitting in stillness without speaking for five or ten years is expounding the dharma for five or ten years. Tell me then, what is the dharma that Guishan has expounded for the monastic? What is the teaching? What is the truth that he has expounded? And does that truth have any relationship to your life and all its practicalities?
The ancient koans are not some sort of esoteric religious arcana. They are not reserved to be taken up in the monasteries or on top of an isolated mountain. All of them have to do with coming down off the mountain, back into the world, back into the marketplace. All of them have to do with the tenth and final ox-herding picture, in which the practitioner who started his search years earlier, has finally come down off the mountain into the world, and is indistinguishable from anyone else. His very presence nourishes and heals. His very presence communicates.
What Guishan was imparting does not enter through the gate. The gate is “the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind.” These teachings do not enter through the senses. The minute you grasp it with the mind, it is no longer the truth that Guishan is imparting. And if it doesn’t come in through the gate of the senses, where does it come from? How does it arrive? How will you know that it’s there? Well, if it’s really the great matter of the Buddhas and Ancestors, you won’t know. Why is it that it doesn’t come that way? It’s not an outside matter. It never was an outside matter. That was clearly established from the very beginning by Shakyamuni Buddha when he expressed his own enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree. His exclamation, “All sentient beings and I and the great earth have at once entered the Way” is a verification of the inherent perfection of all beings.
When we seek, we move away from the truth, just like Nanquan was trying to show Zhaozhou. Nanquan declared, “Ordinary mind is the Way,” and Zhaozhou asked, “Shall we direct ourselves toward it or not?” Nanquan replied, “If you direct yourself toward it, you’ll move away from it.” The truth is already where we stand.
What Guishan was imparting does not enter through the gates of the senses. It’s a truth that does not reside in words, sounds, gestures or silence. It does not spring from the realm of intent. In Zen teaching there’s no intention whatsoever to teach. During our West-East program, a training pilgrimage back to our Zen roots in Japan, we sent a group of western students to the temple of Seido Suzuki Roshi, a longtime personal friend and a friend of the monastery. Before they left, I warned our students that they weren’t going to get the kind of teaching they were accustomed to here. One of the qualities of Seido Roshi is his subtle manifestation of the truth of the Buddhadharma in the everyday activities of running a temple. His English isn’t good enough to explain things, but his body teaches all the time.
In fact, most of the teaching we receive is body teaching. Add up the hours of explanations, mondos, discourses and dokusan, and compare it to the total time spent in training; how much of our training is actually conveyed in words? Where is the rest of it happening? That is the question. And unless we are truly, deeply alert, awake and alive, we may miss it completely because it doesn’t come in through the senses. True teaching awakens what already exists in the body and mind of each one of us and so our bodies and minds need to be open to receive. All teaching does is to bring inherent clarity to life.
What Guishan is imparting does not enter through the gate of the senses. It is a truth that does not reside in words, sounds, gesture or silence. It does not spring from the realm of intent. In intention, the mind moves... That’s the nature of intention; it needs to be decided upon. When we are spontaneous, there’s no intent. In intent the mind moves and there is communication. The whole matter becomes intellectual. In the teachings of the essential matter, no communication whatsoever takes place. Nothing goes from A to B. We have this illusion that a teacher has something to give, that something is going to go from A to B. Master Yanwu said, “The Buddhas have not appeared in the world, nor is there any truth to be given to the people. They were just able to observe the hearts of living beings, responding to their ills according their circumstances, giving medicines and dispensing prescriptions.” Master Yanwu continues, “In fact, from ancient times till now the ancestors and Buddhas have never spoken to the people. This very not helping people deserves a thoroughgoing investigation.” And then he says, “I always say though I were to add a phrase as sweet as honey, when properly viewed, it’s just another poison.” In a sense, communication separates us from our own true nature.
In “Dotoku” Dogen tells a story of master Xuefeng. A monastic came across a hermit who was living alone along a river in the mountains. The monastic asked the hermit, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?” The hermit, who used a wooden dipper to get his water from the river, said, “The ravine is deep and so the dipper handle is long.” The monastic went back and told Xuefeng about this exchange. Xuefeng exclaimed, “Wondrous, I should go and check him out.” He went off, asking his attendant monastic to come along and to bring a razor. They went directly to the hermit’s hut and as soon as he saw the hermit, Xuefeng said, “Express the truth and I will not shave your head.” The hermit washed his head and presented himself to Xuefeng so he could shave him.
Dogen, commenting on this, says, “Express the truth and I will not shave your head. When people who have never expressed the truth hear this, those with ability may be startled and doubting and those without ability will be dumbfounded. Xuefeng didn’t ask about the Buddha. He didn’t discuss the Way. He didn’t ask about samadhi. He didn’t talk about dharanis. What he did do was say, ‘Express the truth and I will not shave your head.’ Showing the traditional style, the hermit washes his head and comes forward. This is a dharma standard at which not even the Buddha’s own wisdom can arrive. It may be described as manifestation of the body as preaching the dharma, as saving of the living and washing the head and coming forward.”
The commentary concludes, When I examine this matter closely it seems to me that it’s not so much that Guishan has used up all of his provisions as it is that he never had any to begin with. Well, only a destitute teacher could know this. Why was he destitute? The monastic bowed. Did he get it? What kind of a bow was that? Was it a bow of affirmation — “Thank you for your teaching?” Was it a bow made out of courtesy? Or was it a bow, “Ah, I see it?” Do you get it? and, If so, say a word. How do you express it? How do you express what you’ve got? It doesn’t matter if the monastic got it or not. It does matter if you get it or not. How do you show me if you understand?
Deaf, mute and blind — already illuminating before it is said…. This “deaf, mute and blind” is not only a reference to the falling away of body and mind. It goes much further than that. Xuetou said, “Blind, deaf, mute, soundless without adjustments to potentialities, all your seeing and not seeing, hearing and not hearing, speaking and not speaking are swept away.” Our usual modes of communication are not applicable. In fact, he says, “Views in the terms of blindness, deafness and muteness and calculations and judgment of what’s right to suit potentials are at once silenced and cut off. None of them can be applied. This transcendental matter can be called real blindness, real deafness, real muteness without potentials and without adjustments.” No intent whatsoever. It’s already illuminating before it is said. No need to say it.
Manifesting the body as preaching, saving all sentient beings. Ultimately, that’s the whole point of 2,500 years of teaching, of transmitting the dharma from generation to generation, the total embodiment of the truth. The total embodiment of the truth means that it is manifested in everything that we do. There’s no need to look at how you apply this to your life; how do I apply this to my life?
I spent many years teaching photography. Then I discovered Zen practice and began to realize how Zen practice and the artless arts of Zen informed photography, and opened up a way of seeing and entering the creative process. So, I started integrating Zen teachings into my teaching of photography and began to see that if a person is a photographer, as their practice deepens and realization clarifies, there is no way that this will not affect the way they photograph, the way they see, the way they create. This is true in everything we do in our life. If you’re practicing diligently and embodying what you’re practicing, it will show up in the way you walk, listen, hear and see, in the way you love, in the way you raise a child, in the way you drive a car, in the way you grow a garden. That’s what it means to bring the teachings down from the mountain back into the marketplace. Until they are manifesting in everything we do, the process is not yet complete.
In fact, even then it’s not complete. There’s always a little bit more to be
seen. So, don’t think that the teachings of the Buddhadharma are only to be
found in the words and ideas that describe reality. Don’t think they are limited
to liturgy or the precepts or the tangible aspects of the teachings. Realize
that we’re surrounded by those teachings — not just in the monastery, but in the
world itself. We are constantly nourished by this incredible dharma, if we’re
alive and awake enough to receive it.
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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