Tasteless Within The Tasty: More On The Keyword Instruction Of Dàhuì

Tasteless Within The Tasty: More On The Keyword Instruction Of Dàhuì May 22, 2020





In 1144, Zen master Dàhuì received a letter from a fairly high-ranking official (a drafter of imperial proclamations), a fellow named Zong, that seems to have been what we might call a practice check-in. Among other things, Zong reports:

“In responding to conditions in my daily wading through the differentiated sense objects I am always in the midst of the buddhadharma.”


“In the midst of my daily activities, my movements and various demeanors, I use the dog-has-no-buddha-nature keyword [wu 無] to brush away the sense fields.” (1)

At the time, Dàhuì was three years into fourteen years of exile. A few years previously, from 1137 – 1141, from age forty-nine to fifty-three, Dàhuì had been the abbot of Jingshan monastery in the new capital, Lin-an. Jingshan monastery housed two-thousand monastics, and many high-ranking officials came to study with him as well. He was the leader of Buddhism in the realm. Then Dàhuì was accused of taking the wrong side in a political dispute, and so fell from grace, and was eventually sent to Guangdong, in the south, a place notoriously dangerous with malaria, various other plagues, and hostile elements.

It’s a long way to fall.

Nevertheless, Dàhuì continued to teach, and the present letter is one of many examples in his Letters that were written from exile to a householder in the midst of a challenging career, yet still doing the keyword practice. In this post, I will explore several aspects of Dàhuì’s response to Zong, especially the aspect of “tastelessness.”

First, though, I should say that this is the seventh of ten posts in this series, so I’ll now share the usual series introduction and disclaimer:

In the recent translation of The Letters of Chan Master Dàhuì Pǔjuétranslators Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe offer nine themes, motifs, that emerge in the letters about how to do keyword practice (話頭 huàtóu, Japanese, watō). I’ve been sharing them on the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training for students working with keywords (e.g., mu), and I’ll also be sharing them here for others who might be interested. Close study of an ancient text can help both students and teachers notice details of the method and refresh their practice spirit. If you are working with a keyword with another teacher, consult with them, of course, and rely on their guidance.

Theme 6: You will eventually notice that the keyword has become “tasteless”

Broughton and Watanabe:

At an advanced stage, the student will begin to notice that keyword practice has entered a phase wherein the keyword no longer has any “taste” or “flavor.” Letters of Dàhuì gives assurance that this is a “good state of being,” a good time, a good place—that this is just the time to apply even more effort:

Letter #35.5: When you are lifting the keyword to awareness, there is definitely no need to perform a lot of tricky maneuvers. While walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, just don’t allow interruption. While experiencing joy, anger, sorrow, or happiness, don’t produce discrimination. Over and over again lift the keyword to awareness, over and over again keep your eye on the keyword. When you notice the keyword has no logic, no taste, that your mind is “hot and stuffy,” it’s the state wherein you, the person on duty, relinquishes their life. Keep this in mind! Upon encountering this realm, don’t become fainthearted. This sort of realm is the state of being of becoming a buddha or ancestor. (2)


The recipient of this letter from Dàhuì, our friend Zong, had developed some solid practice skills, including using “…the dog-has-no-buddha-nature keyword [wu 無] to brush away the sense fields.” Unfortunately, he was roaring down 35W, hoping to reach Duluth, MN, before sunset tomorrow, all the while the freeway signs (that he’s ignoring) say that Larado, TX, is getting closer and closer. Yeah, he thinks he’s headed north but south is were he’s going.

Dàhuì quotes a direct descendent of Cáodòng (Japanese, Sōtō) lineage founder Dōngshān, Lóngyá Jūdùn, to help turn him around: “Just be in things—but comprehend nothing-to-do. In seeing forms and hearing sounds you mustn’t become [blind and] deaf.”

“Just be in things” – wonderful instruction! As for “nothing-do-to,” in the previous post I quoted Dàhuì’s admonition that “The buddhas of the three times are just people with nothing-to-do.”

Dàhuì continues with an unattributed quote of a successor of Línjì, but from another branch of the lineage, Huìtáng Zǔxīn, who puts it even more directly: “The idiot gets rid of sense objects but doesn’t eliminate mind; the wise one eliminates mind but doesn’t get rid of sense objects.” (3)

Don’t be brushing away sense objects while clinging to and protecting a sense of self. Let go of separation and be the sound. Be the sight. Etc.

By the way, this post does not intend to give advise for what to do when in exile. For example, you might think twice about calling a government official an idiot, but that’s just not how Dàhuì rolled. Clearly, Dàhuì saw potential in Zhong, potential that Zhong was misapplying, so risked life and limb to set him straight.

Here’s the short course in his advise:

Don’t get into tricky maneuvers, brushing away the sense fields.

Achieve continuity.

Don’t fall into interpretation – it isn’t like something!

Lift the keyword from the morass of subtle laxity.

Don’t rest in half-baked realizations, even when you get to the point of “…no logic, no taste, … [and] your mind is ‘hot and stuffy.'”

Let’s unpack this a bit. First, no logic is just that. Let go of making things make sense, of figuring it out, and let the keyword just be the keyword. “Taking a first in the ‘dull-witted examination,’ says Dàhuì, “is no bad thing!” (4)

As for “No taste,” for taste there must be some perspective, some separation, some sense of me and it, of I and thou. Or as Broughton and Watanabe summarize, for there to be taste, there has to be a “‘…stereotyped formula’ or ‘conventional usage’ (kejiu 窠臼) and taken up a comfortable residence therein. When you don’t sit inside any such ‘nest,’ you are in the state of ‘no taste.’”

It is a delight that Dàhuì calls out the hot and stuffy mind – a wonderful description for the sensations of samadhi-working-keyword mind. That our dharma ancestors in a time and place far, far away experienced such similar sensations, and described the inner experience that people of the Way undergo today, is very comforting.

When you’ve stopped trying to make the world make sense, when the keyword is tasteless, and when you’re getting some strange side-effects, including the hot and stuffy mind, this is the point to release your attachment to this life.

A very brief aside

One of my interests in buddhadharma study is to explore how the various lineages in Zen (aka, Ch’an), especially in the period I find most intriguing, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (a period with powerful impact on our practice today, featuring the likes of Hóngzhì, Dàhuì, Rújìng, Dōgen, Wànsōng, Xūtáng, and Daiō) were humming the same tune. It appeals to me, I suppose, because I’m a hybrid of Sōtō and Rinzai! Or maybe I’m a hybrid because it appeals to me.

Anyway, the difference between lineages in this golden age of Zen was slight. There were more differences within groups than between groups. Whether a teacher was Cáodòng or Línjì, Sōtō or Rinzai, mattered much less than today, and Way seekers were much more commonly just about the Way, not the school. At least that’s how it seems from the literature. Rújìng, for example, didn’t even reveal his lineage until he was about to die. Studying the buddhadharma back then wasn’t about believing in and aligning with a lineage along with all the concomitant petty sectarian distinctions that is too often the case in the dharma scene today.

It’s a long way to fall.

As a case in point, I’ll conclude with a poem from Hóngzhì in one stream of the Cáodòng lineage, with capping phrases (in italics below) by Wànsōng from another stream of the Cáodòng lineage, making much the same points that Línjì lineage Dàhuì and hybrid me have made in this post.

“The Record of Going Easy,” (Chinese: 從容錄, Cóngróng lù; Japanese: 従容錄, Shōyōroku), Case 23: Lǔzǔ Sits Facing the Wall:

Tasteless within the tasty

Tasteless within the tasty

         Who taught you to add salt to vinegar

Marvelously going beyond feeling and meaning

Another day you’ll talk

Continuously seeming to exist (Eh!) before appearances

Already fallen into the secondary

 Towering, towering – as if stupid! The precious Way

         No one can make it’s value known.

Carved jade loses its purity

         The monk holds it high

A pearl in a deep pool is yet beautiful in itself

         Stop showing off

Utterly cool, fresh air (Ah!) – distinct from the grinding heat of autumn

         Body exposed in the golden wind

One wisp of a cloud leisurely divides sky and water

         A memorial ceremony brings many devils (5)

(1)The Letters of Chan Master Dàhuì Pǔjué, “Introduction: Recurring Motifs in Huatou Practice,” trans. Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe. Modified.

(2)  Ibid., “Introduction: Recurring Motifs in Huatou Practice.”

(3) Op. cit., 35.7.

(4) Op. cit., 35.9.

(5) Wànsōng Yělǎo, “The Record of Going Easy,” Case 23: Case 23: Lǔzǔ Sits Facing the Wall, trans. Dosho Port.

Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Ōshō. Dōshō also teaches with the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, an internet-based Zen community. Dōshō received dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Rōshi and inka shōmei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. Dōshō’s translation and commentary on The Record of Empty Hall is due out in early 2021 (Shambhala). He is also the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

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