What is the Withered Tree Way?

This reflection is a follow up to James Ford’s post a little while back, Jiufeng Does Not Approve: A Brief Meditation.

I’ve been chewing on this old case for twenty years or so – an important pointer in my ongoing search for what Dogen calls the wondrous method of practice-enlightenment (aka, shikantaza).

Katagiri Roshi would often say that there are only a few people who really know this wondrous method. I took that to heart and launched a pilgrimage that has been dragging on for thirty-five years.

The koan work that I’ve been doing, fyi, is also in service of this inquiry – what is the heart of shikantaza?

Here’s the koan.

Book of Serenity, Case 96:

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.”

Shishuang (807-88) was a successor to Daowu – the guy who wouldn’t say alive or dead, the guy who asked his brother Yunyan about the activity of great compassion, the guy who asked the sweeping Yunyan what he was doing. Daowu was a successor to Yaoshan in the Shitou branch of Zen, the branch that eventually became associated with “silent illumination” and then radicalized by Dogen as “shikantaza” (or earnest, vivid sitting).

Shishuang was a contemporary of Linchi, Yangshan, Dongshan and Xuefeng – living and teaching right in the thick of the dream time for Zen teachings.

There’s a number of significant and hinky context bits in this old story. Succession to the abbacy appears to be by group consensus and so the Shishuang line may not be thriving in an imperially controlled monastery but at the fringes. Perhaps this allowed for the fringe practice of monks dying while sitting or standing. A practice experiment that one might say “died out” (I hear you groaning!).

Thus Shishuang’s zendo was reputed to be a dead-tree hall, so named for the emphasis on long hours of still sitting and fore-shadows the silent illumination school (although these old guys were dead for a hundred years or so before the silent illumination brand arose) as well of this drop-dead trick – a considerable meditation feat and quite beside the point.

James, of course, does a nice job of laying out the issue and making the koan point that the realization of emptiness is alive:

“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.” [emphasis added]

Nor will dying in body or in spirit while sitting necessarily do it.

And this goes to the heart of shikantaza. Demonstrably not simply a silent illumination death camp (aka”just sitting”) – a passive practice in the chorus of the do-me-dharma school.

“Dropping body and mind,” Dogen’s mantra for shikantaza, echoes the withered tree way but is certainly not merely pure receptivity or panoramic awareness as some contemporary skin bags portray it.

Another framing for this conversation is about the two wings of Buddhist meditation, samadhi and insight, that has been in play at least since the Buddha’s time. We tend to emphasize one over the other, subtly missing the heart of the wondrous method.

Soto Zen at it’s best leans toward samadhi. Koan Zen toward insight.

Case in point, a close student of Suzuki Roshi once told me that he told her, “Zazen is samadhi.”

Yes and no.

I once asked Katagiri Roshi if zazen was about samadhi or insight. He held up his hand and turned it back and forth and said, “Like a leaf showing one side then the other. Go into one side deeply and the other appears.”

And this is Dogen’s great practice. Shikantaza as the “show me,” “tell me” resolution of the samadhi/insight issue where samadhi and insight are two foci and the seeming conflict is dynamically resolved through ongoing intimate interaction.

It is this very churning that ripens the sweet cream of the long river.

(Photo above of withered tree is from recent canoeing trip to BWCA)

What is Earnest Vivid Sitting, How it's Often Missed in American Zen, and Why it Matters
Do Not Waste Your Time Admiring a Painted Rice Cake: Kukai and Dogen on the Art of Enlightenment
Guidelines for Studying the Way - Why?
The Old Plum Tree Bursts into Bloom
  • Angie

    You make it sound really difficult. I don’t think it is. Just keep sitting.

    • doshoport

      Hi Angie,
      It’s not that it’s difficult but it’s also not easy.
      Why would many people in the past have given their all to discover it if simply continuing to sit would reach it?
      This is the Zen of faith which is fine but just the initial movement on the path. If you are determined to go beyond slurping the dregs of others, you’ll have to move off that dead spot.
      Best wishes,

  • http://nyoho.com Koun Franz


    Is “earnest, vivid sitting” your own coinage for shikantaza? Beautiful. I think it should be our new default English definition. I’m stealing it.

    Thank you for another great post.


    • doshoport

      Hey Koun
      I stole it from Taigen so steal away!

  • http://www.treeleaf.org Jundo Cohen

    Powerful post, right to it! I am stealing the “earnest vivid sitting” tag too. Just Sitting is anything but just sitting around.
    Gassho, Jundo

  • Harry

    Great read, Thanks!

    Couple of points this brings to mind:

    I went to a Tibetan centre when I was first starting out practicing and the teacher there said that shamatha practices, after a time, ‘naturally shade’ into vipassana practice. I think there’s truth in that, altough it is not a principle I would be happy to base my practice on entirely as certain situations call for a change of focus one way or the other.

    I once asked Nishijima Sensei about whether zazen could be criticised as lacking the element of vipassana. His answer was quite interesting: He said something to the effect that (I can’t find the exact quote, alas), in zazen, our posture is shamatha while the real content of zazen is vipassana.



    • doshoport

      Hi Harry,
      Interesting notes. I share you’re first caution and the way you remember the Nishijima statement dis-embodies insight and dis-minds shamata … so rather curious.

  • Harry

    Hi Dosho,

    Yes, I may have remembered the statement from Nishijima Sensei incorrectly and/or badly; but I think it was intended to point out that zazen is a ‘complete’ practice with regards to both the shamatha and vipassana foci, not to alienate the two from each other or from the action of zazen… Again, I think there is certainly truth in that, but I would not take ‘refuge’ in the priciple of it; rather it seems that, as you point out, it may be more a matter of an ongoing dynamic responsiveness to what is presenting.

    I have to say that I find the perspective of the posture ‘being’ shamatha insightful and refreshing as it appears to me to be very true in a practical way: If I simply stay still and upright it seems to have a real stilling and ‘righting’ affect on the mental functions whether I’m watching my breath/an object or not. In fact, if I start to watch the breath when I first commence zazen that effort leads to a sort of mild stress or tension… it’s different if I start watching the breath after having sat for a time (maybe 10-15 mins) and naturally settled into it… but maybe that’s just me!



  • Stephen Slottow

    Once Pat Hawk suggested that I try shikantaza. I said “how do I do it?” He answered, “just sit there.” Now, after reading the following, I suspect there’s more to it: “And this goes to the heart of shikantaza. Demonstrably not simply a silent illumination death camp (aka”just sitting”) – a passive practice in the chorus of the do-me-dharma school…..“Dropping body and mind,” Dogen’s mantra for shikantaza, echoes the withered tree way but is certainly not merely pure receptivity or panoramic awareness as some contemporary skin bags portray it.”
    You sound as harsh as Hakuin here, attacking the dead-void sitters!

    • doshoport

      The nicest thing anyone has said to me in a long long time.

  • http://www.the-middle-way.org Mike Cross

    Hi Dosho,

    I happened on this post from a facebook share (by Catherine Spaeth) and your description of your long-term chewing on the subject of the withered tree resonated with me — though the metaphor that I favour, rather than chewing, is digging.

    The post stimulated me to revisit the word nimitta, which is a key concept in Aśvaghoṣa’s Saundara-nanda.

    A problem like the withered tree can be both an object and a subject [for meditation/chewing/digging]; again, it can be a stimulus for mental development, and thus a cause of growth.

    All these meanings — subject, object, stimulus and cause — are possible translations of the Sanskrit word nimitta, which is used in various meanings in Aśvaghoṣa’s Saundara-nanda, especially in Canto 16 in connection with bhāvana, which means bringing into being, development, cultivation.

    Looking at your facebook friends, by the way, it looks like a roll call of the great and the good of American Zen. I wonder how many of them have benefited from the years of digging that I put into the Nishijima/Cross Shobogenzo translation. And I wonder how many of the Roshis and Abbots and Dharma Teachers would give me the steam of their piss… which in itself is a stimulus that might help me grow, if I responded to it wisely, which in general I tend not to do.

    Any way up, all the best with your continued digging, Dosho, from a fellow digger in the trenches.

    • doshoport

      Always good to hear from you! Dug into your Fukanzazengi translation again recently.
      The appropriate response to you from anybody for your contribution to practice is just bow.

      • http://www.the-middle-way.org Mike Cross

        Nobody over there is thinking of building a statue to me yet, then?

        No, seriously, I feel ashamed of myself this morning for having shown myself to be so bothered about whether I am appreciated or not.

        One continuous mistake, as somebody said.

        I like the sound of your son, by the way — facetiousness may be lower down the food chain than irony, but it has to be a step in the right direction compared with grim end-gaining.

  • http://www.the-middle-way.org Mike Cross

    And other thing…

    On “the wondrous method,” I think the corresponding words that Dogen used must have been either 妙法MYOHO, as in the Chinese title of the Lotus Sutra, or 妙術 MYOJUTSU, as in the opening sentence of Shobogenzo. In the former case, the corresponding Sanskrit would be saddharma, true dharma, and in the latter case the Sanskrit would be sūkṣma-dharma, which means fine/subtle dharma. The reason I mention it is that I think sūkṣma expresses the non-doing aspect of sitting-meditation which is often lacking in Zazen as practised and taught in Japan (but maybe less so in China where the principle of non-doing predated Bodhidharma). “Wondrous method” makes it sound like a method we can only wonder at, without hoping to understand anything. “Subtle method,” to me, is more meaningful. In practising the subtle method, we can’t hope to know what the right thing is that tends to do itself (wondrously), but we can gradually work out what the wrong thing is that we don’t wish to do any more, which is where the subtlety, accuracy, and precision come in. In any event, if the original Sanskrit of the conception in question was sūkṣma-dharma, then “subtle method” is much closer to the original than “wondrous method.”

    Hope this at least gives you something fresh to chew on.

    All the best,


    • doshoport

      Thanks, Mike. I was thinking of Bendowa’s “This is because each teacher and each disciple has been intimately and correctly transmitting this subtle method and receiving and maintaining its true spirit.”
      The translation we now use also has “subtle” but in my mind the older version’s “wondrous” apparently prevails.
      Thanks for your wondrously subtle tutorial. I appreciate it.

  • Oreb

    One pointed focus (how Mu is sometimes taught) can be worse dead camp zen from what I’ve seen, and with worse consequences when repression is taken to be clarity and non-ego (popular words). If I remember correctly Hakuin even wrote somewhere about those who thought they had found “a black pearl” in the mind but were really stuck in the black pit deep down, not realizing the immense Mind billowing up to the sky or some such. Interestingly he preferred the sound of the one hand to Mu for his students later on. That koan has always felt closer to shikantaza for me (also first koan I passed with the follow-up questions and so on).

    I love the “just sit” instruction. The suffering and doubt and wish to see that makes it more than just whiling away the time is there for just about anyone anyway I think. I just have a hard time imagining all these misguided lazy dead sitters with their soya-lattes and all, where do you find them? If nothing else they seem like nice people to be around?

    I guess you need both samatha and vipassana, and both one-pointedness and objective awareness or whatever you call it can give both (and that other strange thing eventually). In the end it’s not even about that is it? It’s this rain, this meal, this bill, this child talking.

    And always Dosho, thanks for talking about these things and being so open.

  • Josh

    FYI, “winter ashes” and “withered tree” are references to the second chapter of the Zhuangzi.