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"TO CLARIFY OUR INSIGHT" - a provisional title of
an originally untitled teisho.
This text addresses some of the most fundamental and delicate religious
issues. Therefore, it should be read, quoted and analysed in a mindful
All copyrights to this document belong to John Tarrant, California
Diamond Sangha, Santa Rosa, Cal., USA
Enquiries: The Editor, "Mind Moon Circle", Sydney Zen Centre, 251 Young
St., Annandale, Sydney, NSW 2038, Australia. Tel: + 61 2 660 2993
John Tarrant Roshi
February 18, 1992
Center for Seven Generations
Some of us clarify our insight early and then have to work on adapting
ourselves; have to work on what to do after that. Then we have to
deepen our character.
Hui-Neng (Jap. Eno) was a great genius of zen. He was called the Sixth
Great Ancestor in our tradition, that's the Sixth in China. His father
had died and he was cutting wood to help support his mother and he
overheard somebody chanting in the street a snatch from the "Diamond
Sutra." Immediately he awakened. He had great ability and he became a
teacher, but then he realized that there were some things he did not
understand and he heard that there was a great teacher a couple of
thousand miles to the north. So he made arrangements so that his mother
would be well looked after and then he journeyed on foot to the north
and met with his teacher. He was just sent into the hut to pound rice-
-the lowest level of the monastery--and he was a layperson, too, which
made him even lower in those days.
Finally, he had an interview with the teacher and the teacher said, "Oh,
you're a barbarian from the south. Barbarians from the south don't
understand zen. (This is dear to my heart.) And he said, "Zen knows
nothing of north and south." His teacher said, "Oh good, you can go and
pound rice." And so he just worked away in the rice pounding hut.
Various things happened and through the course of this his teacher
recognized him. And so the teacher gave him a robe and an eating bowl
that had been handed down from Bodhidharma; that had come with
Bodhidharma from India. It represented the Buddhist transmission. He
gave it to him in the middle of the night and said, "People will be very
unhappy about a southern barbarian getting this. It might be good for
your health if you left immediately." Even so, a great general, who was
one of the students, chased him for many weeks and caught up with him
and tried to take the robe back, but that's another story of how Kway-
nung then worked with that general and the general became his student.
But then Kway-nung lived with hunters in the forest for twenty years
before he taught. So one of the things this emphasizes is that no
matter how brilliant you are, you can always do with a little character
work. He wasn't very eager to teach. He was very willing to learn and
interested in learning. He was also very willing to help the poor
people of his time. Living with the hunters. They were considered to
be pretty barbarous, you know, killing things for a living.
So other people say, "I have been working on my koan for twenty years
and I have got nowhere. I am a failure." But the people who look at
them think there whole life has changed and they have become wonderful
people and the only thing wrong with them is that they think they're
not. This is a different way. This is the way when the character work
comes first and the insight will come in its time. I do not know that
one is really superior to the other. I think in zen, in our tradition,
in our Rinzai lineage which overvalued insight a little. So sometimes
we've seen the spectacle of teachers and senior people who have poor
character. But it really helps to have insight, too, so I don't want to
value one against the other.
There is a funny koan about this matter; that is somewhat related to
this matter. This is called "Spiritual Uncle Mi and the Rabbit." This
is again from the Book of Serenity; it's the fifty-sixth story. The
Better to be sunk forever than to seek the liberation of the
And then it tells a couple of little stories.
Devadatta experienced the bliss of the third meditation heaven
while sunk in uninterrupted hell.
Even in hell.
Whereas Udraka Ramaputra
I'm not acquainted with that person.
Udraka Ramaputra fell from the heaven of the summit of existence
into the body of a flying wildcat. Tell me where is the gain and
where is the loss?
So Dongshan and his spiritual uncle, Uncle Mi he was called, were
walking along and they saw a white rabbit run by in front of them.
Uncle Mi said, "Swift!"
Dongshan said, "How so?"
So already this conversation is starting to tilt again.
Uncle Mi said, "It's like a commoner being made a prime minister."
Dongshan said, "Such a venerable person as you still talking like
Uncle Mi said, "What would you say?"
Dongshan said, "Here are generations of nobility temporarily fallen
There is a very interesting comment-- You take this up as a koan and
see how much they are appreciating this rabbit. The person who does the
commentary on this has a very interesting take on it.
In the teachings there are two gates, natural and cultivated; in
Dongshan's lineage this is called `using the accomplishment to
illustrate the state'. Usually we awaken by means of cultivation,
entering sagehood from ordinariness--a commoner is directly appointed a
prime minister. If you're first enlightened and then cultivate
afterwards, you enter ordinariness from sagehood. This is the
traditional nobility--originally honorable though now drifting destitute
in the myriad conditions, but the basic nobility it still there.
There are a couple of nice additional sayings to this case. When Uncle
Mi says, "It's like a commoner being made prime minister." The
additional saying is,
It is easy to ascend into the sky from the ground.
There is another saying,
To realize the road of emptiness may not be so difficult.
To express the bare substance is hard.
That's a koan called, "The Sound of the Raindrops."
Another additional saying is when Dongshan says, "Generations of
nobility, temporarily fallen into poverty." The additional saying is,
Descending from the sky is hard.
But that, too, must be done.
So, I think that in zen different schools have emphasized different
paths. Traditionally, the Lin-chi school, where our koan tradition
dates from, has always emphasized: go for the insight and the rest will
take care of itself. And to a certain extent that's true. Ts'ao-t'ung
School, Soto School, which is also one of our lineages, has emphasized:
live a life of faith and virtue, cultivating the fields, cultivating
your own character and the insight will take care of itself. And
sometimes that happens, too. But I say don't be attached to either one.
Sometimes one is right and another time the next is right.
I think it is safe to say that when you are blocked in some way then
that is character time. And honor being blocked. This is a wonderful
virtue. If you were not so stupid, you never would have discovered this
wisdom. So prize your stupidity. If I hadn't been so stupid, I would
have been a successful lawyer in my hometown as my parents wished, but I
was incapable of that. Alas! Alas! Alas!
On the other hand then, if the gate opens for you, when it does for
everyone, then just walk through it. Some people when the gate opens,
they spend a lot of time saying, "Oh my god the gate's open." And then
they trip over and fall on their faces. I did this--I felt like I did
this three or four times myself. I could feel, "Oh, this experience is
coming." Damn, it wasn't coming anymore. I got too excited. But then
you go forward. But don't cling to that, too. You'll find that when you
cling to that, the world will change and you will not change and then
you'll be out of harmony with the world and you'll get tossed down into
the body of a rabbit as they put it here. This is particularly so as
you get further on in your zen practice. `The descent from the sky is
difficult,' as they say. Do not try to hold on to the wonderful states;
do not try to hold on to your treasure. If you do not hold onto it,
you'll then discover that it is inexhaustible and it comes up in the
most implausible of times when you are completely a mess. The treasure
will be right there in your life. If you are holding onto it, I'm
afraid all we can say is that you're holding onto it. That's what
Hakuin's teacher used to call him a demon watching over a corpse in a
cave. And you know that kind of meditation where you're doing it really
well, and it's really intent, you're very focussed and, "Ah, the
samadhi's getting better and I'm really peaceful now and I can see how
vivid things are." Just a little bit more--if I watch that corpse a
little longer, something will happen.
Hakuin's teacher said--Hakuin's teacher was considered a little
difficult, but he had a student who was a friend of Hakuin and was
impressed by Hakuin and who said to Hakuin, "Come along. It's hard to
find a good teacher." So he said, "Come along and meet my teacher," and
finally persuaded Hakuin. Then he had to persuade the teacher to meet
Hakuin. Finally he did that, too, so he got these two difficult people
Hakuin came along and he had written out a great enlightenment
experience. He thought greater than anyone had had since Shakyamuni
Buddha and so he had written it out because he thought it was so
important. And so he came along with this wonderful experience and
presented it to the teacher and the teacher went "kkkkkt" (scrunching
motion) scrunched it up and threw it down and said, "Show me; tell me."
And Hakuin said, "There's nowhere to take hold of it." This is the
commoner suddenly becoming prime minister. The whole world it vast,
filling the universe. And the teacher grabbed his nose and twisted it
hard and said, "I find it quite easy to take hold of it," and threw him
down the steps. Hakuin was very angry and went away muttering to
himself, but finally decided the teacher may have something and he came
back and meditated with him for a long time. And Hakuin said, "Finally
I realized what the teacher was saying." And finally he was willing to
come down from the mountain; to descend from the sky; to wear clothes
and eat soup and find the sacredness right there. And he said, "I told
the Master that I had many experiences. He just nodded and smiled. He
never did give me transmission, but he stopped calling me an evil demon
watching over a corpse." That was the extent of Hakuin's confirmation
by his teacher.
So you can see that all the ways that we describe; all the great koans
were the opening for somebody else and they can be the opening for you,
but then it will be a unique and different koan when it is the opening
for you. It will be your koan.
A student started quoting this wonderful poem, "the brilliance of the
truth illuminates the whole universe." His teacher, I think it was Yun-
men (Jap. Unmon) interrupted him and said, "Aren't those the words of
someone else?" And the student said, "Yes, they are." So the teacher
said, "Wrong!" and left. So you see when it comes to the koan, "Isn't
that Mumon's koan?" "No, it's mine!" Who's Mumon? "No, they're my
words; they're not the ancient poet's."
With this rabbit--this white rabbit--a very interesting person. Uncle Mi
says, "Swift!" It's like saying, "Oh, the rain is here." That empty,
idiotic state--just this. Just toc, toc, toc on the roof. How
beautiful. We sit here in eternal time while the rain rains through us.
While we rain all around on the fields. But Dongshan couldn't leave
well enough alone and said, "How come? What do you mean?" And so then
Uncle Mi said, "It's like a commoner being made prime minister." He
sees the virtue in that rabbit. The virtue in the zen student sweating
in the zendo, wondering if they can get away with moving or not because
the Tanto will yell at them if they move. Thinking, "My god, hit the
bell." Whatever, or just musing, dreaming along here, very close to the
koan, working with the koan, having the koan working inside you. So
that the koan walks around. So that's like the commoner being made
prime minister. Suddenly the koan is walking around.
Dongshan, of course, values his uncle a lot so he says, "A venerable old
person like you still talks nonsense." And Uncle Mi says, "Oh, what
about you?" And Dongshan says, "Generations of nobility temporarily
fallen into poverty." The bare substance of the raindrops. Just the
raindrops. There is no emptiness, no fullness. There is no one even
listening. There is just the great rain from the beginning of time.
And each moment is always like this. How could it be any different.
And so then you get a certain amount of play happening. I'll give you
two examples. The first case in the Book of Serenity:
One day the World Honored One, which is Shakyamuni Buddha, ascended
to the seat. Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom, struck the
gavel and said, "Clearly observe the Dharma of the King of Dharma;
the Dharma of the King of Dharma is thus."
He went, bang (striking sound). Just like the rain.
And so the World Honored One then got down from his seat and left.
His teisho had already been given. I thought of not coming and saying,
"Well, the rain said it for me."
Here's another one.
The World Honored One was walking with the community and pointed to
the ground with his finger and said, "This would be a good place to
build a temple."
Indra, the emperor of the gods,
He had good students, I guess.
took a blade of grass, stuck it in the ground and said, "The temple
The World Honored One smiled.
There is a saying: "Sometimes you use the 16 foot golden body of the
Buddha as a blade of grass; sometimes you use the blade of grass as the
16 foot golden body of the Buddha."
So this is like the rabbit that is truly noble.
And then there is something else. I have spoken about Day-shan's (sp?)
action in his later life when he would just teach just by what he was
doing. Somebody would say, "The meal isn't ready. What are you doing
here?" And he wouldn't say anything. He'd just turn around and go back
to his quarters. It didn't matter if the meal was late or early or
whatever. He would just flow with circumstances like that. This
doesn't mean he was always agreeable. He was not considered an
agreeable person, but he would flow with the Tao.
Bodhidharma, when he came from India, had an interview with Emperor Wu
of Liang, which was at that time a large northern kingdom in China.
Bodhidharma was interested in the emperor apparently, interested enough
to have an interview with him. The emperor was interested in the dharma
and he said,
I have endowed many monasteries. What virtue, what merit have I
He was interested in his status in the other world.
Bodhidharma said, "Oh, no merit."
He could have said, "Fortunately no merit."
The emperor said, "What is the highest meaning of the holy
Bodhidharma said, "Vast emptiness, nothing holy."
So that is like your rabbit. A commoner suddenly being appointed prime
Then the emperor getting more and more both curious and puzzled
said, "Who is this before me?"
And Bodhidharma said, "I do not know."
And the emperor didn't understand. So Bodhidharma subsequently
crossed the Yangtse River and came to Shaolin and sat facing a wall
for nine years.
Afterwards the emperor wrote a poem, the emperor spoke to his adviser
who said, "Do you know who that was, your majesty?" The emperor said,
"No, I do not know him." The adviser said, "That was the Bodhisattva
Avalokiteshvara bearing the mind seal of the Buddha." Think about that
the next time you run across a crazy person in the street. The emperor
said, "Oh, well let's send after him. His attendant said, "It's too
late. You can send the whole kingdom after him and he won't return."
And so the emperor wrote an epitaph:
I saw him without seeing,
I met him without meeting him--
Now as of old
I regret this.
And the comment here is rather touching.
Even though His Majesty was just an ordinary man, he presumed to
consider Bodhidharma his teacher in retrospect.
So even the emperor had some ability to turn around.
But Bodhidharma's not knowing, I think, is that deep not knowing. The
emperor's not knowing is a different kind of not knowing. When his
attendant says, "Do you know who that was?" He says, "I don't know."
He just doesn't know. Bodhidharma's not knowing is that closeness and
intimacy with the great mystery and the great emptiness underlying
things. What about this rain? Why does it rain when we do sesshin? I
don't know. Why do we do zazen? I've never been able to answer that
question satisfactorily. What is it about life that is so lovely and so
compelling? Why is that we know, somehow, that it is deeply important?
What we do counts. And to work on--to have a good character and to gain
understanding is a great thing. Why is this? I do not know. Like the
flowers coming up in spring. There is something utterly profound and
beautiful about them without any reason. It is beyond anything that our
understanding can grasp. So that is called true understanding. Yamada
Roshi used to call it blindness. Fortunately, he is blind.
D. T. Suzuki, perhaps we should say in spite of being a great scholar,
was also a legitimate zen master in the Rinzai line, and was considered
highly in zen circles. His complimentary name that his teacher had
given him was Daisetz, which means Great Donkey. I always appreciate
that. Lin-chi's transmission statement to his great student San-sheng
went like this:
Lin-chi was dying and San-sheng was just sitting there by the
bedside keeping him company.
A good thing to do when somebody's dying.
And Lin-chi said, "After I'm gone please protect the essence of my
And San-sheng said, "Who would dare to do anything different?"
Again, as always with Lin-chi and his line, the air starts to thicken
around the conversation.
So Lin-chi says, "Okay."
Lin-chi is not one to spare you when he's dying.
He says, "Okay, what will you say if somebody asks you about this
matter; about my essence of true dharma?"
And San-sheng went, "Ho!!!!" (Very loud.)
And Lin-chi said, "Who would have thought that the essence of my
true dharma would be destroyed by this blind donkey?"
Many people didn't understand. Later they doubted whether San-sheng
really had approval from Lin-chi, but that was Lin-chi's great praise.
San-sheng knowing what Bodhidharma meant when he said, "I do not know."
So that when the world is dazzlingly clear, you just sit there in that
dazzling clarity. And then you do not know either because there is no
one there to know. Then again, the world is not dazzlingly clear and
that is very clear to you. And then you are there and there is no one
to know still. Still there is not knowing. And this not knowing goes
on and on from before time until after we are gone. It is the most
precious thing and the heart of it is the great love of the way.
From now on in sesshin, in your meditation, use any means you can to go
deeper. Just really throw away all the things you have been holding on
to. If you can't throw them away, then carry them with you. Go deeper,
go deeper. And have that spirit of devotion and enjoyment of the way.
It doesn't need to be grim at this stage in sesshin. Grimness and non-
grimness are far in the past. Just yes; just this rain.
end of record