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"YUNMEN'S BRIGHT LIGHT".
[this text was first published in the MIND MOON CIRCLE, Summer 1991 pp
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 Ross Bolleter Sensei, Zen
Center of Western Australia, Perth, WA, Australia
Enquiries: The Editor, "Mind Moon Circle", Sydney Zen Centre, 251 Young
St., Annandale, Sydney, NSW 2038, Australia. Tel: + 61 2 660 2993
YUNMEN'S BRIGHT LIGHT
ROSS BOLLETER, Sensei
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
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 lantern." (4)
A monk asked, "What is the roar of the earthen ox on top of the snow
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
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 condition:
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 vigilance.
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
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
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
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 them:
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
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
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
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,
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
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