PZI Teacher Archives

A Blue Cliff Record Journey of Not Picking & Choosing


It’s remarkable that the Picking & Choosing koan appears four times in the Blue Cliff Record, which contains only one hundred cases. So, what to do with it? Whatever you see is going to be true, it’s going to belong to you.

Listen to the Audio of this Talk


You know how you always have relatives that you don’t know much about? So you get a note from someone one day, saying that one of them died and left you a lot of money. 

And you always wanted time—really, for a lot of things—but you really wanted to spend more time with your spiritual practice. So you do that. You meditate and you find this old teacher, and the teacher points you to some reading and kind of doesn’t pay much attention to you. 

And you hear about these things called koans, and you’re reading along, and you hear about this thing called The Blue Cliff Record. And so you’re trying to read it, and honestly it doesn’t make a lot of sense. [laughs] And so you think, ‘God, what if I was wrong,’ and stuff, you know: ‘Oh, shit. And I spent all this money and—I don’t know.’

And so you ask for an interview with a Zen teacher. The Zen teacher shows up and doesn’t make much of an impression on you, actually. And you see that you’re actually a little bit miffed, so you ask the Zen teacher to come to your offices. Because you’re going through that stage where, ‘I think this stuff might be crazy.’ [laughs] 

So you tell this to the Zen teacher, and the Zen teacher just looks mildly amused. Which kind of miffs you more, and you say, “Well, for example, ‘The Great Way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing.’ What does that mean?“ HA! You think I’d rather be rich than poor? I think you’d rather have a meal than starve.“Can you explain that to me? I’d like you to explain that to me.” And the teacher nods and says, “Very well.”

And you’ve told your secretary not to disturb you in any circumstances, but nevertheless, there’s a knock on the door. And you are called away to a meeting because you’re in imminent danger of losing all your money. You never had a lot of money, and now you’re getting used to being rich, and you’re feeling pretty chipper about it. And you’re thinking of vacations and, ‘Maybe I could buy a little island somewhere. And, also all those people I could help—I could do a lot of good, you know. . . maybe a bit of politics, and art—you know, collect art.’ So you’re thinking all these things, but meanwhile you’re losing your spiritual life. And then, ‘Oh, God, I’ve got to meet this guy who says my money is in danger,‘ and who is convincing about it. 

So you go downstairs into the lobby and step out into a cab. And at an intersection, someone runs a light and crashes into the cab. And the guy I’m talking to is kind of concussed, I think, and he doesn’t make sense, and so I get out of the cab. And the people who ran into us grab me and kidnap me—they take me away. And they think I’ve done this deliberately, that I’ve tried to interrupt their delivery of a massive amount of drug money. And they think I’m one of their opposition.  

But then they get captured by the police and the police think I’m one of them. And so again I get taken away. But I escape from the police and I run. 

Now I’m in the harbor and I’m being pursued, and I get on a boat and hide below decks, and the boat sets off. It’s not a very big boat, but there’s a place to hide. And when I come out, we’re away from land. I explain myself to the people on the boat, and they are kind of miffed—they’re making a delivery. And so they just put me to work, like stowaways from time immemorial have been put to work. 

I don’t have my cell phone, and I ask them to make calls for me—you know, “I can pay you back, I have a lot of money.” And they don’t believe me. Then there’s a huge storm and the boat is wrecked, but I wash ashore. And then there’s this amazing thing: Nobody else seems to wash ashore. 

So, the island has coconuts and I work out how to break them open. I find an abandoned camp with some knives, and things like that. And I’m feeling a bit Robinson Crusoe about it all. And I’m thinking, ‘Well, at least it’s an adventure, isn’t it? And I’m sure it’s good for my spiritual practice.’ So I do that. I live on coconuts, and eventually a boat comes through and picks me up. 

But they’re Somali pirates. [laughs] And they think they can hold me hostage. They claim to be Somali pirates, but they are not even Somali, actually. And so I can’t even be sure who I’m dealing with here. Then they put me on another island, in a prison. 

And then I escape from that, because they’re not that together

And I don’t know what to do. So I go into a restaurant to look for food. And it feels incredibly poor and is a kind of minimalist place, but I’m so happy because I feel free. And they have these rolls with meat inside them, like Chinese dumplings. And I ask for some, and—“Ah god, this tastes so good.” 

And I just lock eyes with this woman who’s serving me, and I don’t know—we end up married. [laughs] And so I live there in the village, and we have kids, and I kind of forget my other life in a way. 

We do a little farming, and her family has some connections. And I learn the kinds of things I had just never learned: How to look after cattle, how to ride horses, how to butcher meat—all sorts of things that I never really wanted to learn, but, you know, they seem to be part of life. So I’m doing that.  

And then one day I wake up in the night, and I start thinking about things, and I’m afraid of death. And I start thinking about my spiritual practice: ‘God, I don’t even know where I am. But I suppose I could try and have a spiritual practice.’ But I don’t know how to do that. I’m really tired and sleepy, but I start to meditate anyway. And I’m not really sure what meditation is. But I bring up the saying, 

The Great Way. What is it? It’s not hard if you don’t do something. 

And so I’m just doing it. It’s not hard. It seems kind of hard to me, you know? [laughs] And I’m tired from working on the farm all day, but I do this. Then some years pass where I keep trying to remember the saying, and I try to focus my mind on it the way the teacher had told me to.

And one day I am sort of focused on it, when a crow caws. It’s at dusk and a crow caws, and it’s really loud.

Suddenly, it’s as if I wake up and can see how beautiful my life is. I close my eyes and open them. Then I’m back, sitting in my office, and this Buddhist teacher is in front of me, and he says,

Case 2:

The Great Way is not difficult, it’s just not picking and choosing. 

And so there you have it. [laughs] That’s how I understood that koan. 

And I say to him, “Okay.” And he says, “As soon as I say that, you’ll think about what has happened to you recently, and you’ll think, ‘That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?’ Or you might think, ‘Ah, that’s still picking and choosing.’ But I do not identify with clarity. Do you have the courage to live like this?”

And you say to him, “Well, if you don’t identify with it, what do you rely on?” And the teacher says, “I don’t know.”

And you find this really annoying after what you’ve been through. [laughs] And you say, “Well if you don’t know, how can you say you don’t identify with clarity?” And then the teacher says, “I think it’s enough to ask the question. I think you can go home and go to bed now.” [laughs] And when you have asked the question, you already have it. 

The Great Way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing. [laughs] 

And what does that mean, you might ask yourself. Well, four times in the great Blue Cliff Record, this question is asked. Zhaozhou asked it once in the koan I just recited for you: It Just Avoids Picking and Choosing (Case 2). And then later on, in Case 57:

A student asked Zhaozhou, 

“The Great Way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose. What is not picking and choosing?”
And Zhaozhou said, “Above the heavens, below the heavens, I’m alone and honored.” 

That’s a quotation. When Buddha was born, immediately he pointed up and he pointed down, he took seven steps and he said, “Above the heavens, below the heavens, I am alone and honored.” 

And the student says, “That’s still picking and choosing!”
And Zhaozhou says, “Idiot, where’s the picking and choosing?” 

This is a gratuitous insult, part of the spiritual training, and the student couldn’t say anything. And there’s a nice commentary here where Yuanwu says, 

Before you’ve seen through, it all seems like a silver mountain, like an iron cliff.

So—a cliff, an iron mountain: that became a koan itself, you know. When you come to the silver cliffs and iron mountains, what will you do? You can’t go around them, you cannot scale them. What will you do? You can feel sometimes that your whole life is like that. But it’s an awe-inspiring thing to meet that truly, to be truly blocked in your life. And then once you’ve seen through, Yuanwu says—so it kind of gives you the crib at the back of the book—once you’ve seen through, you yourself are always the silver cliffs and the iron mountain.

And the other great thing that Yuanwu always said is, “If you can get to where you touch reality, you’ll see Zhaozhou’s naked beating heart in its entirety.” So, the other thing Yuanwu always said—one of those old Zen jokes: “Picking and choosing is carrying water to sell at the river.” And Schrader the poet says, “It is beating a cloth drum.” A cloth drum doesn’t make any sound. Beating a cloth drum in the eves. So, all these things that we do for wisdom…

How are you doing on the picking-and-choosing understanding right now? [laughs] If you look inside, what are you experiencing right now? What is Buddha? What is it like to be you right now? 

So, Case 58: 

A student said to Zhaozhou, “You always say that the Great Way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose.” 

A lot of people are coming at him with it now to see what he’ll do. “Let’s poke him and see what he does.” And, “Isn’t this a cliche?” [laughs] 

And Zhaozhou said, “You’re not the first person to ask me that. The truth is I haven’t found a better way to say it.” 

There’s a nice thing here: Yuanwu says “Zhaozhou didn’t use shouts the way some people did.” And the student’s question was very special too, you know. And Zhaozhou said, “You’re not the first person to ask me. The truth is, I haven’t found a better way to say it. The truth is, I can’t explain it.” So, it’s back to the not knowing: “I can’t explain it.”

Just understand the Way, and it’s right here. If you don’t understand, then making rational calculations won’t help you. 

So then there’s Case 59 of The Blue Cliff Record

So a student asks Zhaozhou this: “You’ve said that the Great Way is not difficult if you don’t pick and choose. As soon as someone thinks or speaks, we think that’s picking and choosing. So how can you help people?”
And Zhaozhou says, “Why don’t you finish the quotation?”
And the student says, “I only remember the poem up to here.” [laughs]
Zhaozhou says “It’s only this: The Great Way is not difficult, if you just avoid picking and choosing.”

So Zhaozhou often taught his community that way you know, with a saying. And you can tell everybody then tried to engage him and get into the bath with him, really. And in Xuedou’s poem it says,

If you pour water into water,
it doesn’t get wetter;
wind blowing cannot enter.
The tiger prowls, the dragon walks,
ghosts howl, the spirits wail.

So, the eeriness of the Way. 

The Great Way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing. 

It’s kind of remarkable that this koan appears four times in the Blue Cliff Record, which contains only one hundred cases. So, what to do with it? When everybody tries to make sense of it, things happen: They get captured and taken off by pirates or drug lords. You’ve got to be careful in Zen. [laughs] 

And then there’s a crow that awakened the person when they were living on an island, in their dream. And what about the dream we’re living in? The island we’re living on? The Great Way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing. No matter what dream you are in.

For some reason, I used to get really tired when I was teaching students in Santa Fe. I’ve taught in Santa Fe for a long time; I first taught there in 1995 or something, but I have never really had a footprint in Santa Fe. But occasionally I go there and teach, and for some reason I get tired because of the altitude or something—the spells of the old Shamans in the great hills there—I don’t know. 

I remember having this wonderful experience when I was teaching there. It was out in the country, and it was kind of hot, and in the afternoon I said, “Go off for a couple hours and go for walks,” and things like that. And so I thought, ‘I should do that too, I will improve myself.’ [laughs] So I went to sit down by the creek, where there’s a little bit of water sometimes. And I would see odd things: a coyote going by, a snake, or birds. And I’d sit there and try to stay awake and meditate. But if I meditated, I didn’t stay awake. If I didn’t meditate, I would stay awake. And so, is waking “the Great Way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose?” What if you’re sleepy, or what about if you’re really sick? Is the Great Way available to you, too? You know, you’ve got a diagnosis, and the doctor says, “Well, I don’t know. I’ll give you a couple of weeks.” [laughs] And you think, ‘That’s ridiculous. I’m sure it will last at least a month.’ So, the Great Way is not difficult if you just avoid picking and choosing. 

And so it’s like that, we don’t have much of a choice in life. And we can tell that, but somehow this koan goes to something strange and deeper.

The poet Xuedou speaks about flavorless words—words that are freer than anything we can put on them. If you think, ‘Oh, I’ll explain it—just don’t be so attached,’ you can tell that that’s horseshit, because, you know, you can’t decide anything without deciding like this [while attached]. Who are you going to date if you’re young? [laughs] “Actually, I’m equal. I’ll just date anybody.” That’s picking and choosing, isn’t it really? You know, having a theory—doing it by theory. So, the Great Way is not difficult. 

Some people came to another way of dealing with it, which happened to the person in the story who asked their teacher about how to understand this koan, and then was inexplicably called away for fifteen years. Then you might find that it’s just like the crow calling at twilight that woke that person up.

The wild Zen teacher Ikkyu used to meditate in a boat on Lake Bua. And everybody knows the story. He’d lie there in the boat on the lake, looking up at the stars, with the boat slowly turning in the currents. And his big thing was that he kind of had incredible sorrow and anger against his father, who was an emperor, and his mother who had been a concubine to him. For political reasons he wasn’t acknowledged by his father. and he had to become a monk for the sake of his health—otherwise his life might have been a lot shorter. His father wouldn’t meet with him or acknowledge him, and his mother lived in poverty. And he said, “I forgive you, Father. The Great Way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose.” 

But that crow’s caw, what does it have to do with forgiveness, when the crow caws? [whacks table] When you hear a sound? They were called flavorless words sometimes. Another koan in here is where somebody says “What is Buddha?” and the teacher says, “Three pounds of flax.” It’s three pounds of hemp really, I learned it as flax but turns out it was actually hemp. “Three pounds of hemp.”

I used to spend quite a lot of time with a person who was kind of a friend, a Tibetan Rinpoche, one of those people who as a child had been identified as an enlightened reincarnation. And he was kind of funny sometimes. We’re driving around in a car, and he says to me—we found koans interesting and annoying—he says, “Three kilos of hemp. What does THAT mean?” The Great Way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing. That’s what it means. [laughs]

And he told me this great story. He lives in Seattle, and had a great, famous, crazy wisdom teacher who was visiting Seattle to get medical treatment at Fred Hutchinson, a great clinic there.

So in my friend’s dream, his teacher, Khenpo Rinpoche, was in a room with a lot of students. And someone came up and showed them a marvelous book of teachings that Khenpo had written while he was sick in Seattle. And my friend thumbed through it, and it was great. The teachings in this dream were so incredibly wonderful. And it was so nice to be reading these precious teachings from his beloved teacher. He went up to the teacher and said, “Why didn’t you teach me these things while I was looking after you in Seattle?” And the old Rinpoche held out his hand for the book, and looked through it and then said, “Oh, yeah,” and he closed it and lifted it up, and hit my friend on the head with it and said, “Now you have it.” [laughs]

It’s like the crow’s caw, or three pounds of flax. Yeah. The Great Way is not difficult. Now you have it! It just avoids picking and choosing. Now you have it. So, you can tell that even the Great Way is not difficult, it too turns into [whacks table] one of those. What is it? What is this? The universe is always calling to us, you know, although we think she’s calling to the maid. We think the crow is talking to someone else when it goes CAW! When the tree waves like this, it’s talking to the wind. But it’s for you. The Great Way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing. 

Zhaozhou turned it into this marvelously pure teaching that Zen people actually do. And it’s something that’s always here with us. We’ve always got that. We’re not constrained by what we want,  we’re not constrained by how we want it to turn out, we’re not constrained by our agenda. If I’m talking to you, I’m not constrained by my desire to help you or do well by you. So, but you know—the Great Way is not difficult whether you want to do well or not. [laughs] There’s no picking or choosing whether you want to get enlightened or not. No need to be constrained by that. Whatever happens— this excitement—the koan is always here. The Great Way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing. 


I don’t know how well that goes through Zoom, but we’re working on it. [laughs] It’s like passing a strawberry through the screen, you can pass a shout through too. The Great Way, not difficult. 

So, should I take questions or not? Is that picking or choosing or not? What do you think? [laughs]

Okay, I’ll take questions. I guess I’ll run the questions. There’s a little yellow hand which you can raise if you want to. And I might pick and choose which questions I take, too. [laughs] The Great Way. It’s your way isn’t it? It’s nobody else’s. No one else can give you what it is to be Buddha. What it is to be you. Isn’t that amazing and wonderful? And so it really doesn’t matter what Zhaozhou thinks. And Zhaozhou, you know whom it doesn’t matter to? Zhaozhou. [laughs] 

And, you know, it doesn’t really matter, when you worry, about how people will receive me. It doesn’t matter. The Great Way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing. 

Those words themselves—it’s like three pounds of flax or the sound of a crow, or the running water. Gunfire, or whatever things that wake people up—childbirth. I had a friend who had a crashing awakening experience during a very painful childbirth with a late term child. Not difficult. And what if you feel sorrow, you know? What if you feel fatigue? What if you feel grief? The Great Way is still not difficult. And isn’t that a marvelous thing to have? What if you’re dying? What are you going to do with your last five minutes of life? The Great Way is not difficult. [laughs] Yeah, are you  gonna think ‘I shouldn’t be dying?’ Or are you gonna think, ‘This, this…’ and look at the beautiful faces in the windows of the great temple. We’re here. The perfect faces, the unavoidable. Each face has its own perfection.  And you see what Yuanwu meant by silver cliffs and iron mountains. Each face has that. James Joyce called it “The ineluctable quality.” [laughs] Each face has that. Unavoidable force and beauty. And you know, we don’t have to worry about all that other stuff we’re always worrying about. 


Christy: I’m not exactly sure what the question is, but my heart’s beating really fast and I feel like something’s coming out—uh, oh. Isn’t the Way great enough that difficulty is okay? And is part of how big it is—and maybe I don’t understand exactly what the word difficulty is pointing to—that it’s not?

John: What is the thing for you? You know, somewhere else in the Blue Cliff, Yunmen says, “We’re all children of the Golden Lion.” So whatever you see is going to be true, it’s going to belong to you. But you can’t explain it to yourself, you know. You can’t make yourself inferior for not being able to explain it to yourself.

One of the nice things about Zhaozhou is that he kind of says “Oh, I don’t know. I just live, I’m here.” The Buddha is here, the Buddha is not saying, “This is why I’m Buddha: I have thirty-two marks and I have…” So in a way, if we reject all the false gold, the only thing left is gold. And all the false colors, all the explanations, and stuff like that, that we do, like, ‘Oh, if I do this, then that.’ A lot of things might be good for us, but if you’re hungry you eat, and if tired you sleep. The Great Way doesn’t pick and choose. I’m not trying to convince anyone, but I’m trying to say what it’s like really inside the Great Way—it’s not difficult. 

Thank you, Christy. Nice to see you. Nice to see your altar, nice Chinese altar there. Excellent. With a dragon and everything. [laughs] 

Somebody came to Yunmen and said, “May I have your answer?” [laughs] Can’t remember what Yunmen said, but we know if I came to you and said “May I have your answer,” what would you say? The Great Way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing. Thank you very much.

We are deep in sesshin. We are deep in the vessel. That transforms us—it pulverizes us and brings us back to life. It melts us and reconstitutes us. We get attacked by demons and realize they were our friends. So we’re deep in this vessel. And the only thing that counts now is you. The only thing that counts is, “How do I be here, truly?” To have that count, what is the answer? The Great Way is not difficult, [laughs] it just avoids picking and choosing. 

It’s too late to solve problems, it’s too late to be virtuous, it’s too late even to be bad. If you can’t, you can no longer do it wrong when you’re here. Just whatever comes up on the Great Way, just keep turning. It’s not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing.

Amaryllis: [chants End of Day Dedication]

Peacefully, humbly, the ship stars travel.
The grass hunches down to earth.
The demons take their rest.
And we ask the protectors to smile over us,
As the work in darkness goes on until dawn.

[chants All Buddhas]

All Buddhas throughout space and time
All Awakened Beings, Great Beings
The Heart of Perfect Wisdom

Tim: [sings] The Four Boundless Vows… [bells]

Evening Words from Tess Beasley Sensei: 

So, we started this morning welcoming each color, and naming into being all the different colors and beings that are part of this temple and the wider temple of the world. And this evening—as I’m staring out my window here—there’s just the very last glimmer of color out over the horizon. Just a tiny twinge of green, and a big swath of the darkest blue. 

And as the darkness sort of envelops the hillside, there are little golden lamps of light starting to switch on, coming to greet me. And it sort of seems that as the darkness is seeping up—the darkness that comes with uncertainty—that the demons and the gifts and challenges of the underworld that go along with the world of night are coming to meet us, too. 

This last week I happened to pick up a book called In Praise of Shadows. And so I got curious to look at it today, after all this talk of color. I want to read you a little section. What the book is actually about is Japanese architecture, and how darkness and shadow allow stillness and mystery and depth to sort of permeate a space. But the way he talks about buildings here—the author could very easily be talking about us. He says: [reads]

And surely you have seen, in the darkness of the innermost rooms of these huge buildings to which sunlight never penetrates, how the gold leaf of a sliding door or screen will pick up a distant glimmer from the garden, then suddenly send forth an ethereal glow—a faint golden light cast into the enveloping darkness, like the glow upon the horizon at sunset. 

In no other setting is gold quite so exquisitely beautiful. You walk past, turning to look again, and yet again. And as you move away, the golden surface of the paper glows ever more deeply. Changing not in a flash, but growing slowly, steadily brighter, like color rising in the face of a giant. Or again you may find that gold dust of the background—which until that moment had only a dull, sleepy luster— will, as you move past, suddenly gleam forth as if it had burst into flame. How in such a dark place, gold draws so much light to itself is a mystery to me.

So whatever darkness you might find yourself in tonight, maybe you’ll also find just a little glimmer of gold that catches your fire. 

Thank you. Good night, everyone.


—Talk given by John Tarrant on June 24, 2021
PZI Online Summer Sesshin: Summer in the Palace at the Blue Cliff

Listen to the Audio of this Talk