All the Ancestors Are Like This

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by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi

The True Dharma Eye, Case 101

Nanyue’s “Its Not Like Something”

Main Case

Zen master of Nanyue went to study with the Sixth Ancestor, Huineng. The Sixth Ancestor said: “Where are you from?” Nanyue said, “I came from National Teacher Huian.”

The Sixth Ancestor said, “What is it that has come like this?” Nanyue could not answer.

He attended on the master for eight years and worked on this question. One day he said to the Huineng, “Now I understand it. When I first came to study with you, you asked me, ‘What is it that has come like this?’ The Sixth Ancestor said, “How do you understand it?” Nanyue said, “To say it’s like something misses it.” Huineng said, “Does it depend upon practice and enlightenment?”

Nanyue said, “It’s not that there is no practice and enlightenment. It’s just that we should not be defiled by them.”

The Sixth Ancestor said, “Just this non-defilement is what buddhas have maintained and transmitted. You are like this. I am like this. All the ancestors in India were like this.”


Blue sky, bright sun

there is no distinguishing east from west.

Yet acting in accord with the imperative

still requires dispensing medicine when the sickness appears.

In my early training when Daido Roshi spoke about buddha ancestors, they seemed like dim, remote characters who had a distant role in what I felt was the most important discovery of my life, the Buddhist Path. I understood that these were enlightened masters that had transmitted the teachings across generations, but they were not yet a living reality for me. Because the dharma is vast and deep and we each have our own karmic streams, there can be aspects of dharma practice that don’t initially speak to us. As long as we stay open and allow for all possibilities, this can change. As I continued to study and train, something began to come to life. I began to see and experience a connection between my path and the many people and currents that came before me. This may or may not change over the years, but as long as we stay open and allow for the possibilities, the doors are always there. This is how our experience of the dharma can become larger and more multifaceted, more nuanced, more beautiful. And really what this means is that our own sense of ourselves and our world becomes more multifaceted, nuanced and beautiful.

Some questions require careful study so that we can understand their significance. The basis for the question that Huineng asks in this koan, “What is it that has come like this?” appears very early on in the development of Zen. Tathagata, the one “thus come” and the one “thus gone,” is an epithet for the Buddha: the one who comes and goes in suchness, as the reality of all things, thus.

When we speak about truth and reality they can suggest something that is fixed, some sort of absolute. The Truth. The Reality. It’s important to remember, again and again, that words are like placeholders, an approximation, to bring us closer to that which we call “truth” and “reality” yet cannot be expressed by words. Because it is not truth, we speak of it as truth. In practice, this means we need to continually release our mind from words and concepts and from any fixedness that we might give them.

Master Dogen said:

Actualizing buddha ancestors means to bring them forth and look at them in veneration. It’s not limited to Buddhas of the past, present and future; but it is going beyond Buddhas who are going beyond themselves. It’s taking of those who have maintained the face and eye of Buddha ancestors formally bowing and meeting them. They have manifested the virtue of the Buddha ancestors they have dwelt in it and they have actualized it in the body.

This is such a marvelous passage. We could study this our whole lives. These few words beautifully express how what we are doing is connected to everything before and everything to come. It brings us right to this moment and makes it clear that practice is the manifestation of virtue. There is dwelling in that virtue, manifesting it, bringing it forth and actualizing it in the body.  Everything we do, really, is this.

When I was a musician I would spend hours and hours practicing, rehearsing for a performance. Practice, practice, practice, and then finally I would perform. All of that preparation for a few moments of live music. But Buddhist practice is the whole thing, practice-live. One undivided moment. One practice-realization. The way we bring forth the wisdom of the buddhas is by manifesting wisdom in our thoughts, words and actions. The way we bring forth great compassion is by being compassionate now. We take up and maintain the face and eye of the buddhas by being the very face and eye, that body and mind, by bringing forth the bodhicitta that every sincere practitioner since the time of the Buddha brings forth. What did the Buddha practice? He practiced meditation. He practiced walking. He practiced eating and lying down.

In another fascicle, Dogen says, “The actualization of buddhas and ancestors is the real form of exhaustive investigation.” Ours is an inquiring tradition. We bring forth faith, compassion, the precepts—all of these enlightened qualities—but it is the investigation that makes it the Buddha Way. This means we are in dynamic relatedness—with mind, with zazen, with dharma—so that we can go beyond all relatedness. Encountering what we don’t understand is the door into inquiry. As we engage in these various practices, we should examine them carefully and deeply, with urgency. Master Dogen taught,

All phenomena are the forms of suchness; are the nature of suchness; are the body of suchness; are the mind of suchness; are the world of suchness; are the clouds and rain of suchness; are the walking, standing, sitting, and lying down of suchness; are the sorrow and joy, the excitement and calm of suchness; are the staff and whisk of suchness; are the flower-twirling and smiling of suchness; are the dharma transmission and intent to transmit of suchness; are the study and practice of suchness; are pine(-like) constancy and the bamboo(-like) interruptedness of suchness.

All dharmas are forms of emptiness. This is another way of speaking of suchness, or thus. This is  the merging of every duality, the unity of every opposite. We speak of it in terms of relative and absolute. Relative is phenomena, everything that we can know, touch, taste, feel, think, experience. The absolute is that which has no body, no characteristic, no time and space. Each abides in its own dharma state. You are like this. I am like this.

For eight years Nanyue worked on this question, What is it that has come like this? When a thought appears, it seems to be born. It wasn’t there a moment ago, and now something is there. There is “somethingness”—a sense of existence, of having come into being. Like a baby being born—before the egg was fertilized there was nothing. Now there’s a person. What is it that has come like this? Is there nothing and then suddenly something? And with death, a return to nothing? What is it that has come?

Nanyue was working diligently, day after day, year after year. After eight years he came to Huineng said, “Now I understand.” Huineng asked, “What do you understand?” “Nanyue said, “To say it’s like something misses it.”

Now that could be understood by any Buddhist student after a month or so study. It’s in accord with the basic teachings—we understand that words don’t convey the truth. But Nanyue is speaking at a much deeper level. The Sixth Ancestor probes, “Does it depend on practice and enlightenment?” Is what you have experienced a result of your practice and realization? Is that which cannot be expressed in words a result of something? This is a very, very important question. It goes to the heart of why we can get so frustrated in practice. So often we try to use our practice to try to create a state of mind or to avoid a state of mind, to create a sense of peace or to avoid a sense of dis-ease. If we do obtain something, then we need to retain it, right? What happens? We lose it. We can’t possess a single thing.

When Huineng says, “Does it depend on practice and enlightenment?” he’s asking if your understanding, your liberation is dependent on practice and enlightenment. Nanyue said, “It’s not that there is no practice and enlightenment, it’s just that we should not be defiled by them.” That should turn us on our heads. Normally we think, “Wait a minute, practice and enlightenment are to free us of our defilements.” Yet here he’s saying, “Don’t be defiled by practice and enlightenment.” Huineng then lets loose a lion’s roar: “Just this non-defilement is what buddhas have maintained and transmitted.”

What is “this non-defilement” that Huineng speaks of? If it doesn’t depend on practice and enlightenment, then how can training bring awakening? A story in the Mahaparinibbana Sutra shows this nicely. When the Buddha was in his final days he was invited to a meal at the home of a lay student, Kunda.  Kunda prepared a wonderful meal of various dishes, one of which was called “a pig delicacy.” Translators say that this could have been something either made of pork or something that pigs really enjoyed eating. When the Buddha and his students arrived for the meal, he called Kunda over and said, “Listen, that pig delicacy, I want you to serve it just to me. Don’t serve it to anybody else. Serve all the other food you have to the other monks.”  So Kunda serves all the food and then the Buddha tells him, “Take all that pig delicacy and bury it. Don’t let anybody else eat it.” And then he said, “I don’t see anyone in the world in whom, when this is ingested, it would go to a healthy change, nor would it be good for them, aside from the Tathagata.” The Buddha eats it and Kunda buries all of the remains. “Then in the Blessed One, after he’d eaten his meal, there arose a severe disease accompanied with the passing of blood, intense pains and deadly.” It seems the Buddha was suffering from food poisoning. The sutra says, “But the blessed one endured it; mindful, alert and was not struck down.”

photo by Paul Gorbould

What is the merging of relative and absolute? It is the living reality of every moment, each situation. It is the perfect, dynamic expression of form is emptiness, emptiness if form. It is our fundamental nature. It is also what we are practicing. Within what we call the relative and absolute, we bring forth whatever manifests in this moment into our realized mind. In this sutra, the Buddha is severely sick: a relative experience. And he, with his understanding of mind and sickness and the real nature of things, not only endures it but is “mindful, alert and is not struck down.” The Buddha was able to transform this disease. His illness is not something apart from him; it’s not autonomous with its own distinct power. His realization of mind-body and the formless body of reality, he practiced his illness without it being something. He was not apart from, nor limited by, practice and enlightenment.

Then the Buddha calls to Ananda and tells him that if anyone tries to blame Kunda for feeding him tainted food which made him sick, Ananda should say that there are two offerings of food to an enlightened being that are especially auspicious. One is right before they’re enlightened, and the other is right before they die. In fact, the Buddha says, Kunda has created very good karma and merit by doing this; he sincerely offering a nourishing meal and wasn’t intending to make the Buddha sick. In his final moments the Buddha is bringing forth his great compassion.

We live in what we call the relative, phenomenal world, a realm filled with things we can touch and recognize and measure. Perhaps bodhicitta arises because since the beginning of time human beings have sensed that there is something else that we are in the midst of, something of another realm. And whether you call that God or the absolute or truth or the fundamental, it is nothing but our own nature being sensed in a way that we may not understand but can’t deny. What are the relationships between these two realities, these two realms? Master Dongshan’s five ranks are a way of talking about this. In a sense, they are teachings on how we practice and move into suchness.

The first rank is the relative within the absolute. Dongshan’s poem describing this says, In the third watch of the night, before the moon appears, no wonder when we meet there is no recognition. The third watch of the night is the darkest hour. No moon, no stars. Absolute darkness. Nothing can be discerned. You can’t raise your hand and see it, or even find a hand to raise. No wonder when we meet in this place, we don’t recognize each other. When we look at our minds, we see all our constructions, moment after moment after moment. Worlds appear and disappear. Memories, people, situations, wars and truces. What is it when that stops? What remains when the mind is no longer constructing, no longer bringing forth? When all self-awareness, all sensations, inside and outside cannot be found? The empty sky vanishes, the iron mountain crumbles. The Buddha said, “Things here are not as they seem.” Practicing and stepping deeply into silence and stillness are ordinary aspects of the first rank. This is how we move towards that darkest hour. It’s the ceaseless creation of the mind that exhausts us—building worlds, tearing them down, building worlds, tearing them down. You deserve a rest. Everybody deserves a true rest, the great peace.

Stop the construction. Stop creating, stop avoiding, stop denying, stop suppressing, stop destroying. Stop stopping. Cease from all preserving, lingering, retaining, controlling. “When the 10,000 dharmas are without self,” Dogen says, “there is no delusion, no enlightenment, no buddhas, no creatures, no life, no death.”

Hakuin offers this caution about the first rank, “Even though you remain absorbed in this state, this place of the darkest hour—no suffering, no cause of suffering, no old age and death—you will never get out of the cave of self-complacency and the inferior fruits of this state. Essential though it is, true though it is, it is still incomplete. It is inferior. Therefore it is said those whose activity does not leave this place sink into a poisonous sea.” Which is just another way of saying training continues. The path is endless.

The second rank is the absolute within the relative, the realization of the real nature of phenomena. In the first rank there is no phenomena, no state of mind, no experience, no experiencer. The second rank is how we start to reckon with the world, to see the world illuminated in self-nature rather than through the veil of discriminatory thought. Dongshan’s poem says, The sleepy eyed grandma encounters herself in an old mirror. Clearly she sees a face but it doesn’t resemble hers. She sees a face but it’s not “her” face. Encountering yourself in an old mirror, everywhere you look, you see yourself but it’s not you. It’s a face but it’s not your historical face. All phenomena are just this. And so we begin to see the real nature of things: self, other, thoughts, emotions, actions, consequences, creatures, inanimate objects, events. Their solidity, their permanence, their self is realized as empty.

Hakuin says, “All the myriad phenomena before your eyes; the old and the young, the honorable and the base, halls and pavilions, verandas, corridors, plants, trees, mountains, rivers, you regard these as your original true and pure aspect.” This is the realization of “Mu”. This is Zhaozhou’s “Oak tree in the garden.” But Hakuin says you cannot dwell in this realization because “here you are not yet conversant with the deportment of the bodhisattva.” Which is a way of saying there’s no compassion—one is not yet manifesting as a bodhisattva towards others. “Nor does one understand the causal conditions for a buddha field. Although you have a clear understanding of the universal you cannot cause it to shine forth in a way that understands the unobstructed interpenetration of the manifold dharmas.” In other words, we will still be confused and confounded and challenged by the world. Which is just another way of saying training continues.

photo by Hans-Gunter Wagner

The third rank is “Coming from within the real.” This is really the beginning of our coming forth. In training this is expressed by our moving off the cushion into kinhin, into liturgy, work practice and dish crew, into relating with each other and having responsibility. The poem, in part, reads, Within nothingness there is a path leading away from the dusts of the world. Years ago there was a student who had the responsibility of timekeeper during sesshin. She had forgotten to light the altar and was sitting in the zendo, so I tapped her on the shoulder to remind her. “Don’t bother me,” she said, “I’m practicing!” We must step off the hundred-foot pole and move into the real world of dust, people, egos and confusion. Walk without moving your feet. Dig without holding the shovel.

Hakuin says, “We must know the moment of the meeting of paired opposites bright and dark.” We must go to that place and see how light and dark meet, see the unity of good and evil, the meeting of all opposites. What does “meeting” even mean? Is that actually what is happening when the two that meet are fundamentally one? Or is that just our language straining to express something beyond understanding? To meet means we have to enter the realm of people and things. Here, we will be challenged, which means we’re going to be uncomfortable. This is how we encounter the perceived limit of our mind, of our practice, what we call the edge. Training continues.

The fourth rank is “Mutual Integration.” The poem says, “When two blades cross points there is no need to withdraw.” I’ve always loved that line. When opposites meet, there is no inherent conflict, but when we withdraw, we reinforce the idea that there is. Coming closer we see: things are not as they seem. When the discriminating mind rests, all things appear just as they are. Where is the conflict?  This rank is also where the bodhisattva’s enthusiasm and joy begins to blossom. What we had experienced before as burdens are now seen as endless possibilities. Distinctions and boundaries and divisions—all the stuff of our suffering—are seen through. Things are not as they seem and nor are they otherwise. When things seem real, solid and fixed, they give rise to so much pain. We bludgeon each other with our delusion and are bludgeoned in turn. Yet all the while, each and every person, each and every thing is one. Unified. One master called it “undividedappearanceemptiness.”

This is where we really begin to see barriers as gates. Dogen says, “Just buddha with buddha is now able to exhaustively investigate the real form of phenomena.” Just buddha with buddha. The ocean and its waves are all ocean. It’s all waves. It’s all suchness. It’s just buddha with buddha. Hakuin says, “Still the student shouldn’t consider this state to be a final resting place. Therefore it is said that such a person is in and of themselves a heaven soaring spirit.” This “heaven soaring spirit” is the bodhisattva heart, the joy that arises from realizing that all beings have buddha nature, all people are ceaselessly becoming, all situations are, in some way, workable.

“What must they do in the end?” Hakuin says, “They must know that there is one more rank: unity attained.” Here the poem is, Who dares to equal her? Who falls into neither being nor not being? Everyone wants to leave the current of ordinary life, everyone. But this one after all comes back to sit amongst the coals and the ashes. Having tried to get away for so long, now we return to sit in the coals and ashes. Where else would you go to get away? Everywhere we turn, we see all things covering the ground upon which they stand, fulfilling their own virtue. Practice continues. The path is endless, and isn’t that wonderful!

Let’s remember that whenever we encounter a teaching that seems opaque or irrelevant—if it’s a true teaching—these are just signs that we need to keep training, keep examining. Because all of it is about you and me, this life, this world we’re living in. When we stay true to this, then the sangha is healthy, the dharma is radiant and practice occurs. When we lose sight of this then that radiance begins to dim.

So in just this way let’s continue in our practice of this great wisdom tradition. This is the gift we’ve received from our buddha ancestors. When we practice sincerely and free our discriminating mind, this is how we repay that gift and offer it to others.

Blue sky, bright sun

there is no distinguishing east from west.

Yet acting in accord with the imperative

still requires dispensing medicine when the sickness appears.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi is the Head of the Mountains and Rivers Order and the Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of New York City.

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