Born in a Moment

· Teachings · ,

by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei

Hui Ch’ao Asks About Buddha
Blue Cliff Record, Case 7

The thousand sages have not transmitted the single word before sound; if you have never seen it personally, it is as if it were worlds away. Even if you discern it before sound and cut off the tongues of everyone in the world, you’re still not a sharp person. Therefore it is said, “The sky can’t cover it; the earth can’t support it; empty space can’t contain it; sun and moon can’t illumine it.” Where there is no Buddha and you alone are called the Honored One, for the first time you’ve amounted to something. Otherwise, if you are not yet this way, penetrate through on the tip of a hair and release the great shining illumination; then in all directions you will be independent and free in the midst of phenomena; what- ever you pick up, there is nothing that’s not it. But tell me, what is attained that is so extraordinary?

Does everyone understand? No one knows about the sweating horses of the past; they only want to emphasize the achievement that crowns the age. Leaving this matter aside for the moment, what about Hsueh Tao’s public case? Look into what’s written below.

Main Case
A monk named Hui Ch’ao asked Fa Yen, “Hui Ch’ao
asks the teacher, what is “Buddha?” Fa Yen said,
“You are Hui Ch’ao.”

In the river country the spring wind isn’t blowing;
Deep within the flowers partridges are calling.
At the three-tiered Dragon Gate, where the waves
are high, fish become dragons,
Yet fools still go on scooping out the evening
pond water.

The practice of taking refuge in the Three Treasures is found throughout all of Buddhism’s different traditions. Taking refuge is wholeheartedness, undividedness; it is being without defense; it is seeing things as they are. We take refuge in the Three Treasures—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. But when we rely upon the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha it’s important to realize that in this, there’s nothing exclusive. It’s not a Buddhist thing, even though Buddhists do it. In other words, it’s not proprietary. No one owns it. Therefore there’s nothing to defend.

The Buddha was a fully awakened person. Bodhidharma said Buddha is miraculous awareness. Dogen said that Buddha means the one who has unsurpassable, complete enlightenment. Buddha is unconditioned self-nature. Buddha is you yourself. What are these these teachings pointing to? Yuan Wu says, “When there is no Buddha and you alone are called the Honored One—this is the place to enter.” And yet, you can’t enter. You can’t enter because you were never outside of it. So the simplest thing of all is the most difficult thing to see directly. Yuan Wu says, “If you have never seen it personally, it’s as if it were worlds away.” The “as if” is the crucial point. When we don’t see the Way, we don’t see it even as we walk on it.

What is Buddha? We can say Buddha is being free from all hindrances, every false view, all mental afflictions. Buddha is no lon- ger being seduced by desires or giving birth to attachments. Yuan Wu describes this as a place that even the boundless sky can’t cover, empty space can’t contain, sun and moon can’t illuminate. What is like this?


Buddhism Looks Deeply at consciousness, how we perceive through our senses and the subtle but profound way in which our sense of self is created. Buddhism speaks of an I-making consciousness that functions as a master-controller of sorts, like Oz behind the curtain, receiving all of this data from the senses and cohering it into what seems to be a tangible, solid self. We assemble our experience, naming it, drawing conclusions, forming strategies—but who is doing that? Who benefits?

The Buddha said that life is suffering, dukkha. Dukkha arises from grasping. Grasping arises from desire. Desire is born of wanting something that we feel apart from. We sense that we are separate from the thing we want, and it’s “as if it were worlds away.” But the feeling of separateness is illusory. In essence this sense, this “as if”, is responsible for all suffering. It’s hard to believe, but that’s what it comes down to. How do we close that gap? How do we bridge the distance? Practice is releasing the grasping, freeing the desires. Being freed, they have little life left in them. Practicing more deeply, we realize that every sense of “self” and “other” are empty. Being empty, they have no life at all. All our attachments arise from this sense of distance—why else would there be grasping? Every letting go is diminishing that sense of distance, until we see that there is no distance. There never has been.


In The Sutras, Buddha talks about his life as a prince before he left home. He describes this former life: “My father even had lotus ponds made in our palace, one where red lotuses bloomed, one where white, one with blue lotuses, all for my sake. I used no sandalwood that was not from Varanasi. My turban was from Varanasi, as were my tunic, my lower garments. A white sunshade was held over me day and night to protect me.” You really get the sense he is remembering how good he had it! He says that had three palaces, one for each season, and during the rainy seasons when he couldn’t go out, he was “entertained by minstrels without a single man among them.” Now, you have to think about him speaking these words to his sangha who have all left home. They are wearing robes patched from discarded material, going barefoot, begging, sleeping in the forest or beneath the open sky. And as they’re listening to the Buddha talk, they see he’s living the same life they’re living. He’s left all those riches behind. Then the Buddha says something like, “Even though I was endowed with such fortune and such refinement, the thought occurred to me: When an ordinary person who is subject to aging sees someone who is aged, they are horrified and disgusted, oblivious to the fact that they too are going to age. When I reflected on this, I realized that I, too, am going to age. And so my intoxication with youth entirely dropped away.” The dream burst.

He saw that the way it is now is not the way it will always be. And within this dissolution of the dream, bodhichitta, the longing to wake up, was born. Did he will that? Did he decide, “I need to shift my way of thinking?” I don’t believe so. His words express how this new awareness was born within him in that moment.

There’s nothing wrong with lotus ponds, or turbans from Varanasi. The Buddha realized his reliance upon them was the problem. How is it for you and me? What do we rely upon? What do we turn towards? This is the heart of taking refuge. Are we turning toward our desires, letting our grasping mind lead the way? Or are we seeing the dream for what it is and turning towards the real.

Buddha is being free from all hindrances, every false view, all mental afflictions. Buddha is no longer being seduced by desires or giving birth to attachments.

To let go—to cease from grasping—is to move in accord with things. If we are attentive, we will see that the practice of letting go is its own affirmation. It feels true. Similarly, we will see that when we hold on, we’re fighting with our natural state. In zazen we practice coming ever closer—closer to body, to mind, to breath, to koan, to aware- ness, to our original nature. But this “coming closer” is just a sense of things. We speak of the practice of “being the breath” as though there is some existing distance. We don’t actually close the gap between ourselves and the breath. We just wake up to the truth that breath, awareness, mind, person, and universe are one body of reality. All things reside in their own dharma state, and you and I are also like this. That’s why forgetting the self is just a way of speaking and cannot be done by force. When we speak of “practicing with the whole body and mind,” that’s code for “just be,” or more to the point, “just.” Be your original self. Be undivided. Lose all sense of self, distance, object, witness.


Hui Ch’ao Asks Fa Yen, “What is Buddha?” and Fa Yen says, “You are Hui Ch’ao.” This koan seems so simple, which should always encourage us to look more carefully. Most people will look at this and say, “Oh, I get that. I’m a buddha.” But the koans that seem obvious are the most difficult. The student brings what seems self-evident into the koan, but you can’t take your ideas of the koan with you. You have to see it on its own terms. To “be the breath” you can’t take yourself with you. Don’t take anything.

To say, “I’m buddha,” is no different from saying, “I am Shugen.” It’s just another name, another false identity. It will disappoint us. In his commentary to this koan, Yuan Wu says, “People of later times just go to the words to make up interpretations. Some say, ‘Hui Ch’ao is himself Buddha; that is why Fa Yen answered as he did.’ Some say, ‘It’s much like for an ox searching for an ox.’ Some say, ‘The asking is it.’ What relevance has any of this?” He goes on to tell us “[Hui Ch’ao] was constantly engrossed in penetrating investigation; therefore under the impact of one word, it was as if the bottom fell out of his bucket.” When he speaks of Hui Ch’ao’s longstanding investigation, he’s pointing to the “sweating horses” from the pointer. In other words, it might look like a student just comes up and asks his teacher, “What is Buddha?” and when the teacher tells him, “You are Hui Ch’ao,” he’s enlightened. But Yuan Wu is saying it’s not like this at all.

Photo by Spyros Papaspyropoulos

Photo by Spyros Papaspyropoulos

In asking “What is Buddha?” Hui Ch’ao was engrossed in deep investigation; he really wanted to know. It meant something to him. For him, “buddha” was not just a word, not an abstraction. Hui Ch’ao was absorbed in the desire to understand. He was taking refuge, and within taking refuge, he deeply wanted an answer to his question. This is the life-blood of this koan. It’s the life-blood of this practice. This is the deep power of true spiritual practice that you can’t convey; it can’t be given, it can’t be taught. It’s the flame that is within each one of us, and is up to each one of us to bring forth. We have to ignite that spark and fan that fire. This is what makes this a profound spiritual practice, not a technique and not an exercise. What else is going to cut through our infatuation with the lotus ponds and the fine garments from Varanasi?


In The Commentary, Yuan Wu retells the story of Superintendent Tse who was staying at Fa Yen’s monastery. Tse never went into dokusan. One day Fa Yen said, “You never come to see me. Why?” and Tse said, “Didn’t you know, when I was at Ch’ing Lin’s place I had an entry.” Fa Yen said, “Oh? Tell me about it.” Tse said, “I asked, ‘What is Buddha?’ And Lin said ‘The Fire God comes looking for fire’.” Fa Yen said, “Oh, I see. Good words but I’m afraid you didn’t understand it. Can you say something more?” Tse said, “The Fire God is in the province of fire; he is seeking fire with fire. Likewise, I am a Buddha, but I went on searching for Buddha.” Fa Yen said, “Like I thought. You didn’t understand.”

Only a formless field of benefaction can meet Buddha. Only a person of non-attachment can practice letting go. Only Kannon Bodhisattva can encounter true compassion.

Tse storms off trying to conceal his anger. In the heat of his emotion, he’s walking and playing it over in his mind. We’ve all been there: “I’m right. I’m right. I know I’m right. He’s wrong. What an idiot. How dare he…” and so on. But some time passes and as he’s walking, he’s starting to settle, to calm down and think more clearly. Eventually he thinks, “Fa Yen is a teacher of many people, highly regarded. Would he deceive me? If I had really understood it would he deny that?” His view is starting to shift. This can happen because he has genuine faith. His arrogance is starting to loosen because he has humility. This is the pivot on which practice occurs. So Tse decides to return to Fa Yen’s monastery. Now he is ready to meet the teacher, to go to dokusan, to enter. He goes to Fa Yen hum- bled, saying, “Teach me. I don’t understand.” Fa Yen says, “Ask me your question.” Tse says, “What is Buddha?” Fa Yen answers, “The Fire God comes looking for fire.” At that moment Tse realized it. Before he was distant, and it appeared distant. In this moment he realized it because he was it. Even though we are never outside of it, because we feel as if we are distant, we live within that breech.


And So, Hui Ch’ao Asks, “What is Buddha?” And Fa Yen says, “You are Hui Ch’ao.” Hui Ch’ao was engrossed in his inquiry, but the last place he was looking was right here. When Fa Yen says, “You are Hui Ch’ao,” he is shattered. Collapsed. In a single moment, all perspective drops away. Buddha is revealed. He is nothing apart from Buddha, and Buddha is not Hui Ch’ao. Hui Ch’ao is not outside of Buddha, and Hui Ch’ao has never seen Buddha. How is this? Only a formless field of benefaction can meet Buddha. Only a person of non-attachment can practice letting go. Only Kannon Bodhisattva can encounter true compassion. To forget oneself is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things. And to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas is to free oneself of body and mind, of self and other.

Photo by M Yashna

Photo by M Yashna

“No one knows about the sweating horses of the past. They only want to talk about the achievement that crowns the age.” Years ago when I was in school getting my degree in music I went to a master class with a very famous pianist. That night I went to a concert he gave with a group of my friends who were not musicians. The concert was extraordinary. We were all hanging out afterwards and my friends were remarking on how great the performance was and how much they would love to play like that. I remember thinking, “No, you wouldn’t.” As they chatted about it, I was sitting there and thinking about the sweating horses. In other words, I though that if they really understood what was required to accomplish that level of artistic mastery, they might not be so eager. Everyone loves to talk about the achievement that crowns the age, but what about those sweating horses? What about the practice? What about the commitment? What about showing up day after day, year after year? To practice through the easy and difficult, the highs and lows, confidence and doubt; to gain true equanimity and be free of opinions, especially about practice itself.

When we see someone who is completely engaged, it’s beautiful, radiant. In the same way, when we see someone who’s distracted or careless, it’s not beautiful, it doesn’t inspire us. When we encounter somebody who is utterly at ease, it puts us at ease. We’re attracted to that. What is that telling us about our natural state, our true nature? Such experiences are messages from deep within that are communicating subtly. Practice is not preparing. When a musician is practicing, they may be working towards a performance, but really, they’re just playing music. They are embodying the life of a musician; one moment in a rehearsal studio, and another moment on a performance stage. When we’re practicing, we’re not preparing for life. We’re living. It is life. And it’s the only life there is. That’s why we practice, so that we manifest awareness, sincerity, commitment, compassion. We do this on the cushion, at home, at work. And as we do it, as we live this way, our whole life becomes more natural, more easeful, more in accord. We are waking up.

To truly inspire and to be inspired, we don’t have to wait for someone else. It’s wonderful to be inspired by others. And this is one of the great virtues of the sangha—how ceaselessly throughout the day we inspire each other. But it’s also good to inspire ourselves, to be our own example. Don’t underestimate the power of that.

Only you can take refuge. Only you can have faith. Only you can turn towards. When you set your mind free, you invariably take refuge. You take refuge in your own original nature.

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.

The Blue Cliff Record is a collection of 100 koans originally compiled in China by Zen Master Xuedou during the Song dynasty (960-1279 c.e.) and later commented on by Zen Master Yuan Wu.

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