James Ishmael Ford
Jiufeng Daoqian served Shishuang Qingzhu as his attendant. When the master died, the assembly elected the head monk as the new abbot. Jiufeng was unsure of the new master’s realization. He declared “I will test him, and if he understands what our late master understood, then I will continue as his attendant.”
The two men met. Jiufeng said, “our late teacher said, ‘You should extinguish all delusive thoughts. You should let consciousness expire. You should let your one awareness continue for ten thousand years. You should let your awareness become like winter ashes, or a withered tree. You should let your consciousness become like one strip of pure white silk.’ So, tell me, what matter was he intending to clarify with these words?”
The head monk said “Our late master intended to clarify the matter of absolute emptiness.”
Jiufeng replied, “If that is your understanding, you have failed to achieve the insight of our late master.”
The head monk was taken aback. He said, “Pass me that incense.” When Jiufeng did, the head monk lit it, saying “If I didn’t understand him, I would not be able to die as the incense smoke rises.” And with these words, he assumed the zazen posture and died.
Jiufeng reached over and gently caressed the late head monk’s shoulder, saying, “Even though you can die sitting or standing, you have not dreamt our late master’s teaching.”
Book of Serenity, Case 96
Whether this is a story from the dreamtime, or from history, after this incident Jiufeng is elected abbot of that monastery, and would over time become a renowned master of the great way, dying in the second decade of the tenth century.
I read this case and sometimes feel a wave of grief flow over me, particularly with that gentle caress and that harsh but true, true assessment. The head monk didn’t have a clue. Even if his powers of meditation had advanced to the point he could will his own death, that isn’t the deal, that isn’t what this path is about. Not at all.
I was talking about this with a friend, another old hand on this ancient way, and he said, “That’s funny, James. When I think of this case, I find myself laughing.”
We hairless apes can be funny in our sadness.
And from an appropriate distance, at least a snicker seems right, if not a guffaw.
Here we get a pretty straight forward presentation of the way, and one of the principal ways it is misunderstood. It is so easy to read those words and to think it is only about tumbling into the great unknowing, into the vastness of emptiness, where there is no action, and no life, and no death.
And this is a true place. We are absolutely empty. Vast. Boundless.
So, perhaps we need to cut the head monk some slack.
But, not make him abbot, not give him the cure of souls, not on our way.
Or, maybe it is an and.
And in practice our way is rather more subtle and dynamic than that one important insight.
We pursue the way and we find that emptiness is found exactly and only within the phenomenal world, this world of choices and actions, where there definitely is life and there definitely is death.
Where proving a point by dying is an extreme form of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
So, we need to read the teaching with different eyes.
Each sentence of the old master Shishuang’s teaching is an invitation into finding the reality of emptiness within form.
How do you extinguish all delusive thoughts? Show me. How do you let consciousness expire? What word expresses that? And what about the ten thousand years? Ten thousand moments? Ten thousand breaths? Ten thousand pauses?
I can tell you just presenting zazen will not cut it.
Which opens a question. What is the withered tree way? Remember the old woman who beat the monk who had no passion, drove him away, burnt the hut he had polluted for years down to the ground and then poured salt on it.
Don’t waste your life.
Don’t die without knowing.
Find the great empty.
And save the many beings.