My Kōan Practice
Yunmen's Staff Turns Into a Dragon and
Swallows the Universe
Case 60, Blue Cliff Record
Comments, Thoughts, Reflections, Musing,
Working, Research, Study, Contemplation
Winter of 2015
Research and Commentary by Michael P. Garofalo
The Librarian of Gushen Grove
Valley Spirit Center, Red Bluff, California
Stories, Anecdotes, Dialogues, Public Record or Cases, Interactions, Parables, Questions, Puzzles, Challenges, Inquiries
Non-Rational or Beyond-Rational Zen (Chan) Buddhist Meditation/Contemplation Techniques
Teaching, Learning, and Practices Using Zen (Rinzai and Soto Zen) Koans
Contemplation, Rumination, Meditation, Introspection, Reflection, Thought, Intuition, Mulling, Study, Immersion, Consideration
Purpose: Insight, Understanding, Realization, Change of Heart, Awakening, Enlightenment
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Staff or Cane: Lore, Myths, Legends, Ceremonial Long Staff Short Staff Cane
Cloud Hands Blog Buddhism Paramitas Taoism Virtues Philosophy
My Current Koan Case for "Immersion, Reflection, Consideration, Study" in the Winter of 2015
Blue Cliff Record, Hekiganroku, Case 60:
Yunmen's Staff Turns Into a Dragon and Swallows the Universe
"Yúnmén Wényan (864–949 CE), (雲門文偃; Japanese: Ummon Bun'en; also known in English as "Unmon", "Ummon Daishi", "Ummon Zenji")
Besides thinking about this koan each day, I used the following koan literature and specific reference sources:
The Blue Cliff Record. Translated by Thomas Cleary and J. C. Cleary. Foreword by Taizan Maezumi Roshi. Boston, Shambhala, 2005. Glossary, biographies, bibliography, 648 pages. ISBN: 9781590302323. Case 60, p. 341-346. "Yun Men's Staff Turns Into a Dragon."
Two Zen Classics: Mumonkan and Hekiganroku Translated with commentaries by Katsuki Sekida. Edited and introduced by A. V. Grimstone. New York, Weatherhill, 1977. Index, 413 pages. ISBN: 0834801302. Case 60, p. 311-314; "Ummon's Staff Becoming a Dragon."
Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record: Zen Comments by Hakuin and Tenkei Translated by Thomas Cleary. Boston, Shambhala, 2002. Introduction, recommended reading, 354 pages. ISBN: 1570629129. Case 60, p. 203-206; "A Staff Turns Into a Dragon."
Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings. By Andy Ferguson. Foreword by Reb Anderson. Boston, Wisdom Publications, 2000. Glossaries, name lists, Zen lineage charty, bibliography, index, 518 pages. ISBN: 0861711637.
Ummon's Staff Turns Into a Dragon and Swallows the Universe
"Engo's Introduction: Buddhas and sentient beings are not, by nature, different. Mountains, rivers, and your own self are all just the same. Why should they be separation and constitute two worlds? Even if you are well versed in Zen koans and know how to deal with them, if you stop then everything is spoiled. If you do not stop, the whole world will be dissolved, with not a particle of it left behind. Now tell me, what does it mean to be well versed in Zen koans? See the following.
MAIN SUBJECT: Ummon held out his staff and said to the assembled monks,
"The staff has transformed itself into a dragon and swallowed up the universe!
Where are the mountains, the rivers, and the great world?"
- Two Zen Classics: Mumonkan and Hekiganroku, Translated by Katsuki Sekida, 1977, p.
"Buddhas and ordinary mortals are originally no different; where is the distinction between mountains, rivers, and oneself? How then does there come to be duality? If you can put a saying into effect and occupy the essential pass, it still won't do to let go. If you don't let go, the whole earth is worth grasping. But where does on put a saying into effect?
MAIN SUBJECT (EXAMPLE): Ummon showed his staff to a group and said,
"The staff has turned into a dragon and swallowed the universe. Where can
you find the mountains, rivers, and earth?" "
- Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record, Case 60, Translated by Thomas Cleary, 2000, p. 203
Comments by Hakuin on Case 60:
“The example is extremely important, but there have been many misinterpretations of it since olden times. This is the ancient tune of the Ummon school. Even I explained it mistakenly three times; this is my explanation this time. Where can you find the mountains, rivers, and earth? When you have returned everything to self, you loose what you have and are at a loss for a place to stand.”
- Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record, Case 60, Translated by Thomas Cleary, 2000, p. 204
Comments by Tenkei on Case 60:
“The whole universe has been swallowed ― where are the mountains, rivers and earth found: Also, though the universe has been swallowed, the mountains, rivers, and earth are still there, just as they are; whence did it come to be this way? Is this after all the ultimate point of this koan of Ummon? Here if you say the staff has turned into a dragon your blind; but if you say the staff is just a staff, the universe and world are just as they are, and there is no such thing as a staff turning into a dragon and swallowing the universe, then you are dead to the domain of unconcern, with the independently manifest potential of Ummon. So anyway, is there such a thing? Is there not? What about it? In this way Ummon pressed people to try to say. Ummon’s help for people is ultimately not in the existence r nonexistence of the staff.”
- Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record, Case 60, Translated by Thomas Cleary, 2000, p. 204
"The staff has swallowed up the universe?
Don't say peach blossoms float on the waters.
The fish that gets it tail singed
May fail to grasp the mist and clouds.
The ones that lie with gills exposed
Need not loose heart.
My verse is done.
But do you really hear me?
Only be carefree! Stand unwavering!
Why so bewhildered?
Seventy-two blows are not enough
I want to give you a hundred and fifty.
Setchō descended from the rostrum waving his staff. The whole crowd ran
- Two Zen Classics: Mumonkan and Hekiganroku, Translated by Katsuki Sekida, 1977, p.
"The staff swallows the universe;
He talks for naught of peach blossoms traveling on the waves,
Success is not about grabbing the clouds and seizing the fog;
Why must failure mean losing courage and spirit:
It's all settled─did you hear?
Just be free and at ease, stop any further confusion,
Seventy-two blows is still getting off easy;
It's hard to let you go with a hundred and fifty.
Setcho suddenly picked up his staff and descended from the dais; the whole
assembly scattered at once."
- Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record, Case 60, Translated by Thomas Cleary, 2000, p. 203
Return to the Index for this Webpage
Comments by Hakuin on Setcho’s Verse about Case 60:
“The staff swallows the uinverse. The staff itself
directly swallows the universe; here in the verse the words “turns into a
dragon” are omitted. Setcho, being the reviver of the Ummon school of Zen, has
thoroughly absorbed the lessons of his spiritual ancestor.
He talks for naught of peach blossoms traveling on the waves. It’s not about the staff or the dragon or swallowing or spitting out; that is “talking for naught.”
Success is not about grabbing the clouds. There is no such thing as turning into a dragon. From the perspective of the staff directly swallowing the universe, there’s no need to turn into a dragon and grab the clouds and fog to fly; even those who have passed through the three tiers of locks are not live dragons.
Why must failure mean loosing courage and spirit? Even if you are knocked down by the waves and get busted up, that is not real; you are not one who as experienced the great death. Even those who have passed the three tiers cannot make it; how much less beginning bodhisattvas.
It’s all settled. With that, the matter has been cleared up for now.
Did you hear the foregoing citation?
Just be free and at ease. Stop being so sticky; be clean and untrammeled.
Seventy-two blows is getting off easy. For someone like this, not even a hundred and fifty blows of the staff would be enough, but for today, well, I’ll let him off with seventy-two blows. This phrase should be read with the next one. Much has been said about these two phrases, but it is not worth taking seriously.
Setcho suddenly picked up his staff. I would comment on Setcho’s device: “He spent thirty ingots of gold reserves on a nickel-and-dime lottery.”
- Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record, Case 60, Translated by Thomas Cleary, 2000, p. 205
"Yúnmén Wényan (864–949 CE), (雲門文偃; Japanese: Ummon Bun'en; also known in English as "Unmon", "Ummon Daishi", "Ummon Zenji", "Yunmen", and "Yun Men"), was a major Chinese Zen master in Tang-era China. He was a dharma-heir of Xuefeng Yicun. Yunmen founded the Yunmen school, one of the five major schools of Chán (Chinese Zen). The name is derived from Yunmen monastery of Shaozhou where Yunmen was abbot. The Yunmen school flourished into the early Song Dynasty, with particular influence on the upper classes, and eventually culminating in the compilation and writing of the Blue Cliff Record. The school would eventually be absorbed by the Rinzai school later in the Song." - Wikipedia Images of Yunmen Wenyan
Yúnmén Wényan (864-949)
Yúnmén Wényan's Staff Turns into a Dragon and Swallows the Universe
Blue Cliff Record, Hekiganroku, Case 60:
Comments, Reflections, Considerations, Comments, Asides, Work, References,
Scriptural Exegesis, Contemplation and Thoughts
By Mike Garofalo
A few caveats:
1. Every Zen Master favoring koan study says you should be going seated meditation (Silent Illumination) on a daily basis, reflecting on the koan on a daily basis (Koan Gazing), and having a qualified Zen master work privately (Dokusan) with you on a regular basis to test your understanding of the koan. I am not currently studying and working directly with a Zen Master, nor have I ever done so. I do a variety passive and active meditation practices during each week. I am not a regular member of any organized Buddhist church or Zen group. Therefore, these facts in some ways really disqualify me as a worthy commentator on Zen koans. Nevertheless, I proceed on my own like the legendary Redfin Carp charging up the River Yü towards the Dragon Gates. My contemplation of koans, going back to 1962, has enabled me to peek through the Great Barrier many times; then go back to my duties and responsibilities as a layman following the Eightfold Path.
2. Koan study has long been a literary endeavor, attracting many students and scholars of spiritual literature. Koans seriously play with metaphors, similes, contradictions, non-sequiturs, stories, legends, allusions, riddles, fakery, fancy, jokes, nonsense, translations, and puzzles. The study of the koan literature has been interesting, enjoyable, and beneficial for me. Although literary studies of koans and using koans to achieve a spiritual breakthrough are separate matters, literature is a source of much insight and consolation for many people.
3. Koan study or Hua Tuo practice are a proven method of raising one's awareness and focus on Buddhist concepts, theory, and achieving a direct personal experience of a profound and illuminating nature. People use a variety of methods and practices to stimulate and reinforce spiritual experiences: chanting, bowing, church going, ethical precepts, meditation, prayer, recitation of scriptures, koans, study of religious texts, scholarship, yoga, drumming, fasting, retreats, social activism, volunteering, service, painting, calligraphy, austerities, etc. The Dharma is spread to the world in many ways.
4. I really enjoy reading the commentaries on the hundreds of Zen koans. We now have many fine books and articles available on the subject in English, many written by highly qualified Zen masters and teachers. I thank them for their efforts to share their understanding with lay people, like me, whom they will never meet in person. Picking up and studying koan books by such experts and masters as Aitken, Cleary, Kapleau, Kirchner, MacInnes, Magid, Loori, Shibayama, Tarrant, Wick, or Yamada is a great privilege and outstanding opportunity to open, stimulate, and free my mind.
5. Questions, doubts, surprises, insights, and quandaries are often more interesting to me than answers, doctrines, and "correct" responses.
6. Some students must work on a specific koan for many months or many years before the Zen master approves of their response/answer to the koan and/or their level of personal insight/inspiration/awareness caused by the koan. I will only spend 3 months contemplating a specific koan, then I will move on to another koan.
7. Many Zen teachers advocate spiritual progress based on methods other than words and scriptures; and involving a mind-to-mind, person-to-person, Master to student, Guru to disciple interaction over a long period of time. Writing and reading about koans, for them, misses the mark. My best wishes to those fortunate enough to have ready access to a qualified Zen teacher, a supportive Sangha, and who are dedicated to this path. For me, I must use literature and Eightfold Path to connect to the Buddhist views and traditions. So, I read and write anyway, grinding away, fool that I am; and, smile when a few sparks fly from the grinder.
8. In koan practice with a Zen master, he or she assigns a koan for you to work on. They choose the koan, you do not. They pass judgment on your "understanding" of the koan that they assign you to work on. Here, I choose the koan that I want to investigate.
Way of the Short Staff Research by Mike Garofalo.
Zen Staff, Zen Stick in Koans, A Stick Used by Zen Masters as a symbol of their qualifications and authorization to teach Zen students. Compiled by Mike Garofalo.
Staff, Cane, Stick, Wand: Lore, Legends, Myths, Metaphors, Ceremonial, Religious, Magical
Dragon Qigong and Dragon Lore By Mike Garofalo.
In China, dragons are a symbol of transformation and change. Dragons can change shape, size, personality, and domicile. Human beings can also transform themselves, unlike most animals. We can learn new skills and occupations. We can learn new languages. We can reshape our bodies through exercise, nutrition and surgery. We can wear new clothes and costumes. We can change where we live. Our existence preceeds our essence, as the Existentialist slogan touted. We can adopt a new religion, new philosophy, new world view. With new technologies we can fly, go underwater, dig deep into the earth, even walk on the moon. We are creative creatures who can transform ourselves and our environment. We can destroy and kill─ both others and ourselves. We have many powers of the Dragons. I can transform myself into a dragon.
Chinese dragons are more often associated with rain, rivers, and the sea; European dragons are more associated with fire, brimstone, and the earth. In the past, and even today, many people (e.g., Neopagans) believe in Nature Spirits and some believe in dragons. Religions, past and present, including Buddhism, include lively stories about imaginary beings or spirits and ways to praise, supplicate, placate or avoid them. However, we are most often just amused by these stories for, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next."
"A monk asked Kenpo, "The one road of Nirvana leads into the ten
quarters. But where does it begin?"
Kenpo raised his staff and traced a horizontal line in the air and said, "Here."
Disappointed, the monk went to Yunmen and asked him the same question.
Ummon held up his staff and said, "This staff leaps up to the 33rd heaven and hits the presiding deity on the nose,
then it dives down into the Eastern Sea where it hits the holy carp.
The carp becomes a dragon which then brings a flood of rain."
List of Koans by Yunmen Wenyan
Are we like that holy carp or sacred salmon swimming upstream, struggling, making a determined effort, leaping over the Dragon's Gate and becoming a Dragon? Or, as described in the anthropological documentary "Your Inner Fish," we are genetically linked to those fishes that first left the rivers and walked on the land some 400 million years ago ... fishes that became walking reptiles, little dragons. This evolutionary stream of reflections makes a case for little carp-reptile-dragons transforming themselves into humans, we tool creators and users, some who grasp sticks and pose riddles.
" "For those with tails burnt off it's not a matter of grasping
clouds and seizing fog." When fish pass through the Gate of Yu a celestial
fire burns their tails; they grab the clouds, seize the fog, and depart.
Hsueh Tou means that though they change into dragons, it still isn't a matter of
grabbing clouds and seizing fog. "Why should the exhausted ones
necessarily loose their courage and spirit?" The introduction to Ch'ing
Liang's commentary on the Avatamsaka scripture says, "Even bodhisattvas who have
accumulated virtuous conduct grasp for breath at the Gate of Yu." His
overall meaning is to explain that the realm of the Avatamska Flower Garland
Cosmos is not something mastered by small virtue or small knowledge; it's like
the fish trying to pass through the Dragon Gate of Yu, where those who cannot
pass through fail and fall back. They lie in the sand shoals of the dead
water, exhausted and gasping. Hsueh Tou means that once they fail and fall
back, they always loose their courage and spirit."
The Blue Cliff Record, translated by Thomas Cleary and J. C. Cleary, 2005, p.345
"Redfin Carp pledged a solemn vow. "I shall swim beyond the Dragon Gates. I shall brave the perilous bolts of fire and lightening. I shall transcend the estate of ordinary fish and achieve a place among the order of sacred dragons. I shall rid myself forever of the terrible suffering to which my race is heir, expunge every trace of our shame and humiliation."
Waiting until the third day of the third month, when the peach blossoms are in flower and the river is full, he made his way to the entrance of the Yü Barrier. Then, with a flick of his tail, Redfin Carp swam forth.
You men have never laid eyes on the awesome torrent of water that rolls through the Dragon Gates. It falls all the way from the summits of the far-off Kunlun Range with tremendous force. There are wild, thousand foot waves that rush down through gorges towering to dizzying heights on either side, carrying away whole hillsides as they go. Angry bolts of thunder beat down with a deafening roar. Moaning whirlwinds whip up poisonous mists and funnels of noisome vapor spitting flashing forks of lightening. The mountain spirits are stunned into senselessness; the river spirits turn limp with fright. Just a drop of this water will shatter the carapace of the giant tortoise, it will break the bones of the giant whale.
It was into this maelstrom that Redfin Carp, his splendid golden-red scales girded to the full, his steely teeth thrumming like drums, mad a direct all-out assault. Ah! Golden Carp! Golden Carp! You might have led an ordinary life out in the boundless ocean. It teems with lesser fish. You would not have gone hungry. Then why? What made you embark on this wild and bitter struggle: What was waiting for you up beyond the Barrier?
Suddenly, after being seared by cliff-shattering bolts of lightning, after being battered by heaven scorching blasts of thunder-fire, his scaly armor burnt from from head to tail, his fins singed through, Redfin Carp perished into the Great Death and rose again as a divine dragon─ a supreme lord of the waters. Now, with the thunder god at his head and a fire god at his rear, flanked right and left with the gods of rain and wind, he moves abroad with the clouds in one hand and mists in the other, bringing new life to the tender young shoots withering in the long parched desert lands, keeping the true Dharma safe amid the defilements of the degenerate world.
Had he been content to pass his life like a lame turtle or blind tortoise,
feeding on winkles and tiny shrimps, not even all the effort Vasuki, Manasvi,
and the other Dragon Kings might muster on his behalf could have done him any
good. He could never have achieved the great success that he did."
- Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769), Japanese Zen Master and artist, "The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin," translated by Norman Waddell, 1994, p. 64
Use your imagination. Leap beyond what seems normal and reasonable. Be curious. Be open to clever, bizarre, outlandish, creative ideas and expressions of understanding. Do this daily. Do this hourly. Don't be discouraged by failures, rebuffs, misunderstandings, harsh blows from the sticks and stones of everyday life. "Only be carefree! Stand unwavering! If you stop, everything will be spoiled." Don't loose your courage or exhaust your spirit. Push through the Gate of Yü.
At the level of "objective, ordinary, practical, inter-subjective, factual, scientific, pragmatic reality" we contend to know and also believe that dragons are imaginary beings or Nature Spirits or deities that don't really exist in the real world; wooden sticks and staffs do not transform or turn into dragons; and the world is not eaten and swallowed up by dragons. Mountains and rivers as we know them could be destroyed or "swallowed" up by an immense meteor, an exploding sun, a black hole, immense volcanic eruptions ... please gods forbid not. Being a million times larger than the earth, our own star sun could indeed swallow us up. Huge tidal waves, tsunamis, caused by earthquakes or meteors could engulf and swallow up cities near the sea.
My perceptions, my experiences, my memories, my imagination, and the mental/physical/verbal "consciousness" of other human beings I interact with, create the mountains, rivers, and selves. Our ideas about things, our consciousness about things, are orders removed from the "thing as such", the Noumenon, the "thing in itself", the Kantian Ding an Sich, the seemingly unfathomable Other. The "world" is in many ways a dream, a mental phenomenon, a reflection and recreation of the little mind and Big Mind. This Dragon Mind swallows up the universe, digests and dissolves it in my sleep, a awakens refreshed at daybreak.
When you die, for you, the mountains, trees, and rivers all disappear. The Dragon of Death swallows up your consciousness and all its contents and images. The Dragon lives on, seemingly forever, but you do not.
Zen Master with Cane
But how can an inanimate object, a stick, a staff, a non-living piece of wood (indeed it once was living) transform itself into a dragon? How can the 'roughly' 60 trillion cells in my body, and the 'roughly' 60 trillion atoms in each cell, transform themselves into me, into patterns that perpetual themselves. The atoms are not "living" biological animated beings as I am ... or are they? Yunmen's stick, a stiff bamboo staff of giggling atoms, indeed might be able to transform itself into termites, beetles or a dragon─ with some help.
How can a hard dry stick even swallow? Gulp! Swallow up the Universe?. A wooden stick swallow up a river? No wonder outsiders laugh at us Zen jokers.
Zen Monk with Staff by Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1831)
One universe swallowed by a dragon, then all universes crammed inside the Pearl of Singularity. Amazing! Beyond ordinary comprehension.
Contemporary cosmologists contend that at the inception of the Big Bang, our entire universe was the size of a Magic Pearl, even smaller, a primeval atom, an invisible string, a Singularity. The entire potential universe swallowed up in a Singularity the size of nearly nothing─ considerably smaller that Yunmen's staff.
The singularity didn't appear in space; rather, space began inside of the singularity. Prior to the singularity, nothing existed, not space, time, matter, or energy - nothing. So where and in what did the singularity appear if not in space? We don't know. We don't know where it came from, why it's here, or even where it is. All we really know is that we are inside of it and at one time it didn't exist and neither did we.
- Big Bang Theory
"There was something undefined and complete, coming into existence before Heaven and Earth.
How still it was and formless, standing alone, and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere and in no danger of being exhausted!"
- Tao Te Ching, #25, 400 BCE, Translated by James Legge, 1891
Use your imagination. Leap beyond what seems normal and reasonable. Be curious. Be open to clever, bizarre, outlandish, creative ideas and expressions of understanding. Do this daily. Do this hourly. Don't be discouraged by failures, rebuffs, misunderstandings, harsh blows from the sticks and stones of everyday life. "Only be carefree! Stand unwavering! If you stop, everything will be spoiled." Don't loose your courage or exhaust your spirit. Push through the Gate of Yu.
Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi (1907-2014) with staff
Meaning and understanding are sometimes blurred, distorted, skewed, and upended. Understanding is too often just repeating what we already know, what we are comfortable and familiar with, what we want to hear about and talk about. Reading and translations always offer complex possible hermeneutical interpretations. Metaphors play games at multiple levels and from different viewpoints. Puns, riddles, and jokes all tickle our clever and humorous bones. We learn from reading, talking, experiences, memory, and things─ things animate and inanimate beyond measure.
Here are some ways I have responded, reacted, replied, or stated an "answer" to this koan, Case 60 of the Gateless Barrier:
Yes, trees drink rivers and swallow mountains, but we don't live long enough
to experience their power.
It is very hard to train dragons.
Sir, the dragon was fortunate that you were able to feed him. How kind of you.
Your imagination is sometimes hard to swallow.
Are we talking with one another in the Dragon's belly?
The dragon's fart could create the Milky Way Galaxy.
Your staff is unhappy in an empty universe.
The dragon's explosive vomit would be the Big Bang.
I don't know what you mean.
Gulp! Zen koans are hard to swallow.
Roshi, you are a wild fox spirit caught by the dragon.
In an absolute sense the "mountains" were never real; yet, relatively speaking, they are very beautiful to see at daybreak.
"You can't step into the same river twice." - Heraclitus
All the dragons and all the universes could fit into a dewdrop.
Nonsense─ but revealing!
Please pound your staff of the floor and make the dragon let the rivers flow again.
The dragon drinks the wine, and Yunmen gets drunk.
I grab the cane, bite it, and say: "The world tastes bland and hard."
Mountains and rivers remain as they are, as is, present; whether swallowed up by a Yunmen's Dragon Staff or not.
Grab Yunmen's Dragon Staff and pound it on the floor once.
Just sit quietly and don't say a word.
The mountains and rivers and staff are found in the the belly of the Dragon.
The mountains and rivers are found in the same space that the Mind is found.
I am tired of thinking about this koan; so I stopped thinking and the dragon smiled.
I'm hungry now, just like the dragon.
Dragons and sticks and mountains ... Oh, My!!
Wrestle the dragon to the ground, then hold your cane up high.
From 100 miles away I can see Mt. Shasta clearly on a winter's day; when hiking on Mt. Shasta I see the trail, smell the pines, and feel the rocks under my boots.
Take a long walk, cane in hand, and let the shadow of the Dragon lead the way. You will see the mountains; and seeing brings some understanding.
"Zen Master Yunmen once took
his staff and struck a pillar in the hall, saying, "Are the three vehicles and
twelve divisions of scripture talking?"
He then answered himself by saying, "No, they're not talking."
Then he shouted, "Bah! A wild fox spirit!"
A monk asked, "What does the master mean?"
Yunmen said, "Mr. Shang drinks the wine, and Mr. Li gets drunk."
- Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings. By Andy Ferguson, 2000, p. 263
Taking a long view of time, it is true that trees slowly drink
up rivers. They slowly swallow fertile soils and minerals, and their roots
crack rocky cliffs.
They slowly multiply, if causes and conditions are beneficial. They can wear away mountains. We cut off a small branch to honor their work and our own.
A stick and a dragon can symbolize or represent all of these causes and conditions.
I own a Dragon Walking Stick made of high impact polypropylene. I have seen beautiful dragon canes and short staffs carved out of wood. I use this plastic dragon stick or a wooden cane or a wooden jo staff to practice Taiji Yangsheng Zhang. Here we have an instance of plastic or wood transformed into an actual functional cane in the shape of a dragon. The Zen Master Hakuin painted a Dragon Staff scroll as a gift to lay students who passed a higher level of koan study. Here is an instance of ink and paper transformed into a painting of a cane shaped like a dragon. Again, like the mythical dragon, we are capable of transforming many things and ourselves into something else. One aim of koan study is to transform ourselves into bodhisattvas, decent persons, spiritual warriors, compassionate and kind individuals, persons with insight into the nature of truth and reality. We may need to get knocked around with a stick a few times, literally or figuratively, to wake us up and keep us on the path of transformation. We may need to get swallowed up by the questioning of a Zen Master, one with keen dragon eyes, to keep us moving in the right direction. Someday, maybe just for a brief moment, we might become a very keen eyed dragon and see the mountains, rivers, and ourselves with pristine clarity and boundless reverence. Someday, we might be able to Walk the Way each day of our lives, confident and courageous, staff in hand, grateful for the Dragon's gifts.
"In Chinese shamanism, a staff represents the power
of the universe. With a staff, a shaman had the power to pass on the universal knowledge to others. Later,
when teachers took over part of the shaman's job, they always taught with a small
their hands like a shaman."
- Master Zhongxian Wu, Vital Breath of the Dao, p. 106
Zen Master Hakuin
Zen Dragon Staff and Whisk
We also must consider on the fact that Case 60 involves "Yun Men's Staff." Not just any staff, but the official ceremonial staff or stick of Yun Men. It's as if the koan is saying that Yun Men transforms into a Dragon. Master Yun Men is transformed into a Dragon when he quizzes, tests, leads, and guides the monks seeking and submitting to his methods of instruction leading them to awakening and encouraging them to follow the Way. This influential "Dragon" rains down nourishment to those below: raindrops of words, raindrops of whacks with a stick, raindrops of smiles, raindrops of insight.
"Every Zen master has a staff that he cuts
for himself in the mountains. It is about seven feet long, perhaps with
some of its twigs left untrimmed, and is quite ungainly in appearance. It
is a symbol of the master's status as mountain steward─ for every Zen temple is
a mountain and has a mountain name, even those located in the heart of busy
cities in Japan. The master has cut his staff from wild nature in the wild
mountains, which is no different from the essential nature set forth by the
On ceremonial occasions in the Lin-chi School, the master enters the main hall with his staff, and at the appropriate moments he thumps the floor with it to punctuate the ceremony. It has no fancy carving and is really a very ordinary thing. But at the same time there is no thing more precious, as you will see on visiting any Zen monastery in Japan. Each monastery has a Kaisandō─a "Founder's Hall," Kaisan meaning "One Who Opens the Mountain." There is an image of the founder enshrined there with some of his memorabilia, always with his staff.
It is awesome to step into the little room of the Kaisandō and feel the fierce gaze of the prior founders and notables upon you. Behind each statue or picture is the staff which that particular Rōshi used─ long withered sticks in grotesque shapes. The statue is the presence of the teacher. The staff is the presence of his teaching and that of all the Buddhas before him."
- Robert Aitken Roshi, The Gateless Barrier, Case 44, "Pa-chiao's Staff," p. 266.
"The stick here is a kind of cane about seven feet long. It was at
first a practical walking stick carried by a Zen monk on his training journey.
Now it is often used in ceremonies, and Zen Masters frequently make use of it in
mondo and teisho. In some cases it symbolically represents
"the One Truth pervading the universe," "original Buddha Nature," "True Self,"
or "the fundamental 'it' "."
- Zenkei Shibayama Roshi, The Gateless Barrier, 2000, p. 304, Case 44 "Basho and a Stick."
Yunmen said, "A true person
of the Way can speak fire without burning his mouth. He can speak all day with
moving his lips and teeth or uttering a word. The entire day he just wears his
clothes and eats his food, but never comes in contact with a single grain of
rice or thread of cloth.
When we speak in this fashion it is jut the manner of our school. It must be set forth like this to be realized. But if you meet a true patch-robed monk of our school and try to reveal the essence through words, it will be a waste of time and effort. Even if you get some great understanding by means of a single word you are still just dozing."
- Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings. By Andy Ferguson, 2000, p. 262
Roshi Robert Baker Aitken
Roshi Aitken holds a ceremonial stick.
Yunmen asks us, "Where are the mountains, the rivers, and the great world?"
They are all just now, present, as is, interdependent, a vast conflux of causes and conditions, One universe... But, they are also impermanent, temporary, changing, never the same, fleeting. Everything changes, everything dies. Entities beings, gods all appear and disappear. Everything is swallowed up by the Dragon of Time. There is not an abiding essence, eternal core, substance, soul, or permanent nature within things or beings. Things and beings are one level "real" and at another level "unreal." For a bodhisattva, a spiritual warrior, striving to not be attached to either the real or unreal is essential to the freedom of mind and liberation from disappointment and sorrow offered up by the enlightened ones like the Buddha. In the Diamond Sutra (the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra), a core text of Zen Buddhism, the Buddha (Tathagata) says,
"As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightening
view all created things like this."
- The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom, translated by Red Pine, 2001, p.27.
Zen masters, spiritual warriors, rise up like hurricane dragons, and gobble up and spit out our confidence in ordinary thinking and perceptions about being in this world. They question their own and our own attachments to fixed truths, unchanging dogmas, sacred scriptures, routines, and habits. Surprise! Whack! Slap! Wake up now!
"So, too, do Zen masters swallow the world and all its mountains and rivers.
And the reason they can do this is because mountains and rivers do not
themselves exist but are simply names we we give to momentary combinations of
causes and conditions that are themselves momentary combinations of causes and
conditions: universes made of specks of dust that form universes that form
universes that form universes. Zen masters swallow names and concepts,
while the entities they represent change. Mountains and rivers and the
ten-thousand things all change. If they did not, we would be in trouble.
We would have no hope of liberation.. But because nothing exists as an
independent, permanent entity, there are no obstructions on the path to
enlightenment. Foolish people, though, refuse to walk this path. The
see nothing but obstructions. Buddhas see offerings and turn these
offerings into dharmas."
- The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom, translated by Red Pine, 2001, p. 410.
From 100 miles away I can see Mt. Shasta clearly on a winter's day; when hiking on Mt. Shasta is see rocks and trees.
Nonsense! Sometimes, however, nonsense can refine our sense and senses. We require interaction with the ten thousand things to make experience bloom. "Reality" has many definitions and interpretations and explanations; even if built upon the sometimes shaky foundations of the 31 senses. "Fiction" can sometimes be as instructive as actual lived experiences. The language of the Buddhas are the words of many different men and women, living in different times, in different circumstances, having short lives and long lives, speaking different languages, having different parents and family experiences ... sometimes their words seem unreal, imaginary, fantasies and fictions to us.
I understand our embodied awareness, our sensory experience, and our actions enabling living much differently than Bodhidharma. Who gave this man the nickname meaning 'enlightened teaching'? Your eyes or ears or hands are not located anywhere in the body? Enlightened?─ maybe, but not here.
Disrespect and contempt for the body is a common trump card for spiritualists; but, our game of life does not use trump cards.
Wrestle the dragon to the ground, then hold your cane up high. Yes, it is a game, a fiction, all located in words spoken and fading like this winter of 2015.
Research by Michael P. Garofalo
This webpage was first published on the Internet on December 6, 2014.
This webpage was last updated or modified on March 8, 2015.
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