Yunyen's Insentient Beings Preach the Dharma

Dharma Discourse by Abbot John Daido Loori

Master Dogen's 300 Koan Shobogenzo, Case 148

Featured in Mountain Record 16.3, Spring 1998


 The Main Case

Dongshan asked Yunyen, "Who can hear the teachings of the insentient?"1
Yunyen said, "It can be heard by the insentient." 2 Dongshan asked, "Do you hear it, Master?" 3 Yunyen said, "If I heard it, then you would not hear my teaching." 4 Dongshan answered, "That being the case, then I do not hear your teaching." 5 Yunyen replied, "You don't even hear my teaching, how could you hear the teachings of the insentient?" 6 Dongshan was enlightened on hearing this and responded in verse:7
Wondrous! Marvelous!
The teachings of the insentient are inconceivable.
If you listen with the ears, you won't understand.
When you hear with the eyes, then you will know. 8
[View Footnotes]

The Commentary

The ten thousand things are neither sentient nor insentient; the self is neither sentient nor insentient. Therefore, the teachings of the insentient cannot be perceived by the senses. The teachings are heard before there is a body and after the mind is forgotten. It is heard before our parents were born and before the Buddha appeared. It is not a matter of ordinary consciousness. How then can it be heard? When body and mind have fallen away, in the stillness that follows, the teachings are intimately manifested and in great profusion. Whether we are aware of it or not, it's always taking place.

The Capping Verse

The teachings of the insentient:
If you try to grasp it, you will miss it.
It has no form.
If you try to let go, you cannot separate from it.
It is not formless.
Subtle and wondrously inconceivable,
The muse constantly reveals the mysterious teaching of the ten thousand things.

The Footnotes

1. Fences, walls, tiles, pebbles, the Brooklyn Bridge.
2. This is not the province of either existence nor nonexistence.
3. He presses the old master. He really wants to understand.
4. When sentient beings hear it, they are no longer sentient beings.
5. This monastic is becoming slippery.
6. The old man leaps into his belly.
7. If you try to grasp this, you cannot get it; it's nonexistent. If you try to get rid of this, you cannot let it go, because it's you yourself.
8. This is not cognition or thought. It has no relationship to any physical or psychological thing. Indeed, it's not like something.

[Return to Main Case]

This version of the koan, as presented by Master Dogen in his 300 Koan Shobogenzo and in the "Proclamation of the Dharma by the Insentient" chapter of the Japanese Shobogenzo differs significantly from its source version in The Record of Master Dongshan, and from the account in Transmission of the Light, where the koan also appears. In The Record of Master Dongshan the exchange between Dongshan and Yunyen is recorded as follows:

Dongshan (Jap., Tozan) asked, "What sort of person is able to hear the Dharma expounded by insentient beings?"

Yunyen (Jap., Ungan) said, "Insentient beings are able to hear it."

"Can you hear it, Master?" asked Dongshan.

Yunyen replied, "If I could hear it, then you would not be able to hear the Dharma that I teach."

"Why can't I hear it?" asked Dongshan.

Yunyen raised his fly whisk and said, "Can you hear it yet?"

Dongshan replied, "No, I can't."

Yunyen said, "You can't even hear when I expound the Dharma. How do you expect to hear when insentient beings expound the Dharma?"

Dongshan went on to ask what sutra teaches that insentients expound the Dharma, and Yunyen pointed him to the Amitabha Sutra.

Reflecting on the passage from that sutra which states, "Water, birds, tree groves, all without exception recite the Buddha's name, recite the Dharma," Dongshan composed the gatha which ends the koan as I presented it. But the version in The Record of Master Dongshan does not indicate that the poem is the result of Dongshan's enlightenment.

Dongshan said, "I have some habits that are not yet eradicated."

Yunyen said, "What have you been doing?"

Dongshan said, "I have not concerned myself with the Four Noble Truths."

Yunyen said, "Are you joyful yet?"

Dongshan said, "It would be untrue to say that I am not joyful. It is as though I have grasped a bright pearl in a pile of shit."

Then Dongshan asked Yunyen, "When I wish to meet you, what shall I do?"

"Make an inquiry with the chamberlain," Yunyen replied.

Dongshan replied, "I am inquiring right now."

"What does he say to you?" asked Yunyen. The statement, "Make an inquiry with the chamberlain" essentially means, "Find out for yourself." At that time in Chinese society, a chamberlain was a court official who worked for the emperor and served as an intermediary between him and other officials.

As Dongshan was taking leave, Yunyen said, "Where are you going?" Dongshan answered, "Although I am leaving you, I still haven't decided where I'll stay." Yunyen asked, "You're not going to Hunan, are you?" He wanted to know if Dongshan was returning to his native town. "No," replied Dongshan.

"When will you return?" asked Yunyen.

"I'll wait until I have a fixed residence," replied Dongshan.

Yunyen said, "After your departure it will be hard to meet again."

Dongshan countered, "It will be hard not to meet."

Just before leaving, Dongshan asked, "If after many years someone should ask if I'm able to portray the master's likeness, how should I respond?" He is asking, "Have I finished my training? Have you approved me? Do I have the transmission?"

After remaining silent for a while, Yunyen said, "Just this person." "Just this person" was a phrase used in Chinese courts. It was a formula a criminal used to plead guilty. Dongshan was lost in thought.

Yunyen said, "Having assumed the burden of this Great Matter, you must be very cautious." Dongshan remained dubious about what Yunyen had said. Later, as he was crossing the river, he saw his reflected image in the water and experienced a great awakening concerning the meaning of the previous exchange. He composed the following gatha:

Earnestly avoid seeking without, lest it recedes far from you.
Today I am walking alone, yet everywhere I meet him.
He is no other than myself, but I am not now him.
It must be understood in this way in order to merge with suchness.

Dongshan went on to become one of the greatest Zen masters of that period of Chinese history, and it is his lineage that Dogen carried from China to Japan, and that continues today in the Soto school.

Whatever Dogen's source for this koan was, and for whatever reason, his version did not include the incident of holding up the whisk, and eliminated the later part of the exchange between Dongshan and Yunyen. These omissions shed a different light on the koan. In translating the Shobogenzo koans with Kaz Tanahashi, we've come up against similar problems in other cases. From time to time, Dogen presents koans differently than historical records show them. In the case of this koan, my commentary would be different if I were to discuss the version from The Record of Master Dongshan, instead of Dogen's selection.

Dogen's version in not including Yunyen's holding up of the fly whisk and in asking, "Do you hear it?" and Dongshan's reply, "No, I don't," is very significant. That omission changes the focus of the case, and shows that koan study needs to be meticulous and exhaustive. We have no idea whether the compilers of The Record of Master Dongshan were incorrect or if the source from which Dogen obtained his version differed, but the fact remains that you will receive distinct teachings depending on which version you study.

Although the way Dogen reports the koan is different from The Record of Master Dongshan, it is still an interesting koan. It makes wonderful sense, and is chock-full of pointers on the teachings of the insentient. To clarify the case, I've added footnotes to each line of the koan.

Dongshan asked Yunyen, "Who can hear the teachings of the insentient?" The comment on the first line is, Fences, walls, tiles, pebbles, the Brooklyn Bridge. In discussing the teachings of the insentient, we often overlook the fact that the insentient are not just objects of nature. The insentient include all inanimate things. One of the most powerful teachings of the insentient I've received is from my tractor. There is a lesson to be learned every time I climb on it. The same can be said for any object, any piece of equipment, any building or road. There are teachings to be heard everywhere when we are ready to hear. Who hears the teachings of the insentient? Fences, walls, tiles, pebbles, the Brooklyn Bridge.

Yunyen said, "It can be heard by the insentient."; The footnote says, This is not the province of either existence nor nonexistence. You would think that the teachings of the insentient fall into one of these two categories: they either exist or they doesn't exist. The footnote says that they aren't limited to either category.

Dongshan asked, "Do you hear it?" The footnote says, He presses the old master. He really wants to understand.

Yunyen said, "If I heard it, then you would not hear my teaching." The footnote comments, When sentient beings hear it, they are no longer sentient beings. Dogen repeatedly makes that statement in his writings. Only the insentient hear the teachings of the insentient.

Dongshan answered, "That being the case, then I do not hear your teaching." The footnote says, This monastic is becoming slippery. Dongshan is saying that if only insentient hear the teachings of the insentient, then he is not sentient. Yunyen did not quite let him get away with this response. He countered, You don't even hear my teaching, how could you hear the teaching of the insentient? The footnote to that says, The old man leaps into his belly. Yunyen cut off Dongshan's convoluted thinking.

Dongshan was enlightened on hearing this and responded in verse. The footnote to this line says, If you try to grasp this, you cannot get it; it's nonexistent. If you try to get rid of this, you cannot let it go, because it's you yourself.

What is it that Dongshan realized? What is it that he saw that allows the statement, "Dongshan was enlightened?"

Dongshan's enlightenment verse:

Wondrous! Marvelous!
The teachings of the insentient are inconceivable.
If you listen with the ears, you won't understand.
When you hear with the eyes, then you will know.

The footnote to the verse says, This is not cognition or thought. It has no relationship to any physical or psychological thing. Indeed, it's not like something.

What Dongshan stresses here is that the teachings of the insentient cannot be processed intellectually. So how does it happen? By osmosis? What is it that is going on here? How do you hear the teachings that cannot be heard? When talking about mind-to-mind transmission, and in trying to clarify that stage of spiritual training, Dogen frequently makes analogies between mind-to-mind transmission and the teachings of the insentient. Essentially, this is what the mind-to-mind transmission is about.

The process of spiritual training here at the Monastery is very rigorous and far reaching. The lengthy training needed provides a continuous opportunity to study the self and refine one's realization. There are week-long sesshins every month, intensified periods of ango practice twice a year, liturgy every day, formal oryoki meals during sesshins, work practice, periods of silence, academic study, face-to-face teaching, precepts, eight hundred koans that need to be thoroughly digested. To do all of this wholeheartedly day after day for fifteen years is very powerful. But none of it forms the basis of the mind-to-mind transmission.

My teacher had several students who studied with him for many years. They completed all the training and finished koan study, yet he didn't transmit the Dharma to them. Why? There's something else that's going on. It has nothing to do with absorbing and processing information; it is not dependent on anything passing from point A to point B. Transformation occurs because of our Buddha-nature. Each and every one of us has this nature. We are all perfect and complete lacking nothing. This was the statement of the Buddha immediately after his own enlightenment, and it has been reiterated generation after generation for 2,500 years. Some may realize it; some may not. When you realize it, it transforms your way of perceiving yourself and the universe. This teaching, whether it comes from the sentient or the insentient, arises from within us. But it is not something that's given or received. It is the most basic resonance of reality. There is a coupling of vibrational frequencies, and the truth of one's life becomes apparent.

What does Dongshan mean when he says, If you listen with the ears you won't understand. When you hear with the eyes, then you will know. The footnote elaborates, This is not cognition or thought. It has no relationship to any physical or psychological thing. Indeed, it's not like something. If you listen with the ears, you won't realize the nature of reality because your appreciation would be based on the function of the senses, and realization is not dependent on the senses. It is not a matter of relying on anything physical. It is not conditioned by anything. But when you hear with the eyes, then you will know. When you hear with the eyes your whole body and mind are involved. Hearing with the whole body and mind is the same as body and mind falling away.

The commentary says:

The ten thousand things are neither sentient nor insentient; the self is neither sentient nor insentient. Therefore, the teachings of the insentient cannot be perceived by the senses.

Our minds are conditioned to divide, separate, and compartmentalize reality. We have come to know and define the universe dualistically. As a result everything we have created with our minds - and it's not just limited to Western consciousness - is dualistic. Our philosophy, psychology, medicine, politics, sociology are based on a dualistic understanding of the nature of the universe. What kind of a world would we live in if our appreciation and activity were based on the non-dual Dharma? Could we function out of that realization? Of course we could. Thousands of realized Buddhist men and women have navigated the world of duality. But it takes a shift of perspective to see the aspect of existence that is neither being nor non-being, neither self nor other.

The commentary continues:

The teachings are heard before there is a body and after the mind is forgotten. That is another way of saying body and mind have fallen away. It is heard before our parents were born and before the Buddha appeared. It is not a matter of ordinary consciousness. Many people think that the teachings of the insentient, though coming from the insentient, are similar if not equivalent to the teaching we receive from sentient beings. That is not what Dogen and Dongshan are talking about. These teachings are not about the insentient usurping human ideas and speech.

It is not a matter of ordinary consciousness. How then can it be heard? When body and mind have fallen away, in the stillness that follows, the teachings are intimately manifested and in great profusion. Whether we are aware of it or not, it's always taking place. Most of the real teaching takes place that way. We tend to grab on to the teachings and fix them, turn them into dogma. There is nothing any teacher can do to keep that from happening except to remind people that Zen teachings are not static rules.

People don't trust what they haven't grasped with their minds, what they haven't named and put away in their filing cabinet. Naming things is one of our major preoccupations; we figure that if we can name it, we have got it. That is the way we test our knowledge. That is what tests are about in our culture; we regurgitate information. When people can do that, we assume they are knowledgable. What it really means is that they are capable of retaining information. Computers can do that too. My computer is magnificent. I type in a word, it searches a billion pieces of information in a second and gives me a list of a hundred and twenty thousand places that this word has appeared on computers all over the world. But what does that mean?

The real questions about what we know are: how does it affect us; how does it function in our lives? It is not enough to realize the transmission of the Dharma; we have to actualize it. It needs to be manifest in everything we do. People constantly ask questions about this aspect of the teachings: If so-and-so is realized, how come they did so-and-so? You figure it out. I remember sitting in the zendo listening to discourses on koans in my early years of training. I had absolutely no idea what the teacher was talking about. I would say to myself, "What's wrong with me? The man is speaking English. Why don't I have any idea what he is saying?" Everybody else seemed to understand - they would all sit there and nod. It was frustrating. When I complained to one of the senior monastics, he said: "Just hear it; don't worry about processing it. Sooner or later it will begin to make sense." I had the same experience while reading the Diamond Sutra for the first time. It drove me crazy. Then I started to read it the way the translator suggested it, a little at a time, not trying to understand it; just reading it. I did that for about two years. Every night before I went to bed I would read one section. It was so boring it would put me right to sleep. But after a while it started to make sense. And with time and effort, I found that the koans presented by my late teacher that had been incomprehensible suddenly leapt to life. They made sense. Everything fit. But when it all fell into place, I grabbed on to it. Before it fell into place it was already functioning in my life, only I was not aware of it.

There is no way I can prevent a student from grabbing onto props. The only thing I can do is to encourage them to trust the moment. In presenting koans in dokusan sometimes the koan just pours out of a student, spontaneously and creatively. Other times people rehearse the koan and come in with a tight presentation. If I probe below the surface and ask a simple question, they are totally lost because it doesn't fit the skit they have worked out. The way to do koans is to put expectations aside and trust yourself. If we are intimately involved with a problem, whether we are aware of it or not, the teachings of the insentient are always taking place.

The Capping Verse: The teachings of the insentient: If you try to grasp it, you will miss it. It has no form. The insentient have form, but the teachings have no form. If you try to let go, you cannot separate from it. It is not formless. The teachings are not formless. If it has no form and it's not formless, what is it? If it's not sentient and it's not insentient, what is it? If it's not form and it's not emptiness, what is it? If it's not existence and it's not nonexistence, what is it? If it's not being and it's not non-being, what is it? Are these teachers pulling our legs or are they pointing to something? That is the essential matter of understanding the Buddhadharma. Neither self nor other, sentient nor insentient, form nor formless, existent nor nonexistent - what is it?

Subtle and wondrously inconceivable, The muse constantly reveals the mysterious teaching of the ten thousand things. There were nine muses according to Greek mythology. These muses, all daughters of Zeus, functioned to inspire those in various fields of learning and the arts. Since ancient times many artists, especially poets, have invoked the appropriate muse to help them in their work. There is an aspect of each of us that functions to inspire. It is like Kannon Bodhisattva who functions in whatever guise the situation calls for. That aspect of ourselves which manifests compassion in a given situation is Kannon. So it is with the muse. Unless you are ready to hear deeply, the muse will not manifest anything but the superficial. But when you sit, quiet the mind, let go of all thoughts, and let body and mind fall away, the muse will reveal the sacred for you to use in your work. A shift takes place and a resonance begins to happen that allows for intimate communication.

That is what Dogen is referring to when he talks about the transmission going from mind-to-mind. Nothing passes from teacher to student. It is not the same as understanding or believing. It is about realizing that which is already there.

Subtle and wondrously inconceivable, The muse constantly reveals the mysterious teaching of the ten thousand things. The ten thousand things are constantly teaching. When you first start your training the teacher functions like a parent because the student needs help in seeing the Way. After a while, the teacher becomes a guide, then as the student continues the journey, a spiritual friend. The teacher's presence is less evident; she pulls back and offers less help, leaving the work to the student. Further along the way they become spiritual equals. Finally a point is reached where the teacher becomes the student, the student becomes the teacher; the child becomes the parent, the parent becomes the child. They exchange heads. Then the teacher disappears.

What happens when the teacher disappears? Is that the end of training? Of course not. The training continues endlessly. That is when the ten thousand things, the whole phenomenal universe teaches in great profusion. That ultimately is the place where the teachings of the insentient take place. Does that mean that this teaching is not for everyone to hear? Definitely not. It is constantly taking place. We may not recognize it simply because we are chasing our preconceptions about what Zen is, who we are, what the teachings are. We are looking for something to reflect on, name and categorize. The teachings of the insentient are not like that. It's not like something. It's not like anything.

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