The Unexpected Rears Its Head

· Teachings · ,

by Konrad Ryushin Marchaj, Sensei

Yangshan’s Declaration
Book of Serenity, Case 90

‘I alone am sober’—this is drunkenness indeed. Yangshan speaks of a dream just like when awake. But say, as I say this and you hear it, tell me, is this wakefulness or is this a dream?

Yangshan dreamed he went to Maitreya’s place, where he occupied the sec- ond seat. A venerable one said, “Today it’s up to the one in the second seat to preach.” Yangshan rose, struck the gavel, and said, “The teaching of the Great Vehicle is beyond all predication.”

In a dream, wrapped in his patchwork robe, he calls on the elders;
The ranks of the saints serene, he sits to their right.
Responsible for humanity, he doesn’t defer—the sounding board rings;
Expounding the teaching without fear, the lion roars,
Mind as peaceful as the ocean,
Heart as big as a bushel.
Fish eyes shed tears,
Clam guts open in pearls.
Much talk—who knows it leaks one’s potential?
Shaggy eyebrows—laughable, they reveal the family disgrace.
Beyond all predication:
Mazu, father and sons, in sickness stopped doctoring.

The han is struck in the dharma hall to announce the teaching: Thwock! Yangshan delivers this teisho of a single line: “The teaching of the great vehicle is beyond all predication.” The pure sound of the han is just this Thwock! This is the moment before the first thought arises. Is this wakefulness? Or is this a dream? Is there anything else that needs to be communicated?

I recognize the irony in a Polish person taking up English grammar, but the word Yangshan uses, “predication,” caught my interest. I checked in with some English teachers in the sangha to refresh my memory: “predicate” is the part of the sentence that qualifies the subject, asserting something about its nature. “Predication,” then, is the process of coming to the kind of conclusion that a predicate allows. So, “the plum blossom is white.” The subject “plum blossom” is qualified as white. According to Yangshan’s teaching, since this plum blossom is now predicated, obviously this cannot be the teaching of the great vehicle. “The spring breeze is ineffable.” Again, given that the predicate appears with the subject of the spring breeze, this, too, cannot be the true dharma. Likewise, “you are something,” and “you are nothing,” are also not the teachings of the great vehicle.

These are conclusions, and whether we are speaking of the conclusions themselves, or the act of reaching the conclusions doesn’t really make much difference. So, what is left if we abandon such conclusions? What happens to the plum blossom? The spring breeze? What happens to you when all the predicates disappear? The teachings of the Mahayana go beyond any foundational facts. This is the core of the Heart Sutra. This is what Mu reveals.


“The Teaching of The Great vehicle is beyond predication”—all teachings are subsumed and folded into this single teaching. The truth of reality goes beyond any definable, graspable fact. This may sound esoteric, but consider the simple reality of resting intimately in your breath. Within the complete experience of your breath, what is the breath? Who are you amidst that intimacy? What becomes available to you? What is revealed has always been available to you. All paramitas are beyond predication. Compassion is beyond all predications. The teacher-student relationship is beyond all predication.

Is this wakefulness or is this a dream? Dogen urges us to practice without concern for fortune and fame. We can appreciate how this relates to our approach to life more broadly. Where do we find ourselves within these two words? What can we recognize about our need for attention, status, recognition, power, influence? What about our need for peace, freedom, happiness, or any sort of experience, whether it seems to be an internal state or an external circumstance? These are, after all, predications. If you’re not convinced, ask yourself how you would complete this sentence, “Buddhist practice is. . . .” Do you have an answer?


To Go Beyond All predication makes this the ultimate path of loss: losing yourself and losing the ground where that self can possibly rest. It is the path of losing any sense of orientation, losing yourself in relation to any of the qualifying notions you hold about yourself and the world. Abandon all definitions, articulated feeling states, fixed relationships. And then abandon the possibility of somehow establishing yourself within that loss or emptiness.

Dogen had a pivotal encounter with his teacher Rujing in which he expressed that he was finally able to let go of letting go. This seems paradoxical: What is the nature of that letting go when you’ve just let go of letting go? This is what Yangshan is pointing to. This is also precisely where the intimacy of your breath is pointing. Unless we are very diligent, letting go can be a way of establishing yourself. “Practice is letting go.” Oops—what just happened? We have to continuously return to this, recalling that we are here, in this zendo, to lose. We are here to lose everything, including the possibility of claiming status by virtue of that abandonment.

Within the complete experience of your breath, what is the breath? Who are you amidst that intimacy?

What is behind the lines in the poem, “responsible for humanity, he doesn’t defer”? Yangshan’s commitment to his vows is far-reaching enough that he is able to continue his work of clarification even within his dreams. Apparently, the dream in this koan was a dream that he had several times in his life; it seems to have had significance for him. Even within the dream realm, Yangshan’s intention does not change. Waking, asleep, dreaming, confused, enlightened—what difference does it make?


During This Past Ango, the residents here at the Monastery, as well as some of the local sangha, started to gently expand the field of practice into the dream world. We did this by looking at the teachings and how they treat the nature of dreams and illusions, specifically the encouragement to see all of this life, all dharmas, as a dream. We also turned our attention toward our literal dreams—toward that dimension of our self that frequently remains out of our reach. To some degree, we want to keep it that way, fearful of the bogeyman that was living in that corner of our mind, scared of going where we have not been before. So within this dream practice, we opened to that which is ultimately not controllable: the dream realm functions without our capacity to filter, to hold, to manage or create. This is venturing into the unexplored dimension, a region typically protected by the resistance of our bodies, minds, and relationships. This is a challenging space to enter, but when we do, some remarkable work can be done. It’s a matter of coming to rest at the edge of something unexpected, something we cannot smooth out or adjust within ourselves.

Part of the dynamic of spiritual training within a space like sesshin involves creating enough of an illusion of control and stability that we will consider turning away from our penchant for comfort. Frequently people are drawn to the Monastery because it feels rigorous, disciplined, and serious, but fundamentally we don’t come here for that. The tight little ship of sesshin is not powerful so much because of its rigor or form—it’s because it is a potential springboard, launching us to that place where all of this is already falling apart. Within the details of sesshin that bind us, we’re actually hoping not for smooth sailing, but rather for the unexpected to rear its head. In the midst of the silence of zazen, there are millions of unexpected little encounters. The more unexpected, the more fruitful they can be. All the while, we are developing our capacity to see what we do at the instant of such an encounter, when the “oops” of predication arrives in front of us.

Photo by John Pavelka

Photo by John Pavelka


Daido Roshi Used To comment on a line from Genjokoan by saying, “The limits of the knowable are unknowable.” He would often accompany this with a vivid analogy: imagine we are sitting in a circle illuminated by a fire in the midst of the blackest of nights. The fire instantaneously creates a circle of visibility, of security. Where that circle of firelight ends, the darkness begins. It is a darkness that is unfathomable, and from the perspective of that circle, it is boundless. We sit next to the fire; for most of our time we walk within the circle of that illumination and its reach. We may be attracted to the place where the light starts to fade, transitioning into the darkness, and so we may follow it to that edge where suddenly we lose track of the light. We recognize that to go further, we need to illuminate what lies beyond. As much as practice begins close to that fire, it is continuously informed by the place where we lose track of what is going on. We become refined instruments of seeking and turning toward the darkness— being drawn by it. It’s almost like the reverse of a moth that spirals toward that fire: as practitioners, we spiral in ever-expanding circles toward the darkness.

Whatever you unexpectedly encounter in your life, engage this as the field of practice. Wakeful, asleep, prepared or definitely unprepared—let that manifest reality that appears in front of you fuse with your practice. Be informed by the stability, insight and compassion available to you, but it is precisely in that instant where something sneaks up on you that we meet the ground of practice. How quickly can we recognize that this is the opportunity for us to turn toward the outside of the circle? We can move habitually to freeze that wild moment within the predications of our likes or our needs, or we can release into intimacy. This is why we enter sesshin. This is why we sit in zazen. This is why we turn toward each other in what may be the most fruitful and dangerous encounter of all—the other is always unexpected.

It’s here that we begin to understand what zazen really is. How many expected experiences have you had in zazen? Did you expect that thought? Did you expect this breath? Zazen offers us a space for this process to begin. In the midst of zazen, when things appear in their complete wildness and unpredictability, it’s just practice. It doesn’t mean anything. You’re not doing better; you’re not doing worse. Whatever you unexpectedly encounter, fuse it with practice. This is the discipline and appreciation of compassion. Somebody cuts you off on the highway; your boyfriend leaves you; you get a promotion—it doesn’t make a difference from what direction it approaches you—it’s the unexpected nature of these things and how we respond that creates the field of practice.


This Transformative Attitude is all-demanding. We’re committed to relating directly to our own neurosis rather than extending it to others. Any situation, pleasant or unpleasant, is immediately engaged—no delays, no justifications. There is just the on the spot recognition of that spark of awareness that is available to us all the time, everywhere. The arrival of such moments may be connected with “Oh no!” or “Hooray!”—this is just the instantaneous manifestation of your wisdom, so don’t worry about it. It’s the turning point. As a matter of fact, that is that Thwock! on the gavel. But then come to rest. Don’t react. Then there is possibility, a gap, openness.

Until we gain some lucidity, we are subjected to the reactive patterns of our conditioning, to the expressions of our greed, anger, and ignorance. In gaining some measure of insight, we open to the real nature of phenomena. Then the real work begins. In terms of practice, the circumstances we encounter don’t actually matter. As the poem says, “Responsible for humanity, he doesn’t defer—the sounding board rings.” This is what it means to be responsible for all humanity, to not defer. Then, describing a person who is this committed to this work: “Expounding the teaching without fear, the lion roars.” Your teaching for this world is the integrity of your life and your engagement of this practice—this is the lion roaring.

Mind as peaceful as the ocean, heart as big as a bushel. Fish eyes shed tears, clam guts open in pearls. The heart-mind has an infinite capacity to hold and embrace this world without any sense of discrimination, without any sense of otherness. These lines touch the reality of what it means to truly feel the life available to us through practice.

Photo by Mario Mancuso

Photo by Mario Mancuso

In Now I Know You, the documentary about Maezumi Roshi, one of his successors relates the story of a student who came in to dokusan with Maezumi and started talking about the shambles her life was in. Maezumi Roshi just started crying with her. That was all. That was the great teaching of the Mahayana. In his travels as a teacher, Kalu Rinpoche was invited to climb a tall building in Hong Kong to take in the magnificent views of the city. When he finally got to the top and looked down, he collapsed in pain, tears streaming down his face. This is what makes it possible for the grit of your neurosis to manifest as endless pearls that will roll out of your gut.

Still, we must be sure that, within our intimacy with this pain, we don’t perpetuate it. When we meet unexpected situations as practice, we can produce great pearls from the very patterns of our neurosis. Practice ceases to be something that we dish out to the world, but rather something we manifest as beautiful pearls we are able to offer to this world. With such a spirit, what does it matter what realm we find ourselves in? Freely travel through the hells, amidst the hungry ghosts, the sleepy animals, the hopeful, fearful human beings, the jealous gods, and the blissed-out states. What realm is this? What realm is lurking around the corner? Is this wakefulness or is it a dream? How would you answer that?

Konrad Ryushin Marchaj Sensei was the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery from 2010-2015.

The Book of Serenity is a collection of koans compiled during the 12th century and commented on by Master Wansong with poems by Master Hongzhi.

NextThe Night Journey of Nicodemus