‘Yunju once saw a monk silently reading a sutra in his room. He asked the monk through the window, “Reverend, what sutra are you reading?”

The monk said, “The Vimalakirti Sutra.

Yunju said, “I am not asking you about the Vimalakirti Sutra. What sutra are you reading?”

At this the monk entered realization.’ (quoted in Shobogenzo Kankin)

How much of reality is reading in any one moment?

Baoci Zangxu

‘A monk asked, “I’ve heard the ancients had a saying, ‘When feelings arise, wisdom is blocked; when thoughts change, the substance is isolated.’ How about when feelings have not yet arisen?” The Master said, “Blocked.”’

So where did the monk go wrong? I would suggest he doesn’t need to trouble his mind about things that haven’t happened, because it will get in the way of meeting what is actually arising.


‘One day the old monk Baizhang, addressing his assembly, said, “Work the rice field for me, and I’ll instruct you in the fundamental principles of the great matter.”

After the monks had worked the rice field for the master, they said, “Now master, please instruct us  in the fundamental principles of the great matter.”

Baizhang spread open his arms.’ (Shinji Shobogenzo)

It won’t necessarily help your grasp of the fundamental principles, but Baizhang is well-known for his edicts on work.


‘A monk asked Fengxhue, “Speech and silence are concerned with equality and differentation. How can I transcend equality and differentiation?”

Fengxhue said, “I always think of Hunan in the spring; partridges chirp among the many fragrant flowers.”‘ (The Blue Cliff Record)

The monk is stuck; Fengxhue is not just reminiscing. Speech or silence, what do you have to say?


‘A monk asked, “How can one gain accordance with the Way?”

Master Mazu said, “I’ve never gained accordance with it.”

The monk asked,  “What is the essential meaning of Zen?”

Mazu struck him and said, “If I didn’t hit you, I’d be laughed at from every direction.”‘ (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

I mean Mazu has a point – the monk is almost pulling his leg asking a question like that – but even in those days, resorting to violence was getting pretty old. Perhaps the monk would have been better off spending some time contemplating Mazu’s first answer.


Longshan met Dongshan and Shenshan when they were traveling together. Seeing a vegetable leaf floating down a valley stream, Dongshan said, “There must be a Zen practitioner deep in this mountain.” They followed the stream up and met a hermit.

The hermit Longshan said, “There is no path in this mountain. How did you two get here?”

Dongshan said, “Let’s put aside the matter of no path. Venerable, from where did you enter?”

Longshan said, “I did not come following clouds or water.”

Dongshan said, “How long have you lived in this mountain?”

Longshan said, “I am not concerned about the passing of spring or autumn.”

Dongshan said, “Did you live here first, or did the mountain live here first?”

Longshan said, “I don’t know.”

Dongshan said, “How come you don’t know?”

Longshan said, ” I did not come here for humans or devas.”

Dongshan asked further, “Why have you been living in this mountain?”

Longshan said, “I saw two clay oxen struggling with each other until they fell into the ocean. Ever since then, all fluctuations have ceased.”‘ (Shinji Shobogenzo)

To borrow from another story (or perhaps another version of this story) a hermit who lets a vegetable leaf get away from him is not going to be good for much.


‘Zen master Jingxuan of Mount Dayang once asked Liangshan. “What is the formless seat of enlightenment?”

Liangshan pointed to a painting of Avalokitesvara and said, “That is a painting by Daoist practitioner Wu.”

Dayang was about to speak. Liangshan suddenly grabbed him and said, “This has form. What is it that has no form?”

At that moment Dayang had realization. He just stood there. Liangshan said, “Why don’t you speak a phrase?”

Dayang said, “It’s not that I am unwilling to say something. I just fear that it will end up as brush marks on paper.” Liangshan then approved him.’ (Shinji Shobogenzo)

I say, “A child of three could have done that.”


‘One day Kushan approached Xuefeng. The master knew Kushan was ready, so he suddenly got up, held him tight and said, “What is it?” Opening up, Kushan was completely enlightened – he even forgot his comprehending mind and just raised his hand and waved. Xuefeng said, “Will you express some principle?” Kushan said, “How could there be any principle?” (quoted in Swampland Flowers)

These kinds of techniques are not encouraged these days…

The Great Matter

‘The novice monk Dayi Daoxin asked “I entreat the master, with your compassion, to teach me the truth-gate that provides release and liberation.”
The master Jianzhi Sengcan said, “Who has bound you?”
The novice said, “Nobody bound me.”
The master said, “Then why are you seeking liberation?”
Daoxin, hearing these words, experienced a great awakening.’ (from The Record of Transmitting the Light)

I thought of this exchange when I was reading an article on ‘near-death experiences’ the other day. I have long been fascinated by the stories involved, as I imagine most of us are. These days, when I read people saying things like “How do you describe a state of timelessness, where there’s nothing progressing from one point to another, where it’s just all there, and you’re totally immersed in it?” or “I can’t put it into words. There’s no way to express this,” or “I’ve spoken to people who were policemen, or career military officers, who couldn’t go back to their jobs, couldn’t stand the idea of violence. The idea of hurting someone becomes abhorrent to them,” I think of how people try to describe the experience of enlightenment and how they live afterwards.

I would not claim to understand this, or be able to explain it, but it seems to me that such an experience – that is, a near-death experience or an enlightenment experience – is an unbinding of the mind. I think it is the case the our minds severely filter the amount of incoming sense information, and limit the amount of processing power it uses to make sense of what it does receive (because thinking does use up a lot of calories), so a filter bypass might look like the mind presenting what it is actually capable of, if all the barriers, including the many we add consciously or unconsciously ourselves, were suddenly unbound.

Shauzhou Zhangjing

Shauzhou Zhangjing said to the assembly, “If you take one step forward, you will be at odds with reality. If you take one step backward, you will lose touch with phenomena. If you remain immovable, you will be like an insentient being.”
A monk asked, “How can we not be like an insentient being?”
Shauzhou said, “Keep moving in your daily activities.”
The monk asked, “How can we not be at odds with reality and not lose touch with phenomena?”
Shauzhou said, “One step forward, one step backward.”
The monk bowed.
Shauzhou said, “In going beyond, one may understand it in this way. But I will not approve it.”
The monk said, “Master, please point directly for me.”
Shauzhou hit him and drove him out. (Shinji Shobogenzo)

The commentary points out, ‘A good sailor knows to trim the sails according to the wind.’ The wind is always moving, as Dogen reminds us in the Genjo Koan, so we should be as well. Keep moving in your daily activities. And don’t ask a second time.