Monthly Archives: February 2012

Feb. 27 – Mar. 4

The person we counted on who didn’t come through, the job we failed to get, the physical ailment that worries us: instead of going round and round in our thoughts, worrying about the problem, if we reestablish the foundation of our lives in immediate experience, we will see how to act appropriately. . . . It sounds crazy to say that when we have a problem we should listen to the traffic. But if we truly listen, our other senses come to life also. We feel the contraction in our body, too. When we do that, something shifts, and how to respond becomes clearer.

– Joko Beck

This Week’s Koan

Blue Cliff Record, #100: Baling and the Sharpest Sword

A monk asked Baling, “What is the sword against which a hair is blown?”

Baling said, “The moon sits on each branch of the coral.”


Baling (“Haryo” in Japanese), b. 895?
14th Generation
Lineage: Shitou > Tianhuang > Longtan > Deshan > Xuefeng > Yunmen > Baling
Dharma Siblings: Deshan Yuanming, Xianglin, Dongshan Shouchu
Dharma Descendants: None of note
Appears also in: BCR #13

“Sword against which a hair is blown.” Also translated as, “the sharpest sword.” The idea is that the sword is so sharp that it would cut a hair blown against it by a gentle breeze.

“The moon sits on each branch of the the coral.” Also translated as, “Each branch of the coral embraces the bright moon.”

The sword represents Zen wisdom that cuts through all delusion and anxiety. The moonlight is essential nature, and the branches of coral are the relative world of multifarious objects. “The moon sits on the each branch of the coral,” means that essential nature, the absolute, shines through each ordinary, relative thing.

Imagine yourself standing by the water’s edge as twilight darkens into night. Beneath the gently rippling surface, branches of coral are visible. The ripples create reflections of the moon on each of the hundreds of branches of choral. What a beautiful image! If you were standing there, taking in this image, you wouldn’t be thinking about why the boss is mad at you (or why you’re mad at the boss), or how you’re going to get your kids to clean up their room. You’d be simply present to that beautiful moment. And that presence is the sharpest sword. Coming back to the present moment cuts through all afflictions.

John Tarrant:

Each twig of coral, each creature on earth or sea has its portion of the moonlight, and is sacred. Each moment of our lives, too, has its portion of the moonlight, a luminescence we obscure through our bustle and grasping but which we can reveal through spiritual practices. We may say too that each religion and each spiritual road has its shaft of moonlight. (Foreword to James Ford, This Very Moment, 1996)

Xuedou’s Verse,

To cut off discontent,
Rough methods may be best:
Now they slap, now they point.
The sword lies across the sky,
Snow glistens in its light,
no one can forge or sharpen it.
“The moon sits on each branch of the coral” —

This Week’s Reading

Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special, “Coming to Our Senses,” p. 158.

Feb. 20 – 26

To be simply what we are is the last thing we want to do….Master [Linji] said, “Do not spend even one thought in chasing after buddhahood.” That means to be ourselves as we are, in each moment, moment by moment. It’s all we ever need to to do.

– Joko Beck

This Week’s Koan

Blue Cliff Record, #13: Baling’s “Snow in the Silver Bowl”

A monk asked Baling, “What is the school of Kanadeva?”

Baling said, “Snow in a silver bowl.”


Baling (“Haryo” in Japanese), b. 895?
14th Generation
Lineage: Shitou > Daowu > Longtan > Deshan > Xuefeng > Yunmen > Baling
Dharma Siblings: Deshan Yuanming, Xianglin, Dongshan Shouchu
Dharma Descendants: None of note
Appears also in: BCR #100

Kanadeva (“Kanadaiba” or just “Daiba” in Japanese) was, according to legend, an Indian Buddhist master about 13 generations before Bodhidharma — i.e., around the year 200 BCE. Kanadeva was a student and disciple of another great Ancient Indian Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna. Kanadeva is said to have brought Buddhist philosophy to completion. Zen teaches that true nature cannot be understood by logic, can’t be explained in words, can’t be grasped by reason. Philosophical concepts cannot express but only obscure the true nature of things. So what about this Kanadeva fellow? He was strong in philosophical argument and adept at constructing — and deconstructing — elaborate conceptual schemas. What, if any, is the place of such debating skills on the Zen path?

Baling — placed about as many generations after Bodhidharma as Kanadeva was before — answers, “snow in a silver bowl.” If Buddhism is a silver bowl, the snow represents philosophical sophistication about Buddhism. Yes, the bowl will hold it. And, yes, it is rather pretty. It’s also quite cold.

Xuedou’s verse:

Remarkable, the old man of Shinkai Temple;
It was well said, that “Snow in the silver bowl.”
The ninety-six can learn for themselves what it means;
If they cannot, let them ask the moon in the sky.
The school of Kanadeva, Kanadeva’s school —
Scarlett banners flapping, the wind is cool!

This Week’s Reading

Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special, “The Paradox of Awareness,” p. 149.

Feb. 13 – 19

When events occur that we don’t like, we create pseudo problems and ge caught in them:
‘You insulted me! Of course, I’m angry!’
‘I’m so lonely. Nobody really cares about me.’
‘I’ve had a hard life. I’ve been abused.’
Our journey isn’t finished until we see there is no problem. How could there be a problem? My ‘problem’ is that I don’t like it. So out of my opinions, reactions, and judgments I build a castle in which I imprison myself. We remain imprisoned because we don’t recognize the castle or how to win our freedom. People are imprisoned in many different ways. For example, one castle can be the constant pursuit of an exciting and vibrant life, full of new things and enjoyment. People who live in this way are stimulating but hard to be around. What is your castle? What is your pseudoproblem? The answer is different from each person. If we begin to see that the current problem that upsets us is not the real issue in our lives, but merely a symptom of a deeper pattern, then we’re beginning to find our way out.

– Joko Beck

This Week’s Koan

Blue Cliff Record, #17: Xianglin’s “Sitting for a Long Time”

A monk asked Xianglin, “What is the meaning of the Patriarch’s coming from the West?”

Xianglin said, “I am tired from sitting for a long time.”


Xianglin (“Kyorin” in Japanese), b. 908
14th Generation
Lineage: Shitou > Daowu > Longtan > Deshan > Xuefeng > Yunmen > Xianglin
Dharma Siblings: Deshan Yuanming, Baling, Dongshan Shouchu
Dharma Descendants: Zhimen ->Xuedou

The question is a common one in Zen lore: Why did  Bodhidharma (the Patriarch) come from the West? Bodhidharma is the figure credited with founding Zen in China. He was born in India, and came west (and north) to China, sat in a cave for 9 years and then began teaching students in the tradition known in China as “Chan” and in Japan as “Zen.”  To ask for the meaning of Bodhidharma coming to China is to ask for the meaning of Zen practice. The monk is asking, What is this practice all about? Why do we do it?

Xianglin’s answer suggests that we do it in order to sit for a long time and become tired. Or: We do it in order to arrive where we are — which, at that moment, for Xianglin, was a state of being tired from long sitting.

Sekida notes: “When sitting, you are sitting; when you get tired, you get tired. There is no irritation, no regret: you are as you are, all of a piece.”

Barry Magid commented on this koan:

“All of us come to practice with basic questions we’re trying to answer. Perhpas we want to know how we should live our life; perhaps we are trying to understand hyow to deal with suffering or loss or problems in our relationships. . . . The monk is still looking for an answer beyond his own simple everyday experience of this moment. . . . In our daily practice, we must discover and express for ourselves the fundamental truth that this mind, this body, this moment is all that we have, is all that there is. We come to practice believing that our minds as they are, our bodies as they are, are the problem. . . . But practice will never teach us to exchange this mind for another one or to substitute this body for someone else’s. Nor are we here to train our body and mind, to turn them into new, improved versions of what we already have. . . . Listen to Xianglin: this tired old body is not the problem; it’s the answer.”

Xuedou’s verse:

One, two, and tens of hundreds of thousands,
Take off the muzzle and set down the load.
If you turn left and right, following another’s lead,
I would strike you as Zihu struck Liu Tiemo.  

Liu Teimo [“Ryutetsuma” in Japanese], born ca. 800, a.k.a. “Iron Grinder Liu” is one of the few women who is mentioned in Chan literature as a Zen adept. As Chinese monasteries were off limits for women, she lived at the base of Mt. Guishan, and had interactions with Chan monks and students as they traveled in and out of Guishan’s monastery. She got her nickname of “Iron Grinder” from the fact that she used to grind the young monks minds to dust with her responses to them. Iron Grinder Liu has carved a unique niche for herself in the annals of Zen. See BCR 24/BOS 60. Female Zen adepts also figure in GG 31/BOS 10, and Wumen’s comment on GG 28.

Zihu was a disciple of Nanquan and a dharma sibling of Zhouzhou and Changsha. Zihu himself famously addressed the question of Bodhidharma coming from the west: “The Patriarch’s coming from the west only means that winter is cold and summer is hot, night is dark and day is light.” Xuedou’s verse references this story:
One day Liu Tiemo appeared unexpectedly before Zihu.
Zihu said, “Are you not Liu Tiemo?”
Liu said, “I don’t presume to say so.”
Zihu said, “Do you turn left or right?”
Liu said, “Don’t tip over, Teacher.”
Zihu struck her whil her words were still in the air.

This Week’s Reading

Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special, “The Castle and the Moat,” p. 138.

Feb. 6 – 12

Let’s imagine for a moment that humans are large ice cubes, about two feet along each edge, with little heads and spindly feet. This is our life as humans most of the time, running about like ice cubes, bumping into one another sharply. Often we hit each other hard enough to shatter our edges. To protect ourselves we freeze as hard as we can and hope that when we collide with others, they will shatter before we do. We freeze because we’re afraid. Our fear makes us rigid, fixed, and hard, and we create mayhem as we bump into others. Any obstacle or unexpected difficulty is likely to shatter us.

– Joko Beck

This Week’s Koan

Gateless Gate #9: Xingyang’s Nonattained Buddha

Once a monk earnestly asked Xingyang, “Daitsu Chisho Buddha sat in the meditation hall for ten kalpas, but the Dharma of the Buddha did not manifest itself and he could not attain buddhaood. Why was this?”

Xingyang replied, “Your question is reasonable indeed.”

The monk said, “He sat in zazen in the meditation hall. Why did he not attain Buddhahood?”

Xingyang replied, “Because he is a non-attained Buddha.”


The Tang dynasty saw the emergence of the fabled “Five Houses of Zen”. One of these five was the Guiyang (“Igyo” in Japanese) House, named for its founders, Guishan (b. 771) and Guishan’s dharma heir, Yangshan (b. 807). In this koan we meet Xingyang (b. 910), the dharma great-great-grandson of Guishan and dharma great-grandson of Yangshan.  After the Xingyang, the Guiyang House disappeared into obscurity and its monks and students eventually died out or were absorbed into one of the other lineages. Thus Xingyang is essentially the last of the great Guiyang House. He was the immediate dharma successor of Bajiao Huiqing (“Basho Esei” in Japanese), who came from Korea in search of a worthy teacher — and found one in Master Nanta of the Guiyang House.

The Houses that have survived down to this day are the Linji (“Rinzai” in Japanese) and the Caodong (“Soto” in Japanese). These are the official lineages. From the Tang Dynasty down to today, many students have studied long years in one lineage, but ended up receiving their dharma transmission is a cousin lineage. So the Zen of Guishan and Yangshan lives on, not just through the literature we have about them, but through the cross-pollination across Zen lines that went on in their time and in ours.

Still, the different lines do have somewhat different flavors. The Linji schools of Zen — historically and today — are characterized by a struggle to attain awakening. The Caodong schools put more emphasis on letting go of the struggle. This is a small and comparative difference, for each “side” would recognize that “struggling to attain” and “letting go of the struggle” are each only half the story.

So we come to the last of the Guiyang House for a teaching that bridges the gap between the Linji and Caodong Houses. Daitsu Chiso did not attain. Why not? Because he is a non-attained Buddha. So: is there any such thing as an “attained Buddha”? Is a non-attained Buddha the “worst kind”? The “best kind”? The only kind?

My teacher’s teacher, Yamada Koun, addressed the practitioners at a retreat and said:

All of you are Buddhas from the beginning and will never attain Buddhahood again, no matter how long yo sit in samadhi. Can water get any wetter? Can gold become gold again? Can completeness become more complete? Can emptiness become empty?

Wumen’s Verse:

Far better than realizing the body is to realize the mind and be at peace.
If the mind is realized, there is no anxiety about the body;
If both body and mind are completely realized,
A holy hermit doe not wish to be appointed lord.

This Week’s Reading

Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special, “Melting Ice Cubes,” p. 132.