I gave this talk on June 3, 2023, at the Greater Boston Zen Center‘s Spring Sesshin held at the Providence Zen Center. A recording follows the text.
This is Case 12 in the Blue Cliff Record:
A monk asked Tung Shan, “What is Buddha?”
Tung Shan said, “Three pounds of hemp.”
This koan, and others like it, seems to express many of the qualities for which the Zen tradition is famous, or perhaps infamous, among them obscurity, irreverence, and paradox.
A Zen practitioner coming to a teacher with a question like this is just trying to do what human beings try to do: make meaning. The late developmental psychologist William Perry said, “Organisms organize, and the human organism organizes meaning.” We are meaning-makers.
The question, “What is Buddha?” can be reformulated as, “What’s it all about?” And also, “Who or what am I?” And also, “How do I fit in?” Needless to say, if we’re asking questions like this, we’re not quite sure what it’s all about, or who or what we are, or how we fit in. This sort of uncertainty, or not knowing, can feel intensely, existentially uncomfortable. We want relief from that discomfort, and we start seeking relief by seeking conceptual answers to questions like, “What is Buddha?”
We’ve made meaning, or made sense, when everything seems to fit together; to cohere. We’re seeking integration; a sense of wholeness and integrity; coherence. We feel disjointed “inside” and the world seems disjointed “outside.” We want all the parts “inside” us to fit together harmoniously; we want all that’s “outside” us to fit together harmoniously; and we want “inside” and “outside” to fit together harmoniously, too.
Tung Shan (aka Dongshan) was the ninth century Chinese teacher to whom we trace the start of the Soto school of Zen in which we practice. He was a famous teacher during the Tang Dynasty, the heyday of Zen in China. Some of our most important Zen texts are attributed to him. Hundreds of years later, Dharma heirs of Tung Shan developed koan practice based, in part, upon recorded encounters between Tung Shan and the monks he taught—stories like the one with which I opened this talk.
On first blush, Tung Shan’s response to the monk’s question—“What is Buddha?”—may indeed seem obscure, irreverent, and paradoxical. Hearing Tung Shan’s response in this koan for the first time, many of us may think, “Huh? The monk is asking a clear question about Buddha nature. Why does Tung Shan respond so obscurely by referring to three pounds of hemp? The monk is asking a serious question about a sacred matter. Why does Tung Shan respond so irreverently, seemingly dismissing the monk’s question and referring to something so mundane. The monk is asking a straightforward question. Tung Shan’s response seems like a joke or a riddle, not a sincere answer.”
Tung Shan indeed is responding sincerely. His response is not obscure, irreverent, or paradoxical. To the contrary, it is as clear, serious, and straightforward as the monk’s question.
If Tung Shan’s response initially seems obscure, irreverent, and paradoxical to us, that’s because we’re expecting a different sort of answer. We’re looking for, and think we are inquiring about, something extraordinary; something extra-ordinary. Tung Shan instead points to something completely ordinary and concrete, and so his response seems wrong or intentionally confounding.
Hemp was used to make paper, cloth, and rope, among other everyday items, in ancient China. Tung Shan’s monastery and others like it were major cites of literary production. There would have been 30 or even 300 pounds of hemp at his monastery at any given time, used to create paper on which monks transcribed sutras, the robes the monks wore, and other everyday items. Hemp would have been as ordinary as rice or water.
Tung Shan is telling the monk in the simplest, most straightforward way possible that Buddha is right here. Teacup Buddha. Morning dew Buddha. Temple dog Buddha. Questioning monk Buddha.
Tung Shan is telling the monk that the meaning he is seeking is in plain sight. That the robe he is wearing, and also what’s inside it, is the very robe of liberation. He is telling the monk that the answer to his question is not an esoteric or abstract idea, but this very life; each and every feature of it. He’s saying that the knowledge we seek isn’t a philosophical or theological formulation, but the experience of knowing oneself and all else as interlaced threads of this vast robe of liberation.
Nothing could be less obscure, more reverent, or less puzzling than the way of being to which Tung Shan is pointing. We simply need to welcome and live into it. Zen practice is a context and path for living into this truth. Our resistance to it—our desire to contain and control reality—tends to decrease if and as we walk the path. We ultimately discover ourselves and all else as the meaning we have sought. It was ready-made; already waiting here for us, as us.
Could the lint on my cushion really be Buddha? Could my life really be a Buddha’s life? As Bodhidharma, the first great Zen ancestor, wrote, “that which is real includes nothing worth begrudging.” Nothing is excluded from the Buddha realm; nothing exists that is not Buddha.
That perspective can create some confusion with respect to questions about ethics, justice, and social action. I’ll try to dispel that confusion in a future talk. For now, I’ll just say that I think our capacity to respond and engage in the most skillful way possible depends greatly upon a non-conceptual awareness and experience that all is Buddha.
Thanks for listening. As always, our dialogue is what I most look forward to about our time together.