Dongshan was asked by a monastic, “What is Buddha?”1 Dongshan said, “Three pounds of flax.”2 The monastic had a realization and bowed.3
[View Footnotes]This is an old case that’s been echoing in the halls of Zen monasteries for centuries, and yet there have been only a handful of students who have been able to penetrate its meaning. People immediately rush to the words to understand, not realizing that words and speech are just vessels to convey the truth, not yet the truth itself. If you take Dongshan’s “three pounds of flax” to mean that this is, in and of itself, Buddha, then you have missed his intent by 100,000 miles. We should understand at the outset that “three pounds of flax” is not just a reply to the question about Buddha, and cannot be understood in terms of Buddha. This being the case, you tell me, “What is Buddha?”
The Capping Verse
Seeing the gap opening up in the monastic’s question,
The old master moved quickly to stuff it with flax.
Those who accept words are lost.
Those who linger in phrases are deluded.
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.
This case appears in The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Record koan collections. On the surface, it seems like a very straighforward and simple koan. As a result, most of the commentaries on it are very superficial, not addressing its deeper levels. This koan is not about Buddha. It is not about the flax being Buddha. So what is it about?
Dongshan in this case is not the Dongshan who was the founder of the Soto school. This particular Dongshan was a disciple of Yunmen. We encounter him in The Gateless Gate in another koan, during his first meeting with Yunmen. Yunmen asked Dongshan, “Where did you come from?” Dongshan replied, “From Shado, Master.” Yunmen continued, “Where did you spend the summer ango?” Dongshan said, “At Baoshi Temple in Hunen.” Yunmen asked, “When did you leave there?” Dongshan said, “On the 25th day of the eighth month.” And Yunmen said, “I spare you thirty blows of the staff,” and walked away. The next morning, seeing Yunmen, Dongshan inquired about the previous day’s conversation: “Yesterday you said that you would spare me thirty blows of the staff. I don’t know what mistake I made.” Yunmen yelled, “Rice-bag! Will you go on like this throughout Jinyang and Hyuneng?” At these words Dongshan experienced great enlightenment. He said, “From this time forward I forsake any abode. I will not store a grain of rice, nor plant even a stalk of vegetable. Receiving what comes from the ten directions, I’ll use it to pull out nails and draw out wedges. Taking off the greasy hat and smelly shirt, I’ll spread the teaching freely.” This was his vow to use everything available to him to liberate people, abandoning worldly ideas and doctrines.
Dongshan began teaching on East Mountain. He addressed his monastics by saying, “Language doesn’t help matters; speech doesn’t bring forth the truth. Those burdened by language are lost; those held up by words are deluded. Do you understand? You patch-robed monastics should be clear about it. If you come here, you must start using the dharma eye. It’s just like what I’ve said, but I’ve erred about one thing. What error is there in the words I’ve spoken?”
Another time a monastic asked him, “What do the ancient holy ones do?” Dongshan replied, “Enter the mud; enter the water.” The monastic inquired, “What is Buddha?” Dongshan said, “Three pounds of flax,” the substance matter of this koan. When another monastic probed, “What is Buddha?” Dongshan responded, “The crystal clear truth.” There are many answers to this basic question, a question that comes up frequently in Zen koans. When someone asked Yunmen, “What is Buddha?” he said, “A shitstick.” Mazu said, “Mind is Buddha,” and at another time, “No mind, no Buddha.” Zhaozhou exclaimed, “It’s the one in the shrine.” Another teacher elaborated with, “Thirty-two auspicious marks.” What does all of this mean? What is Buddha?
There are all kinds of definitions of Buddha. There are the three fundamental bodies of the Buddha: pure Dharmakaya Vairochana Buddha, complete Sambhogakaya Vairochana Buddha, and numerous Nirmanakaya Shakyamuni Buddhas — the absolute body, the body of bliss, and the body that appears in the world. But these are also the three bodies of all beings. “All buddhas throughout space and time” — the words we chant in our liturgical dedication — are beings who manifest great wisdom and compassion with the way they live their lives. They have numberless manifestations: Manjushri Bodhisattva, Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, Avolekiteshvara Bodhisattva. There’s a Chinese sutra that lists hundreds of names of the Buddha. Buddha also means the great spirits, people who enlighten themselves through their own effort, and thousands of monastics and lay practitioners who follow the example of the historical Buddha. It’s also the name for you and for me. All Buddhas includes the universe itself, which is teaching constantly. What is Buddha?
When the question “What is Buddha?” comes up, I don’t think of all the words that are used to describe buddhas. I reflect on the deeds of buddhas. And these days, following the events of September 11th, there is much to reflect on. Myotai Sensei began doing pastoral counseling in New York City and she related a story about her first trip to Ground Zero with the family members of the people killed in the attack. She noticed that as soon as these grieving relatives reached the site, all the workmen stopped what they were doing and turned to face the families. They didn’t do anything else, just silently faced the grief. You can just imagine the power of eye contact between these two groups of people. Isn’t that the manifestation of a buddha?
Former President Clinton and Bob Dole, who ran for president and was defeated by Clinton, have teamed up. They’ve started a scholarship fundraising program to raise $100,000,000 dollars for the surviving children of the victims. They figured that those kids would have had an opportunity to go to college and to give something back to the world. Because their families lost a major breadwinner, they may not be able to do that. The scholarship fund is going to assure that these kids get the education they want. Another shape of a buddha.
I was also reading about the underground movement of Islamic women in Afghanistan who are resisting the Taliban by educating themselves and teaching other women, something that is currently prohibited by law. The penalty for doing this is to be beheaded. These women are willingly risking their lives just to be educated and to help educate others. Buddha once again.
When practitioners encounter great difficulties, when the very fiber of their lives and their lives’ meaning are being challenged, when the world descends into turmoil and chaos, I frequently hear the question, “What am I doing here sitting zazen?” or “What does practice — bowing, chanting, caretaking — have to do with the insanity of our lives?” How do the 84,000 subtle gestures, the details of how we study and practice each moment, relate to the big picture?
When we first became aware of the events of September 11th, within hours of the attack we gathered in the zendo as a sangha and the first thing that came to my mind was, “This is why we practice. This is the question of life and death.” A number of people came away from that service thinking that I was talking about how practice can make us feel better, or allow us to work with our fear, anger and despair. I wasn’t talking about that. I was emphasizing that this practice is about helping others in their fear, anger and despair. As we engage this path, we should always remember that giving and receiving are one. In giving and receiving two people are united, bonded, and in the healing of others we heal the self.
In 1986, a group of Monastery students came with me to Japan for my empowerment ceremony as the abbot. After the event we traveled around Japan, visiting temples and friends. One of the places we went to was a monastery in Kyoto, which is the seat of Japanese Tendai Buddhism. The monastery’s abbot was over a hundred years old at the time. We arrived around seven o’clock in the morning and were ushered into a guest room. We were told that the abbot would see us in about an hour. Apparently, he’d been up since four o’clock doing zazen and a series of Tantric services that he still needed to complete. He showed up precisely at eight. He looked no older than sixty, vibrant and animated, warm and welcoming. My teacher, Maezumi Roshi, introduced all the people in our party. A number of them were professors with PhD’s, so Roshi referred to them as doctors. The abbot must have construed that they were physicians because he proceeded to talk about healing, an important aspect of the Tantric teachings. And one of the points he kept reiterating was that when you’re ill, don’t worry about your illness; just take care of others. When you heal others, you heal yourself. When you take care of the world, you take care of yourself.
This equation was beautifully exemplified in one story emerging from the heap of destruction in Manhattan. A group of firemen were in one of the towers, heading up, when they came upon an old woman who had an injured leg. She could not walk down and was stumbling, barely able to remain upright. They stopped her and, to help her get down, strapped her in a full-body support. It took six firemen to carry the woman. As they were heading down, the entire tower collapsed right on top of them. When the building started coming down they put her down and covered her with their bodies. She got hit with pieces of plaster and had a few abrasions, but miraculously they were all alive, stuck in a stairwell. They were there for about a day and a half. There was no way to make contact with people outside as their radio signals could not get past all the crumbled metal and concrete. Finally, one of them remembered that he had a cell-phone and after a hundred attempts he managed to get through to his wife in New Jersey. It took sometime for her to collect herself and take down the information she needed to initate the rescue effort. The firemen knew precisely where they were in the building so they were able to guide the rescue workers to them. When they were located, they were all in good shape, precariously suspended in a pocket of space within the rubble, three stories off the ground. They had to balance their way out across I-beams, carrying the woman through a forest of jagged spikes of steel. They all got out safely.
When the reporters interviewed the firemen, the firemen went on and on about the woman, and how she saved their lives. They were convinced that if it wasn’t for her, they would have been another fifteen or twenty stories higher where they wouldn’t have survived the collapse, or if she hadn’t slowed them down, they would have been down another floor and they would have been crushed. She was their guardian angel, they said. The woman went on and on about them, and about what they did and how selfless they were. As the stories unfolded, the margins between the giver and the receiver got blurred more and more. There were just people supporting each other. And there must be 100,000 stories like that in the city, of buddhas and bodhisattvas going about their work.
Being in New York City, Myotai Sensei and Jimon volunteered with the Red Cross to see how they could help. They completed all the necessary paperwork and went through a series of interviews. They were told that the only areas where the Red Cross needed assistance were data entry and kitchen work. So, wanting to help, they did data entry and served food in the Red Cross cafeterias. Then they found out that to do pastoral counseling, which they’re qualified to do, they needed to go to another Red Cross site. They went there and were sent to yet another place. Red Cross clearly didn’t realize that they were dealing with two Zen monastics fueled by incredible perserverance, weathered by repeated rejections in dokusan, always coming back. Once through the door, Myotai and Jimon had to do the Red Cross course in pastoral counseling and then were sent into the trenches. This meant working with the family members who were receiving death certificates, and just being with them amidst the tumult of emotions or the tense absence of emotions.
Later on Myotai was asked to supervise trips to the Ground Zero site with the relatives of the victims who wanted to go there. After returning from the first tour, she said to me, “I never thought that all the hundred little things that we’ve been doing through all these years of practice that I have taken for granted would come into play in a place like this.” All of it was familiar territory, the matter of life and death she has been taking care of throughout her training. So, when you ask me, “Why practice? What has this got to do with my life? What do these ancient koans have to do with anything?” The answer is always right in the middle of all the twists of your life.
The important thing is to not intellectualize practice. Attaching to linear, sequential thinking kills our practice. Putting ourselves on the edge of what we think we can do and then going beyond that makes a buddha. Forget the definitions! The commentary to the koan says: If you take Dongshan’s “three pounds of flax” to mean that this is, in and of itself, Buddha, then you have missed his intent by 100,000 miles. If you think that “three pounds of flax” is just a reply to the question about Buddha, you have also missed it. It cannot be understood in terms of Buddha. Why is that? And if that’s the case, then what is Buddha? Why are there so many apparently different replies to this question? Are they different? What is the point of this koan? People immediately rush to the words to understand, not realizing that words and speech are just vessels to convey the truth, not yet the truth itself. The truth itself resides in our own bodies and minds. All the words, all of the devices, are just the vehicle for uncovering that which is already there. Some people conclude that because Dongshan was weighing out flax when the monastic asked him about Buddha; his activity was Buddha. Wrong. That, too, doesn’t reach it. And the reason people miss it is because they’re going to the words.
I’ve added footnotes to this koan. Dongshan was asked by a monk, “What is Buddha?” The footnote says, “From amid the forest of brambles, a voice calls out.” If someone poses a question like that, they’re asking for help. There’s something stirring inside them; they need to know. Dongshan said, “Three pounds of flax.” Footnote to that says, “Like a bell, when struck the sound immediately appears.” There’s no delay. Strike; sound. Ask; answer. The monastic had a realization and bowed. The footnote to that says, “I wonder about this. What did he realize?”
From the outset, we should understand that “three pounds of flax” is not just a reply to the question about buddhas. What is Dongshan responding to, answering this way? What is he addressing? He’s answering all of those questions that people keep bringing up about practice: “Where am I going? What is the goal? What do I get?” Isn’t that how we approach our undertakings? How much does it cost? How much do I get? Can you imagine doing this practice simply because of being called to it, without intent? And to be able to practice that calling with great excitement and great energy?
People think that the rigor and encouragement in Zen training are designed to drive people deeper into their realization. We need to be careful though not to make our zazen goal oriented. To practice as if putting out a fire on top of your head is one way of practicing, still goal oriented. It’s people who practice just for the sake of practice that touch my heart. It’s the ones who wash the dishes just to wash the dishes, not to have clean dishes, that touch my heart. It’s the artists that create art just for the sake of creation, not to sell paintings or impress anybody or to get rich. There’s no goal; there’s no reward; there’s no place to go. The dharma journey is always right where you are. Ten years from now, it will be right where you are. One hundred years from now, right where you are. The sooner we acknowledge that fact, the sooner we realize it, the sooner we are able to be where we are, rather than ten miles ahead.
In “What is Buddha?” is a bit of “Is this it? Am I enlightened?” — the cry from the forest of brambles. Coming into practice with that kind of a goal is in and of itself spreading out your zabuton and zafu in the midst of confusion and complications. Dongshan’s answer was going well beyond all the definitions, words and ideas that describe buddhas. It was even going beyond the deeds that define buddhas. 1
The capping verse:
Seeing the gap opening up in the monastic’s question,
The old master moved quickly to stuff it with flax.
Those who accept words are lost.
Those who linger in phrases are deluded.
The instant you start asking the kind of question the monastic brought up, you reveal the gap. Gap means separation; gap means this and that: life and death, good and bad, enlightenment and delusion, me and Buddha. When there’s a gap you become a person of this and that, and from that perspective it’s very difficult to heal yourself or others. Dongshan knew that and he tried to stuff the gap with the “three pounds of flax.”
Those who accept words are lost. Those who linger in phrases are deluded. This is pointing to practice itself. Practice is the immediate physical experience that’s beyond definitions. We can discuss zazen and what it is; we give zazen instruction. We explain samadhi and enlightenment. We talk about buddhas. But all that pales compared to what is happening on your cushion. Nobody knows what’s going on in your head — if you are practicing the edge or indulging another self-serving scenario. You are the only one who has access to your body and mind. What is your real intention? Is it self-centered or selfless? So please don’t ask me, “What good is practice? What does it have to do with my life? Why am I here? What do these koans have to do with my life?” Let go of the goal. You don’t need a goal to practice. The Way reaches everywhere. When you’ve let go of all goals, you’re on the Way, and it reaches everywhere. Do you understand?
During these difficult days when you are pressed against your limits — physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually — keep your practice strong. Trust yourself. Trust the process. Let go of the goals, and no question about it, sooner or later, you will manifest the life of a Buddha in everything you do. Nobody can do it for us. Each one of us has to do it for ourselves. Make it a vow: not to regress, not to ignore, not to forget. Use the energy of your practice to not only go deeply into yourselves and touch the ground of being, but also to bring that clarity out into the world and to touch the lives of others.
1. From amid the forest of brambles, a voice calls out.
2. Like a bell, when struck the sound immediately appears.
3. I wonder about this. What did he realize?
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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