PZI Teacher Archives

Awakenings of Linji & the Great Chan Teachers


John revisits the awakenings and koans of the great teachers, among them Yunmen and Linji. The love, and attention, and faithfulness at the heart of the stories and teachings of the Chan ancestors is their gift to us. And everything we bring to it is an addition into this great heritage, and is part of the layering. Transcript from a video talk in Fall Sesshin 2019.

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What are we up to tonight? 

So, last night we talked about a student who kept trying to get enlightened. His master kept trying to help him—while the master was dying—and it didn’t happen. But something happened, because later on that student himself became a notable teacher. And I personally feel that, Oh, he gave us something by his effort. And that’s something to notice and to know about yourself too. 

One of the things I like about Chan and Zen is that enlightenment is something we’re all involved in, we’re implicated in. We’re all criminals in the game, and we’re all helping each other. And it’s not always clear what’s the helpful thing, but we know that somehow we’re in it together. And if we trust and listen, then all of us get transformed. 

You’ll notice that about yourself. You’ll also notice that about other people in the community. “I feel pretty clueless, but I’m not as clueless as I used to be.” That sort of thing. And, in fact, you’ll feel that it’s beyond being clueless or having a clue. It’s before that. There’s a vastness and a quality in life that’s before our assessments or judgments or explanations. And we know that. But instead of just knowing that, we start to rely on it. And we rely on the things we don’t know that are holding us up. So, being able to move in the dark. “Step by step in the dark,” as one of the koans goes. And so you start to trust that.

The other thing I like about Zen is the pentimento layered quality where somebody says something, and then somebody else says something, and then, a century later, somebody else says something—and they add up. It’s like—to use that painting metaphor—it’s like a Leonardo, a painting that’s been layered. You know, you fall into it through the different layers and refractions of light. 

I’m going to tell a story of these linkages:

There was this great master called Yunmen. Most people who know anything about Zen have heard of Yunmen: Cloud-Gate, the Gate of Clouds. There are a lot of legends about Yunmen, who’s a strange, interesting, brilliant person. There is a kind of warm, full quality about him. In one of the koans in the Book of Serenity, somebody says, “What is the conversation that goes beyond the Buddhas and ancestors, that we didn’t inherit and is free and pure and beyond anything we can imagine?” And Yunmen says, “Sesame rice cake.” He often used “sesame rice cake,” he was evidently fond of it. It’s one of the things that recurs in his koan response to people. But he’s also the one who said—when somebody asked, “What is Buddha?”—he said, “Dried shit stick.” He was a very playful and dynamic teacher, one of the great masters. 

When he was a child, the legend goes, his teacher had a temple, and had quotas for the head of the temple—like the head of practice [HOP at PZI]—that were always kept empty. Because, he would say, “My head of practice was born today.” And then the teacher would say, “My head of practice is a child tending oxen. My head of practice is learning to read and is studying the Heart Sutra.” Things like that, he would say things like that. And everybody thought, Hmmm, kind of a shaggy dog sort of story he’s telling. Then one day he said, “My head of temple will arrive today.” And everyone was pretty doubtful by this time. But then Yunmen arrived. The master showed Yunmen straight to the quarters. And he proved to be this excellent head of practice. 

Then, after that, Yunmen wanted more training and he went off to a teacher called Mujo.

 [“Mujo” = Muzhou Daozong, or Daoming. His family name was Chen, and he was also known as Chen Zunsu. —Ed.]

Mujo, at that stage, was about one hundred years old. He had a very bright spirit. He lived in a temple, but then he left the temple for complicated reasons, including that there was a certain persecution of temples. But also, his whole practice was this deep thing where he just saw a few students and he made sandals for people. That was his thing: He made sandals, and left them on the roadside for people, because on pilgrimage they’d wear out sandals and they needed sandals. And nobody knew who did this. He did this. This old, old relic of a previous dynasty did this. Mujo. 

Another great story about Mujo—and there are a lot of great stories about him—somebody came to him, and Mujo said, “Where have you come from?” And the person said, “Haaa!! Katz!” And Mujo said, “That’s a katz on me.” [katsu, or katz: belly-shout] And the person said, “Aaaa!!” And he said, “One katz, two katz, what then?” And the person said nothing. And Mujo hit him, and said, “Thief! Airhead!” So he was a very spirited, very old person. 

And so Yunmen came and studied with him. And Mujo had very small quarters—and Yunmen would walk up, and knock on the door. Sometimes the door wouldn’t open; didn’t like the sound of his footsteps, who knew? Nobody knew why he’d open it sometimes and not others. Anyway, one time he opens it. Yunmen walks up, and suddenly the doors open and the guy reaches out and grabs him and pulls him in. “Speak! Speak!” And Yunmen says, “I’m still not clear about myself.” And Mujo says, “That’s utterly useless stuff,” and throws him out and slams the door. And Yunmen has a great awakening. So you just never know what’s going to help, you know? Just how to tell, you know? Can’t predict it. 

So, Yunmen stayed with Mujo for quite a long time. But Mujo, he thought, “I don’t know—I’m getting too old to throw you around like that.” So Yunmen went off and studied with another great master, Xuefeng—the guy who got enlightened when Tortoise Mountain got enlightened; the whole mountain got enlightened. 

But Mujo also had a previous life when he did live in a temple. And he was the head of practice for the great master called Huangbo. Since Mujo was a hundred years old, this was about five hundred years ago, long before. 

And there was this young person who came [to the temple] and was kind of interesting—kind of clear, and fierce, but didn’t talk much and never asked for an interview with the teacher. And he was there for three years, and Mujo watched him for three years. And then Mujo said, 

“Have you had an interview with the teacher?”
And he said, “No.”
“Why not?”
“Well, I just didn’t know what to ask.” 

Which—he kind of had a point! What do you ask anyway? If it’s about the ultimate reality, what question would be useful? And so Mujo says,

“Well, you know, any question will do; like, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?’
Why don’t you take that one, that’s tried and true.”

And so Mujo got him an interview with the teacher, Huangbo, who was a big, physical teacher. So he—Linji—walks in, and Huangbo grabs him, and Linji says, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” And Huangbo goes, POW! and throws him out. Okay. So, then, a few days later, about a week later Linji comes for another interview, asks the same question—same result. And so he comes back a third time, the same thing happens, and he sort of starts packing his gear to leave. 

Mujo says, “What’s up?” And Linji says, “Well, I asked the master the question you told me to ask. And three times he just hit me and threw me out. I just feel that maybe my karma’s not right.” And so Mujo says, “Just ask him for one more interview, and just tell him what you’re up to; that you’re leaving, and stuff like that.” And Linji says, “Are you sure?” “Yeah, yeah.” So Mujo goes to the teacher, Huangbo, and he says, “This guy, he’s going to leave, but there’s something interesting about him. So, just—I don’t know what you should do with him, but…” 

So Linji goes to Huangbo, and Huangbo’s very pleasant and says, “Well, if you’re going to leave, go to this teacher Dayu. He only a week’s walk away, a week’s journey. Go and visit Dayu, and tell him you came from me.” Okay. So Linji trudges off and comes to Dayu. And Dayu says, 

“Where have you come from?”
“From Huangbo.”
“Well, what did Huangbo have to say?”
“Three times I asked about the truly essential great meaning about the Buddha’s teaching, and three times he threw me out. I don’t know if I was at fault or not.”

Which is great, isn’t it? I don’t know if I did something wrong or not, or if I did something right. How can you tell with the dharma? How would you know? By what criteria? And Dayu said, 

“Huangbo was such an old grandmother. He completely exhausted himself for your sake and you come here and ask if you’re at fault or not?” 

And with these words, Linji had great enlightenment, and then he says, “After all, there’s not much to Huangbo’s dharma.” Then Dayu grabbed Linji and said, “Speak! speak!” And then he tapped him on the chest. And Dayu said, “Well, your teacher is Huangbo. It’s got nothing to do with me. Off you go.” So he goes back to Huangbo.

Linji returns, and Huangbo sees him and says, “Coming and going, when will it ever end?” And Linji said, “It’s just because of your kindness.” And he tells Huangbo the story of what happened, and Huangbo was not that impressed, really. And Linji said, “Why talk about him? He’s right here now!” And he slapped Huangbo. And Huangbo says, “Haaaa! This lunatic comes to grab the tiger’s whiskers!” and he laughed, and Linji yelled. And Huangbo said, “Hmmm, take this person to the meditation hall…” 

And then Linji became—like Yunmen, who later also had that connection with Mujo—he became one of the founders of one of the great five schools [of Chan.] Every transmission document in our school has calligraphy or a painting of a dragon, and Linji’s name on it. Because of the “grandmotherly kindness of Huangbo.” And because of Mujo’s making sandals, and staying alive until one hundred, and keeping on teaching. Things like that. 

That’s their gift to us. They passed it down to us.

And everything you bring to it is an addition into this great heritage. So, there’s something beautiful about that. So, trust what you’re bringing, you know. What you have is not nothing. 

Like—Linji brought his cluelessness, really. And he was one of those sincere people who felt really clueless. Like, “I don’t even know what to ask—and so I have to get a question from the wisest person I have access to, who’s the head of the temple, and everybody thinks he’s great. I take the question to the teacher, and the teacher hits me and throws me out!” It’s like, “No, good! It’s going well!” [laughter] 

And so you can tell that, Oh, our judgments are sufficient. But maybe, you can trust your karma and make it part of this great tradition, and that layering. There’s a beauty in that, in that you, too, have your place in upholding it, and your place in the generosity of spirit, and the heart—and the kindness, really—that is passed down. 

Later on, another one of the teachers, who had another connection to these people, said, 

Guishan asked Yangshan, he said, “Did Linji get Dayu’s power or Huangbo’s power?”
And Yangshan said, “He not only grabbed the tiger’s whiskers, he knew how to sit on the tiger’s head.” 

“A nine-colored Phoenix, a thousand-mile horse.” That’s how Linji was then described. And Linji said these great things like, 

“There is a true person (a true woman, a true man) of no rank coming and going through the portals of your face.”

It’s kind of a marvelous thing, isn’t it? A true person of no rank. And you think, Oh—no fixed positions, no explanations. But then it’s also the coming and going through your—Oh, the senses, so the tree and the eyes, what you’re looking at right now; coming and going. That too is the true person of no rank. And the whole thing becomes marvelous and strange again, and you end up back in Huangbo’s “root room” saying, “What is the great meaning of the dharma?” POW! Oh yeah, right. 

And so we can enjoy all the flavor of everything. And how much love and attention and faithfulness has gone into this tradition. You can tell, Oh, we’re all doing it. And even our confusion is not ruled out, as part of it. And that’s the important thing to know, because we’ve been talking about “not knowing is intimate.” And you can tell, Oh, teaching knowing is not as good as teaching not knowing. Because the whole universe can pour in and enlighten us, in that case. 

That thing about questions is interesting. I remember—the first retreat I ever did, a solo retreat, was a thirty-day silent retreat. There were about three people who were silent, and I was one of them, actually silent. It was a Tibetan retreat, and later on I noticed I had never asked for an interview. There were two teachers—one of the teachers I really liked, and I never did ask them; but I felt like I met the teacher anyway. Every now and then I think, “I wonder why I didn’t ask for an interview?” And the answer is, “I do not know.” And that was right, and here I am—here through not having asked for an interview. 

So, there is some way in which we are being held by this great path, and you can trust that you’re not having the wrong life. And you’re not having the wrong dharma, and you’re not having the wrong practice. And you do it with the best degree of—you put yourself in the vessel, and then you don’t take yourself too seriously. Because, why bother? You don’t know what you are anyway. You know what I mean—it’ll go up and it’ll go down. You’ll think, “Oh, I was doing terribly,” but actually you might be very close to it. When you think you’re doing badly, you might be wrong. So you can trust that the fortuitous and the unpredictable gifts are on your side. 

So let me stop there. I think I want to stop there. And yeah, go ahead. What was it? Somebody said, maybe it was Yunmen—

Yunmen came to Yangfeng, and said, “May I have your answer?” 

It’s like that. That was his interaction with the teacher. [laughs]

Student: I feel so much better about being confused. I spent the day pretty muddled.

John: Yeah, well, “It’s for you, honored one.” And also for us, honored one! It’s for all of us. You’re being confused for all of us. I mean it’s a great thing, isn’t it? 

Yunmen left Mujo because Mujo was so old, or—I don’t know—whatever it was. He probably felt that Mujo had such a quiet, introverted world. He was a very deep, quiet person who secretly made gifts for people. He taught that way, too; he only had a few students. He hid out when people came to see him, and things. But then he really worked with the people who got through, you know? Like Yunmen! And Yunmen had this great enlightenment experience, but he felt like he needed some other environment to integrate that and to deepen that. So Mujo sent him off to Xuefeng. 

Xuefeng is the guy who got enlightened in a conversation with his friend—not his teacher— when they were snowed in at a hut, and said, “Tortoise Mountain, today, has gotten enlightened.” So, that whole thing, where even the redwoods are with us and conspiring; on the journey with us. So, thank you for your confusion, it’s been very helpful to me. [laughter]

Linji did this other great thing—when people were talking about profound enlightenment; he grabbed the newest and most confused person, and put them in the front of the room and said, “Everybody bow to this person.” You can tell, Oh yeah, everybody has their own true nature and contribution.

Nobody is outside of this mystery, on this path.

Student: There’s a lot of self-excluding.

John: Yeah, but that’s part of it too. I mean, if you are the sort of person who bites yourself or, you know, have got Buddha nature biting yourself. And you say, “You need the cone of shame.” You know what that is, it’s like the kind you put on a dog when it’s like—so, cone of shame for you! 

Student: Or is that the koan of shame?

John: Well, on the other hand, the dog has Buddha nature, so you know the other koan in the Book of Serenity. A long version of the Dog Has Buddha Nature as well as the dog not having Buddha nature. So, I mean, the next step is not to judge yourself even when you’re doing that. And that’s a profound thing. You don’t have to distance yourself from your confusion or your anger or your lostness or your blaming others or your desire, or whatever dreamworld or bardo you’re caught in. It’s alright. There’s no blame. Whatever you think you should be ashamed of, well, here we are. 

I think that point is really profound. That if you can not judge yourself even when you’re judging yourself. And you can tell—that you’ll notice after a while—that all that stuff is just, like, stage business. It’s not really the main drama. It’s all about, “Oh, I’m a me, I know I’m a me because I suck.” Or, “Isn’t it great to be a me?” Or whatever it is. It’s just the same, Oh, I’m wonderful—it’s the same, it’s like, nobody cares whether they’re wonderful or not because they’re all barriers to this. To life, life. 

You know, there are some texts that are probably by Bodhidharma, and there are other texts that might be by Bodhidharma in which he was asked, “What is Buddha?” And so, this was very, very early in the koan line, before, really, the koan line had gotten to its feet, sort of thing. Before the ox had gotten stumbling along. 

Somebody said, “What is Buddha?”
And Bodhidharma said, “Your thoughts and feelings.” 


He didn’t mean your nice thoughts and feelings. Buddha nature—so that’s the nice thing; you can include what you normally think of as your shadowy material, the dark materials. There’s so much beauty in them. And when you stop fighting that, then this.

Student: I’m working this evening with a lot of sensations of fear. It was just triggered by something, and I’m just noticing how much I have that urge to just make it better and really can be so intimate with it.

John: Yeah, it’s interesting isn’t it? If you can go into fear it’s like, Wow, there’s a whole universe in here!

Student: And it feels like such a quivering practice because the thoughts want to go [there.] And it’s like, “Okay, just be here quivering—okay.” And that curiosity, and kindness.

John: Yeah, your fear is such a grandmother. She exhausted herself for your sake. Fear— everybody’s got the thing that convinces them. And fear might be it, or whatever it is. “Nobody loves me, my clothes don’t fit, I’m going into the garden to eat worms.” That’s another convincing one, for some. But whatever convinces, that’s the depressive one. Paranoia, “They’re doing it to me again.” You’ll see that in the old, like Hakuin. You see the paranoia running through him; every time he got messed up in the practice, he got paranoid and started blaming people. One of us, you know! [laughs] We screwed up when he screwed up.

But then you start to bless—nothing will have happened to you that you need to be so ashamed of, that it’s not [also] you. There’s nothing that’s not included, you know. Nothing that was done to you, nothing that you’ve done. It’s alright. You’re here. The blessing of the light. The true person of no rank coming and going. It’s here. And healings of various kinds will happen, but even before you’re healed, it’s really important to understand [this.] And it might save you a lot of work. [laughs]

So you can see that there are different ways. And you can see that that’s really Tibetan; and so it’s coming from Dzogchen—hmmm, and koanville! Oh, what is the difference, after all? Because it’s not making it wrong. It’s touching to me, moving to me. 

In some ways, in spiritual practice you get away from having to name it—[there’s] no need. 

Student: This story, particularly, was one that I found helpful to me as I felt, like Linji, no karmic connection with my teacher. And how grateful I am to that “no karmic connection,” which was just part of the karmic connection I had with the teacher he then referred me to. In the same way that Linji experienced that connection with Dayu. And now I’m thinking, Wow, and how Dayu recognized that connection Linji had with Huangbo, and sent him back [to Huangbo.] There’s something—I don’t know, my attention goes there. There’s something about that. It was different from my experience, but in some ways not. I remember how, when the teacher I was referred to helped me so much, my deep appreciation for his help opened up a deep appreciation for the teacher I had no karmic connection to. And it was interesting.

John: You know, you see the great patterns appear, over and over again in our lives and amongst each other; and you realize, Oh, put yourself in the vessel of the practice, stop biting yourself. Or if you’re biting yourself, don’t bite yourself about biting yourself. But if you’re biting yourself about biting yourself, stop biting yourself about that! And pretty much that’s it. And when you stop judging yourself, the not-knowing starts to get in, and then the light can come in, and then you’ll find these marvelous things. I’ve had people teach me in dreams, you know, long-dead people. Is that real or not? 

Student: I was noticing today how each person who rings the timekeeping bell—the bell becomes like a vessel for that person. Sort of what you were saying, that whatever our contribution is, it sort of makes itself evident. I was noticing how much I was feeling T.  through the bell and how grateful I was for just the integrity and the attention and the vastness. And how T. came into the room with the bell, and how each person who had it had such a different way. And it just makes me think of just what you’re talking about. I feel like I’ve been kind of watching that in different people in the retreat. How they’re adding and weaving, and how many people are doing that in every job all the time. What is the retreat? Who knows. It’s all these different things. So, that’s kind of cool.

John: That’s beautiful. It’s your teaching, when you hit the bell. But actually, it’s not even yours, the universe is teaching through you and the bell. It’s marvelous. And it’s good to notice. The tattoos of the bell-ringer come through the bell. Everything. It’s so great, you know. And it’s beautiful. The universe is always giving us something. 

And so, underneath the forms of the practice, we’re listening for the universe, really. We can’t do anything about that. It’s like, Oh, it’s appearing as us. We’re the flower of the universe. 

And then we do have these great archetypal patterns: the journey, the awakening, the being-stopped-by-something. Being stopped is an important moment, you know. The koans embody all those. There’s the predicament. And then there’s being defeated by the predicament. And nothing becomes genuine yet because you’re still using your skill. Until that moment, you’re still using your skill to get through, and so you can’t rely on the greater forces that hold us all. 

a butoh dancer

And the imagination of the universe just throws us up. And, that’s an old saying—they used to say, “He’s pretty good, but he’s still using his own efforts. She’s pretty good, but, you know, I don’t know—she’s trying.”

The Tibetans do it in a similar way when they give you mind-training, which we don’t do because we think, Ah, cut to the chase. Mind-training’s a noble thing, and so they call that the antidote to living unconsciously. Then you need an antidote to the mind-training because you’ve created a “someone” who’s trained their mind. 

So, I think that’s kind of interesting. Different dance moves for different people. 


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