The bodhisattva appearing as a maiden on the banks of golden sand was a special spirit. Stuffing pastries in a crystal jar, who would dare to roll it? Without going into the frightening waves, it’s hard to find a suitable fish. How about one expression of walking relaxed with big strides?
Changsha had a monk ask Master Hui, “How was it before you saw Nanquan?”
Hui remained silent. The monk said, “How about after seeing him?”
Hui said, “There couldn’t be anything else.”
The monk returned and related this to Changsha. Changsha said,
The man sitting atop the hundred-foot pole:
Though he’s gained entry, this is not yet the real.
Atop the hundred-foot pole, he should step forward:
The universe in all directions is the whole body.
The monk said, “Atop the hundred-foot pole, how can you step forward?” Changsha said, “The mountains of Lang, the rivers of Li.”
The monk said, “I don’t understand.”
Changsha said, “The whole land is under the imperial sway.”
The jade man’s dream is shattered—one call from the rooster
Looking around on life, all colors are equal.
Wind and thunder, with news of events, roust out the hibernating insects;
Peach trees, wordless, naturally make a path.
When the time and season comes, laboring at the plow,
Who fears the spring rows’ knee-deep mud?
Changsha was a dharma brother of the great Ch’an Master Zhouzhou. In this koan Changsha has a student go to Master Hui and ask this question. Every moment, every encounter, each and every thing is buddhadharma. This is both true and is also dangerous words. It can be pleasing to hear this; it can be comforting; it can be inspiring. To have faith in this is difficult; to live it is the greatest challenge of our lives. To understand the teachings is easy. To directly realize them is challenging. To embody them fully in every thought, word and action is most difficult. This is the path of the Mahayana.
“Before practice and realization how is it? After practice and realization how is it?” Everyone wants to know. The koan is one moment of Dharma, one direct pointing, one point of entry. Because koans use the stuff of language, sometimes it requires some background to understand what certain things are referring to within the koan. “How was it before you saw Nanquan?”—he was not asking about just having seen the teacher Nanquan. How was it before you saw him, before you met him in intimacy? Have you seen the original face of Nanquan? Hui remains silent. What is this? Without naming this silence or speech, enter directly into this one perfect moment. “Remained silent” means expressing the entirety without any gaps.
The student says, “then how about after you saw Nanquan?” Hui said “it couldn’t be anything else.” Not being “anything else” means throughout the ten directions, it’s always been just this? To meet the mind of Hui, the mind of Nanquan, we must meet our own mind, Buddha mind. In this way, we see that these koans, although originating hundreds of years ago, coming from a certain time and place, are not about time and place. Being free, we can now enter this time and place without hindrance. When the student came back and related this to Changsha, Changsha said “the person sitting atop the hundred foot pole has gained entry but this is not yet the real—he should step forward.”
So what is the hundred foot pole? Well, put yourself there. It’s a hundred feet up. How is it there? From atop the hundred foot pole how is it down here? Far away. It’s so far away you can’t hear the conversations; you can’t hear the cries. It’s so far away you can’t even see the people. It’s so high you can’t see a single thing. And so Changsha is saying on top of this pole he has gained entry, but this is not yet the real. Now of course from down below that pole looks pretty sweet. The air is clear, there’s no noise. No problems. Of course it’s a tiny little platform so you can’t take anything with you—not even clothes so you’re naked and fresh—so that means that you’re far away from it all. So from down here it looks pretty nice. This is the view from delusion to enlightenment. But enlightenment is not a place or thing, so the only view we can have is within our imagination, which is not enlightenment at all. Only by standing on the top of this pole can you know.
But why does Changsha say “having arrived here you gain entry but this is not yet the real”? Changsha is speaking about something very real within our practice and training of the buddhadharma. Is it liberation or is it escape? Are you withdrawing from the world or are you meeting the world? There is a long-held desire for escape, to withdraw and be done with it all, to avoid the difficulties. I imagine we’ve all had moments where we thought if we could just leave the world while we find a refuge, a heaven, an island, a cave, a something, a somewhere. But this is not buddhadharma. This is not practice. This is not even real.
Dogen says the Buddha way transcends being and nonbeing. Having forgotten the self, there are no Buddhas, no creatures, no enlightenment, no delusion, no life, no death, no suffering, no happiness, no people, no concerns. Dogen says however, that the Buddha way transcends being and nonbeing; therefore, there certainly is life and death, there are creatures and Buddhas, there is enlightenment and delusion. He says that forgetting the self is to be enlightened by the very 10,000 things that we might want to escape from. But rather than escaping from the 10,000 things we find liberation of, within, by, and for the 10,000 things. In that, we free body and mind of self and other. The temptation to withdraw, to avoid, or to get away is the desire and the view of an already walled-in existence that’s just not quite working. But of course when you build a wall the very thing that’s keeping the world out is also keeping you distant from the world. It’s not freeing us at all. What seems to be protecting us becomes our confinement.
A student once asked master Changsha, “What is my mind?” And Changsha said, “All worlds of the ten directions.” And the student said, “If that’s so, then there is no particular place where my body is manifested.” Changsha said, “It is the place where your body is manifested.” The student said, “What is a place where it’s manifested?” Changsha said, “The great ocean vast and deep.” The student said, “I don’t understand.” Changsha said, “Dragons and fish frolic freely leaping off and diving.” Maezumi speaks about playing freely in inner and outer samadhi. The teachings are replete with such utterances, with such invitations, with such declarations. And the great challenge is to make this real in our very lives.
Think about what the Buddha left behind when he left home in search of liberation: everything. Put yourself in his place, leaving everything you know, every sense of certainty and security behind; what kind of longing, what kind of hunger, what kind of desperate and urgent desire was that? Having made this supreme sacrifice, he wasn’t about to go around the countryside and waste time; he’d given up everything. He was driven to continue on his path until he found fulfillment. So, in the commentary it says, “Without going into the frightening waves it’s hard to find a suitable fish.” Here today, for you and me, to make this real we must go into the frightening waves. How should we go? Awake!
We call this “ascending the mountain training,” the great sacred mountain. To climb to the peak of the mountain, which is the top of the hundred foot pole, is to study the way; is to study the self; is to forget the self; is to be enlightened by the 10,000 things; is to be awake. In order to do this we will meet our delusion. Our endeavor is to meet delusion with our eyes open—and not just our eyes open but our hearts open, our mind open, our courage present, our faith strong, our patience deep. We go with ki, spiritual power, with wisdom; the wisdom of the precepts, the wisdom of the understanding of cause-and-effect. We go with the developing understanding of what is helpful and what is not, something that sounds so simple but can so frequently not be clear. We go through forests of regret and remorse, and we learn how to move through those forests with faith and patience and atonement and courage and ultimately joy. And our power increases and we develop perseverance; all of these great qualities of an enlightened being—of a bodhisattva—which are the qualities of each and every one of us.
The more we practice wholeheartedly with sincerity, the more powerful our practice becomes even in the midst of our own self-interest , our self-concern, our hesitation, our resistance because sincerity is like a raging fire… A sincere heart, in alignment with the Way, has no equal.
It’s nice how that works out: what you need you already have, so that we can step forward. All dharmas are buddhadharma, all dharmas are without self, all dharmas are beyond being and nonbeing, which means beyond real and not real, true and not true. When reaching the peak all is forgotten. What does that mean? When you forget something, where is it? You can’t find it. And in this forgetting you can’t even remember that it was something. So it’s actually forgetting forgetting—forgetting the self, the world, time and space, subject and object, suffering and happiness, love and hate. In this place of forgetting there is only the great ocean, vast and deep—only the boundless sky, clear and limitless. There are no concerns. So why not stay here? Shobogenzo—the treasury of the true dharma eye—is your eye, Buddha mind, the great treasury. It is genjokoan manifesting in perfect completeness, present and indestructible. Being complete means all worlds, all beings, all times, all things, all universes, all concerns, all forgetting—there is nothing left out. So why not stay here? Who would not want to stay? The footnote to Hui saying, “There couldn’t be anything else” is, “I say once dead he didn’t revive.” And so there is a practice to slay the living—the living notion of a separate self, of someone who could escape, of a place we could escape from, of someone who could be improved upon, of someone who is imperfect, of someone who will die. But having slain that illusion of separate self, there has to be reviving of the dead. This is an ancient practice; to bring the dead back to life.
Atop the pole, to experience emptiness of the five conditions, the basic space of suffering, the untraceable nature of nature itself. It’s serene and vast. Why not stay? Because when solitariness is set up, becomes a fixed place, the path is not yet lofty. There’s a parable in the Lotus Sutra where there’s a group of seekers ascending the great mountain, seeking the mother of all Buddhas, the way, liberation. It’s a long journey and they are tired; their spirits are flagging and they’re beginning to wonder, “Why am I doing this? Why is this taking so long? I’m not sure I can make it. Maybe it’s not worth it.” They start to talk to each other and it gets bigger and more solid. So their guide conjures up a magical place and he says, “Look at this beautiful place; let’s rest a while.” They go in and it is beautiful. They lay down, have some food, and start to feel sleepy. They feel like this is what they’ve been looking for, this is good enough. But their view is limited, they don’t know what’s further down the path. So the guide says, “Okay that’s enough, we can’t stay here, we must continue. This is not the fulfillment of your seeking. This is not yet liberation.”
Atop the hundred-foot pole appears like an escape. In dwelling there, it can become like what we’ve been doing our whole lives, attaching to some sense of a fixed place. We can see this in terms of things that happen all along the way in practice; maybe it’s not a hundred foot pole but it’s got a little bit of a rise. It’s where we’re using practice, we’re using zazen, or our idea of the Dharma to avoid something, as an escape from a relationship, a difficult responsibility or obligation. We encounter our desire to avoid difficulties in many ways; it seems easier in the short run but it doesn’t stay easy for long. The disappointment gets greater and greater because it’s not yet lofty. Lofty means here and now, gaining strength for the road, actually reclaiming our lives, being of service. It is the highest meaning of the holy truths, the non-duality of all things, the bodhisattva appearing on the banks of the golden sand, the special spirit, the mother of all Buddhas appearing in a grain of dust, appearing in blue jeans, appearing as a teacher, appearing as a bodhisattva. It’s that same bodhisattva disappearing in the midst of a crowd; no big deal, no shining golden glow, so plain, so ordinary. Lofty as a golden-haired lion, it’s a leaf floating in the wind, it’s dragons and fish frolicking freely, frothily, fanning their fins.
How we step forward is the most real question of our lives. How do you step forward when the body and mind have been forgotten, realized as empty. Changsha says, “The mountains of Lang the rivers of Li.” “I don’t understand,” says the student. “The whole land is under the imperial sway.” The footnote says, “You bump into it everywhere.” Now in dokusan students working on this koan have to realize it on their cushion and then they have to manifest it in the dokusan room, making it alive right there on the spot. But they must also know that this is not yet truly manifesting it in their lives. They’re manifesting in that moment, but that’s just the dokusan room. I know this because when I worked on this and I presented it in the dokusan room, I was not yet able to manifest it freely in my life, but I was working on it. I’m still working on it. That’s what we have to do. This is the genjokoan, the way of everyday life, this is complete perfect manifesting here and now. Reach the top of the hundred-foot pole again and again. Step forward—manifesting the body of mountains and rivers—again and again. This is ceaseless practice.
The funny thing is, stepping forward or not stepping forward is actually not an option. We are always stepping forward, but all too often we’re stepping forward with our eyes closed, or we’re stepping forward backwards or stepping forward in circles. In the same sense, we don’t begin practicing, manifesting our original nature, when we begin sitting zazen. We just begin to recognize we’re always manifesting this very body and mind. But how clearly, how compassionately, how freely? The poem says, “Wind and thunder, with news of events, roust out the hibernating insects.” All of those insects hiding under stones and leaves and shade of trees are rousted out. The wind and thunder could be Changsha, it could be your boss, it could be the person sitting next to you, it could be you yourself. We learn to be more fearless of the wind and thunder of our lives, to see it as mind, as practice, as entry into “Peach trees, wordless, naturally make a path.”
To be enlightened by the ten thousand things, to free body and mind of self and others is the essential matter. It’s not enough to just free our body and mind, we need to free the body and mind of everything: trees, mountains, people, children, pirates, dictators, psychopaths, projections, emotions. We need to free all of them of the body and mind that we project on to them, as well as their projections. Isn’t this why human relationships are the most challenging: two worlds clashing, two titans competing for control of the universe. There’s just so much body and mind, self and solidity, the past and future. So how do we step forward? That’s why getting to the top of the one hundred foot pole is so important. To realize that’s not who you are; it’s not who I am. That’s why we practice the precepts, zazen, liturgy, all of these very powerful paths into forgetting the self. And the more we practice wholeheartedly with sincerity, the more powerful they become even in the midst of our own self-interest, our self-concern, our hesitation, our resistance because sincerity is like a raging fire. We may think that our self-interest is the biggest thing in town but it’s not. It may appear like a great mountain but in fact a sincere heart in alignment with the way has no equal.
The Buddha has no fixed form. Non-abiding is the basis. Our desiring, clinging mind will try to turn what is vast and spacious into domesticated reality. It seems easier to manage, but it’s not real so it doesn’t actually help us. It’s like, “Stuffing pastries in a crystal jar, who would dare to roll it?” Our attachments turn what is alive and resilient into something fragile and easy to lose. And so the commentary says this crystal jar should be smashed, to make our hands free and powerful. For what purpose?
“When the time and season comes, laboring at the plow,” the footnote says, “Shirkers don’t work.” “Who fears the spring rows’ knee-deep mud?” The footnote says, “Workers don’t shirk.” Stepping forward the time comes to pick up the plow, the time comes to face what is difficult to face, to live this life and face this suffering world. We shouldn’t shirk our basic human responsibility, to be of benefit in this world. When we step forward—as the body and mind of mountains and rivers—there is no fear of “the spring row’s knee-deep mud” because we’re not standing at a distance.
“The universe in all directions is the whole body.” Let’s make our lives an offering to everyone and everything.
The rising sun—
in winter its rays are cool,
in summer, blazing hot—
yet it always radiates warmth the same.
Observe the perfect movements of time and seasons,
align with the Way.
This is the day of our fulfillment.
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei is the Head of the Mountains and River Order and the Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of New York City.
Book of Serenity is a collection of koans compiled during the 12th century and commented on by Master Wansong with poems by Master Hongzhi.