I gave this talk during our Full Moon Zen sit on August 26, 2021.
From the Record of Tung-shan (aka Ts’ao-tung):
Tung-shan accordingly took leave of Kuei-shan (aka Isan) [whom he had asked whether nonsentient beings expound the Dharma] and proceeded directly to Yün-yen’s. Making reference to his previous encounter with Kui-shan, he immediately asked what sort of person was able to hear the Dharma expounded by nonsentient beings.
Yun-yen said, “Nonsentient beings are able to hear it.”
“Can you hear it, Ho-shang (another name for Yun-yen)? asked Tung-shan.
Yun-yen replied, “If I could hear it, then you would not be able to hear the Dharma I teach.”
“Why can’t I hear it?” asked Tung-shan.
Yun-yen raised his fly whisk and said, “Can you hear it yet?”
Tung-shan replied, “No, I can’t.”
Yun-yen said, “You can’t even hear it when I expound the Dharma; how do you expect to hear when a nonsentient being expounds the Dharma?”
Tung-shan asked, “In which sutra is it taught that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma?”
Yun-yen replied, “Haven’t you seen it? In the Amitabha Sutra it says, `Water birds, tree groves, all without exception recite the Buddha’s name, recite the Dharma.’”
Reflecting on this, Tung-shan composed the following gatha:
How amazing, how amazing!
Hard to comprehend that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma.
It simply cannot be heard with the ear.
But when sound is heard with the eye, then it is understood.
Today has been a scorcher in Boston. The Earth is screaming, “Summer!”—and, also “Ouch! Climate change!”
Yet it’s almost September, and Fall is poking through. Some trees are beginning to shed their leaves. Birds and squirrels are busy gathering provisions. Duck and geese are on the move.
The central character in the story I just read, Tung-shan, lived and taught in the 9th century. In this story, he’s still an ordinary monk, wandering around visiting monasteries, seeking out teachers. Later, he becomes a teacher who is regarded as the Chinese founder of the Soto Zen stream in which we’re situated.
In Tung-shan’s day, people were obsessed with a certain type of philosophical question. It’s a question that continues to preoccupy philosophers, physicists, neuroscientists, ecologists, and ordinary people, like you and me, to this day.
I seem to be alive and conscious. You seem to me to be alive and conscious. But, what else is alive and conscious? Birds? Trees? Stone walls?
Chou-chou, the teacher who gave a provocative “No!” when another young monk asked him whether the temple dog had Buddha nature, was a contemporary of Tung-shan.
In the story we’re looking at tonight, Yün-yen, one of the teachers Tung-shan visited, gives Tung-shan the same answer Chou-chou gave the young monk who questioned him about the dog. But, Yün-yen gives that answer in the form of a provocative “Yes!”
Yün-yen affirms that birds and trees expound the Dharma. Everything hums the song of the universe.
Tung-shan had been trying to reason his way to this realization, but seemingly wasn’t getting anywhere. He put his hand to his ear, hoping to hear what he thought he was listening for. His thinking mind was sure it must be hidden; an esoteric, coded message of some kind. A riddle only the thinking mind could solve. But all he heard was birdsong or silence—and, well, that just couldn’t be it, he thought.
Tung-shan sought answers in the sutras, as if words on a page could resolve the matter and put his heart at rest.
This encounter with Yün-yen does seem to have been a turning point for Tung-shan. That’s evident from the verse he composed after it.
After this encounter with Yün-yen, who eventually made Tung-shan one of his successors, Tung-shan realizes we can’t “hear” birds and trees expounding the Dharma with the ear. We hear it with the eye.
In other words, we develop a new kind of insight; a new kind of perception.
Zen practice is about learning to hear with our eyes in this way. It invites a shift in our perception; in our orientation.
This shift is what we call enlightenment. It’s not something we can grasp for and achieve, like running a six-minute mile or baking a souffle that doesn’t collapse. It’s something we seep into, and that seeps into us, through our practice. Like tofu soaking up soy sauce; soy sauce permeating tofu.
Dōgen described the shift this way:
“Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters,” he said.
We’re like young Tung-shan, in other words. We see people and animals and plants and rocks. We’re sure people are conscious and consciousness is a good thing to “have.” The poor, dumb rocks don’t have it. Plants? We’re not so sure.
Dōgen goes on, “. . . after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; . . .”
As one begins to awaken to the awakened nature of all that is, many become lost in Oneness for a time.
Finally, Dōgen says, “after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.”
Rocks are rocks, yes, but now we do hear them expounding the Dharma. Yün-yen’s whisk is Yün-yen’s whisk—and if he swats you with his whisk or his staff, as Zen teachers were prone to do in that era, believe me, you would feel it! Getting whacked by Oneness stings!
But now we truly know that whisk is the One. The relative and the Absolute are one and the same. Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.
In the countless, slapstick-style koans in which a Zen adept has a breakthrough insight when a teacher slaps his face, or closes her leg in a door, or cuts off their finger, this is what one is realizing.
And, once we realize this, birds and trees and stones are no longer dead to us; the world is alive to us experientially, not alive as an idea. I have to believe that this shift is much needed today, on a broad scale, at this moment of global ecological crisis.
We often hear meditation practitioners, and some teachers, say that mediation is about developing our powers of attention and concentration. I suppose mediation has that effect.
But I prefer to think of our practice as more about attending, than attention—though one must be attentive to attend.
Meditation is about attending. Showing up. Participating. Taking part. We are just a part—and every much a manifestation and microcosm of the One as anything else. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.
Through our practice, we open up to our own experience; to all experience. We come to sense the hum of the universe within and without. Let it bubble up and seep in.
And our ideas of within and without, up and in, begin to soften.
We turn our ear to see a bird.
Open our eyes to hear it sing.