Dàhuì’s Don’ts: Still More On The Keyword Instruction Of Dàhuì

Dàhuì’s Don’ts: Still More On The Keyword Instruction Of Dàhuì June 6, 2020

Dàhuì Pǔjué (1089–1163)


This series is especially directed to students working with a keyword (話頭 huàtóu, Japanese, watō) with Tetsugan Osho and I on the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training or at the Nebraska Zen Center. I’ve been sharing these posts here for others who might be interested.

Close study of the teachings of the ancients 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.

My current focus on Dàhuì is the result of the recent translation of The Letters of Chan Master Dàhuì Pǔjuétranslators Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe. As one of the founders of the keyword method, Dàhuì’s teaching is especially important and, upon close reading of The Letters, turns out to be powerfully relevant today, in part because they are addressed to householders in the midst of the torrent of daily life.

One aspect of Dàhuì’s teachings, probably best-known today among keyword students, are his instructions on what NOT to do, especially in regard to working with the keyword mu. There are actually three overlapping lists of what not to do in The Letters (letters #10.5, #14.8, and #58.2). In this post, I will translate the list from #10.5 and return to the other lists later.

I stumbled on what I’m calling Dàhuì’s Don’ts while in the midst of my own work with mu, and although I found them inspiring, some of the items on the list remained a mystery, either because of my own limitations, because of cultural changes during the many years that had passed since Dàhuì had offered these Don’ts, or, I wondered, because of the translation. So I am happy now to have the opportunity to try my hand at rendering them in English in a way, I hope, that will be helpful to keyword students.

#4 below is particularly challenging, by the way, but with the help of the Mujaku’s annotations provided by Broughton and Watanabe, I think I get close to the meaning. My translation of this first set of Dàhuì’s Don’ts are in bold below with my own brief explanation in normal font. Broughton and Watanabe’s version follows.

Dàhuì’s Don’ts

  1. Don’t make an “is” (u) or “isn’t” (mu) understanding.

“Is” or “isn’t” could be translated as “affirmative” or “negative,” “yes” or “no,” “something” or “nothing.” When mu is or isn’t, it’s already two. 

2. Don’t make a logical understanding.

Divided consciousness can’t figure out mu. Just can’t. Give that up. It’s already broken.

3. Don’t engage the faculty of thinking, conjecturing about the stuff of thought.

You won’t get it by parsing the functions of consciousness. Or puzzling about the content of thought. 

4. Don’t engage raising the eyebrow and blinking an eye as the single point. 

You won’t get it by dismissing mu as the everyday behavior of Zen adepts like yourself. 

5. Don’t turn to the [key]word for a way of making a living.

You won’t get it by just going through the motions or turning it into something that you do for a livelihood. You are not mu.

6. Don’t soar inside a useless position. 

Taking up the strategy that mu is useless might get you off the hook. You might even soar for a bit or even keep on running your whole life. 

7. Don’t engage in lifting [the keyword] while accepting reality as it is. 

If you don’t generate doubt about reality as it is, lifting the keyword is just thoughts and prayers. 

8. Don’t turn to words citing proof.

E.g., “Somebody Roshi (even the Buddha) said….” is just useless. There is only one way to prove it. 

Broughton and Watanabe translation:

  1. You must not produce an understanding [of wu無 as the wu of the polarity] there is [you有]/ there is not [wu無].
  2. You must not produce an understanding [of wu無] based on reasoning.
  3. You must not, during the operation of the mind sense-organ, engage in reflection and conjecture 
  4. You must not, during [actions such as] raising eyebrows or winking eyes, allow the mind of calculation to stop on a single point [such as wu無]. 311
  5. You must not make a “lifestyle” out of the word [wu無]. 312
  6. Also, you must not remain confined to the tiny hidden-away closet of nothing-to-do.
  7. You must not, while raising [wu無], understand and “own” it.
  8. You must not quote texts as proof. (1)

(1) The Letters of Chan Master Dàhuì Pǔjué, “10.5: Dahui shows the exertion of mind in gongfu,” trans. Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe. Modified.

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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