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.

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About mgarmon

b. 1959; grew up VA, NC, AL, GA; also lived in TX, TN, MN, and now in FL; m. 1979; 1 daughter, b 1980; 1 son, b. 1982; div. 1997; m. 2000; Honduran son, b. 1987, adopted 2004; schooled: U West Ga, Emory, Baylor, UVa; UTS; MLTS. Former philosophy professor, now a UU minister and zen student.

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