Zen Koans – Mumonkan Case 37

Mumonkan: Case 37

A monk asked Chao-chou, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?”

Chao-chou said, “The oak tree in the courtyard.”

Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier, p.226

Whatever else is going on in this koan, which appears in longer versions in other classic Zen texts, it is clear enough that Joshu’s meaning of the “oak tree in the courtyard” differs from the meaning the monk understands. Setting aside abstract speculations for the moment, we’ll assume we can trust our experiential sense that the form of the oak tree is one and the same for both Joshu and the monk. Therefore, it must be the essence (i.e. nature, reality, meaning, etc.) of the oak tree that is somehow experienced differently by Joshu and the monk.

If the Zen masters are right about the unity of form and essence, why do Joshu and the monk seem to perceive the same form, yet fail to perceive the same essence? The short answer is that Joshu perceives the form of the oak tree as it is while the monk sees the form of the oak tree as a concept. In other words, to Joshu the essence of the words “the oak tree in the courtyard” is the reality of the form that is perceived; to the monk the reality of the essence that is perceived is the form of the words “the oak tree in the courtyard.” Mumon (Wu-men), the compiler of the Mumonkan, says in his verse on this koan:

Words do not convey the fact;

Language is not an expedient.

Attached to words, your life is lost;

Blocked by phrases, you are bewildered.

Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier, p.226

The first line suggests that, as the word “water” cannot slake our thirst, the words “oak tree in the courtyard” cannot provide shade from the sun. The second line reveals a subtler point that is frequently neglected; if used skillfully, the word “water” can slake our thirst (e.g. addressing a waiter, or a group of hikers on a trail), and the words “oak tree in the courtyard” can provide shade. Robert Aitken Roshi comments, in part, on the third line:

Words are the keys which program most people. Such people are used by words instead of using words. Their understanding is not experiential but merely verbal; instead of coming from life and using words, they act on the basis of concepts, which can destroy life.

Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier, p.230

Not only are they “used by words instead of using words,” they are used by time instead of using time, used by circumstances instead of using circumstances; ultimately, they are used by all the myriad things that are the experience of their lives – the puppets of life and death instead of the puppeteers. The fourth line of Mumon’s verse should be clear by now.

There is no denying the entangling and harmful potential of language, attachment, and discrimination; with a little attention, most people can see that man’s greatest blunders have their source in the unskillful performance of these very attributes. At the same time, man’s greatest achievements also have their source in these attributes. Moreover, in their absence man would not be man but merely an animal with the mere self-interest of an animal. There is no question about whether or not to communicate, participate, and reason – for human beings these are a given – the real question is how to do so skillfully.

Shobogenzo means, “The Treasure of the True Dharma-Eye.” The “treasure” that is referred to is not so much what is seen with the “Dharma eye” as it is the eye itself. This eye is the enlightened eye, the same eye that the Buddhist literature calls the “Buddha eye” and the “eye to read scriptures.” What Dogen perceived when he saw through the “True Dharma-Eye” was that, in the words of Hee-Jin Kim:

“…Words and letters, however socially constructed, are never mere signs in the abstract, theoretical sense, but alive and active ‘in flesh and blood.’ Contrary to the conventional view that language is no more than a means of communication, it is profoundly internal to an individual’s life as well as to a collective life. Language flows so that it is the breath, blood, and soul of human existence… Thus, language becomes ascesis, instead of gnosis or logos—‘seeing things as they are’ now means ‘making things as they are.’ In this light the indexical analogy of ‘the finger pointing to the moon’ is highly misleading, if not altogether wrong, because it draws on a salvifically inefficacious conception of language.

Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, p.64

Peace,

Ted

6 thoughts on “Zen Koans – Mumonkan Case 37”

  1. Thank you for this interesting commentary, Ted. I suspect that many of these old cases have endured because they offer multiple points of entry (although each has perhaps only one exit).

    In the Kwan Um School tradition, teachers rarely refer to the “essence” of things, perhaps because the term suggests something hidden or “special” that might only be perceived by adepts. Perhaps things have essences but in the Korean kong-an tradition (at least, as taught by ZM Seung Sahn and his heirs) distinctions such as form and essence rarely appear.

    In this case, the monk’s failure could be seen as a question of “words” and Wu-men’s comment certainly seems to point us in that direction.

    But I wonder if this isn’t a bit of misdirection on Wu-men’s part? Perhaps his real intent is revealed in the third line, “Attached to words.”

    Kwan Um School teachers, I suspect, would focus on the monk’s attachment to an idea or form or concept, rather than on the distinctions between the monk’s understanding/mind and Chao-chou’s understanding/mind.

    And yet we must use words – both to illuminate attachment and also to open the door to freedom. Given this, I found myself wondering: did Chao-chou speak words with special meaning or was he simply commenting on the scenery?

    And here’s my caveat: I’ve not worked on this case before so the above comment reflects only my own confusions and delusions.

    Thank you for your generous sharing of this case!

    Barry

    1. Hello Barry,

      Great to hear from you! Thank you for commenting.

      You wrote: “In the Kwan Um School tradition, teachers rarely refer to the “essence” of things, perhaps because the term suggests something hidden or “special” that might only be perceived by adepts. Perhaps things have essences but in the Korean kong-an tradition (at least, as taught by ZM Seung Sahn and his heirs) distinctions such as form and essence rarely appear.”

      First, in my experience, it is not only teachers in the Kwan Um tradition that rarely refer to the “essence” of things, the majority of contemporary in all the schools I know of are pretty much the same (except perhaps Thich Nhat Hanh’s line). Not only terms like “essence” (or “nature”) and “form,” are rarely used, but also terms like “prajna” (wisdom) “five skandhas,” “four elements,” “gradual cultivation,” and almost anything to do with “bodhi” – enlightenment, Buddhahood, “sudden realization,” etc.

      I know that some teachers avoid such terms because most of their listeners/readers do not bother studying the classic Zen (Son) teachings, thus, they feel they would just confuse people. In my view, they should go ahead and confuse them, perhaps it would inspire them to study the classics – in any case, I don’t see how it could hurt; how much can anyone truly benefit from watered-down versions of the Dharma anyway?

      As far as “things having essences” goes, it is a basic teaching of all Mahayana Buddhist schools that the “essence” (or nature) of all “things” consist of a “form/essence” unity, insofar as they are real things (i.e. dharmas). In my own experience of koan training and study, the “distinctions” between, as well as the “unity” of things was of central significance; the distinctions and unity of “things” (form) and “essence” (emptiness) as well as “things” and “things.”

      In any case, the Kwan Um tradition recognizes Chinul and his teachings as authoritative; and he uses these terms constantly – indeed, he discusses them in detail and meticulously elucidates their significance. In his Zen masterpiece, Secrets on Cultivating the Mind, for instance, he writes:

      “It is tragic. People have been deluded for so long. They do not recognize that their own minds are the true Buddhas. They do not recognize that their own natures are the true dharma.”
      ~Chilul, The Korean Approach to Zen, Robert Buswell

      And:

      “That which is able to see, hear, sense, and know is perforce your Buddha-nature.”
      ~Chilul, The Korean Approach to Zen, Robert Buswell

      And:

      “Nevertheless, at the place where all dharmas are empty, the numinous awareness is not obscured. It is not the same as insentience, for its nature is spiritually deft. This is your pure mind-essence of void and calm, numinous awareness… it is that enlightened nature which is the original source of all sentient beings.”
      ~Chilul, The Korean Approach to Zen, Robert Buswell

      And on, and on… His other great work, Straight Talk on the True Mind, is a veritable encyclopedia on “The Sublime Essence of the True Mind” (the name of one of its chapters.

      You wrote: “Perhaps his real intent is revealed in the third line, ‘Attached to words.’

      I agree. Also, I think his intent is revealed in the first, second, and fourth lines; I don’t think he is trying to mislead us by adding anything superfluous.

      You wrote: “Kwan Um School teachers, I suspect, would focus on the monk’s attachment to an idea or form or concept, rather than on the distinctions between the monk’s understanding/mind and Chao-chou’s understanding/mind.”

      Hmmm… It seems to me that the “monk’s attachment” to a concept, is exactly “the distinction” between the monk’s and Joshu’s viewpoints.

      You wrote: “And yet we must use words – both to illuminate attachment and also to open the door to freedom. Given this, I found myself wondering: did Chao-chou speak words with special meaning or was he simply commenting on the scenery?”

      What words do not have “special meaning”?

      Thanks again Barry.

      Peace,
      Ted

  2. Well, first of all Ted I would like to thank you for bringing Robert Aitken back to life while eating my breakfast.

    “oaktree in the courtyard”

    A road block. No room to move. He completely defeats the monk.

    1. Hello SeaSpray,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I am happy to hear Robert Aitken Roshi got to share some breakfast with you.

      Oak, I am sure, would make excellent material for road blocks, but what purpose would that serve in a courtyard?

      You wrote that he “defeats” the monk. Do you think, then, that the monk was challenging him? It seems to me more like the monk was seeking guidance… I could be wrong though.

      Thanks again.

      Peace,
      Ted

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