On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

November 18, 1998

Hsiang-yen and the Broken Tile

Welcome to the first issue of On the Way.  There have been many characters in Zen, both teachers and students, and stories have served as excellent vehicles for portraying some of the essence of Zen in recounting their relationships. We never seem to tire of learning through the medium of stories. We begin this journey of On the Way with…

Kuei-shan Ling-yu (771-853)

Hsiang-yen was originally a novice under Pai-chang; he was exceptionally brilliant and quick witted, strong in analytical power and logical acumen, and versed in the scriptures. But he was not initiated into Ch’an (Zen). At the death of Pai-chang, he made himself a disciple of Pai-chang’s senior disciple Kuei-shan. Kuei-shan said to him, “I hear that when you were with our late Master Pai-chang, you could give ten answers to a single question…..This shows your remarkable intelligence and ingenuity, which enables you to understand ideas and unfold their consequences. Now the question of birth and death is the most fundamental of all. Try to tell me something about your state before you were born of your parents.”

This question plunged his mind into a thick fog. He did not even know what to think. Returning to his room, he made a feverish search in all the books that he had read for something appropriate to say in answer to the question; but he could not find a single sentence that could be used.

So he sighed to himself, saying, “As the saying goes, a painted cake satisfies not the hunger.” After that, he pressed his master time and time again to break the secret to him by speaking explicitly. Every time Kuei-shan said, “If I should expound it explicitly to you, in future you will reproach me for it. Anyway, whatever I speak still belongs to me, and has nothing to do with you.”

In his despair, Hsiang-yen burnt all his books, saying, “In this life I will not study Buddha dharma any more. Let me become a mendicant monk ever on the move from one place to another.” He took leave of his master weeping. His wandering brought him to the ruins of a temple in Nan-yang associated with the memory of Master Hui-chung. There he made his temporary abode.

One day as he was mowing and cutting the grass and trees, he tossed at random a piece of broken tile, which happened to hit a bamboo tree, causing it to emit a crisp sound. Startled by the unexpected sound, he was suddenly awakened to his true self not born with his birth. Returning to his cell, he bathed himself and lit incense to pay his long-distance obeisance to Kuei-shan, saying, “O Venerable Abbot, how great is your compassion! I am grateful to you more than to my parents. If you had broken the secret to me then, how could I have experienced the wonderful event of today?”

I sometimes wonder how many promising talents have been nipped in the bud, simply because their master had overdone their explanation of a subject, whose mastery depends by its very nature upon an experiential realization. Great as Kuei-shan was in what he expressed, he was greater in what he left unsaid.

Kuei-shan Ling-yu (771-853)

excerpted from The Golden Age of Zen by John C H Wu

The following passage taken from one of his talks speaks to the style and thought of Kuei-shan:

Let each and every one of you turn the light inwards and not try to memorize my words…. The one thing essential now is to recollect your mind to attain the fundamental, the very root of your being. Having arrived at the root, you need have no worry about the accidentals.

Too often in practice it seems, like Hsiang-yen, we are just after more answers, as if getting the “right” answer to that “big” question will straighten out everything. Yet, staying with a question which has the power to stop the mind can transform a life. Real questioning is like polishing a gem, removing the “extra.” The answer to the question is the polishing, the dropping off of the extra. What about a wordless question whose purpose is simply to reverse the outward flow of the mind? Think about it… and question well.

In Peace,
Elana, Scribe for Daily Zen

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