Inviting Trouble: Studying with a Teacher

Once Dongshan was conducting a memorial service for his master, Yun-yen (literally, Cloudy Cliff, Cloudy Light). A monk asked, “What teaching did you receive while you were at Yun-yen’s place?”

Dongshan said, “Although I was there, I didn’t receive any teaching.”

The monk asked, “Since you didn’t actually receive any teaching, why are you conducting this memorial service?”

Dongshan said, “Why should I turn my back on him?”

The monk asked, “If you began my meeting Nan-chuan, why do you now conduct a memorial service for Yun-yen?”

Dongshan said, “It is not my former master’s virtue or buddhadharma that I esteem, only that he did not make exhaustive explanations for me.”

The monk asked, “Since you are conducting this memorial service for your former master, do you agree with him or not?”

Dongshan said, “I agree with half and don’t agree with half.”

The monk asked, “Why don’t you agree completely?”

Dongshan said, “If I agreed completely, then I would be ungrateful to my former master.”

The above (based on Powell’s translation) has some important guidance for how to study with a teacher and how to regard our long departed teachers.

A little background to the story above:
Dongshan was a golden child in the Chinese Ch’an (Zen) circles of his day, pointed out by Nan Chuan, regarded as a living Buddha, when Dongshan was only 16 years old. He eventually received transmission (he seems to have rejected Nan Chuan’s offer for transmission) from Yun-yen, reputed to be a rather cloudy fellow having attended to Baizhang, another living Buddha, for over 20 years and not had a break in the clouds (i.e., realization). Yun-yen did realize after he left Baizhang but even though Baizhang was a great teacher, as I said in my last post, it takes as long as it takes. Reputation on the other hand sometimes lingers like horse smell long after the latter has left the barn.

Anyway, a couple things here, prompted by some of the discussions here at Yugeji and on the web about how “some people” view authority (love/hate).

The grounds for Dongshan’s gratitude for Yun-yen seem to lie in how Yun-yen let him discover the buddhadharma for himself, without exhausting explanation.

The second is how for Dongshan that gratitude was upheld by half agreeing. Just because Dogen or Katagiri said this or that, to cling to their words and build a moon palace therein, is to utterly betray them. Living Buddhism isn’t about relying on authority.

If I was the monk, however, when Dongshan said “I agree with half…,” I’d jump in and say, “Which half?”

‘Cause therein lies the rub, matie.

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