The Whole Earth is Medicine

Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori, Roshi
Blue Cliff Record, Case 87

Featured in Mountain Record 22.3, Spring 2004

Master Yuanwu’s Pointer

A clear-eyed person has no nest: sometimes on the summit of a solitary peak weeds grow in profusion; sometimes they’re naked and free in the bustling marketplace. Suddenly they appear as an angry titan, with three heads and six arms; suddenly, as sun-face or moon-face buddha, they release the light of all-embracing mercy. In a single atom they manifest all the physical forms; to save people according to their type, they mix with mud and water. If suddenly they release an opening upwards, not even the Buddha’s eye can see them; even if a thousand sages appeared, they too would have to fall back three thousand miles. Is there anyone with the same attainment and the same realization? To test I cite this old case. Listen.

The Main Case

Yunmen, teaching his community, said, “Medicine and disease subdue each other. The whole earth is medicine. Where do you find yourself?”

Master Xuetou’s Verse

The whole earth is medicine:
why have ancients and moderns been so mistaken?
I don’t make the carriage behind closed doors —
The road, though, is naturally quiet and empty.
Wrong, wrong!
Though they be high as the sky, your nostrils have still been pierced.

As people begin to practice, they often have questions about attachment and nonattachment, trusting themselves, and about the relationship between the problems they encounter in the world and the way to deal with them. All of these questions are dealt with in this koan, in Yunmen’s teaching of “Medicine and sickness heal each other.” “All the world is medicine,” he said. Where do you find yourself?
Daido Roshi

John Daido Loori, Roshi

Yunmen lived more than a thousand years ago in China. I’m not sure if they understood then the scientific relationship between medicine and sickness, but they certainly understood the spiritual relationship. This relationship is clearly elaborated in some of the Buddhist sutras. In one of them, Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom who carries the double-edged sword that kills or gives life, engaged in a dialogue with Sudhana, one of the monastics studying with the Buddha. Manjushri said to Sudhana, “If there is something that is not medicine, bring it to me, I would like to see it.” Sudhana searched exhaustively, but he couldn’t find anything that was not medicine, and so he told Manjushri, “There is nothing out there that is not medicine.” Manjushri said, “Bring me something that is medicine, then.” Sudhana reached down and picked up a blade of grass and handed it to Manjushri. Manjushri held it up, showed it to the assembly of monastics and said, “This medicine can kill people, and it can also bring them to life.”

From a medical perspective, we know that medicine and sickness can definitely heal each other. A vaccination is a small dose of “sickness” that can prevent a full-blown illness. Oftentimes, poisons are used to heal, rather than kill. Digitalis is one. So is curare, the extract used in the poisoned darts of the Amazon basin Indians. In the same way, there are “spiritual vaccines” that can cure illness, if we only know how to use them.

Sickness is defined in the dictionary as “affliction, ailment, disease, disorder, infection.” Even the words “evil” and “anguish” are used to refer to sickness. These are just ways of saying that you are no longer in accord with the nature of things, with your own nature. And, of course, a spiritual sickness and a physical sickness are not so different. They inform each other. Anguish, affliction, despair, grief, heartache, pain, remorse, sorrow, agony, hurt, worry: these are all the sicknesses that affect our lives.

Sickness, in and of itself, is not a problem. It’s our attachment to it — or to health — that gives us pain. And, given the definitions I found for the word “nonattachment,” it’s no wonder we have misguided notions about it. According to Webster, the term means: “Indifference, separation, aloofness, isolation and quiet.” But, according to the Buddhist point of view, nonattachment is exactly the opposite of separation. You need two things in order to have attachment: the thing you’re attaching to, and the person who’s attaching. In nonattachment, on the other hand, there’s unity. There’s unity because there’s nothing to attach to. If you have unified with the whole universe, there’s nothing outside of you, so the notion of attachment becomes absurd. Who will attach to what?

This is where students become concerned. “But what are the consequences of nonattachment?” they ask. “What will happen to my relationship, my children, my life? How can I love without being attached?” That’s the kind of love that Hallmark greeting cards portray: two people running down the beach, hand in hand. That’s what the cruise lines and movies advertise as love — but that’s not love. In love, there’s intimacy. Intimacy, by definition, means no separation, not two. You can’t really love unless there is intimacy, unless there’s nonattachment. In attachment, there’s manipulation and control. In nonattachment, you allow others to be themselves. And that includes you — you give yourself permission to be yourself.

From the beginning of time, spiritual teachers have compounded medicines to heal the sickness, and have also compounded sicknesses to heal the medicine. It’s a two-way street. When the dharma wheel turns, it turns in both directions at the same time — but that doesn’t compute, does it? No, it doesn’t compute. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form. You and I are the same thing, but I’m not you and you’re not me. That doesn’t compute either. Why don’t you get rid of the computer, then? So much of life doesn’t compute. There’s a whole aspect of reality that’s beyond logical, sequential thought. Sooner or later we need to realize that the truth is not in the extremes. We need to see the non-dual dharma.

We could talk about the absolute basis of reality on one hand: “No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind.” But obviously that can’t be the whole story, because “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind” doesn’t function in the world. So on the other side, you have “eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind.” Yet the truth is to be found in neither of those. We know there’s a Middle Way; we have a sense that it exists, but the minute we try to get to it by saying A +B = C, we go off in the wrong direction. Reality can’t be reached that way.

So how do medicine, on one side, and sickness, on the other side, heal each other? For medicine, the dictionary’s definition reads: “A formula, a prescription, a cure, a remedy, a serum.” As I said before, a vaccine is a small dose of the infectious agent, so what it does is create a situation in which the body can heal itself. The vaccine just stirs up all the antibodies so the body will be prepared. The same thing happens with the spiritual sicknesses. And in the process of that healing, medicine and sickness heal each other — they don’t merge — they subdue each other. Both medicine and sickness disappear, and harmony with the nature of things reappears. This is “Where do you find yourself?”

Master Yuanwu says, “The whole earth is medicine; where will you sink your teeth into this?” If you can sink your teeth in it, I’ll grant that you have a place to turn around and show some life. Then you see Yunmen in person. If you look around and hesitate, you won’t be able to get your teeth into it. Yunmen is under your feet.

Again Yuanwu says, “Medicine and sickness subdue each other.” If you cling to existence, he speaks of nonexistence. If you’re attached to nonexistence, he speaks of existence. If you’re attached to neither existence nor nonexistence, he manifests the sixteen-foot golden body of the Buddha in a pile of rubbish. What is the sixteen-foot golden body of the Buddha? It’s your body, my body, the body of all sentient beings. It’s a body that’s in harmony with the universe. So how do you find this harmony?

To study Buddhism is to study the self — that’s where practice starts. But the self is an illusion. That’s what you find out as you study it. You begin to see all of the pieces that create that illusion, all of the notions that we’ve bought into, and little by little they fall away. Finally, you reach the point where you forget the self. But what remains when the self is forgotten? Everything that’s there now. The only difference is that there will no longer be a barrier between you and it.

“All the earth is medicine.” This statement is saying that the ten thousand dharmas, the whole phenomenal universe is medicine. Just like Sudhana said, there’s nothing that’s not medicine. In the teachings of the buddhadharma, this is like saying: Samsara is nirvana, and nirvana is samsara. You don’t go to heaven to realize yourself. You realize yourself in the midst of sickness, in the midst of turmoil and anguish. Holiness is not something we aspire to in Buddhism. “Holy” means “celestial, divine, bodiless, disembodied, nonmaterial, unreal.” Is that what our life is? If this practice doesn’t help us to function in our everyday activity, then what’s the point of it? Buddhism too, has the disease of holiness. Sometimes the medicine can become a sickness in itself. And sometimes, there’s the sickness of having no sickness at all. That’s a very difficult one to heal. That’s what we call being stuck.

Mostly, when we think of spiritual sickness, we think of all those feelings that I mentioned: remorse, sorrow, agony, distress, trouble, despair, grief, heartache. But keep in mind that there’s also a sickness of meditation. There’s a meditation of sickness. There’s a sickness that can heal meditation, and there’s meditation that heals sickness, and then the meditation and sickness that heal each other. The same can be said of the precepts. When the precepts are not really understood, they, too, can become a sickness. We turn into moralists, self-righteous holy ones, looking down our nose at everyone else.

It’s easy to save someone from the gutter. It doesn’t take any great compassion to do that. But how do you save someone who’s in just as much pain, but is an insufferable bastard? They kick people around, they hurt, they suppress, they manipulate, and they’re in agony. You try to help, but in the process they chew you up and spit you out. How do you heal that kind of sickness? There’s all kinds of sickness. There’s all kinds of medicine.

In the activity of our lives we can find both the sickness and the cure. Our habit patterns, the things we’ve been carrying with us all our lives will continue until we put an end to them, until we turn our karma around. The process begins with yourself, with trusting yourself. grass

In order to trust yourself you have to let go of expectation. We shouldn’t confuse expectation with aspiration. The two are very different. You must have great aspiration to accomplish yourself, but no expectation. Someone may ask, “When I’m doing zazen, isn’t that goal oriented? Don’t you have to have expectation?” That’s not the only way to do zazen. Zazen and realization are the same thing. Practice and enlightenment are one. One doesn’t precede the other. Practice is not before and enlightenment after. They’re one, because cause and effect are one thing. And what is that one thing? You. That’s why what you do and what happens to you are the same thing. Nobody is doing anything to you.

It’s not that difficult to understand what I’m saying, but it’s simply not enough to appreciate this from an intellectual point of view. One of the diseases of teaching is that people grab onto what the teacher says, thinking, “Now I’ve got it.” The minute you say that, you’ve missed it. It’s not about understanding the words. It’s about realizing them. We do need to study, but we also need to realize. To realize the ultimate principle and not study is to open your eyes in darkness. To not realize the ultimate principle and study is to have your eyes closed in broad daylight. To both realize and study the ultimate principle is to open your eyes in the bright light of day.

Yunmen, it’s said, often used this teaching of medicine and sickness healing each other in his dokusan room to guide people. One day, Elder Jin, who was in the lineage of Yunmen, called on Xuetou. The two of them sat discussing the statement “medicine and sickness heal each other” until dawn before they finally exhausted its excellence. And at the end of their dialogue, Xuetou composed a verse:

Medicine and sickness heal each other — most difficult to see;
The ten thousand locked gates indeed have no starting point.
Wayfarer Jin came calling;
In one night we exhausted the waves of the ocean of learning.

It’s only when you’ve exhausted all learning — all of the combinations and permutations of logical thought — that you finally get to the place where the truth can be seen. It’s not seen with the mind, but with the whole body and mind, as the direct, immediate, intimate experience of reality.

The precepts are medicine, zazen is medicine, work practice, liturgy, are all medicine. They can also be sickness. The whole earth is medicine; where do you find yourself? You need to come back to that question constantly: What is the self? Who are you? If you’re not clear on that point, you should find out. It’s the most important thing any of us can ever do with our lives. Forget about all the Buddhist sutras, forget about all of the koans. Just find out who you are, what the self is. To save all sentient beings begins with saving yourself. Once you save yourself, there’s no distinction between you and all sentient beings.

So please, take care of that question, not with your head, but with your life, in broad daylight with your eyes wide open. It’s a beautiful life, an unlimited life, and every single one of us is born into it, lives in it, and dies from it — yet we’re free all the way. There isn’t a single moment that we’re not free. But you can’t use this freedom until you realize it, until you make it yours. Nobody else can do the job for you. That’s why it’s so important to go very deep into your sitting. It’s there that you’re going to find the key, the strength, the power to take care of your life. It’s no small thing.

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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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