The Old Woman Burns Down the Hut: A Dharma Talk


A Dharma Talk

James Myoun Ford

7 March 2014
Boundless Way Temple
Worcester, Massachusetts

The Case

An Old Woman Burns Down a Hermitage

Entangling Vines: A Classic Collection of Zen Koans
Case one hundred, fifty-four
Translated by Thomas Yuho Kirchner

There was an old woman who supported a hermit. For twenty years she always had a girl, sixteen or seventeen years old, take the hermit his food and wait on him.

One day she told the girl to give the monk a close hug and ask, “What do you feel just now?”

The hermit responded,

An old tree on a cold cliff;
Midwinter – no warmth.

The girl went back and told this to the old woman. The woman said, “For twenty years I’ve supported this vulgar good-for-nothing!” So saying, she threw the monk out and burned down the hermitage.

I first ran across this story, I’m pretty sure, in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Maybe I was seventeen. I recall how I was both shocked and fascinated by it. Sex in a spiritual story didn’t get any better for me. And not going to the way my Baptist upbringing inclined me to assume it would go was a clear bonus, even as I didn’t really get where it was going. Where was the simple and clear moral? Why drive the monk out for not responding to the girl? Why burn the hut to the ground? I was just enthralled and haunted and, you know, it continues to be so. It’s one of those stories.

Years later I was a little surprised to not run across it in my formal Zen training, proceeding through the Harada Yasutani koan reform of the Takujo system of Hakuin koan Zen. Yes, I ran across references here and there in my reading. Master Seung Sahn treats it briefly in his anthology of koans with comments, The Whole World is a Single Flower.” My teacher’s teacher Robert Aitken Roshi cites it in his essay on sexuality in his classic Mind of Clover. But, that was kind of it.

For a while I wasn’t even sure it was properly a koan, as it isn’t anthologized in the three “big” twelfth century collections at the heart of the Harada Yasutani curriculum, the Gateless Gate, the Blue Cliff Record or the Book of Serenity. Then Thomas Yuho Kirchner released his wonderful translation of the Shumon Kattoshu, Entangling Vines, first published in Japan at the end of the seventeenth century, and one of the major koan collections in orthodox Japanese Rinzai. Entangling Vines is itself gleaned from various Chinese anthologies that were popular in that day. And it turns out the original of this koan is collected as case six of the Compendium of the Five Lamps, the Wudeng huiyuan.

Okay, besides being novel, and appealing to a seventeen year old, and maybe the seventeen year old in all of us, what do we do with it? Where is the direct pointing and invitation into intimacy that mark all true koans?

No doubt this one is tricky, in fact maybe more difficult to get through to the heart of it than with many others. There are just any numbers of ways we can distract ourselves under the best of circumstances. And, here it turns on a tale of sex. Right at the start there’s that relationship between the old woman and the young woman she sends out to test the monk. In Master Seung Sahn’s version she’s a daughter. In Aitken Roshi’s version, a niece. I do notice the Venerable Kirchner avoids any reference to the women’s relationship. To my ear there’s exploitation of a youth.

And we should attend. There are so many problems about how women are treated throughout history, and, right now. And it is a real issue how the old woman sends her daughter or niece or whatever off as a seductress. And time should be found for that conversation. And we can take the time we need. The koan will wait. But, it will also bubble and burn and whisper and call, like the embers of that burnt hut, like the tendrils of smoke rising from the ashes of that hut.

Another “trap” for the story as koan, is how there is a pretty straight-ahead moral in the story. For instance the Soto priest Nonin Chowaney summarizes that most common and legitimate view nicely when after warning people they should take up a koan with someone who has properly trained with koans, he writes, “If Zen Buddhist practice has turned our hearts into stone and made us oblivious to human sensations and feelings, we have been doing it improperly.”

Here the case becomes a companion to the old story of the two monks walking and who meet a woman trying to cross a river and having trouble navigating the current. The one monk picks her up, carries her across, sets her down, and the two continue on. As you know the story ends with the moralizing “I put her down at the bank of the river, you’re still carrying her.”


I do think this sentiment has elements of what we’re looking for in this story as koan. For instance when one of Hakuin’s more famous lay disciples Satsu’s granddaughter died, she was overcome with grief. A neighbor rebuked her, noting how she had Hakuin’s certificate of enlightenment, so, how could she be carried away like that? She replied, “Poor fool! Don’t you see how my tears are better than a priest’s chants? My tears remember every child who has died.” She concludes with the great pointing, “This is me at this moment.”

Returning to the question of respecting the person who is present, there is something that offends the heart in the callousness of the monks rebuke of the girl. And, sadly, it is something not that uncommon among those who throw everything into the path. But also a terrible dead end. I find myself thinking of Gore Vidal’s novel Creation. It offers an important variation on the two monks and the woman and the river. Creation opens with an aged Persian ambassador to Athens incensed as he hears Herodotus lecture on the Persian wars and decide to provide his own reminiscences of recent history, much of which he witnessed at first hand.

The putative author of these memoirs is the grandson of the prophet Zoroaster. Thanks to this privileged condition, he found himself everywhere that counted in what the scholar Karen Armstrong calls the Axial Age, a period of something less than two hundred years that birthed most of the world’s religions. Vidal’s conceit is to shrink that era a little to put them all within the range of his ambassador’s very long life.

So, from when the story begins where he watches his young stonemason Socrates building a wall that keeps falling down, he relates stories of meeting them all, from Mahavira to Confucius. But, it was his interpretation of the Buddha that I find myself reminded of. The ambassador recounts how the Buddha would look right through him when they were talking. Apparently, well, according to Gore Vidal, the Holy One was in the habit of gazing into the middle distance rather than making eye contact with any person.

Sometimes people think spirituality means cutting us off from life. Certainly here we get that is the monk’s mistake. Or, one of them.

Clearly, with the story of the old woman and that monk we see we’re being invited in another direction. Or, I hope we do.

Aitken Roshi says he’s only found two koans that touch on sexuality. This is one. The other is collected in the Harada Yasutani Miscellaneous koan collection as the third question of Sungyuan’s Three Turning Words. “Why is it that someone of great awakening does not cut off the vermilion thread?” The roshi’s comments “the vermillion thread (is) the line of blood itself – the line of menstruation, sexuality, and birth.” I would throw in of death, as well. The whole thing. Messy. Sometimes unpleasant. Sometimes pleasant. Always compelling.

One venerable commentator on the “old tree on a cold cliff,” line the monk said in response to the young woman, that if he had had that encounter, a green sprout would have appeared on that old tree.

Messy. Sometimes unpleasant. Sometimes very pleasant. Always compelling.

And, all this said, acknowledge, and maybe even dealt with to some degree, finally, here, I suggest, we find the koan of this koan.

What is your life? What do you feel? What is it that races through your heart and your mind?

Where is your body in this story?

Where is your body in this story? Is there any part you do not play? Old woman? Girl? monk? How about the hut?

That’s the stuff of your work, my work, our work.

As our teacher master Hakuin once said, “meditation in action is endlessly more important than meditation in stillness.” And in the action, that’s where the koan is revealed.

Of course it isn’t an invitation into licentiousness. I hope “of course.” I fear it isn’t always. Nor is it an invitation into prudery, or denial, or a life of gazing into the middle distance. There are appropriate and inappropriate actions in our lives. Think of it as a dance. And within the dance we all must relate to each other as precious and as valuable as I hope we come to see we are, each of us, as we are. Meditation in action.

As we are.

We do this and truths reveal themselves.

For one, all of us belong to that same great boundless family.

One thing, empty, and bright.

And, that other thing reveals, too. You and me, just as we are, just as we are. Fleshy and messy.

Angry? Lustful? Forgetful? Shy? Aggressive?

Name it as yours, know it, really know it.

It is the Buddha way presented,

It is the Buddha way.

Here, with this racing heart. Here, with my own actions and their consequences, it is all revealed.

No place else.

In the monk. In the old woman. In the girl.

In the burning of that hut.

Smoke rising.

Smell those ashes.

And feel the sap rising, ready to send out a new branch.



Right here.

Right here.

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  • Wonji Dharma

    Hello James,

    Here is the Kong’an from Page 270 Seonmun Yeomsong Seolhwa 禪門拈頌説話

    Case 1463.

    The Old Woman Burns Down the Hermitage


    [Old case]

    In the past there was an old woman who made offerings to a hermitage chief for twenty years and she always had her daughter send rice to give to his attendant. One day she had her daughter embrace him firmly, saying, “What about just now (holding a young woman)?” The hermitage chief said, “A dried-up tree leans against a cold cliff; in the three winter months there is no warmth.” The girl returned and told this to the old woman, who said, “For twenty years I have just been donating to that vulgar fellow!” Then she set fire to and burned down the hermitage.

    This is a very old case Documented by the Cheif Disciple of Soen Master Bojo Jinul whose name was Soen Master Jingak Hyesim. Not sure about your source because the text is different.

  • Wonji Dharma

    Also, this kong’an also appears in “The Collection of Sand and Pebbles” which is closer to your version, but I have a tendency to trust Jingak’s Version more. Jingak Hyesim (慧 谌, 1178 ~ 1234)

    Collection of Sand and Pebbles

    6. No Loving – Kindness

    There was an old woman in China who had supported a monk for over twenty years. She had built a little hut for him and fed him while he was meditating. Finally she wondered just what progress he had made in all this time.

    To find out, she obtained the help of a girl rich in desire. “Go and embrace him,”
    she told her, “and then ask him suddenly: ‘What now?’”

    The girl called upon the monk and without much ado caressed him, asking him what he was going to do about it.

    “An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter,” replied the monk somewhat
    poetically. “Nowhere is there any warmth.”

    The girl returned and related what he had said.

    “To think I fed that fellow for twenty years!” exclaimed the old woman in
    anger. “He showed no consideration for your need, no disposition to
    explain your condition. He need not have responded to passion, but at least he
    could have evidenced some compassion;”

    She at once went to the hut of the monk and burned it down.

    The Shasekishū (沙石集?), also read as Sasekishū translated into English as Sand and Pebbles, is a five-volume collection of Buddhist parables written by the Japanese monk Mujū in 1283 during the Kamakura period.

    Mujū Dōkyō (Japanese: 無住道曉; 1 January 1227 – 9 November 1312), birth name Ichien Dōkyō, was a Buddhist monk of the Japanese Kamakura period. He is superficially considered a Rinzai monk by some due to his compilation of the Shasekishū and similar books of koans, but there is good evidence that he was also an eager student of the Tendai, Pure Land, and Hosso sects, and he is occasionally placed in the Shingon and Ritsu sects as well.

  • Wonji Dharma

    Mi’an Xianjie (1118-1186) raised this story, saying, “This gongan is rarely raised in the public monasteries. I (senior Jie) split apart my countenance (and remove embarrassment) and cannot avoid admitting defeat (error), and will need testing by (master of) the various regions.” Then he called out to the assembly, “This old woman’s chambers are deep within and water does not leak in, and so there are scattered flowers on the dried-up tree, and flames emerge from the cold cliff. This monk, solitary and distant, accustomed to entering the huge waves, nonchalantly cutting off the huge tide, and ultimately his body does not have a spot of water on it. If you test them carefully and interrogate them by torture, then it is not that there were not two people, and if it is the Buddha dharma, this is not seen in dreams. Where does my (Wuju) intention of holding this (topic) up in this way come to a conclusion?” After a pause he said, “A single willow branch cannot be covered/collected,/ The gentle breeze hangs on the jade railings.”

    [Explanation by Jingak Hyesim]

    Mi’an: The old woman .… . scattered flowers on the dried-up tree means that she never left the depths of her chambers. The character cliff should be written ashes (for that would mean flames would appear again from something
    that had gone cold). The hermitage chief cut off the huge tide … means he was
    never divorced from being accustomed to entering the huge waves. Even though it was like this, neither of them could escape interrogation by torture. A single
    willow branch … expresses the streets (lined) with four or five hundred
    willows, where in two or three thousand places there are towers where flutes
    and lutes (play).

    密庵傑, 擧此話云“, 這箇公案, 叢林中少有拈提者. 傑上座, 裂破面皮, 不免納敗

    一上, 也要諸方撿點.”乃召大衆云“, 這婆子, 洞房深遠, 水泄不通, 便向枯木上

    糝花, 寒嵒中發焰. 箇僧, 孤身逈逈, 慣入洪波, 等閑坐斷潑天潮, 到底身無涓滴

    水. 子細點撿將來, 敲枷打鏁, 卽不無二人, 若是佛法, 未夢見在. 烏巨伊麽提持

    意歸何處?”良久云“, 一把柳條收不得, 和風搭在玉欄干.”

    密庵傑, 擧此話云“, 這箇公案, 叢林中少有拈提者. 傑上座,裂破面皮,

    一上, 也要諸方撿點.”乃召大衆云“, 這婆子, 洞房深遠,
    水泄不通, 便向枯木上

    糝花, 寒嵒中發焰. 箇僧,孤身逈逈, 慣入洪波, 等閑坐斷潑天潮,

    水. 子細點撿將來, 敲枷打鏁, 卽不無二人, 若是佛法,
    未夢見在. 烏巨伊麽提持

    意歸何處?”良久云“, 一把柳條收不得, 和風搭在玉欄干.”

  • Wonji Dharma

    Also, because this particular Kong’an is one of the most important kong’ans in my lineage I submit Great Lineage Master Seung Sahn’s translation and questions.

    The Old Woman Burns the Hermitage

    An old woman built a hermitage for a monk to practice hard. She also provided food and clothing. The monk practiced for ten years but sent no news. Therefore, the old woman sent her beautiful daughter with special instructions to see the monk. When the daughter arrived at the hermitage, she bowed to the monk and said, “You have been practicing here for ten years, therefore, my mother has sent this special food and clothing for you.” “Thank you very much,” the monk replied. “Your mother is a great Bodhisattva.” Just then, the girl, as she had been instructed, embraced the monk, kissed him, and asked, “How does this make you feel?”

    The monk calmly replied, “Rotten logs on cold rocks. No warmth in winter.” Releasing him, the girl bowed deeply and said, “You are certainly a great monk.” She returned home. Her mother asked her, “What did the monk say?” “Oh, his words were wonderful. He said, Rotten logs on cold rocks. No warmth in winter.” “What!” shouted the old woman? Fuming, she grabbed a big stick, ran to the hermitage and beat the monk shouting, “Go away! Get out of here! I’ve spent the last ten years helping a demon.” Then she burned the hermitage to the ground.

    1. If you were the monk how would you reply to the girl’s question, “How does this make you feel?”

    2. Where is the monk’s mistake?

    3. What did the old woman attain that made her beat the monk?

    Seung Sahn’s Comment

    Mother has mother’s job, daughter has daughter’s job, businessman has businessman’s job, monk has monk’s job. If you don’t understand your job, you don’t understand your responsibility.

    This monk sat for ten years. What is his job? If you are holding something, and attached to something, then you lose your original job. Put it all down, then your original job and your correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function will appear clearly.

    If you understand one, you lose everything. If you attain one, then you get everything. Be careful! What are you doing now? Just do it.