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[Last updated: 27 November 1993]
"YANG-SHAN'S MIND AND ENVIRONMENT".
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
YANG-SHAN'S MIND AND ENVIRONMENT
JOHN TARRANT, ROSHI
This is a koan from the Book of Equanimity. Yang-shan asks a student,
"What is your native place?" And the student says, "I come from Yu
Province." Yang-shan says, "Do you consider the inside of it?" And the
student answers, "I always do." Yang-shan: "That which thinks is
consciousness, that which is thought about is the environment. Within it
there are mountains, rivers and the great earth, towers, palaces,
people, animals and other things. But reflect upon the mind that
thinks. Are there are lots of things there?" The student: "I don't see
anything at all there." Yang-shan: "That's correct, as far as the
degree of belief is concerned but as for the degree of being human, it
is not enough." The student: "Your Reverence, do you have some special
advice?" Yang-shan: "It's not good enough as long as you say there is
nothing in particular. From now on meditate on sitting down and wearing
clothes." There's a poem that goes with this case.
All embracing with no outside,
penetrating without being obstructed,
gates and walls like cliffs, doors and locks.
When the wine is always sweet, it lays out the guests.
Though the meal is filling, it ruins the farmers.
Bursting out of the clear sky,
the garuda takes wing on the wind,
treading over the blue sea.
Thunder follows the roaming dragon.
My experience during my own training was that around the middle of
sesshin, I would begin to have some understanding of the old koans,
which would always leave me after sesshin. And on those grounds, I'd
like to look at this koan in some detail to give you some sense of where
we come from in the Dharma, and also of the high seriousness with which
the old teachers regarded the quest into reality.
Yang-shan was with his teacher Keui-shan, the co-founder of the Kuei-
yang School of Zen, (Jap: Igyo), the School of Equals. He lived in the
ninth century during the flowering of the Tang Dynasty. He was
something of a character and there were many legends about him.
One day a magician came and visited him from India. The Magician said,
"Hi." And Yang-shan said, "Where have you come from?" The Magician
said: "India." Yang-shan: "Well, when did you leave?" The Magician:
"Oh, this morning." Yang-shan: "What took you so long?" The Magician:
"Oh, I went sightseeing on the way, dropped by Tibet, things like that."
Yang-shan: "You are a great magician but you have no sense of the Dharma
at all. You do not know who you are." And the magician flew back to
India and told his followers. "I went to China to look up Manjusri but
met Little Shakyamuni instead". That was his nickname, because he had no
one way of teaching people, unlike some of the other old teachers. One
old teacher, for example, whenever he was asked a question, would turn
and sit facing the wall. No matter what you asked, "What is the subtle
essence of Buddhism?" he would turn and sit facing the wall. "What's
for lunch?" He would turn and face the wall - a very simple and powerful
technique. But Yang-shan always adapted himself.
There are a number of stories of him involved with occult powers
although he valued them very little. One man came and had a long Dharma
dialogue with him. Yang-shan was the holder of a lineage that has died
out, in which there were ninety-seven symbols that were used for
different domains of Zen, different domains of realisation. For
example, a circle was used, and this was a dance form of dialogue, a
dramatic powerful dance form, and we only have a few of these symbols
remaining in some old koans. So this pilgrim of the Way came and had a
whole dance with Yang-shan. He walked into the meditation hall and
asked him, "Do you know how to read and write?" And Yang-shan said, "As
my profession requires." The student then drew a circle in the air and
said, "What character is that?" Yang-shan drew a cross on the ground,
and the dialogue went on. The student circled, ran around him and
said, "Well, what character is that?" Yang-shan turned, added a little
cornice on the cross and turned it into the Buddhist symbol of good
fortune. The student held up the moon with his hands, like a guardian
deity, and said, "What character is that?" Then Yang-shan drew a circle
around his symbol and the student posed like deity with his fist and a
fierce scowl and Yang-shan just said, "Good, look after it." And then,
so the story goes, the student walked outside the gates of the temple,
and stepped up into the air and disappeared. And one of Yang-shan's
students came to him and said, "You know, this person actually stepped
up into the air. I am familiar with states of meditation but I do not
know this one." Yang-shan said, "I'll explain it to you in terms of
meaning. This is eightfold concentration. The ocean of awareness turns
into the ocean of meanings. The essence is the same but in the meanings
there is cause, effect, simultaneity and difference in time, totality
and distinction. This is none other than the body concealment
concentration." What he means is, it's good to contemplate on sitting
down and wearing clothes.
So Yang-shan was a remarkable person. In this particular case, the
student arrives and he asks him,. "Well, where do you come from?" which
is a standard opening. And the student replies, "From Yu Province", and
Yang-shan immediately and swiftly moves in on the student and says, "Do
you think about the inside of it?" Suddenly the dialogue gets wierd.
It's as if you walked in and talked to a cat and then suddenly realised
it was a very very large cat with stripes. But the student is quite
quick and comes back saying, "I always do." The comment here by one of
the old teachers is, "A familiar place is hard to forget." But then
Yang-shan launches into a wonderful offering, a pure gift for the
student. He sees really that the student can't quite meet him, but he
handles it with grace and power and eloquence. "Within it there are
mountains, rivers and the great earth, towers, palaces, people, animals
and other things."
In other words, the great display that is always going on, the great
event of our lives, going on and on, inside and out. So Yang-shan says,
"That is the environment, yes. But reflect upon the mind that thinks,
the consciousness that is aware. Are there a lot of things there?"
This is like when the second Great Ancestor, Hui-Ke, comes to
Bodhidharma and says, "My mind is not at rest, I beg you, please put it
to rest." And Bodhidharma says, "Bring me your mind and I will put it
to rest." And so Hui-Ke goes away for a few years and he comes back and
says, "I've searched for my mind and I cannot find it." And Bodhidharma
says, "There! I have put it to rest." And Hui-Ke becomes enlightened.
So Yang-shan's student says, "No, there are not a lot of things there.
I can't see. I don't see anything at all there - nothing, nothing,
nothing." This is a very common perspective in meditation. When you
really look very deeply it is hard to find something.
People say many things in this state. Hakuin described it as a sheet of
ice stretching for a thousand miles, or as the iron cliffs and silver
mountains, something very pure and strong and featureless. After his
enlightenment experience Hakuin, carefully wrote it out in his good
calligraphy and brought it along and handed it to the teacher, who was a
difficult person who didn't really like to see students much, but was
persuaded by a fellow-student to give Hakuin an interview. So Hakuin
handed over his writing, saying, "Well, here is my enlightenment
experience." And the teacher crumpled up the piece of paper and dropped
it and said, "Why don't you speak?" Hakuin said, "There is nothing to
take hold of." So Hakuin had the same kind of point of view as Yang-
shan's student. "When I look, there is nothing there."
In Hakuin's case, his teacher handled it a little differently from Yang-
shan, because he took hold of Hakuin's nose and said, "I find it easy to
take hold of it," and twisted it, and threw him down the steps. Hakuin
was most insulted and went away in high dudgeon, but later on he came to
revere that teacher, after he finally understood what the teacher meant,
and he returned and told him. Hakuin reports, "He did not really say
anything much, he smiled a little. But he stopped calling me the demon
who dwells in a hole." A hard teacher to please.
So. "I don't see anything at all there," said the student to Yang-shan,
who replied, "That is correct so far as the degree of belief is
concerned." That will get you to where the scriptures will take you but
that is not the experience of being human, the true deep experience of
humanity. Yang-shan is saying that the degree of belief is all in the
sutras and you can read about it, you can understand it and you can even
have some quite nice deep experiences about it but it is not enough to
bring you back out into the world. This is what Hakuin's teacher meant
by "a demon dwelling in a hole". It is sometimes called a corpse living
in a coffin. The vampire Zen. We must go beyond this sense of the
emptiness of things.
It's not the same thing as tasting the tea for yourself. How do you
explain a kiss to someone who has never kissed or been kissed? This
experience of "I don't see anything at all" is the entry into the great
world, but if we stop there, it's like setting up camp in the vestibule
or on the porch outside the great mansion and all the time thinking we
are living in the palace. It is not quite good enough to just value the
emptiness and the transitoriness and the shadowy insubstantial eternal
quality of things. That is not enough. Yang-shan obviously sees the
degree of being human as a higher thing, which is very interesting. He
says, in effect, anybody can be a saint but who can be human? Anybody
call dwell in eternity but you must come here and live with the rest of
us to become truly someone who upholds the Way.
There are many koans like this. One old hermit thumped his staff before
the assembly and said, "When the ancient ones reached this place, why
didn't they stay there?" It was one of those staffs with rings on it,
so it jingled. No one could answer. So he answered himself. "It has
no power for the Way." When you are in the great peace of meditation,
the great peace is not quite enough. Even the awareness of the eternity
of meditation from the beginning of time is a kind of great thought. If
you are there, it has been likened to sitting on top of a very tall pole
and you must take the step off the pole. In this dialogue, the student
then says something which I think is good. He was blocked and stopped.
He met the shock of the Dharma, where the ideas we have been familiar
with are no longer quite real but nothing has filled their place and so
there is that sense of being turned inside out. I've known people to
throw up at this time; one friend of mine actually spent five days
flopping in and out of the meditation hall throwing up, and everybody
had to take care of her. She was living in a room with about five other
women, in a dormitory, and from about Day One she totally lost time and
people had to get her up and lead her by the hand into the meditation
hall, show her the cushion, and she would just sit through and then she
would flop around and fall off and people would have to carry her out
and put her to bed and feed her and everything. And after about five
days she came out of this and I asked her, "Well, what happened?" And
she said, "I was sitting in the dokusan line and I noticed that the wall
exactly met the floor. And it made me so happy." Then she could answer
all the koan questions and was laughing for the rest of the sesshin.
Everything was turned upside down.
Yang-shan's student, in this state of shock, asked, "Do you have any
special advice for me?" And Yang-shan replied, "To say that there is
nothing special is not it. It's not enough to say there is nothing
special. It does not hit the mark. From now on, meditate on sitting
down and wearing clothes." So Yang-shan asks us to look into our own
lives and find the truth here, in the sitting down and wearing clothes.
This is not the magic of people stepping into the air and disappearing.
This is a greater magic still.
Yang-shan and his teacher had an unusual relationship, they were very
close and there's a special sort of warmth of feeling about their
connection. Many teachers would push their students very hard but both
Keui-shan and Yang-shan would make a hole for the students to fall into,
I think. And there are many interactions that end with them agreeing
with each other, whereas even on his death bed, Lin-chi called his great
successor a blind donkey. "Who would believe my true Dharma would be
inherited by this blind donkey?" he said, and staggered up and hit him
for the last time. And that was how his student got succession, that
was his praise, encouraging him to keep alive, keep moving.
One day, Keui-shan and Yang-shan were sitting around having tea and
Keui-shan said, "Suppose somebody asks you, "How about one who says that
all sentient beings are in a disorderly karmic consciousness and have no
base to rely on?" - what would you say?" Yang-shan replied, "Well, if
somebody appears, I call to him, and when he turns his head, instantly I
say, "what is that?" I wait while he hesitates, and then I say to him,
"There is not only disorderly karmic consciousness but there is no base
to rely on." And Keui-shan said, "Oh, good." Both are very learned and
sharp and quick in the mind, but there is also this friendly attentive
quality of the relationship between these two, where the teacher just
approves and says, "Oh, good." There is a sense of play. I think it's
good to remember that even the greatest ones worry about the small
particulars of transmitting the Way from long ago.
I think the companionship of the Way is part of the deep matrix of Zen.
It's a precious thing to sit with each other and a great help in the
Tao. Over and over again we are taught by our peers and we are held in
our zazen by each other. When you are sitting with devoted attention,
you do not just do your own zazen, but in a sense you hold the whole
meditation hall and everyone around you is a litle changed. There are
great field effects, I think, in human life and when we do zazen we
become a little more aware of them. Whenever you sit, you sit with
everyone else who has ever sat. and just because you are sitting facing
a wall does not mean you are not being companionable. The deeper your
zazen, the more intimate and companionable the connection becomes. This
kind of connection we have in ordinary life at extreme times when it is
common to be able to feel and touch the mind. Through zazen we can
realise how natural this deep connection to each other is, not only a
matter of getting our attention in extreme conditions, but something
every day, just sitting down and wearing clothes, that we are always in
communion. So I think one of the deep bases of Zen is this kind of
love, both of the Way and of each other doing the Way, all struggling
and doing our best, sometimes even doing our worst and still it is a
matter of the love of the Way.
An image comes to mind, perhaps it is a Hokusai woodblock, of all these
blind people staggering across a bridge together, holding hands, and the
one in front is reaching out with a stick - the teacher obviously - and
everyone else is holding on. And it's very beautiful, very pure. There
is the great life, right there, and as long as we keep holding hands, we
will get there.
After sitting alone for a long time, when I first went to a training
centre and became part of a group, I had reservations about it. It had
never occurred to me that it was a good thing to do, or that it would
help me. But when I discovered that it would help me to become part of
a group and sit with others, then I was taken in by an older student who
didn't pretend he knew a lot more than me, although he actually did know
more, but he encouraged me, gave me a sense of the reality of the Way
and that what I was doing was worthwhile. And that somehow deepened my
zazen, the fact that he took his own zazen so seriously and encouraged
me to do it, "Even", as he said, "if you don't do it in this lifetime,
next lifetime will be okay". We used to sit up together nights in
sesshin. I remember the first time he was Jikijitsu, he came and
apologised for not sitting up with me because the strain of being Jiki
made his knees hurt so much he had to go to bed. But he hoped I would
sit up anyway. We are still close friends.
This kind of relationship is very important, the true teaching in which
we hold each other in zazen. We are not doing it for ourselves alone,
we are doing it for all beings, and I think this is consoling, that this
sincere effort is never wasted. This is not truly a solitary path,
although each of us takes his or her own individual responsibility. The
effects of your coming back to zazen, of finding the zazen rising
automatically, are felt by everyone. And the paradox is that the deeper
you do your own zazen, and the less you worry about other peoples'
zazen, the deeper you care for other people and the better care you take
of other people and the more natural it is. The compassion is this
natural movement that is not different from zazen and does not take you
out of your zazen.
Hsueh-feng, (Seppo) another character in Zen, was enlightened by a
fellow student younger than he, called Yen-tou (Ganto). In a famous
story, they were snowed in together in a village called Tortoise
Mountain. Hsueh-feng was sitting very hard, meditating, trying to get
enlightened. And his friend Yen-tou saw this and had compassion for him
but nevertheless slept for a few days, until the time was right. Then
he opened his eyes and challenged his friend. I think this is very
important. He didn't do anything immediately. He just sat there and
waited. And sometimes it is good to wait, you know. Sometimes it is not
possible to teach somebody and the time must be right, and it is really
important to have the sense that waiting can be a very good thing, a
very fertile thing.
We are waiting for the seasons to change. We are waiting for our time
to come around, or that opening to appear in the Tao where we can walk
through and touch somebody. Whereas if we had moved before, everything
would have been wrong - no point, no effect. Sometimes the right thing
to do is to wait. In the hexagram in the I-Ching about waiting, it says
you should enjoy yourself with this kind of waiting, you should eat and
drink and be of good cheer. We do not need to be dour about waiting
because we are in tune with the seasons. It is the right time to wait.
So Yen-tou spent a few days sleeping and waiting and then he woke up and
said, "What are you doing, sitting there like a wooden Buddha by the
roadside?" and his friend said, "My heart is not at rest, that is why I
sit so hard." And Yen-tou then sensed he was ready, and leaned on him a
little, questioning him about his experiences. Hsueh-feng, who was
already fairly old in the Dharma and had been sitting for thirty odd
years said, "Well, you know I've had various experiences, it was like
the bottom dropped out of the bucket one time when I met Tung-shan, and
then later when I met Te-shan...." and Yen-tou interrupted by yelling at
the top of his voice, "Don't you know that the family treasure does not
come in through the gate, it comes out of your own breast and covers
heaven and earth!" And Hsueh-feng became enlightened. And as he jumped
up and down he said, "At this moment, the village of Tortoise Mountain
has become enlightened." This moment, the whole of Gorricks Run and all
the valley down to Wisemans Ferry became enlightened. So he knew his
whole connection, the whole connection, the whole of NSW, the whole of
Australia, and it became enlightened way back in time, back to
Gwandanaland, and ahead, far ahead, till the earth falls into the sun.
The enlightenment extends in all directions of space and time.
There was a samurai monk, who had a predilection for sitting in the
mountains. He loved the solitude and introversion and really wanted to
go into the silence, but he had to come and down and be a samurai in the
bustle of the city. He said, "I really longed to be a hermit up in the
mountains, a solitary person of the Way, and if I had done that, I would
have been what is called a good man of the Way. And I would never have
realised how many faults I have. Now I am an ordinary person of the
world and I am very aware of my faults." This is the degree of being
human. It is wonderful to discover our faults - yes! that is something
we can work with. It is the faults we do not know about that are the
problem for our friends. I think that when we have discovered the flaws
and have somehow accepted that we have them and are no longer trying to
hide them so hard, but are willing to work on them and let them out from
under the bed, other people find it easier to be with them too. It is
when we are ashamed of them, and they come out in meaner forms and are
hard to deal with.
So, here we are sitting together with the birds and the trees and each
We must find out the way in which we are one with the birds and the
trees and then we will laugh with Yang-shan about sitting down and
wearing clothes. When everything is peaceful and deep, it is easy to
become serene and find the serenity a kind of mild and amiable prison.
But when we wake up the love of the Way, wake up that fellowship of the
Way, we walk together and do not just rely on the samadhi, because when
samadhi falls away, so does the peace and equanimity. So within the
peace find that unity with the koan, with all the old teachers, find the
equanimity even when the zazen falls apart, find the equanimity with
that. And then, in some deep way, the equanimity will always be there,
rain or shine.
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