The Rotting Corpses of Our Ancestors

The Rotting Corpses of Our Ancestors August 10, 2018

Hakuin’s Nampo (aka Dai-o), the first Japanese Zen ancestor in the Xūtáng succession.

Once in awhile, I hear some trash talk about me and my practice and teaching in both just-sitting and koan introspection Zen. Builds character, you know. But some folks say it just shows a lack of understanding about just-sitting.

Be that as it may be, on the other hand, my first teacher, Katagiri Roshi, once encouraged us to return to what he called “Zen before the Sixth Ancestor,” meaning, before the split between the Sōtō and Rinzai lineages. Another way to put that would be “What is original Zen?” 

I took that admonition to heart, travelled around visiting a bunch of teachers, and eventually had the good fortune to work through the Harada-Yasutani reform kōan curriculum, thanks to James Myoun Ford Roshi and company. I’ve also done some studying, and that’s helped a lot, really, to have a sense of our ancestors in context. One thing that I’ve learned is that Katagiri Roshi’s question might have been more about Zen before Dōgen, because it seems that it wasn’t until Japan that Zen got all divided up into very distinct schools (2). 

Case in point

In Complete Poison Blossoms from a Thicket of Thorn, #16, Hakuin tells the story of when the last Chinese ancestor in the Cáodòng (Japanese, “Sōtō”) lineage met with the last Chinese ancestor in the Línjì  (Japanese, Rinzai) succession. Namely, that would be Ju-ching and Hsu-tang (3). These two old teachers knew each other, and it appears to me that Ju-ching was a teacher of Hsu-tang (he was twenty-three years senior), even though the latter probably received dharma transmission when they met. 

Hsu-tang would later write a preface to the collected works Ju-ching’s Japanese student, Dōgen. Not only that, but a student of Dōgen, Tetsu Gikai, may have introduced Nampo Jōmyō to Hsu-tang. Nampo became the first generation in the Rinzai successor in Japan. So they all knew each other. For me, that is just really cool.  

Here’s the recorded encounter between Ju-ching and Hsu-tang:

“When Zen master Hsu-t’ang met Head Priest Ju-ching of Ch’ing-tz’u temple, Ju-ching said, ‘Your parents’ bodies are rotting away in a thicket of razor-sharp thorns. Did you know that?’

‘It is wonderful,” replied Hsu-t’ang, “but it’s not something to act rashly about.’

Ju-ching gave Hsu-t’ang a slap.

Hsu-t’ang extended his arms, saying, ‘Let’s take it slow and easy.’ (1)

The master [Hakuin] said: The means employed by these two old veterans are exceedingly subtle and mysterious. Scrutinize them carefully and you will find that Ju-ching’s question is as awesome as the great serpent that devours elephants whole and excretes their dry bones three years later. Hsu-t’ang’s reply has the vehement purpose of the evil P’o-ching bird, which seeks to devour its mother as soon as it is born.”

Ju-ching is probably referring to Hsu-tang’s dharma parents whose truth is buried beneath a thicket of razor-sharp kōan. Click here for a post about Ju-ching and the mu kōan. In this case, Ju-ching is really laying it down and testing the young teacher, Hsu-tang. Hsu-tang certainly maintains his cool. No stereotypical Rinzai-like shouting or beating even. 

This case deserves extended scrutiny to get a sense of the subtle and mysterious. The question for us today is how we get to the rotting bodies or our dharma ancestors so that we might thoroughly digest the truth of Zen before our parents were born. And then give the corpses a decent burial.

You’ll find more about this theme here:

(1) The last two lines are included in Waddell’s notes but not cited by Hakuin.

(2) Except for a brief period when Dahui was raising hell in the mid 1100’s with the silent illuminationists but that’s not the theme in this post.

(3) Waddell uses the the old Wades-Giles system for Romanizing the Chinese characters so I go with that here. Pinyin has the names like this: Tiāntóng Rújìng (天童如淨; Japanese: Tendō Nyōjo, 1163–1228) and Xutang Zhiyu 虚堂智愚 (Japanese Kido Chigu, 1185–1269).


"This was a fun talk. Thanks. I laughed in the beginning when you said you ..."

Cyber Zen: Practicing Awakening in These ..."
"Wow thanks for such a quick and thorough response! It's so cool to see stuff ..."

The Rotting Corpses of Our Ancestors
"Hi Tony, Xutang's preface is for the abridged record, the Eiheigoroku, with just 50 dharma ..."

The Rotting Corpses of Our Ancestors

Browse Our Archives