Nothing Holy (Blue Cliff Record, case 1)

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I presented this somewhat differently in person than in my notes but either version is probably clear enough! -Tim


Tonight I’d like to start a series of talks on our family stories in Zen. A unique feature of the Zen tradition is the idea that Buddha’s teachings on awakening and the end of suffering can be expressed through brief stories of meeting and contact. Usually these moments of meeting or encounter are between two people – a master and a student most often – but the always have a quality of meeting our life. Of encountering our true life more deeply. In this very moment of meeting. Of intersection. Of contact and touching. It’s no accident that our most deep and powerful ritual – the meditation retreat called sesshin – is a practice called “touching the heart/mind” – meeting the experience of our living in a deep way. Somehow in this meeting is everything we need. Nothing is outside it.

These stories of meeting became the famous Zen koans. Brought to the Western imagination as challenges and puzzles they have that aspect but they have a much deeper sensibility.

Stories of encounters between the Zen Masters of China and their students started being recorded sometime around the seventh century. To us it seems now a kind of stereotype of oriental culture – Master Po on the Kung Fu TV series “yes, grasshopper” – a stereotype of the master instructing the student in informal moments as deep teaching, but actually it was a real innovation that instead of explaining teachings and practices in a systematic way the full meaning of Buddhist teaching and practice could be implied by a short story of encounter.

Those early encounter stories of the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries were then retold as stories are and codified into the little gems of literature we now call koans. Koan is usually translated as “legal case” but I think the actual words refer to desks used by judges in China. Zen borrowed terms and ideas from the Chinese legal system and the idea of calling these stories koans was to imply that they set a precedent. A deep precedent but not about how the law should be interpreted – a precedent about how our deepest human experience should be understood.

And as these stories become official in some way, and despite the aura of radical innovation in Zen we also have a strong strain of orthodoxy – just human nature I guess to take something fresh and lively and put it in a box for safe keeping – so one we have official koans then we have official koan collections. The three most famous collections are: The Blue Cliff Record, the Gateless Gate, and the Book of Serenity. Tonight I’d like to speak on the first case of the Blue Cliff Record. I’m not sure yet but I’m considering following my own teacher’s example from some years ago and just working our way right through the collection. A few weeks ago we talked about case 52 (51?) from this collection if you remember the story of Zhaozhou’s stone bridge and the log bridge. I did get that recording onto the website if you missed it. I took that up out of necessity and have actually kind of workshopped it around a little – giving it in Worcester, Mass, here and Seattle and it’s been really interesting – different things come up each time. So much is packed into these stories.

Sadly our cultures being as sexist as they are these stories are all stories of our uncles and grandfathers, there are very very few mentions of women practitioners in the traditional koan collections. There are some books out and more on the way digging into the stories of our aunts and grandmothers and we’ll interleave some of those studies into our story telling too as we go along. But I think we have to watch out here not to demean our uncles – like all people, including us, of course they made a mistake in not including women but this doesn’t mean their stories are any less important to us as people looking towards living a life of dignity and peace. To be angry with them about this mistake is also a mistake of exclusion in much the same vein as the mistake of excluding women if you think about it. Nothing wrong with a little rage – it is all quite unjust but let’s not let that cut us off from these teachings.

So let’s begin exploring the Blue Cliff Record collection. This particular book had an early author who collected the stories together originally in the early 11th century, a fellow named Xuedou, and then a later author who added additional commentaries and published the work as the Blue Cliff Record in the 12th century – in 1125 – the later author is named Yuanwu. So it’s a different kind of book than we’re used to with layers of voices spanning a few centuries!

(Blue Cliff Record, case 1 “The Highest Meaning of the Holy Truths”, Cleary & Cleary translation)

“Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma, “What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?”

Bodhidharma said, ”Empty, without holiness.”

Emperor said “Who is facing me?”

Bodhidharma replied “I don’t know.”

The emperor did not understand.

After this Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtse River and came to the kingdom of Wei.

Later the Emperor brought this up to the Master Chih and asked him about it. Master Chih asked, “Does your majesty know who this man is?”

The Emperor said, “I don’t know.”

Master Chih said, “He is the Mahasattva Avalokitesvara, transmitting the Buddha Mind Seal.”

The Emperor felt regretful, so he wanted to send an emissary to go invite Bodhidharma to return.

Master Chih told him, “Your majesty, don’t say that you will send someone to fetch him back. Even if everyone in the whole country were to go after him, he still wouldn’t return.”

Bodhidharma was our famous first ancestor of Zen in China. He was an Indian monk who travelled to China by ship probably in the early 6th century. Little is known about him before and even whether he really existed or is a mythical figure is not certain but there is some evidence that he did exist.

And this is the creation myth of Zen in a certain way. A deep calling forth on the teachings of emptiness and letting go.

The back story here is that Emperor Wu was a patron of early Buddhism in China and funded many temples. His asking “what is the highest meaning of the holy truths?” is seen as a kind of request for validation. That the emperor’s works had been an expression of Buddhist truth. The world “holy” of course is to us a kind of Christian term and indeed one of the definitions in the dictionary is “devoted to the service of God”. So it seems to us to stand for a division between heavenly and earthly – between special and ordinary. What are the special truths or what is the truth that will make my life special and important?

And our Zen way is all about being grounded in the ordinary. Feeling and experiencing the extra-ordinary in the ordinary. And it turns out that the roots of this word “holy” have their roots not in specialness but from Old English and Old Norse for wholeness. So another way to read this is that the holy is whole, is completeness and just this ordinary and amazing moment.

And so Bodhidharma perhaps somewhat gruffly brings up emptiness. That quality of radical fluidity and freedom from such fixed concepts. That was the truth he offered – the truth of release from this need to have a “truth.” “What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?” ”Empty, without holiness.”

This surprised the emperor and we asked Bodhidharma who he was – which is a kind of Zen code for what is the deeper meaning here. Who are you? or Where do you come from? are classic Zen questions to be considered deeply. Another way that in Zen we use ordinary phrases and stories for deep questions. So consider that a moment – who are you? Who are you really?

And Bodhidharma’s answer is seen as a central pillar or our Zen understanding: “I don’t know”.

Another way of expressing openness and an appreciation for the liberation that these emptiness teachings offer us. Bodhidharma’s “I don’t know” can be seen not as a kind of refutation of the emperor – he’s not saying “nobody knows anything you fool” – we could see it as more like “I’m open to anything – I don’t know who I am so I’m relaxed and ready to respond to the universe without clinging to anything – I’m just here”. Chinese doesn’t really have pronouns and English speaking Zen teachers often drop the “I” part of this – that “I” which is a kind of fixed point holds us down. So we usually just say “don’t know”. That “don’t know” is the key phrase of this koan. We could just practice with that in our zazen, in our lives, bringing it forward on the exhalation – “don’t know” – bringing it up when we feel like we are supposed to know everything and there’s a little terror that maybe they’ll find out how vulnerable we are – just to bring to mind and breathe with this phrase of Bodhidharma’s “don’t know”…. it sounds strange to us maybe but try it. There’s some freedom there actually, it’s not a dull or stupid not knowing it’s the lively not knowing that’s receptive and open. It’s humility. It’s Suzuki roshi’s famous beginner’s mind.

And the story goes on that the emperor didn’t understand the meaning of this “nothing holy” and “don’t know” and Bodhidharma went on his way. Somehow one of the emperor’s advisors did get it or at least knew more about Bodhidharma’s reputation. And the final part of the exchange is another teaching on letting go.

Later the Emperor brought this up to the Master Chih and asked him about it. Master Chih asked, “Does your majesty know who this man is?”

The Emperor said, “I don’t know.”

Master Chih said, “He is the Mahasattva Avalokitesvara, transmitting the Buddha Mind Seal.”

The Emperor felt regretful, so he wanted to send an emissary to go invite Bodhidharma to return.

Master Chih told him, “Your majesty, don’t say that you will send someone to fetch him back. Even if everyone in the whole country were to go after him, he still wouldn’t return.”

This second exchange is another way of saying we can’t seize hold of this emptiness of this not knowing. We can’t get Bodhidharma to come back and explain it to us. And also the mention of Avalokitesvara is a suggestions that Bodhidharma’s wisdom is a compassionate and kind not hard and cold. So that’s an important point. There are many kinds of silence, many kinds of “don’t know” we can feel into when we’re accessing wisdom and compassion together and when we’re allowing our narrow way of thinking to appropriate these incredible teachings in some way that’s divisive, that’s a little aggressive or unkind. It’s the work of many lifetimes to play with these subtle teachings.

And then Bodhidharma famously went on a massive meditation retreat. According to tradition he sat on his own in a cave facing the wall for 9 years. Dogen appreciates that in the Fukanzazengi that we chant. Remember Bodhidharma! he says. Remember our founder. Of course Buddha is our founder too but the Zen style around direct expression, emptiness, not explaining too much, that we trace back to Bodhidharma.

And just like the dialog we talked about with the stone bridge and the log bridge we can really feel the way this plays out inside us. That desire for all that’s special, holy in a way, that part of us that’s willing to renounce it and let go and just be. That part of us that has some sense for how this all goes and what it deeply means but can’t quite put it into words. And that part of us that’s frustrated, that feels limited by our own body and mind and our habits, that part of us that just doesn’t get it.

Luckily for us Bodhidharma appears in front of us all the time. Ready to guide us in his gruff and compassionate way to lead us out of the blind alley of trying to figure it all out and justify it all and so on. Thank you Bodhidharma. All is empty, nothing holy. Or you could say all is empty and all is holy. Nothing but holy, nothing but empty. Just this.

[small groups on not knowing and is it okay not to know?]

About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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