Yunmen gave instruction saying, "Everyone
has their own light. If you want to
see it you can't. The darkness is dark, dark. Now what is your light?"
He himself answered, "The storeroom.
The gate." Again he said, "It would be
better to have nothing that to have something good."
Although Yunmen was a student of
Hsueh Feng he was in fact enlightened by the
ancient and eccentric teacher Mu-Chou (Chen Tsun-Su). It is said that Mu-Chou
lived alone in a hut near the high road travelled by monks when they were going
on pilgrimage from monastery to monastery. Mu-Chou would make grass sandals and
leave them on the side of the road so that monks could replace their old worn
out footwear. Mu-Chou was most secretive about this and it took years to find
out who was responsible for the generous actions.
Mu-Chou's teaching methods were extremely
rough, utterly abrupt. It is said that
he would listen to the sound of the footsteps of approaching monks and if they
didn't indicate the Way he would refuse to open his door. Yunmen came to him
twice and Mu- Chou refused to open the door; the third time, Yunmen succeeded in
getting his foot in. Mu-Chou grabbed him and urged him, "Speak! Speak!" As
Yun-men was about to say something, Mu-Chou threw him out, slammed the door on
him, breaking one of his legs. The intense pain awakened Yunmen instantly.
Yunmen went on to become a great
teacher with over sixty enlightened disciples,
unwittingly becoming the founder of the Yunmen School which lasted into the
thirteenth century in China until it was absorbed into the Linchi (Rinzai)
School. The Yunmen school was responsible for the creation and preservation of
some of the great masterpieces of Ch'an literature in this period, including the
book of one hundred koans entitled The Blue Cliff Record. from which this case
is taken Apart from Yunmen's Bright Light, there are thirteen other koans which
have Yunmen as their protagonist in The Blue Cliff Record.
Yunmen's style is splendidly incisive
and he became celebrated for his one word
responses, which became known as "The One Word Barrier".
A monk asked,
"What is the straight path to Yunmen Mountain?"
Yunmen replied, "Chi'in!" (intimacy) (1)
A monk asked
Yunmen, "What are the words that transcend the
Buddha and the Patriarchs?"
Yunmen said, "Kobyo!" (sesame rice cake) (2)
A monk asked
Yunmen, "What is Buddha?"
Yunmen said, "Kanshiketsu!" (dried shitstick) (3)
With "Ch'in!", "Kobyo!", "Kanshiketsu",
Yunmen vividly reveals the Great Way. He
uses words in a way utterly unclouded with notions and concepts of meaning or
no- meaning. The One Word Barrier, while powerful and penetrating, is never
merely rough, and the spirit of his way is lofty yet accomodating;
uncompromising, yet utterly generous.
Yunmen said to the assembly, "Within
heaven and earth, in the midst of the
cosmos, there is one treasure hidden in the body. Holding a lantern it goes
towards the Buddha hall. It brings the great triple gate and puts it on the
A monk asked, "What is the roar of
the earthen ox on top of the snow ridge?"
Yunmen replied, "Heaven and earth darkened red." (5)
There is weird splendour in these
koans which show the unclouded depths of
Yunmen's vision as poet and Zen teacher. Yuan Wu in his comment on "Yunmen's One
Treasure" in The Blue Cliff Record says if Yunmen,"by means of unconditional
compassion he acts unasked as an excellent friend!" (6)
Yunmen said that if we want to see
our light, we can't. When we turn inward to
see the source of our being, to discover the light of self-nature, everything is
dark and there is nothing to be seen. Searching inwardly for our true self is
like the eye trying to look at itself, like the sun trying to shine on the sun.
In this condition the darkness is
dark, dark. If we look at this from one angle,
this seems to be the darkness of a dead end where our whole enterprise seems to
have foundered in despair and delusion. Yet this condition, no less than opening
fresh eyes to the Morning Star, or sighting distant peach blossoms, is the Way
itself, conveying our essential nature. When the practice feels dry and
fruitless and we seem to scoop from the same empty waterhole, when "the tree
withers and the leaves fall", (7) we find everything right there.
If we continue to practise and to
carry the koan in the place where "the
darkness is dark, dark," then inside and outside become one; there is no gap
between self and other and there is nowhere to search. This is a familiar place
in practice and is referred to over and over again in Zen literature. Here is
Bassui Zenji, a 14th century Japanese Rinzai teacher, whose natural koan was
"Who is (the Master of) hearing that sound?", showing how to work with this
At last every vestige of self-awareness
will disappear and you will feel like a
cloudless sky. Within yourself you will find no "I", nor will you discover
anyone who hears. This Mind is like the void, yet it hasn't a single spot that
can be called empty. Do not mistake this state for self-realisation, but
continue to ask yourself even more intensely, "Now who is it that hears?" If you
bore and bore into this question, oblivious to anything else, even this feeling
of voidness will vanish and you won't be aware of anything - total darkness will
prevail. (Don't stop here, but ) keep asking with all your strength, "What is it
that hears?" Only when you have completely exhausted the questioning will the
question burst; now you will feel like a person that has come back from the
dead. This is true realisation. You will see the Buddhas of all the Universes
face to face and the Patriarchs past and present. (8)
Even when our resources are utterly
depleted we don't give up but steadily
return to the koan using all the energy we have at that time, but not straining,
not forcing. For Bassui it was "Who is it who hears?", for us it is most likely
to be Mu, but the procedure is the same, the same light, steady, unfaltering
The vigil of working with the koan
and the koan working with us prepares the
ground, and in the most fundamental sense, is the ground of realisation. In that
deepened condition, unknowingly we ready ourselves and any spark can light up
the cave. For Yunmen it was the pain of his leg being broken by the door as
Mu-Chou slammed it; for Wu-men it was the sound of the drum announcing the
noonday meal; for Ling-Yun, after thirty years of practice, it was the sight of
the pink blossoms of distant peach trees; for Kyogen it was the sound of the
stone striking the bamboo - "duk".
"The storeroom. The gate." For Yunmen
these are our lights and when we are ready
and utterly open they shine with our true nature. Not only the storehouse, the
gate, but the star and the wattle, the drunk enveloping us with his beery breath
at the party, the shit in the toilet; all these are our own lights. And not only
the sharp and crystalline calls of the world, but also the boring, the
infuriating and the painful voices that arise in our zazen; all the states and
conditions which generate and compose our emotional weather; all the homeless
and rejected parts of the self that cry out and long to take us in and be taken
in, to give and receive refuge. These too, with the store house, the gate, our
own own lights.
However, if we search for our true
nature in the world of colour and form we
can't find it. Searching for the flower, the star, the storeroom, the gate that
will be the agent of our enlightenment is as futile as the inward introspective
search for our own light. If we try to turn towards it, we deviate. Seen one
way, our trying cannot discover or confirm our own bright light; from the other
side the searching and striving is itself the whole matter. This is conveyed in
a telling and lovely way in the first of Tosotsu's Three Barriers:
The purpose of going to abandoned,
grassy places and doing zazen is to search
for my self-nature. Now, at such a time, where is my self nature?" (9)
The lonely figure that searches in
the undergrowth provides its light no less
than the storeroom, the gate.
"It would be better to have nothing
than to have something good. In saying this,
Yunmen warns us against clinging to enlightenment and getting caught up with
attainment; better, he says, to live without a trace of have and have not, then
the planes roar through, the birdsong penetrates everywhere, we laugh and cry,
get up, forget to get up, make love, put on clothes, go to the beach, get born,
die; all this without the impediments of ownership. However, unfortunately,
there is no trouble in recognising whose telephone bill it is when it lands on
the hall table!
Again, in saying, "It would be better
to have nothing than to have something
good", Yunmen warns us not to go on clinging to his words. There are grave
dangers in utilising "The storeroom, the gate" or "dried shitstick, or "sesame
rice cake" as mechanical koan responses that neither illuminate the Way or
succeed in propping up the gate. Better to show the whole empty universe in our
silence than to formally reiterate his words. One moment their flash illuminates
the whole world, the next we drag them around like carcases. Even worse, they
get handed onto others. Once is enough. Enough is enough.
Yunmen refused to allow his listeners
to take notes during his talks. "What is
the use of recording my words and tying up your tongues?" he is said to have
cried as he chased away those who wanted to memorise his sayings. It is thanks
to Hsian-lin Ch'eng-Yuan who dressed himself in a paper robe and wrote down
Yunmen's sayings and dialogues on it, that we have the substantial collection of
koans and stories that nourish Zen practice in our times. (10)
In the flickering, unsteady darkness
of the practice we come up to the gate a
thousand times and judder at the final step. Likewise the Universe itself
presents the whole matter over and over again till ordinary things gleam with
the allure of our self-nature.
As practice deepens we just accept
the fear and hesitation as we come up to the
gate but don't go through; on each occasion we just resume our vigil with the
koan. In time, the "inner" world of yearning and striving and the "outer" world
of 'the storeroom and the gate" fall into deeper and deeper affinity. Unaided,
the Way is seeking the Way.
Yunmen speaks of us wanting to see
our own light: Rilke, the great German poet
of the early twentieth century whose later work (especially the Ninth Duino
Elegy) inhabits a realm which has a considerable overlap with Zen, leans on the
other side when he writes of the yearning of things for us to notice and include
Yes, the springtimes needed you.
Often a star was waiting for you to notice it.
A wave rolled towards you out of the distant past, or as you walked under an
open window, a violin yielded itself to your hearing .....(11).
This is the fleeting world that needs
us and in some strange way keeps calling
to us, as Rilke puts it, the most fleeting of all. (12) As we yearn and search,
so too do the star, the wave, the violin. The fleeting world shines out moment
by moment as the fallen jacaranda blossoms staring up from the back lawn, the
cark cark of the crows, the son or daughter arguing back, challenging our
authority - each calls out to be included.
We find this calling, this beckoning
in our tradition when in the first
Oxherding picture, the herdsman is fruitlessly searching for the Ox (which in
the series of ten pictures depicting particular stages on the Way, stands for
the Mind of Realisation). It is evening and the herdsman is exhausted and unable
to find any trace of the Ox, hearing only the cicadas in the trees.
The cicadas chirp chirp with all
their might; the Ox is right there, but the
herdsman is not ready for this and the journey and the search for refuge
continue. Yet the cicadas continue to call and, moment after moment, each thing
longs to be included; the cat comes up to the back door for its evening meal,
someone turns on a radio next door. Events scuffle, jostle to be taken in. "Here
I am!" they shout.
Dogen saw this clearly when he wrote:
"The Dharma wheel turns from the
beginning. There is neither surplus nor lack. The whole universe is moistened
with nectar, and the truth is ready to harvest." (13)
When we accept the invitation, the
self and the Universe find refuge when there
is no self, no other. In this realm, all beings are saved, as they have been
from the beginning. When Shakyamuni having sat all night under the Bodhi tree
looked up and saw the Morning Star with fresh eyes, the Morning Star, no less
than Shakyamuni, found its true home: each was the other's own bright light.
Yunmen put it this way: "Medicine
and sickness mutually correspond to each
other. The whole universe is medicine. What is the self?" In asking what is the
self, Yunmen is asking a similar question to "What is our own light?"
The night is full of cicadas; the
fan hums loudly, shivering stars cover the sky
at midnight; we sit nodding off, turning back over and over again to the koan.
Depth calls to depth. Each person, each being, each thing longs to be included.
At such a time, what is our own light?
1. Chang Chung-Yuan, Original Teachings
of Ch'an Buddhism (Vintage Books, Random
House, New York, 1971, p. 268.
2. Yamada and Aitken (transl) Ihe Blue Cliff Record. Case 77, (unpublished ms).
3. Yamada and Aitken (transl) Mumonkan, Case 21 (unpublished ms).
4. Yamada and Aitken, The Blue Cliff Record, Case 62 (unpublished ms).
5. Chang Chung-Yuan, ibid, p 293.
6. Cleary, Thomas and J.C. (transl)
The Blue Cliff Record (Shambhala, Boulder
and London, 1977) Case 62, p. 400.
7. Yamada and Aitken (transl) The
Blue Cliff Record, Case 27, "Unmon's
8. Bassui Zenji, "The Talk on One
Mind" from Kapleau, Philip (ed), The Three
Pillars of Zen (Anchor Books, Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1980) p. 272.
9. Yamada and Aitken (transl), Mumonkan, Case 37.
10. Chang Chung-Yuan, ibid, p. 267.
11. Rilke, R.M., "The First Duino
Elegy" from Mitchell, Stephen (trans), The
Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Vintage Books, Random House, New York,
1984), p. 151.
12. Mitchell, Stephen (transl) ibid, p 199 (from the Ninth Duino Elegy).
13. Aitken Roshi, Robert, The Mind
of Clover (North Point Press, San Francisco
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