With Nothing to Call My Own

· Dharma Discourses, Open Access · ,

by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi


Book of Serenity Case 14

Attendant Huo Passes Tea

The Pointer

Probing pole in hand, shadowing grass around him, sometimes he wraps a ball of silk in iron, sometimes he wraps a special stone with silk. To determine the soft by means of the hard is of course right; what about the matter of being weak when meeting strength?

Main Case

Attendant Huo asked Deshan, “Where have all the sages since antiquity gone?”
Deshan said, “What? How’s that?”
Huo said, “The order was for a ‘flying dragon’ horse but a ‘lame tortoise’ shows up.” Deshan let it rest.
The next day when Deshan came out of the bath, Huo passed him some tea.
Deshan patted Huo on the back. Huo said, “This old fellow has finally gotten a glimpse.” Again Deshan let the matter rest


Coming right up face-to-face, an adept knows;
Here sparks and lightning are slow.
The plotter who lost the moment has a deep intent—
To fool the enemy army into not thinking ahead.
Each shot a sure hit,
Who’s fooled anymore?
When you see jowls from behind his head, the man is hard to run afoul of;
Setting his eyes under his eyebrows, he got the advantage.


In the Prajnaparamita sutra it says when “the giver and the receiver, the gift and the action have no basis, this is Dana Paramita.” The Paramitas are the practices of an awakened, compassionate being. Dana, the first of the Paramitas, is selfless giving. Generosity, one of the most important aspects of Buddhist practice, helps us reclaim a fundamental aspect of our being, which is to be magnanimous in heart rather than withholding; to be expansive rather than contracting and confined; to be trusting rather than cynical or skeptical. Giving selflessly is powerful because it’s a language that everyone understands. When you offer a gift, that gesture speaks clearly in every time and every place to every person. It helps free us of our stinginess and self-centeredness. It puts us into direct contact with another being, and it shows us that we have something to offer, always. In Dana Paramita, we are giving buddhadharma, which is the ultimate gift of liberation.

What is giving? How do we truly help another? Compassion in Buddhism is selfless love arising from deep wisdom, having no basis, like in this koan. Deshan was a well-respected teacher and known for being quite strong in the sense of tough, severe, and demanding. Huo is his attendant whose practice is to attend to his teacher, to anticipate his needs. It’s a practice of releasing one’s self-concern and offering well-being to someone.

photo by Chizen Brown, MRO

photo by Chizen Brown, MRO

Master Deshan once said,

If you have no affairs of the self then you have no delusive craving. That which is obtained through delusive craving you don’t actually obtain. If you have no affairs in your mind, nor mind in your affairs, then you’re unoccupied yet animated. Empty yet wondrous. But if you allow yourself to stray from his upright state, you’ll be deceived by words. Why? When bound by the slightest thought we enter a hell realm. A single glimpse of our impulsive life and we’re bound tightly for 10,000 kalpas. Words like sacred and ordinary, are empty. Superior and inferior appearances are just hallucinations, constructions of the mind. If you’re constantly striving for these things will you not become exhausted? If you become belabored in this manner it will be a disaster. The result cannot be good.

Indeed. Deshan meets his student, Hou, who asks, “Where have all the sages since antiquity gone?” Deshan says, “What? How’s that?” Once a student came to Deshan and asked, “What is Bodhi?” Deshan said, “Get out! Don’t defecate here!” As soon as words are spoken—Buddha, enlightenment, dukha, liberation—our minds begin to become bound. Why? Because the words mean something. In meaning “some thing” they point to something that becomes an object in our minds. We then take that mind-object of our own creation and begin to relate to it as existing on its own. So how does Dharma practice offer relief. How does it give us the gift of the great release?

The Heart Sutra says, No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind, no realm of sight, no realm of consciousness no old age and death, no end to old age and Death, no suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinguishing, no path. This seems to take everything away; not seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking. How is this giving? The moment something is affirmed it begins to become, to be. This is the basis upon which we build and construct a self and an other, and “the result cannot be good.” Once other is established, greed, anger, and delusion are sure to follow. So the generosity of the teachings comes in the form of saying not this, not this, pointing deeper, more directly, until ultimately we reach groundlessness, baselessness. When you hear these words what appears in your mind as a result of that cannot be good. Teachers are constantly trying to lead us not towards deconstruction but to not constructing, and then beyond this too. This is the great peace. But how is this offered face-to-face, person-to-person, teacher to student? What form does such giving take along the path?

In the pointer he says, “sometimes a ball of silk is wrapped in iron; sometimes iron is wrapped in silk.” Zen teachers speak of “rolling out” when the teacher provides a guiding hand, walks side-by-side with the student, pointing out the barriers and brambles. It’s like having a good friend who knows the way. This is “wrapping a special stone with silk” because what a student encounters in the beginning will appear easy, but they soon find it to be hard and unyielding. Then there’s “rolling in,” where the teacher is demanding, withdraws. Your friend and guide has left you alone, you look but you can’t find them. You have only your own resources to rely upon. This can appear tough and uncompassionate, though it arises from the teacher’s faith in the student. They are sufficient to find their way through. Until they stand naked and alone, they won’t discover their true source. “Wrapping a ball of silk in iron.” It may seem overwhelming, but when we turn in and step forward, we find the way opens up expectedly.

“Where have all the sages since antiquity gone?” There’s another koan where Master Ma was walking with his student Baizhang when some ducks flew by overhead. Master Ma asked, “What are those?” He could see. There was nothing wrong with his eyes. Baizhang said, “Ducks, master.” Master Ma said, “Where have they gone?” Baizhang said, “They flew away.” Master Ma then grabbed his nose and squeezed it. Baizhang screamed out in pain. Master Ma released him and said, “When have they ever flown away?”

Deshan says, “What? How’s that?” Where have they gone? Where are they now? Where are you now? Huo says, “The order was for a ‘flying dragon horse,’ but a ‘lame tortoise’ shows up instead.” Even over the hundreds of years this still translates and stands up pretty well. Huo does not approve of his teacher’s response. Deshan let it rest. Now remember, this is a very powerful, fierce teacher and he lets it rest. Why? Is Huo correct? Is Deshan giving up on his student? Teachers never give up on a student. Bodhisattvas never abandon sentient beings. How they give can appear in many different ways. Sometimes they walk side-by-side, sometimes they take a piece of food and chew it and then put it in your mouth. Sometimes what they put in your mouth is sweet, sometimes it’s bitter. Even if they close the door and say, “Go away!”—it’s for the sake of liberation. Does Huo understand? What does he understand? Where is his mind?

photo by Herval

photo by Herval

In our training relationships with teachers, on the one hand we can be attached to formality, on the other hand we can get confused in being casual. After the Buddha was enlightened he went to the group of ascetics with whom he had previously lived and practiced. He left them because he decided that asceticism was not a viable path. They saw him as having given up and returning to a self-indulgent life. As they saw him returning they said, “Oh there’s that old deadbeat Shakyamuni, who has abandoned the Path. Let’s ignore him.” So they try to ignore him, but as he comes closer they can’t because they see that something is different. He seems somehow transformed. So they get up and prepare a seat for him. When they addressed him as they had in the past, as “friend” the Buddha stops them and says, “Don’t address the Tathagatha by name and as friend. The Tathagatha, friends, is a worthy one, rightly self awakened. Lend your ear. The deathless has been attained. I will now instruct you. I will teach you the Dharma. Practicing as instructed you will in no long time reach and remain in the supreme place of holy life, for which you have rightly gone forth from home. Realize it for yourself here and now.”

The first time I read this I thought, “That’s a bit cheeky.” But that was my not understanding. I later came to see this as the Buddha trying to create a right relationship within these sincere students and the Dharma, so they could hear it, practice it and realize it. In our training, when we do face-to-face teaching why is there a formality in how the student enters the teacher’s room? It’s to bring their consciousness to a place of wakefulness, of alertness, so they can have intimate and subtle communication with the Dharma. In other words, so we can hear rather than listen, see rather than look, realize rather than understand.

Huo says, “The order was for a ‘flying dragon horse,’ but a ‘lame tortoise’ showed up instead.” And Deshan let it rest. There’s a lot of discussion about Buddhism and its development and its evolution within this country and within the West in general. In order to practice Dharma in a way that’s true it has to be taught in a way that is true. This keeps us in an actively respectful relationship with our ancestors and practice traditions. Also, how Dharma is taught and practiced needs to be in accord with this time and place. This keeps the tradition alive and responsive. What makes this a dynamic process, of both constancy and adaptation?

At the beginning of last Ango we studied The Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in 8,000 Lines, and there was some grumbling from the sangha. “This is difficult, it’s hard to understand and relate to. Is this even relevant to my practice here and now?” When I first started training and encountered a number of different sacred teachings that were difficult, I was frustrated too. I wanted to feel something, to be moved and inspired. I wanted to get something from my studies and to know that I’d gotten it. Here we see the mind that is looking for rewards, assurances and confirmations of what we already know. What is Buddhism ultimately about? No basis. To transcend and be free of looking for the reward, the confirmation, the affirmation, the recognition, the status, the power and so on.

Then why does Deshan let it rest when Huo expresses his own limited mind? The next day when Deshan is coming out of the bath, Huo offers him some tea and Deshan just gives him a simple pat on the back. A gesture of recognition, of attention, of affection. And Huo says, “This old fellow has finally gotten a glimpse.” Again Deshan lets the matter rest. For me, this is like an earthquake, like thunder. An old master commenting on this said, “Deshan really had ruthless hands and feet. But he saw that this monk was not a person to accept the hammer. So he stopped right away.” When Buddhism teaches about upaya, or skillful means, it’s not an abstract thing. Manifesting compassion is always right on the spot. It has to be here, now, directly encountered by the student. And this student is not like any other, not even like they appeared yesterday. To meet someone in such a place we have to have a mind that’s free of prejudice and held opinions. We may have history with someone but we’re not confined by it, nor do we use that to confine them either.

Another master said, “If you don’t go up to the Dragon Gate how can you know the vastness of the blue sea? Even if the waves crash a thousand fathoms, nevertheless a dragon pays no notice.” If you don’t face what is frightening, tolerate what is painful, understand what is subtle, they you’ll continue to dwell within a fearful, painful, superficial box. Only when we turn towards what appears as a barrier do we see the true nature of mind and self; vast, empty, unhindered.

photo by Anelisse Fifi, MRO

photo by Anelisse Fifi, MRO

Deshan saw that Huo was not a person to accept the hammer, that a more direct pointing might not be received. But in letting it rest, in offering vast space wrapped in silk, did attendant Huo hear it? Did he recognize that this great master left him alone with his ultimate responsibility—to see his mind and where he’s stuck? Many times I went into dokusan to meet my teacher and he would respond in a way that I did not expect. Sometimes I couldn’t see the connection between my question and his response. I’d think, “Did I not ask a question? Did he not hear me?” I would return to my seat wondering, questioning. My teacher knew that I needed his teachings and that I was responsible for receiving them. Deshan’s life, as was Daido Roshi’s, was to offer the Dharma, to give wherever possible, whenever possible. But when a teacher gives a gift, they can’t make the student receive it. This can only happen with the mind and heart of the one who needs to know.

Vimalikirti said that when offering  something essential to another, first concentrate yourself. That doesn’t mean to only just be present, it means concentrate your self. Know your mind! If we are distracted, that’s what we’re offering, our distraction. If we are attached to something, that’s what we’re offering, our attachment. If we are holding onto a false view, that’s what we’re giving, a false view. Concentrate your mind. Then know the inclinations of the person in front of you. This person is a living being, a life with history, a presence, a mind, a heart, emotions, feelings, thoughts, dignity. Then offer the Dharma, offer what you have to give.

photo by Lisa Gakyo Schawe

photo by Lisa Gakyo Schawe

From the poem Hongzhi says, “Coming right up face-to-face, an adept knows.” To learn, to be able to see clearly. That’s why compassion is selfless, because if we are caught up in our own attachments, our own grasping, our own fears, our own ideas, then what I want you to get is my view. That’s why the Dharma cannot be forced. “Here sparks and lightning are slow.” When we think about it, the moment has already passed. In direct experience, there is no fast or slow. There’s only this day, this awareness, this practice.

I’ll end with a poem—

Taking refuge,
I move within the family of buddhas.
Realizing the three treasures,
cold and solitary is the echoless valley.
Arriving here I owe to the ancestors;
Standing here I owe to you.
With nothing to call my own
every action, every consequence
belongs to me alone.
Now, you please, also write a verse.
Then together we can meet
deep within the mountains
and have intimate communication
with the wise ones .

This Dharma is very subtle, because life is subtle. What is beneath the surface is the whole thing, and it’s not beneath the surface at all. It’s never out of sight. It’s never apart. How do we find our way in, when there is no door? The real question is: how did we ever turn away?

Calligraphy By Daido Roshi

Calligraphy By Daido Roshi

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Roshi 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.

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