Daowu’s Condolences: Riffing on a Zen Koan on Life and Death

Daowu’s Condolences: Riffing on a Zen Koan on Life and Death June 3, 2016

Nothing Happens Next

In the Biyanlu, the Twelfth century anthology of Zen koans, the Blue Cliff Record, case fifty-five, “Daowu’s Condolences” we hear how “Daowu and Jianyuan went to a house to express condolences.” In John Tarrant & Joan Sutherland’s translation the story continues…

Jianyuan rapped on the coffin and asked, ‘Living or dead?’

“Daowu said, ‘I can’t say either living or dead.’

“Jianyuan asked, ‘Why can’t you say?’

“Daowu said, ‘I can’t say! I can’t say!’

“On the way home, Jianyuan said, ‘Your Reverence, please tell me right away. If you don’t, I shall hit you.’

“Daowu said, ‘If you like, I’ll allow you to hit me, but I’ll never say.’ Jianyuan hit him.

“Later, after Daowu passed away, Jianyuan went to Shishuang and told him this story. Shishuang said,

‘Alive, I can’t say! Dead, I can’t say!’

“Jianyuan asked, ‘Why can’t you say?’

“Shishuang said, ‘I can’t say! I can’t say!’

“With these words, Jianyuan was enlightened”

For those not familiar with koan literature this is perhaps a bit confusing. Something about death. But obviously also about something else, something that perhaps transcends life and death.


Daowu is one of the greats. He features in another of my favorite koans, collected in the Hongzhi Zhengjue, the Book of Serenity, “Who is Sick?” with the lovely question “Why is it that Quanyin (the bodhisattva of compassion) has so many eyes and hands,” and the response “It’s like reaching behind in your sleep and adjusting your pillow.” He pops up a few other places, as well…

In the Dharma Daowu is a great uncle to our Soto way, his Dharma sibling Dongshan helped to form the school. And I feel in the sweetness of the encounter one can detect a family resemblance here. But within that sweetness there is a relentlessness. He puts the real question to us. What about death? What about life? Why does the Buddha die? I suspect more importantly, why do I die?

I was talking with some people the other day about why they entered the Zen way. I noticed pretty much all those who had been around a while, more than a couple of years, they had some question about sickness and death, some burning sense of dissatisfaction, of anxiety, of anxiousness in the face of the rush of life and death.

It drove them to the pit of practice, to not turning away, to really, really looking into their hearts. They had become real people of Zen.

So, I suggest, the question in this koan is the question of Zen.

Now there is something to notice in this little conversation and its follow up. Here the Zen dharma takes a rather different tack than saying the death itself is the point or giving a long sermon on the way out the door.

It negates neither, but doesn’t spend any time there, either.

Instead we get, “I can’t say.”

I like to make much of the word agnostic. As old Thomas Huxley meant when he coined it, I don’t know, and, and I care deeply.

This is no passive I can’t say. This is a can’t say that involves every atom in one’s being.

There are all sorts of corollaries to this can’t say on the Zen way. Only don’t know. Beginner’s Mind.

Not knowing is most intimate.

I hope you notice. There is a presentation here. And there is an invitation.

It is in fact a moment that Jianyuan missed. An easy enough miss. In life as we live it so much is happening, so much hurt, so much joy, so much dashing about here and there.

What? Did you say something?

But, also in the case as we receive it, there’s a second chance.

Thank goodness for second chances. And third. And fourth…

And in that second encounter an elaboration of the point to help.

Alive, I can’t say. Dead, I can’t say.

What would it look like if we just set down our idea of death? What would it look like if we let go of our idea of life?

What then?

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