PZI Teacher Archives

The Journey, the Reaching, & Luopu’s Last Words


There was a teacher called Luopu, a Chinese teacher, and he said this interesting thing. He said, “You have to directly realize the source outside of the teachings.” That’s the whole thing about it. That’s Bodhidharma’s thing, the direct realization outside of scriptures. The scriptures are nice and the teachings are nice, but really, the direct understanding—the direct meeting with life—the direct meeting with awakening is the thing.

Link to Video: The Journey, the Reaching, & Luopu’s Last Words


In one of the koans, great Yunmen comes to the teacher and says, “What’s your answer?” I think that’s the whole koan right there. So, I look at you: What’s your answer?

Today, I’m going to talk about the journey, and some of the features of it. We’re always reaching for something, but the beauty of life is already in us, and we’re thinking it’s not here, and are reaching for it—and really, that’s it. We can all go home now! It’s kind of sweet.

In a way, we have to get saturated through, dyed and stained through, without understanding. We get it, I get it—yes—when something happens, when somebody’s mad at me. “Well, they shouldn’t be.” Actually, they are—so they should. “They’re wrong!” Well, not in their world. That sort of thing. So gradually, we get stained and dyed through, and gradually we get free, and then the luminosity is visible. And you’ll still be whatever kind of creature you were. If you’re a giraffe, you’ll still be a giraffe, or if you’re a donkey, you’ll still be a donkey. They’re good things to be. Whatever kind of creature you are, that’ll be good.  

I want to talk about one of the great koans from The Book of Serenity today. Sometimes I know why I want to talk about a koan, because it will be good for people, and I’ve got some intelligent reason like that—that might be wrong. This one—I just had the impulse to talk about it. I kept thinking, “Why?” and it kept being there, so I’m talking about it.  

There was a teacher called Luopu, a Chinese teacher, and he said this interesting thing. He said, “You have to directly realize the source outside of the teachings.” That’s the whole thing about it. That’s Bodhidharma’s thing, the direct realization outside of scriptures. The scriptures are nice and the teachings are nice, but really, the direct understanding—the direct meeting with life—the direct meeting with awakening is the thing. It’s like, a painting of cake is not so delicious. It might be good-looking, it might be fascinating—but it’s not delicious. He said, “You must directly realize the source outside the teachings. You can’t grasp the principle just by reading about it.” There are lots of stories like this.

Like, there’s one guy who’s incredibly learned and brilliant—a polymathic brilliant guy—you know, reads a couple of books a day, and remembers. And he came to his teacher, and the teacher got kind of—I don’t know—the teacher waited and waited, and there was a moment when the exhibition of learning stopped, and the teacher said, “What is your original face, before your parents were born?” A reasonable question. [chuckles] And it stopped him.

And then he [the guy, the student] reads everything he can find. He just reads and reads and reads, and he can’t find anything about this. He finds a couple of references to this, because it’s a famous old koan, “Quickly, without thinking good or evil, what is your original face before your parents were born?” But he couldn’t find anything that would give him any hints to what this would be. So then, he goes to the teacher and says, “You know, I’ve looked everywhere, and I’ve been really sincere and diligent and all that, so tell me the answer.” The teacher says, “I could tell you, but you would blame me later.” And so he didn’t tell him. 

And the guy got so frustrated, he left and he thought, “Well, you know, this path is too steep and dangerous and hard for me.” So he went away and tended the grave—I think the Sixth Ancestor’s grave, actually—if that’s true. I think he got someone enlightened with that phrase! But anyways, he’s tending the grave, and living this very humble life—and well, if all else fails, there’s gardening, something you can understand, if you’ve ever gardened. He’s sweeping the garden with a broom, doing that sweeping thing with his broom, and a pebble goes into a bamboo, and goes “TOK!” and suddenly—he has this vast awakening when he’s not [inaudible]. And that’s the journey—no way to grasp what was being said to him. And so, we must directly realize the source outside of the teaching, don’t grasp the teaching within words.  

And then a student said, “What is the practice of the inconceivable like?” A strange question, but it’s the right question. What’s the inconceivable, what’s it like? Luopu said, “When the green mountain walks around and the bright sun doesn’t shift in the sky.” It’s one of those Zen kind of things that goes into your heart.

Then we come to, “Luopu is old. He’s taught for many years and he’s about to die.” “Luopu About to Die”—a very direct title. [reads] “When Luopu was about to die, he said to the gathering, ‘Today, I have something to ask you. If you think, “This is it,” then it is like putting a head on top of your own head. (Not necessary, really.) If you think, “This isn’t it,” then you’re looking for life by cutting off your head.” 

And so then, the head of the temple said, “The green mountain moves its feet—you don’t need a lamp in broad daylight.” (He’s kind of half-quoting his saying, “The green mountain walks about, the sun stands still in the sky.”) The head student says, “The green mountain walks about, lifts its feet—you don’t need a lantern in broad daylight.” Luopu said, “Is this the time to be making speeches?” Another senior student, Yankong, stepped out and said, “Let’s leave these two paths you’re talking about. This isn’t it, don’t ask about them.” Then Luopu says, “You’re not quite there yet. Try again.” Yankong says, “I can’t say it completely.” And Luopu said, “I don’t care whether you say it’s complete or not.” And Yankong says, “I’m not someone who can answer you.” And they left it there.

But when evening came, Luopu called Yankong and said, “That reply you gave today was actually rooted in something. I can tell there’s a glimmer there”—you know? “Try to embody what my late teacher said, ‘There are no things in front of your eyes. What you think as things, are your thoughts —you see your thoughts. There’s something else though, that’s not the things in front of your eyes, but it’s not something you can reach with your eyes and ears.’”

It’s like the “original face.” And then he decides to—like, this famous saying, “Which phrase is the guest? Which phrase is the host?” Let’s be even more confusing! “If you can sort all that out, I’ll pass on the bowl and robes as a transmission gift to you.” And Yankong said, “I can’t sort it out.” And Luopu said, “Yes you can.” And he said, “Honestly, I can’t.” And Luopu ROARED and said, “That’s bitter, that’s bitter.” The student said, “What do you mean?”

And Luopu said, “We can’t row the boat of compassion over the clear lake, and we can’t release the wooden goose.” The idea was, at a steep gorge, you released some wood—to both track where the rapids were, and also to warn anybody trying to come upstream that you were coming down, and you weren’t going to be controlling your speed. “The gorge is too steep, you can’t release the wooden goose.” And that’s the last known thing that Luopu said.  

One of the nice things about The Book of Serenity, is there’s a compassion for the whole of the process. You know, you’re struggling—this person got something, but didn’t get everything, you know? We can’t even tell what he got, because—you can’t. We just know that the teacher asked him for something, and he couldn’t. He just had to say, “I don’t know.” “Yes, you do!” said the teacher. “I can see that you do. Knock it off! Cut it out! Stop pretending to be ignorant.” 

Wumen has a saying, “You’re calling yourself innocent, and you’re hiding loot in your pocket.” And the loot is your awakening. And it’s also recorded in The Book of Serenity that Yankong was, in the end, recorded as one of Luopu’s successors. So gradually, things cleared up for him, and he became a great teacher himself. So, nice to know. But this is not that moment when he becomes a great teacher. It’s that “deer in the headlights” moment. “The teacher wants something, and I love my teacher and I want to meet this, and I can’t. I have to say I can’t, and that’s what I can do.” That’s sort of great, in a way, you know—that’s a good moment too. There’s no moment that doesn’t have the light in it. So, think of that yourself, like, on a hard day.  

I remember how I used to get myself through an early sesshin—I had a lot of body pain and I didn’t know how to sit, and that made my body pain worse, and also my mind didn’t know how to be a mind.  Various interesting things would happen. Sometimes I’d just disappear, like, I’d think, “I’m just going to stay with the koan. I’m just never going to get off the koan.” And then two days later, I’d come out of some kind of dream I’d been in. I’d walked around the dream, and then, like, “Wow, you mean it’s Wednesday?”—and things like that. Or I just couldn’t ever settle. I’d think, “Here I am in sesshin and I’m not even meditating. I just can’t settle, because my mind has decided that this is ‘Attention Deficit Sesshin.’ I’d just like to be able to meditate, on this meditation retreat.” No such luck.

Wumen says this great thing, “Gradually you purify yourself, illuminating mistaken knowledge from the past.” Working with your old karma sort of untangles itself. You notice that you can have dreams about old karma sometimes in sesshin, and you have to say, “Oh, that’s alright too, what that person did that I can’t forgive, it’s okay. What I did that I can’t forgive, that’s okay. It’s life. It’s part of the thread of life.” I think that this koan is full of that quality of, like, “I can’t say it completely.” And he says, “I don’t care if what you say is complete or not. Ask me if I care! Just say it.” So, there’s that beautiful thing. 

And I was thinking about the notion, that even missing it is life. All beings have buddha nature. The person who misses it has Buddha nature. We’re just haggling about whether you know that or not. You didn’t get a choice about whether you have it. And you don’t get a choice about whether all your moments are in some way pure. In a certain way, you know that you’re really unhappy—and you walk outside and you lift your arm, and there’s something perfect about, “My arm just lifted, isn’t that amazing?” That’s what the inconceivable is—“I lifted my arm.” The inconceivable is the quiet, tonight.  It’s beyond anything that I can express. Just to be here, on this earth, alive. What a grand thing! And it can never be taken away from me.  

So even though he couldn’t express it completely, he has that. His teacher can see that, of course. His teacher gets impatient, “Look, I’m dying, dude. Couldn’t you take a stab at it? As a favour for me.” You can’t. You can’t do it for anyone else. So that’s another nice thing—even though he loves his teacher, a famous teacher—nothing can be done.

I remember that notion of “just be a gardener.” I didn’t know about the guy with the pebble and the bamboo and stuff. I remember going to sesshin and really struggling to sit, and thinking, “I’m going to get enlightened this time. I just won’t have a stray thought.” [sigh] And at the end of sesshin, there’d always be some people who’d had a wonderful sesshin, and in those days, if someone had an awakening, they’d parade around the zendo and everyone would bow to them.

And some people hated that, like—Americans just hated that. It was a Japanese thing. What the Japanese found encouraging, the Americans found humiliating. Actually, I thought it was great, and it was great because the person who paraded around was often the most unlikely, ditzy person. It wasn’t the guy working really hard in samurai Zen, it was somebody who didn’t seem to take life very seriously. It wasn’t that hard for them.  They used to sneak out and go dancing sometimes during sesshin. So there’s something touching about that, and I think, “Maybe I’ll learn something from that.” 

But at the end of sesshin, I’d think, “I didn’t get it, again.” It’s hard, and I just found that so sorrowful. And I’d think, “Well, there’ll be another sesshin.” And then I’d console myself with, “I love this. I’ll just be a gardener. I’ll just keep doing it, I’ll just keep working away, and that’s alright. I don’t have to be important.” And so that’s a beautiful stage of the practice, where you just surrender to your own karma. And your karma will be whatever it is. A giraffe? Or your karma to be a donkey, or whatever it is. And it’s a great thing.  

And then, something might happen to you by accident, like it did to the guy with the bamboo. And you can feel like, something starts to change in you—that if you’re really paying attention, we’re always reaching past—and think, “Oh god, it’s over here—and I need to get rid of this” and I need to stop whatever I’m doing—smoking or something—whatever you’re doing that you think of as a vice. It’s probably happened to other people in this room, but I remember Yamada Roshi, because his doctor told him he shouldn’t be smoking anymore, and he had these Cuban cigars, I remember him giving me these Cuban cigars. I felt obliged to smoke them, out of loyalty. I was quite happy to.

So, whatever you think is your obstacle—it’s not. There isn’t an obstacle. It’s right here

In this context, Linji said, “As I see it, there’s no Buddha, no living beings, no long ago, not even now. If you want to get it, you’ve got it! It’s not something that requires time.” So, it’s not something that requires time. But time is one of our deep-seated prejudices, we might say. Deferring things is a way of knowing who I am. “I’m a person who’s on the path.” “There’s no spiritual practice, no enlightenment, no getting anything, no missing out on anything.” Do you recognize this? This is The Heart Sutra. “At no time is there any other Dharma than this.” 

You’ll notice there’s a strong tendency to think, “I need to do X, or I need to be better.” And really, in some sense, as you ease up—it’s that critical sense—as it eases up—is probably the greatest obstacle to freedom. Your feeling that you don’t have it, and that somehow you’re not worthy of it, or that you did it wrong—or this morning, you just made a misstep that screwed up your whole day, you know that kind of thing. If only that person had been nicer to you, or you’d been nicer to that other person—whatever that is—and so on. Of course, if you’re criticizing yourself, and you catch yourself for that, great! And don’t criticize yourself for that. So that the boat of compassion does sail over the calm waters.  

And criticizing others—of course you notice, like, who are you criticizing when you’re criticizing others?  It’s all projection, all the way down. (They used to say that about turtles!) And your thoughts are not you, and they don’t belong to you—so you don’t need to own them and take them so seriously. And that’s what koans are for. You don’t have to sort it out and explain yourself to yourself. That’s a tremendously profound impulse, right? And you don’t have to understand yourself for other people to understand you. But there’s no part of your life that’s too ignorant, or too shameful, or too wounded to participate—to have a part in the mystery. We all have a part in it, because we just do. That can’t be helped. We’re doomed in that way! And that’s why “not knowing” is on our side, because everything we know—so not knowing is most intimate—walls fall down. The Heart Sutra says, “No walls in the mind, no walls in the heart.”  

There’s a funny thing I’d forgotten about. A guy called Adam Phillips is a post-Freudian analyst in London, and he writes a lot of stuff. He’s just a free-wheeling writer, and he writes for a literary magazine over here called [?] Review, and he also writes books. He wrote an article on “not getting it” and how “not getting it” was really a profound thing—it was great! I thought, “Wow, he doesn’t know Zen, but that’s a Zen thing, ‘not getting it.’” Yay!

That would be another theatre piece, the people who are getting it would have to bow to the people who don’t. And Linji did that once. He dragged some new student up and said, “Everyone, bow to him.” But this is a great thing Phillips said: “The wish to be understood may be one of our most vengeful demands.” “You must understand me,” “I must understand me.” Good luck, you know? And he said, “To a certain extent, understanding is not interesting.” That’s really funny. I love it when Zen comes from some completely other direction—psychoanalysis.  

There’s a set of things you understand, and there’s a set of things that really touch your heart and open you up—and they’re really different things. And in Zen, it’s the life you’re following. That thread of “What’s alive, what’s alive?” So, the demand that we understand is always, “I’m standing out here, and understanding something there. But because I’m standing out here, I can’t really know!” And so, the thing about “not knowing” is—stop standing outside of the Universe, and pretending the Universe is totally separate from you—because if you’re not separate from the Universe, you’re a dancer and you end up, “Oh, I realize the Universe is—you know—’the green mountain is moving about, the sun stands still’”—it’s an eternal moment. Your hand is a galaxy, you know. Your eyelashes are galaxies. Like that. And you see that—one of the things you’ll see in meditation is, “Oh, I have a part in this, even when I think I don’t have a part in it. 

So I thought I’d share with you “Luopu’s Last Words,” which I’ve done. “Bitter, bitter.” [laughter] This is a person with a sense of humour, he knew he was being funny! But also he was just real, he was just hoping to get one more person enlightened. But knowing—that it’s nothing to do with him, whether the guy gets enlightened. The teachers just do their dance, and people sometimes think that’s enlightenment. I like Yankong. And I like his student who was trying so hard, you know?

So, let me stop there. How are you doing? How’s the progress towards enlightenment going? [laughter] 

What to say? Interesting beings? Demons are good. Demons can be enlightened—as everybody knows. The obstacle is the gate, the demon is the angel.  

Student: The other thing that’s just been unexpected and lovely, is—”look at the mother.”

John: Kind of nice, yeah. It’s a great thing, isn’t it?

Student: And then, a lot of open-eyed meditation—

John: Do you know that story?

Student: You know, just—”look.”

John: The story is, there’s this Zen guy, and he had this story—he wanted to tell the story when we met him, when he was in medical training—a physician. And, I guess he was doing a pediatric residency, and they were trying to diagnose this kid who was very, very sick—and they were trying to work out whether the kid had meningitis or not, which, you know, is a life-threatening thing. And so, it was really important that they try to get this right. And they couldn’t figure it out. And then the attending said, “Look at the mother. She knows whether the kid’s okay. The mother’s really worried. He’s got meningitis!” So the diagnosis was, “Oh, the Universe holds the knowledge of the Universe, and the mother is a part of that.” A very touching story. 

So, go ahead—what about “look at the mother?”

Student: Well, just that—in a way—it’s like my “don’t know.” Like, when I get in here, and I know I’m—chatter is going on, or even sometimes—like, nothing. What comes, has been coming, is that, just—“look at the mother.”

John: It’s a koan, it’s not “look at the mother”—it’s “the Universe!—look at the mother.”

Student: “Look at the Universe.” 

Student: Today there was a little bug crawling on a statue, and then a big fat black squirrel. You don’t see black squirrels around here very often, usually they’re gray. It’s just what’s happening—beautiful, just beautiful.

Student 2: That’s interesting, because I saw a big fat black squirrel, and I didn’t think anything of it, because where I come from they’re all black! [laughter]

John: Yeah, all the things though, are—in a way—little pieces of the great dragon that composes everything—you can see that, sometimes—the glittering of the scales of the dragon.

Student 3: I had a day much like your talk, really. I came here, thinking I was really “on to no-self” and I was going to get deep into that on this retreat. But every time I’d really get a hold of something today—it would go all to hell! And, all I have to do is “just sit”—just sit. And every once in a while, it would just be a little tingle of—and it wasn’t the talk—but it was—something would just drop me, like a chunk, for a little while—and then back to…

John: That’s the purification process—just an intrinsic part of the practice. I think just is an intrinsic part. In a way, that’s the blessing— like, we can bless that, too. That’s what the Yankong story is about. We bless that part—”Oh, we aren’t doing anything wrong,” and then sometimes suddenly, “Oh, it shifts, it’s autonomous, I didn’t really do it myself.” 

Student 3: No, there would just be a little tingle.

John: We get little intimations, and then later on we get —thunk!—and then the whole bottom drops out of everything. The deep peace of the dragon, you know. Dragon peace.

Student 4: I’m not actually sure where this is coming from, but I’ve been thinking alot about [person] for a couple of days. When I came to my first retreat, he was there. I remember the first time I saw him—he wore these shoes with these big springs in them, and I just thought he was so silly. “Why is this guy wearing these springs?” It wasn’t until later that I found out how many surgeries he had had, and how hard it was for him to walk around, and to sit. 

On my first retreat—I was not prepared for the impact that “not talking” would have on me. It was very dark. But I wouldn’t trade it—it was a very valuable experience—I treasure it. Walking around not having people say “Hi” to you or talk to you, I found it disturbing, but [ultimately] in a good way. But it was dark! I thought I had offended somebody or had broken some rule in Zen, and I was being ostracized. But people were all very kind, in the ways that really counted. I was just so used to being around people who are regularly acknowledging my existence with some kind of verbal communication! And that just wasn’t happening. 

But finally on Friday, I was out for a walk, coming through the garden at the Angela Center, which is also now gone, I guess, 

John: Burned up.

Student 4: Yeah.

John: Fortunately! [laughs] 

Student 4: I was sitting at the table, and for whatever reason I said, “Hi. I’m feeling like an outcast here, did I do something wrong?” I was very much trying to figure out what I had done. And [person on retreat] was the first person who said, “Nope, glad to have you!” He said, “I’ve really been enjoying what you’ve been sharing.” So here we are. And I miss him.

John: Thank you for that. 

Student 5: I was just thinking about the “look at the mother” in a different way. When I went on my walk today, I was in a state—I felt that I was being chased by things. And I went down to the end of the road and looked up at the fence—and there was this perfect outline of a person running and a dragon chasing. And I thought, “No! It can’t be that perfect for where I’m at right now.” And—it was ivy. It was down there by the black Buddha. Look at that fence and there’s that outline of a person being chased. 

The reason I’m bringing that up, is that there’s something in the way that the land here is looking back. And I see that everywhere. And even in that moment of feeling like, “Oh God, I’m just going to ‘drop through’ or not going to ‘drop through’”— there is this strange little vignette.

John: It’s not things you see, it’s your thoughts you see. []aughs]  

The waking—the daylight world—is a bardo too, it’s got all that stuff in it too. It’s just as strange as the other worlds.

Student 6: The story about Luopu and Yakong—and Luopu’s encouragement in spite of Yankong’s lack of self-confidence—and then your story about Yamada and the Cuban cigars [laughs]—reminded me of when Yamada treated me that way, and what it felt like. To be encouraged like that, and have the self-doubts like that—it’s very different to experience the self-doubt when encouragement is coming in like that. I could have both, and in a way, that was great. 

And, I remember Father’s Day one year in Kamakura. We had bought him [Yamada] a cake for Father’s day, and we were invited in after sitting—for tea, eating cake, and watching television, because there was an opera on, or something. And we’re watching television, and we’re eating cake, and Roshi got up and he left for a minute, and he came back with a box. It was his cigars, which he had not smoked for years because the doctor told him to quit smoking. And he offered the cigars around.

And I remembered a warning I had gotten when I first started meditating in Nepal, by some American guy who had been travelling around to different centers, and he was recommending where to go. And he said, “If you’re ever in Japan, you’ve got to watch out for a Zen teacher who watches television and smokes cigars.” [laughter]

John: And you’ve become him! [laughter] Pretty funny.

You know, people are dangerous. Teachers are dangerous. Well, that seems like a good note. [bows]