A DREAM WITHIN A DREAM: A Brief Meditation on “Yangshan’s Sermon From the Third Seat”

A DREAM WITHIN A DREAM: A Brief Meditation on “Yangshan’s Sermon From the Third Seat” August 24, 2014

pilgrim seeing through
I have a friend who is an old Zen hand. Okay, lots of my friends are old Zen hands. This one has been engaged in the project for several decades, sat with most of the prominent teachers of our time, and has in fact completed the formal Harada Yasutani curriculum with one of them.

He and I are visiting the cases from the beginning one more time. It’s a leisurely affair, where we touch on the traditional points but we also use the cases as spring boards to discuss those often important aspects of how the rubber hits the road, how these insights into what the world and our own hearts really are like, manifest here and now, but which are usually not addressed in any detail as one proceeds through the many, many cases.

And yes, we do indulge a bit in Zen gossip. Not much of it terribly critical. These are our long time companions, often our dearest friends, certainly folk with whom we have shared a life time commitment to something very important, and so the gossip tends to be more that social grooming thing, where other apes pick off nits from one another, and we share a word or two about people we know in common. We, I think most all of us, like those things where we diverge, which, after all, are the ways we become interesting.

But at some point the conversation turned to one thing we both have encountered that was, is a bit disturbing. A lot of Zen practitioners, and even some teachers seem to think, at least rhetorically, that the “be here now” thing of Zen, the “this moment,” the “this very moment” of our way has something to do with cutting off all thought of past or future. Just this as in just this and nothing else.

That raised to mind a case from the Wumenguan, the great twelfth century anthology of koan, the Gateless Gate. Number twenty-five, “Yangshan’s Sermon from the Third Seat.” It’s brief, and goes like this.

Once in a dream the master Yangshan visited Maitreya in the Tusita heaven. He was led to the third seat in the great hall. As he sat a monk struck the sounding board and announced “the monk in the third seat will deliver today’s sermon.” Yangshan stood, struck the sounding board, himself, and said, “The truth of the great way is beyond the four propositions and transcends the one hundred negations. Listen. Listen.”

Yangshan Huiji was a Ninth century Chan master standing in the fifth generation from Daijian Huineng, a successor to the great Guishan Lingyou. He had studied with several teachers before finding Guishan, and had several awakenings. But it was with Guishan that it all came together.

Guishan was an heir of Baizhang Huaihai, and was known for his more gentle way, using symbols and metaphor more than the stick. So, for instance, when he saw the young Yangshan was ripe, he met him with a gentle pointing. Yangshan asked what is the Buddha’s true dwelling place? Guishan replied, “Consider the great mystery. Turn your attention to that boundless light. At the moment your thoughts about all this are exhausted, you’ve come to the source. Here you will find true nature is form and emptiness. Here the true Buddha manifests.”

No stick. No yell. Rather, words do the pointing. And for Yangshan at that moment, the right moment, the time of fulfillment. Or, perhaps the time of emptying. A time of stepping beyond clinging to form, or to emptiness, was at hand.

And with that he found himself standing in the Buddha realm.

So, in this story, a teacher steeped in a more gentle pointing, a use of image and metaphor to help the student on the way, he describes the heaven of the Buddha to come. In some sense, you. Me. The whole world suffering and yearning. Pointed to something very important.

Which brings us back to that thought that “this very moment” involves cutting off all thought, that this project somehow has nothing to do with past or future, the idea that “this” is an atom untouched by all that has gone on before or what will happen out of this moment.

Pure. Untouched.

In fact an awakening that has nothing to do with the past or the future is selling a bill of goods. This “awakening” is more like a brain disease, Alzheimer’s or some similar disorder where we are robbed of our past, and exist only in a constantly shrinking present until finally we forget to breathe. This has nothing to do with Zen.

I’m taken with where Yangshan stands in the flow of Zen’s history. He stands within the historic stream of the lineage, but just barely. Before Huineng it really is myth and hope and aspiration. The wisdom of Gautama and the high Indian logic meets a culture who wants to know who is your family. And both are pushing toward the great source, the place beyond the form and the empty. And from that place history flows, generations follow.

All connected in some strange and weird way.

Our invitation is to look. Is to listen. Is to attend.

Perhaps you’re familiar with that image called the “Flammarion engraving.” While it looks like a woodcut, it is in fact an engraving, showing a man in a robe and with a staff on his knees. He has pushed his way, at least his head and shoulders and a hand, past the phenomenal world, where he sees the great cosmic machinery that lies beyond what we normally think of as what is. I believe the image of “the other side” is derived from Ezekiel’s images of heavenly realms.

Another use of metaphor. Another invitation to look. to listen. to attend.

And another.

In recent months I’ve found myself caught up on occasion in a makyo. Makyo are those visions that in Zen are sometimes considered “diabolic interference.” Certainly one of the stock lines from a Zen teacher when a student describes visions of images or voices or smells out of the ordinary is “Don’t worry, this will pass.” And that’s more than good advice. It appears people who get stuck in those images, who believe them as some literal revelation follow a path that does no one any good. (Often it is suggested several religions might be traced to such makyo.)

In my community makyo is respected. Not as the thing in itself, but as something that occurs naturally along the way, when the world we think is the real world is disrupted. Its an important moment, or rather, these are important moments.

A moment of ripeness.

If we’re willing they allow us new directions.



Often awakening experiences are accompanied by makyo. And one needs to be able to sort these things. Another of those reasons it is good to have companions and spiritual directors who have walked this way before.

Anyway, in my makyo, there is a scene very much like the Flammerian engraving. But as my, and it is my head, pokes through what is there is not a bunch of gear works. Rather it is a riot of life. Everything is connected by green shoots, growing, roiling, connecting ants and other animals and rocks and dirt and planets and stars. Me. You. Each rising out of the great web of a mother tree’s roots and tendrils, existing for its time, and then falling back to the tree.




Don’t cling. Don’t follow in some abstruse analysis.

Just listen.


Cutting off is not cutting off the images that rise in the mind, either as representing the world as it is manifesting in the ways that allow us to walk and engage, nor, in the great metaphorical sense of our minds working, where words and emotions are actually not different things. Rather it is cutting off the mind road. The image arises. We don’t need to follow it.

Don’t cling to that which is passing.

(And it turns out everything, every thing, is passing…)

I don’t need to analyze it all. Not as part of this particular project of finding my own heart and my own place. Your heart. Your place.

In his comment on the twenty-fifth case, the editor Wumen composes a poem. In Robert Aitken’s translation it goes,

In broad daylight, under the blue sky,
He preached a dream in a dream.
Absurd! Absurd!
He deceived the entire assembly

This is the great invitation.

Listen. Listen. Absurd! Absurd!

This is the just this moment.

The whole of our past, our immediate history, our losses and gains, our loves, our failures, all of it is there, is here. And it stretches even farther back, to our parents dreams and hopes, failures and successes. And it continues on to the birth of the stars themselves. And it extends forward. Every action. Every thought. Every feeling, plays out in ways in which we can barely dream.

All of it connected, like the tendrils of the great mother tree. Buds and branches. Roots and flowers.


Really, not even one.




Our successes. Small and great.



Our failures. All of them. Our bitter memories. Our crushed hopes.


The whole great mess.

Just this.



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