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