On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

November 28, 2014

Same Reality, Different Dreams

Foyan (1067-1120)

People may sleep on the same bed, under the same covers, yet their individual dreams are not the same. An ancient sage said, “We share the same one reality, yet do not realize it.”

For example, within the single reality of life and death, there are those who can enter into life and death without being bound by life and death, and there are those who are bound by life and death in the midst of life and death. In the midst of the same common reality, one person is bound while another is freed; is this not the individual differences in the dreams?

You usually make birth and death into one extreme, and absence of birth and death into another extreme; you make thinking into one extreme and non-thinking into another extreme; you make speech into one extreme and non-speech into another extreme.

Here I have neither the business of Zen monks, nor anything transcendental; I just talk about getting rid of birth and death. This is not a matter of simply saying this and letting the matter rest at that; you must see that which has no birth and death right in the midst of birth and death.

The great master Yongjia visited the Sixth Patriarch of Zen and said, “The matter of birth and death is serious; transitoriness is swift.” The Sixth Patriarch said, “Why not comprehend the birthless and realize what has no speed?” Yongjia said, “Comprehension itself is birthless; realization of the fundamental has no speed.”

When Caoshan took leave of Dongshan, Dongshan asked, “Where are you going?” Caoshan replied, “To an unchanging place.” Dangshan retorted, “If it is an unchanging place, how could there be any going?” Caoshan replied, “The going is also unchanging.”

Were these not realized people? You make thought one extreme and non-thinking another extreme; you make the unspoken outside of the spoken—even if you understand the unspoken clearly, as soon as words are spoken they block you.

Why not study Zen in this way—walk, stand, sit, and recline all day long without ever walking, standing, sitting, or reclining.

Sometimes seekers come here, utter a phrase, and clap their hands; how does this amount to an understanding beyond dualistic extremes?

You should think in this way: “Clearly I am in the midst of birth and death; how can I get free of birth and death?” Don’t say this itself is It, that you basically have no birth and death. It is not realized by your uttering this statement.

There are those who hear someone say there is no birth and death, and immediately say, “Right! There is originally no birth or death!” If you make your interpretation in this way, it will be impossible to understand.

Since it does not admit of rationalization and contrived understanding, and does not admit of being explained away, how can you work on it? An ancient said, “I only use what you bring me to point out an entryway to you.” Take care.

Understand Immediately

You still don’t understand on your own. I tell you this—if you still don’t understand on your own, then how will you understand if you go somewhere else?

At other places, they either put you through changes, or abruptly fixate you. This saves energy and is easy to comprehend; so why don’t you understand? Because of your millions of rationalizations; these make it hard for you to understand.

Buddhahood is an easily comprehended state, comfortable and pleasant. But even though it is easily understood, nevertheless, it is hard to enter into and hard to work on. At other places, if they abruptly fixate you, then you have something to work on; if they put you through changes, then you have something to chew on..

People come here and declare that they do not dare to say they are right. So why don’t you dare say you are right? Then how should you be? Why not look at it in this way?

I’m just afraid you will misunderstand here and get the wrong idea. I just want to have you understand immediately, without stirring a single thought.

Then again, there are those who say, “According to my view, everything is all right.” They are like scorched sprouts, like rotten seed, which will never grow. When you have declared you’re right, then how can you be helped out by anyone? This is why it is said that ordinary people may still evolve.

There are also those who, having understood, still cannot express it in speech. Even if they talk of it, they do not make any sense. Don’t be careless and crude; examine carefully.

I am a fellow seeker with you; if I comprehend, you must comprehend too. If you don’t comprehend, I don’t comprehend either.

Have you not read how Xuansha pointed to a white spot on the ground in front of him and asked a student, “See?” The student said, “Yes.” Xuansha said, “I see, and so do you. Why don’t you understand?”

One of my fellow students, one Elder Li, saw my late teacher for a year and a half; every time he went in for a personal interview, the teacher would just say to him, “Elder, have you distinguished black and white at all?” Every time he went, this is what happened. How do you interpret talk like this? How to you work?

Nowadays there are no adepts like this helping people. There are no elders who seek like this either. Anyone else would have gotten upset. One day he heard the teacher say in a lecture, “Going in and out the same door—hereditary enemies,” and suddenly his previous understanding turned out to be like flowers in the sky, and he now saw the truth.

You should work in this way and realize enlightenment in this way. Zen should be studied this way. As none of you have had an awakening, you should look straight into your vital spirit.

If no one told you and no one instructed you, it would be hard to work. Now that you have met someone, you should work. You must distinguish black from white before you can do it.

Foyan (1067-1120)

Excerpted from Instant Zen – Waking up in the Present trans by Thomas Cleary 1994



Being students of the Way, naturally we seek places to begin and signposts of which way to continue. There may be teachers we study with for years; we may have years of disillusionment, and then there may be years we are on our own. Ultimately the work is ours, and, hopefully, like Foyan above, no teacher will ever tell you too much.

The tendency to hold onto a superficial understanding or confuse a relative enlightenment with the ultimate is so overpowering in people. Even in the examples above, we see the universal traps of spiritual practice. The same mental states come over students of all times and places.

Buddhahood is an easily comprehended state, comfortable and pleasant. But even though it is easily understood, nevertheless, it is hard to enter into and hard to work on.

So, we must “work” on the dilemma of birth and death, and at the same time avoid the extremes of thinking that burden everyone from time to time. The phrase “hasten slowly” comes to mind or the challenge to practice with “great effort, no goal.” Where does this effort come from?

Like the Elder in the story above, we patiently keep up with our practice, assured that like him, there will be a time, an event, a phrase that will allow us to share in a similar experience…. “suddenly his previous understanding turned out to be like flowers in the sky, and he now saw the truth.”

So be it for us.

“I am a fellow seeker with you; if I comprehend, you must comprehend too. If you don't comprehend, I don't comprehend either.”

Following along with you,


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