On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

November 21, 2002

Nothing to Attain

Ta Hui ( 1088-1163)

People often use the mind which assumes “there is something to attain” to seek the Dharma wherein there is nothing to attain. What do I mean by the mind which assumes “there is something to attain”? It’s the intellectually clever one, the one that ponders and judges. What do I mean by the Dharma wherein “there is nothing to attain?” It’s the imponderable, the incalculable wherein there’s no way to apply intelligence or cleverness.

Haven’t you read of the old Shakyamuni at the Assembly of the Lotus of the True Dharma? Three times Shariputra earnestly entreated him to preach, but there was simply no way for him to begin. Afterwards, using all his power, he managed to say that this Dharma is not something that can be understood by thought or discrimination. This was old Shakyamuni taking this matter to its ultimate conclusion, opening the gateway of expedient means as a starting point for the teaching of the true nature of reality.

In the old days of Hsueh Feng, this Ch’an master was so earnest about his question that he went on pilgrimage to Mt. T’ou Tzu three times and climbed Mt. Tung Shan nine times. Circumstances were not met for him in those places, however, so later when he heard of the teaching of Chou, master of the Adamantine Wisdom Scripture, on Te Shan, he went to his abode. One day he asked Te shan, “In the custom of the school that has come down from high antiquity, what doctrine is used to instruct people?”

Te Shan said, “Our school has no verbal expression, nor does it have any doctrine to teach people.” Later Hsueh Feng also asked, “Do I have any share in the business of the vehicle of this ancient school?” Te Shan picked up his staff and immediately hit him saying, “What are you saying?” Under this blow Hsueh Feng finally smashed the lacquer bucket of his ignorance. From this we observe that in this sect intelligence and cleverness, thought and judgment, are of no use at all.

Once you have the intent to investigate this Path to the end, you must settle your resolve and vow to the end of your days not to retreat or fall back so long as you have not yet reached the Great Rest, the Great Surcease, the Great Liberation. There’s not much to the Buddha Dharma, but it’s always been hard to find capable people. The concerns of worldly passions are like the links of a chain joining together without a break. Those whose resolve is weak and inferior time and time again willingly become involved with them: unknowing and unawares they are dragged along by them. Only if the person truly possesses the faculty of wisdom and will power will he consent to step back and reflect.

People make their living within the confines of thought and judgment their whole lives: as soon as they hear a person of knowledge speak of the Dharma in which there is nothing to attain, in their hearts there is doubt and confusion, and they fear falling into emptiness. Whenever I see someone talking like this, I immediately ask him, is this one who fears falling into emptiness himself empty or not? Ten out of ten cannot explain. Since you have always taken thought and judgment as your nesting place, as soon as you hear it said that you shouldn’t think, immediately you are at a loss and can’t find your grip. You’re far from realizing that this very lack of anywhere to get a grip is the time for you to let go of your body and your life.

If correct mindfulness is present at all times and the attitude of fear for birth and death doesn’t waver, over long days and months, what was unfamiliar will naturally become familiar, and what was stale will naturally become fresh. But what is the stale? It’s the brilliance and cleverness, that which thinks and judges. What is the unfamiliar? It’s enlightenment, nirvana, true thusness, the buddha-nature–where there’s no thought or discrimination; where figuring and calculating cannot reach; where there’s no way for you to use your mental arrangements.

Suddenly the time arrives: you may be on a story of an ancient’s entry into the Path, or it may be as you are reading the scriptures, or perhaps during your daily activities as you respond to circumstances; whether your condition is good or not good, or your body and mind are scattered and confused, whether favorable or adverse conditions are present, or whether you have temporarily quieted the mind’s conceptual discrimination-when you suddenly topple the key link, there’ll be no mistake about it.

Ta Hui ( 1088-1163)

Excerprted from Swampland Flowers – the Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui-Translated by Christopher Cleary 1977

So many of our traditions have been passed down through stories. The minstrels of old brought news from village to village; the early epics were records of great events which even today continue to inspire with feats of courage and a code which for many has become a lost tradition. Stories are entertaining and can be enlightening. Many nights have been spent around a camp fire listening to tales of great adventure or envisioning a new way for the tribe.

Much of the wisdom of a culture is passed on in fairy tales which are rewritten in every time and culture. The tradition of every religion has teaching stories with which we are all familiar. In the above selection by Ta-hui we see his use of stories to communicate with his audience. Oftentimes we won't remember the exact wording of a teaching, but we'll remember the turning point of a story which will leave the essence of the teaching with us.

Gather around the fire now and listen to a story from our own times.

“The Teaching of Trees”

One evening a teacher of the martial ways said to his students, “I regret that I am all you have for a teacher. These Ways are difficult enough to learn, and if you rely only on me you will not learn nearly enough. For to truly learn you must go, not to one who has learned these arts as I have, but to one who has known them from the beginning. Even the highest of humans are mere apprentices in this regard.”

His students, as students are apt to do, managed to look both puzzled and expectant at once.

“My own teacher was a tree. From my esteemed teacher I learned most of what I know about the Ways. Even today, I have barely scratched the surface of this tree teaching. It is my teacher's teaching that I attempt to pass on to you with but partial success. The fault is my own, for I am not quite eloquent enough. My words, and even my actions, get in the way.”

“Listen. My father, a Warrior from the West, went to see the Old Man of the Mountain to learn about his Way. He followed a stream up the mountain, but he turned back after going only part of the distance. It is said that the old sage watched his retreat with silent approval. Flowing water became his teacher for the rest of his life. He learned much, but still he couldn't pass it on to me.

“It is said that my grandfather learned from the clouds. His technique was lofty, subtle, hard to define. They say he could not be touched. He was like a mist who in the end vanished like a summer cloud.

“I feel that I may know some of what my father and grandfather learned from their teachers, and yet I cannot be sure. For each of us must follow a slightly separate path. I spent many years in the forest with my teacher who never once deviated from the Way. This tree teaching has served me quite well. Here, then is a small part of what my teacher taught me.

“A tree is heavy at the root, light at the top. Its leaves sense the slightest movement of the wind and invariably move before the trunk can be swayed. Its branches bend before they break. When they do break, Life Force is immediately transferred to the remaining limbs.

“A tree becomes dormant in order to become vital. This is the very key to our art – Action arising from Stillness. While the manifestations of its Force are evident, the root is kept hidden from plain view.

“A tree is tall and noble, mysteriously alive, upright in bearing and continually growing and renewing until death, which is then met without a care.”


All of this taught in a silence
More eloquent than a thousand words.
Each day I honor my teacher
When I walk slowly through
The dark coolness of the forest.

So, learn what you can from others,
But to truly learn you must Return
To the wordless Teaching of the Self-Evident;
The trees, the streams, the sky;
Teachers abound if you would become their lessons.

Then the students, as students are apt to do, looked as if they understood while their teacher rose and disappeared into the evening forest for the night.

— Taken from Life in the Rolling Mirror; Tales of Change and Flow

With Devotion,

Elana, Scribe for Daily Zen

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