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Ma-tsu’s White and Black

· Dharma Discourses, Teachings · , , , ,

by Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei

Book of Equanimity, Case 6

Ma-tsu’s White and Black

A Stage Whisper:
Where you can’t open your mouth, a tongueless person can speak; where you lift your feet without rising, a legless person can walk. If you fall within their range and die at the phrase, how can you have any freedom? When the four mountains all oppress you, how can you penetrate to freedom?

Main Case:
A monastic asked Great Master Ma-tsu, “Apart from the four propositions and beyond the hundred negations, please directly point out the meaning of living Buddhism.” Ma-tsu said, “I’m tired today and can’t explain for you. Go ask Zhizhang.”
The monastic asked Zhizhang; Zhizhang said, “Why don’t you ask the teacher?”
The monastic said, “The teacher told me to come ask you.” Zhizhang said, “I have a headache today and can’t explain for you. Ask Brother Hai.”
The monastic asked Hai, who said, “When I come this far, after all I don’t understand.”
The monastic related all this back to Ma-tsu. Ma-tsu said, “Zang’s head is white, Hai’s head is black.”

Verse:

Medicine working as illness—
It is mirrored in the past sages.
Illness working as medicine—
Sure, but who is it?
White head, black head—capable heirs of the house. Statement or no statement—
the ability to cut off the flow. Clearly sitting,
cutting off the road of speech and explanation.
Laughable is the old ancient awl at Vaisali.

This is one of the “Nanto“ koans, a variety of koan that is traditionally classified as difficult to pass through. Nanto koans demand a raw and wide presentation, and will be alive with a student for a student’s whole life, never settling into the comfort zone. This koan of Ma-tsu deals with the issue of existence itself. It takes up the basic matter of life and death—not just our physical death in the future—but also that undermining and ongoing sense of our present insubstantiality, the sense one can have of not being able to quite grasp a continuous self. It sends us looking for our life, bouncing off our ideas and formulations, right along with this earnest monk.

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