Deep in Summer Sesshin, we are in the middle of the Blue Cliff Record. We, ourselves, are under the Blue Cliff, with Yunmen and Yunmen’s friends. We are all those people. The Blue Cliff is still being written, and we’re helping out with that project.
Listen to the Audio of this Talk
The Great Collaborators of the Blue Cliff Record
Dharma Talk in 2021 Summer Sesshin: In the Palace at the Blue Cliff
Entering the Blue Cliff Record – Master Koans and Masterpieces for Transformation
PZI Online Temple, John Tarrant
June 25, 2021
Thank you, Jan. So, to look around in the temple, to look around in the temple, to see each other . . . it’s so great. You know, everyone looks wonderful. And we’ve known each other since the beginning of the universe. What can we say? We are helpless against this truth. Here we are. And we’ve always been here.
So, we’re in the middle of the Blue Cliff Record. We, ourselves, are under the Blue Cliff, with Yunmen and Yunmen’s friends. We are all those people. The Blue Cliff is still being written, and we’re helping out with that project. So, it’s very nice. You know, the Dharma is not something that happened there and then. It’s something that’s unfurling and unrolling in your own heart, and your own mind, and actually in your little finger, your thumb, your nose. And it’s all around. If you look around the room, you’re in the Blue Cliff. This is your temple of the Blue Cliff. It’s shocking, really. Why weren’t we informed earlier? So many problems disappear when you realize you’re already in the temple. And, no doubt, anything that you’ve perceived as a problem, the universe will have to work that out for you, because you’re too busy being in the temple, meditating, discovering koans, all of that.
So, I want to say a couple of things relevant to the course we’ve been on. And this is Yunmen’s koan, one that we use a lot, or I use a lot anyway:
Everyone has a light inside.
When you try to see it, you can’t.
The darkness is dark, dark.
What is your light?
What is the light that everyone has? What is my light? And then later on, he answered for himself. He said,
The kitchen store room. The temple gate.
So if you look around your room—the temple, yeah—the bookshelf, the refrigerator, the bed, whatever is in your temple, the dog toy, the cat’s tail whisking out of sight. Then later on, he said,
It’s better to have nothing than to have something good.
Kind of a famous saying, and really interesting.
I want to talk a little bit about the group of people involved in all this. We’re involved in something—and they were involved in something—as a group. People have often discovered, when doing important projects, that they’re much better done in a group of people. The Blue Cliff Record was like that. Chan Zen is like that, really. You know, it’s why we have kind of a marvelous collection of teachers. I was saying to somebody today, you know how in high schools and grade schools they’re always talking about student-teacher ratios? We have an awesome student-teacher ratio. And we know that, and we think that the conversations themselves bring something out. You repeat something, and you say it in a different way, and somebody else says the same thing you’re saying, but they say it in a different way, so it becomes alive differently.
And here’s another great Yunmen koan. (It’s kind of the same thing.) He says,
You come and go by daylight. You make people out by daylight.
Okay, fair enough. Things look clear then.
But suddenly it’s midnight, and there’s no sun, no moon, no lamp.
If it’s a place you’ve been, then of course, it might be possible,
but if it’s a place you’ve never been, how will you get hold of something?
So, in all his koans, there are sort of these silvery threads connecting them all. The mycelium underneath is talking. And here’s another one of his:
In the center of the cosmos, inside heaven and Earth,
there’s one treasure hidden in the body of things.
The body of form, hidden in the body. The body is all this, you know. Look around the room again. That’s your body, according to Yunmen. I don’t know if that makes you want to tidy up the off-camera bits more or not, but it’s yours. So, there’s one treasure. In the midst of the cosmos there is one treasure hidden in the body.
It picks up a lantern and walks into the meditation hall.
Okay, it’s a beautiful image. You pick up the lantern. It’s late. You turn on the flashlight function on your phone, and you walk into the meditation hall.
It brings the entrance gate.
He’s kind of into the entrance gate, apparently. But the entrance gate was a huge feature of the temple. It had three stories. In one of the stories, usually, there were the mummies, or the ashes of ancient abbots, the relics of the ancient masters, and the people who contributed to the temple. It was kind of interesting. If you went to an interview, you passed them, you know.
It picks up a lantern and walks into the meditation hall.
It brings the great entrance gate and puts it on top of the lantern.
So, suddenly, we see: Oh, the entrance gate is this vast structure, so it’s like saying, “It brings the Chrysler Building and puts it on top of your phone.” So you’re starting to see that in the world you can move around, and if this is your true face—you look around the temple at people’s faces—that’s your true face. But then, if you look around at the walls, and the door, and your flower arrangement, and out the window, that’s your light and your true face too.
So you can tell there’s a kind of thread through Yunmen here, where he said there is this light—and we’ll call it light—but sometimes when you’re in the dark, it might be good, because you’ve taken away the things you think are of the light and that you’re leaning on. So how do you find your way in the dark? And there’s a treasure in all that. There’s a light in all that.
And you’ll find sometimes, deep in retreat, that you have these flashes of wisdom and intelligence, and you think, Well, that’s kind of nice . . . nice work when you can get it . . . a little illumination. And it’s a real thing, and you can feel that, but then something else happens. You trip, you hurt yourself, you lose your temper, you get mad with somebody. I don’t know. What’s your thing? One of my things is technical breakdowns. I’m just going on, and my computer crashes. I fix my computer, and the server crashes. So, I fix the server, and it crashes my computer again. It’s like, Oh, it brings the great triple gate and puts it on the lantern, and it brings the server, and it brings the computer. So, it’s rather nice. The joy is in that too. It’s not not there. And if you’re late or early, the light is there. It’s kind of fun to be able to enjoy that. It took me a while, actually. Things break down on me a lot. It’s one of those things. And it’s the light itself.
So, if you can make things out in daylight, the things you expect to be the light—the eyes of the children, the loving note from a friend—that is beautiful, and it reaches out to the stars. But what about the time when you think, Oh, it’s hard and painful? Somebody I love is in trouble or dying. Or I’m dying. As Linji said, “This is not a place we can stay for long.”
I’m reading a great book about freedom in the body. It’s the story of Susan Sontag, who kept getting cancer. She was cured of one cancer by chemotherapy, which twenty years later gave her another cancer (the chemo), and the author says this great thing: “She knew that everybody dies, but she was thinking she might be an exception.”
And so, we’ve got to take that into account too. We are not here for long. So, it’s got to be in the midst of that. It’s not going to be when everything’s perfect, and my diet is right, and my workout regimen is right, and my body works, and I please my audience . . . or whatever the thing is, you know. And then we realize, like the light, it doesn’t depend on any of those things. You could be dying. Your audience could hate you. (That’s very helpful if you’re a leader.) And here you are. Your light is here.
Your light doesn’t ever diminish or get reduced. It just doesn’t, and isn’t that grand? It doesn’t go anywhere. And it doesn’t have a particular shape. If the universe has one shape today, it doesn’t mean it has to have that same shape tomorrow. If there’s one idea today, it doesn’t need to be that idea tomorrow. You kind of know that. But notice how the mind always thinks, Wow, I got it, it’s in the darkness too. And then you’re holding on to that, and carting this idea around like the metaphor among the old teachers of a “board-carrying person;” you’re carrying a board and you can only see to one side.
So, I want to do a linkage here. There’s Yunmen’s theme, and you could see that he could see it in everything. He could always see it. So, he had an attendant, and for eighteen years, every day, he’d ask the attendant, “What is it?” And the attendant would try everything, and Yunmen never believed him. And the attendant didn’t argue, because he knew Yunmen was right. And it’s not like Yunmen didn’t understand his attendant’s virtue, or anything like that. But this attendant stayed, unlike Yuanwu, who, when his teacher didn’t believe him, got huffy and had a fit, and left. But that was Yuanwu’s light, and Yunmen’s attendant’s light was this other thing. He was an eloquent, brilliant person, and so he would try the most beautiful things. He’d write poems. He’d quote the scriptures. He’d say simple things. He’d shout. And then one day, he said, “I got it!” And Yunmen said, “So tell me,” and he still couldn’t. But in a way, that was the shift of everything.
Sometimes you’ll notice that you can tell you’re in the passage, or you’ve got something, and it was real, but you can’t say it yet. And you don’t need to say it. That’s all right. In fact, even if you never get to say it, that’s alright too. But it’s nice to know that the force of the Dharma starts carrying you. We think of light descending, but sometimes I think of it as coming upwards out of the dark. It carries us and sustains us.
So, Yunmen had a bunch of teachers and was a notably brilliant person. He accreted wonderful legends, like one of his teachers having foretold his coming as Head of Practice. He always kept the Head of Practice quarters empty in his temple, and he’d say, “My Head of Practice was born today.” “My Head of Practice is now a child tending the cows,” and things like that. And then eventually, people got pretty skeptical of it. They thought this was a sort of rhetorical device. And one day, Yunmen arrived, and he was shown to the Head of Practice quarters. Rather a nice story. There is always a Head of Practice quarters waiting for you. Waiting for you. In fact, if you look around your room again, Oh, this is what it looks like. You’ve already been shown to Yunmen‘s temple.
The person who was really valuable to Yunmen—there were two people—but one was this person Muzhou. Muzhou, when Yunmen met him, was a very, very old person. He was about 100, and he’d sort of retired. He’d been a head of the temple seventy years before, in another place, and Linji had come to that temple, the great Linji. And Linji was interesting, but he was intense, and he just never asked for an interview with the teacher. And so Muzhou said, “A teacher, you know, could help.” And Linji said, “Well, I just didn’t know what to ask.” And he said, “It doesn’t really matter.” But he gave him a question to ask: “What is the clearly manifested reality of the Dharma?” Something like that. I keep forgetting this and making up a different one each time. So, if you go and check, you’ll find that it might have changed in the book, but the one I’m telling you is the right one:
What is the clearly manifested essence of the Buddhadharma?
So Linji went to the teacher, and the Head of Practice came along and pushed him in the door. And he said this to the teacher, and the teacher looked at him incredulously, and hit him—Boom!—not necessarily very hard, but you never know. The teacher, Huangbo, was really big. So, Linji went away, and thought about this, and meditated some more, and said, “Well, I shouldn’t give up easily.” And he went, and again knocked on the door, and was again given admission, and asked, “What is the clearly manifested essence of the Buddhadharma?” And the teacher went, Whack! . . . the same thing happened. And Linji thought a bit more, and said, “Well, three times is the charm,” and he went in again . . . Knock, knock! And the thing about Huangbo is that he stuck to his guns, and Linji stuck to his, and said, “What is the clearly manifested essence . . . ?” WHACK!
So Linji went back, and Muzhou dropped in, and said, “How’d it go?” Linji said, “Well, three times I asked him, and three times he hit me, and I think maybe my karma’s not in this place. My affinity is not here.” You know, which can be true. And Yunmen said, “Well, why don’t you go in and let the teacher know that you’re leaving, and ask his advice.” And then he went around the back door and spoke to the teacher and said, “You know, I think he’s got something, this guy, and he’s going to leave, so just giving you a heads-up.”
And so, Huangbo said, “You know, you should go straight to this other teacher.” So Linji went to the other teacher, and the other teacher said, “What’s up?” and Linji told him what had happened with Huangbo. And the other teacher said, “Huangbo exerted all his kindness, like a grandmother, with you. He kept receiving you, and helping you, and you ask whether you’re at fault or not?” And with this, suddenly Linji had this big awakening, and the new teacher said, “What do you see?” And Linji said, “Oh, there’s not much after all . . . there’s not much to Huangbo’s dharma.” The teacher tried to hit him, and he hit him back, and it was sort of funny. And the teacher said, “You’re none of my business. Get out of here, you belong back with Huangbo.”
So Muzhou had a part in that great story—a famous and amusing story—but it’s the kind of story that you’ll find happens here. You’ll find that people have their awakening stories, just like that. You know, someone’s just walking, they’re in our sesshin, and they smelled urine in the toilet, and they begin to think, Hang on, there’s something here that’s got something to do with light, that smell. That’s kind of great. And they don’t say, “I don’t know. I think I’d rather have gardenias, actually.” It’s what it is. Or somebody here, running for her life in a debris flow, suddenly feels the greatness of the light and the peace, and so on. And another friend is meditating and walks in the door and there’s a landline ringing, and he lurches towards it, staggers and hits his head, and suddenly . . . Ah, that’s what the “No” koan is about. So, it’s always happening. And if Huangbo doesn’t provide the blow, life does.
So, the thing I wanted to say about Muzhou, is that his karma was not to become someone famous. He had this tremendous gift, and people respected him, but his mother was sick, and they were really tight and close, and he cared a lot about his family. And so he sort of retired and went to live in the village near his mother, and made straw sandals for people. People would wear out their sandals, being on pilgrimage. Wandering around a vast land, bad stuff can happen to your footwear. So, he would make the sandals and secretly put some out for the pilgrims, but also, he would sell them and make a living. And people would come and visit him, and knock on his hermitage, and mainly he wouldn’t let them in. The legend was that he would listen to the sound of their footsteps and think, Nah, I don’t know about that one. We don’t know if that was true or not. We just know that that was the story.
But anyway, one day, Yunmen finally gets in. And he knocks, and he’s knocked before, but the door didn’t open. But he knocks this time, and suddenly the door opens, and this little old, like 100-year-old guy grabs him, and looks up at him, and says, “Speak! Speak!” And Yunmen says, “My heart is not at ease,” which is beautiful, isn’t it? Isn’t it kind of nice when that’s true? Whatever you worried about, that’s the expression of it, isn’t it? My heart is not at ease. I’m running for my life. I have terminal cancer. But it’s really whether my heart is at ease or not. There’s nowhere that the light does not penetrate. It doesn’t really matter what the circumstances are. I mean, it kind of matters. And it’s interesting, it’s more fun, not to be running for your life. But it can be fun to be running for your life. You know, it can be fun, if you’re giving a talk, and everybody hates it. So, all of that is okay, but it’s the light that is the thing.
So, he says, “My heart is not at ease,” and Muzhou just throws him out the door, and Yunmen naturally over-balances because he’s like, this reverend ancient master who was involved with Linji and all that, and he just sort of falls over backwards, and the door slams. And Yunmen has a great awakening.
So, you can tell that things get handed along from one person to another, to another, to another. And Muzhou . . . he himself was not a notable teacher, but he had a hand in things, you know. He handed it along to Linji and the great Yunmen, and then Yunmen said things like “One treasure hidden in the body,” or “Everyone has their own light.” Who would that mean? Anybody in this temple? Who, in your part of the temple, could he possibly be referring to? Do you need to change who you are before that is true? Do you need to be less fat? Do your jeans need to be cooler? Do you need a better job?
This is great: Somebody whom I’m kind of fond of came to me today and said, “You know, eight years ago or something, I came to you, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a relationship. I’m not married. And, you know, I don’t really do this and that, and all I have is a cat.’” And apparently I said, “At least you have a cat.” And that’s the light, right? Then apparently, she lost her cat. And then I told her, “Get a cat.” It’s the light, right? And that little tail we see whisking out of the corner of the temple window sometimes . . . things like that. That’s the light too. And you can tell, it takes infinite shapes, you know? “It tinkles, turning like a jade”—you know, jade jewels—is the old saying. Everywhere you look, it’s available, like the sound of the bells at night that the Head of Practice is making for us for the closing ceremony. The whole universe is in those sounds. It’s the multiplicity of the world of form showing the light. Everything you run into is like that.
And so, after a while, the mind just makes up complaints. And you don’t have to stop that either. Or some people are just really thinkers, and that’s fine. Be a thinker, if that’s what you are. And you’ll notice your mind will come up with these brilliant thoughts, and that’s like the sound of the birds or the cool wind in your face, and that’s alright. It’s beautiful, you know? And then you’ll notice you’ll start bowing down towards one thought: “The light is really in the difficult things,” or something, and you realize, No, that’s just another horseshit rule. It doesn’t really matter. Sometimes the light is in the easy thing, sometimes in the bright thing, sometimes in the dark thing, sometimes in my little finger, sometimes in the palm of my hand.
So, I just want to share Xuedou’s verse on “the treasure hidden in the body,” because it’s so great. He said,
The water is vast and boundless.
White flowers in the moonlight.
You must see for yourself.
Yes, moonlight . . . now we still have a big moon. Earlier, just a month or two ago, when I sat in the moonlight, I could see the white irises, with this blaze, in the moonlight. And it’s like the light of the Dharma, you know. It was like they were getting dressed for a wedding. So “white flowers in the moonlight. You must see for yourself.” Okay. All right, I’ll do that. Fair enough. And Yuanwu was not very helpful. He said, “When you see them, you’ll go blind.” And you see how in the Blue Cliff, as soon as you grab something, let it go and you’ll be free. Let it go and you’ll be free.
Bright moon reflects the white flowers, says Yuanwu,
and white flowers reflect the bright moon.
At this moment, tell me what realm is this?
I think there’s a lot of stuff in the teachings about trusting the moment, trusting the darkness, trusting yourself, you know? So, if you look in your own heart right now, what are you thinking? And what are you feeling? Just notice that. Well, what if you trust that? And if you look around your room, you realize this is the room of the great temple, right? This is an adjunct of the temple that not only goes way out to New York, and Knoxville, and the Sierras, and Oakland, and Michigan, and Sri Lanka, and lots of other places . . . Colorado, Seattle. So, it goes out there, but you know, that seems ungenerous. It goes farther than that, doesn’t it? Into the darkness, and into what you think of as your sorrow, or what you think of as your regret, or what you think of as your failure. Yeah, and if you don’t even have a cat, it’s in that. Something loves you. And it’s the light in you. It’s always there.
So, one thing to notice is that whatever comes, it’s coming for you, so it’s okay. Receive the gift. I don’t think it’s that hard, actually. You’ll notice all these invitations to go off and approve and disapprove of all these things about your life, and other people’s lives, and it’s kind of fun. But, it’s light, the light. The light opens out everything, infinitely. And I suppose you could say it’s more fun. But it’s also more accurate, is the thing. It’s more true. It’s not about whether it feels good or not. And I don’t really care about my opinions on what other people feel and think, because I don’t care about my opinions about what I feel and think. It’s the light, the light, the light.
So, I don’t know . . . I started late, courtesy of my karma with objects, so I guess we need to just stop. And wherever you are, just for a second, just look again at your hand. Yeah, don’t be chickenshit. Look at your hand. Look at the other side of your hand. What you might notice is that it’s not conceivable. But it does everything. The light is not conceivable. But wherever you are, you’re in it. And wherever you are, it is in you. It’s always manifesting and flowering. And then gradually we learn to be more skillful at things. Maybe we learn to receive the gift we couldn’t receive. That’s one of the great things. And if we’re greedy and grabbing at things, that’s because we’re not good at receiving the gift. You know? And if we’re stingy and uptight, it’s because we’re not good at receiving the gift. It’s not that we’re not good at those things. It’s just we forgot, Oh, the light is here too, in the inconceivable. It’s carrying us, and it’s bigger than us. Shut up, John! Thank you very much. Thank you. It’s great being in the temple together. Thank you.
Cantor Amaryllis Fletcher: [sings]
Peacefully, humbly, the ship stars travel, the grass hunches down, the demons take their rest. And we ask the protectors to smile over us, as the work in darkness goes on until dawn.
Sarah Bender Roshi: [closing words for the day]
Walk around inside this Great Way, this vast refuge, right here with walls and flowers, computers and bodies, in which the heart-mind finds ease and wonder, even without ever leaving the demon realm. John said way earlier, “All the galaxies are represented in your consciousness right now.” Here, this evening’s talk was punctuated by rolling thunder and bursts of rain. Not sure which is picking and choosing, and which is just not liking cilantro? No worries. When we try to get clear about it, we can end up pretty tired, and you can tell it’s not the light. It’s confining, and it eats energy for lunch. But a refuge is a place undisturbed, where you can live naturally. Bodhidharma is in a world where the Dharma is naturally pure. One describes this place, and we know it to be our home, and no other place but here. The ancestors—a wonderful collection of odd adventurers in the Dao—whisper right into our hearts and so do our companions, “Whooo . . . whooo . . .”
The delicacy of the flower moon in early summer is something you can drink from, and even the highway towards night is more relaxed. And with the ease of muscles relaxed and heavy, at rest on a branch, or on a bed. The day’s picking and choosing, the many experiments of the day have exhausted themselves. You can lie back on the river under the river, and let it take you into the dark. What is it to be you? Among the galaxies tonight, the temple gets very very large. And the things right near at hand hold a kind of dearness, a tenderness: your slippers, the toothbrush, the alarm clock. We call on the protectors to smile over us. The work is being done through us in the night. We rest and trust.