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.

Restraining the Nevertheless Deluded One: Vine of Obstacles Turns Two
Zenshin Tim Buckley Dies: One Heartbeat, Ten Thousand Buddhas
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
  • Mike F

    The half that can’t be divided.

  • Uku

    I have always loved flowers growing in a mud. It’s so inspirational. Thank you, Dosho, great post.

  • do jhana

    some of the discussions here at Yugeji and on the web about how “some people” view authority (love/hate).What did you talk about authority?

  • Monk in the world

    Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe the Chinese symbol (word) for danger is also the same as the symbol (word) for opportunity.Thanks for the opportunity Dosho.Alan

  • Monk in the world

    BooksOnce there was a well known philosopher and scholar who devoted himself to the study of Zen for many years.On the day that he finally attained enlightenment, he took all of his books out into the yard, and burned them all.(source unknown)Be careful of the flames DoshoAlan

  • Dosho Port

    Just to be clear, I’m suggesting being as fully informed by the tradition as we can (teachers and the literature and our experience in the tradition) but not to be slavishly attached to the letter.That’s what we talked about regarding authority too. There’s a post from last summer about post-modern power, David, that you might want to look at.

  • Seigen

    I just posted something really nice about “the letter” and postmodern authority – it is an interview, here.

  • Harry

    Hi,What’s the real basis of authority? What’s real authority?”authority” and Authority… ‘the Word made flesh’ and all that.Seems to me, in Buddhism and in religion and culture in general, that people are just too happy to bask in the glow of the Word-made golden flesh of others.Get a life! Your own one! That includes me!Regards,Harry.

  • Dhyan

    When I opened the blog and saw (just!) the title I burst into laughter out loud! “Inviting Trouble: Studying With a Teacher” Isn’t THAT the truth! Just yesterday I was writing a poem about “being a disciple.” Without all the line breaks it goes: To Be A Disciple (student)I remember my first meditation master once telling us this:To be in relationship with a Master … To be a disciple…Is a great love affair. The greatest the world has ever known.You come for awakening and awakening is never easy. It is the steep and narrow path and only a few will try it in any generation.Sometimes a Master has to perform a kind of surgery on you and it is not the kind of surgery where the patient can be asleep. You have to be awake. And it hurts.The Master sees what needs to be done but he has to wait a little bit… and a little more… until he sees that you are ready; that you love enough or are committed enough; the moment become ripe, and then suddenly… he cuts. In that moment of shock and surprise there is a chance that you might awaken but there is always a risk that instead you will escape.It takes tremendous love and trustto be a disciple.And then he told us: You will never know how much love and respect I have for those of you who stay. So, Dosho, bring on the trouble! I bow to receive it. The March wind is blowing here. The air coming down from the mountains is crisp, bright, clear, and cold. May the cobwebs be swept from under the eaves. I am not going to be careful for what I ask for. I ask for everything. You can remind me in future that I said this, Dosho. Gassho! Dhyan

  • Seigen

    How can you divide yourself from the golden flesh of words?

  • Monk in the world

    Agreeing completely with one’s teacher leaves no room for self-realization, only understanding…the teacher is the finger pointing to the moon.Alan