On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

September 22, 2000

The Great Affair

Ta Hui (1088-1163)

This affair is like the bright sun in the blue sky, shining clearly, changeless and motionless, without diminishing or increasing. It shines everywhere in the daily activities of everyone, appearing in everything. Though you try to grasp it, you cannot get it; though you try to abandon it, it always remains. It is vast and unobstructed, utterly empty. Like a gourd floating on water, it cannot be reined in or held down. Since ancient times, when good people of the Path have attained this, they’ve appeared and disappeared in the sea of birth and death, able to use it fully. There is no deficit or surplus; like cutting up sandalwood, each piece is it.

Where do the passions of birth and death arise from? Where can it be located when gathering the causes to produce the effect? Since there is no place to locate it, Buddha is illusion and Dharma is illusion; the three worlds, twenty-five states of being, the sense organs, sense-objects, and consciousnesses are utterly empty. When you get to this realm, there’s no place to put even the word “Buddha”; if even the word “Buddha” has no applicability, where is there True Thusness, Buddha Nature, Enlightenment, or Nirvana? Thus the Great Being Fu said, “Fearing that people will give rise to a view of annihilation, we provisionally establish empty names.”


Students of the Path who do not understand this principle are always going to the stories of people of old entering the Path looking for mysteries and subtleties and marvels, seeking interpretations and understanding. They are unable to see the moon and forget the pointing finger, unable to cut directly through with one blow.

This is what Yung Chia called understanding the empty fist as though there were actually something in it, falsely making up wonders within the senses and their objects. Such people vainly imprison themselves within the passions ofthe five clumps, the sense organs, objects, sensations, the twenty five states of being – the Tathagata said they are to be pitied. Haven’t you seen Yen T’ou’s saying?

“Just have no desires and depend on nothing, then you’ll be capable of goodness.”

All this time there’s just been a lump of flesh born of your parents. Unless you come up with a bit of energy, it is subject to the control of others. What else is there outside the lump of flesh? What can you hold to be wonderful, mysterious, or marvelous? What can you take to be Enlightenment or Nirvana? What can you take to be True Thusness or Buddha Nature?

You wanted to investigate this affair to the end, but from the first you have not gotten to the root of its reality – you just wanted to seek knowledge and understanding from the public cases of the ancients. Even if you had a thorough knowledge and understanding of the entire Buddhist Canon, on the last day of your life, when birth-and-death comes upon you, you won’t be able to use it at all.

There’s another sort: as soon as they hear a wise advisor speak of such an affair, they still use their conceptual minds to figure it out and say, “If it’s like this, then won’t I fall into emptiness?” Ten out of ten people of affairs entertain this kind of view. I have no choice but to tell them, “You haven’t ever reached emptiness, so what are you afraid of? It’s as if you’re trying to leap out of the water before the boat has capsized.”

Ta Hui (1088-1163)

Excerpted from Swampland Flowers: The Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui translated by Christopher Cleary (1977)

Several hundred years earlier Rinzai speaks to his followers in this manner:

Followers of the Way, the one who at this moment stands alone, clearly and lively right before the eyes and is listening, this one is nowhere obstructed; unhindered he penetrates everywhere and moves freely in the Three Worlds. Entering all kinds of situations, he is never affected by them. In the fraction of a moment he goes to the bottom of the scheme of things. Meeting Buddha, he talks with Buddha; meeting patriarchs, he talks with patriarchs, meeting with ordinary people, he talks with ordinary people. He goes everywhere, roaming through the kingdoms and talking with living beings, yet never strays for a single thought from his shining purity. Penetrating the ten directions, the ten thousand things are of one suchness.

Rinzai (d.866)

Excerpted from The Zen Teaching of Rinzai by Irmgard Schloegl (1976)

“They are unable to see the moon and forget the pointing finger, unable to cut directly through with one blow.”

As we read these inspiring pieces from the past, they become part of our present, and if we can bring them to life in the present through our actions, then we enter the realm of Practice. Often we are left with the question, “How?” We need some kind of help, some kind of tool….

Here's a sword for you, a razor sharp sword that will cut through all sorts of illusions and obstacles if you learn to wield it properly. It's the sword of the Return. Technique, perhaps, but big technique – technique which leads beyond itself. It's a two edged sword that will cut in either direction, a sword of both action and stillness. It's a sword borrowed from the warrior-sage, but anyone can use it. It will help you to Return and to maintain a life of Practice, whatever your practice may be.

This two-edged sword is actually the highest form of meditation, but meditation totally beyond any system, formal name, method, or dogma. One edge of your sword cuts without even moving – it's the unbelievably sharp blade which severs all things as they blow against it. This is the edge of “waiting,” and it involved STOPPING, totally, within and without. It is to let both “inner” and “outer” forces build and ebb as they will. It's to allow the murkiness of the water to clear by itself as you do absolutely nothing.

This edge of waiting is such a simple thing, yet it allows your mind of situations, problems, and confusion to Return to its natural state… to the state before the pressure of gaining mind interfered and distorted things. Though this sword of waiting is passive, don't be fooled; it take resoluteness and real mental strength to wield it, and it will in turn free up a tremendous, unattached energy within. You'll reside in motionlessness and become that sharpest sword against whose edge all things are cut.

But you must learn to calmly wait until the water becomes crystal clear… to wait without stirring anything up. Learning to wait like this is a wonderful and awesome ability.

The other edge of your sword, the edge of “questing” is quite dynamic, there's nothing passive about it. It's a true sword cut, and all your energy, your entire spirit must be focused into the very edge of the blade. You have to arouse your energy – a half-hearted cut won't do. But if you learn to cut sincerely, with the power of immediacy, this edge of inner questing will cut through any Gordian Knot. It will cut right through the dreamlike shell of your past, through distractions, and confusion. It's that powerful!

It's simple – but you must be alive to make the cut. To wield the sword of questing, gather all your energy for a decisive cut and then focus all that energy into a brief but intent search for the form of your own past. Nothing gradual about it, this is a sudden technique, an unleashing. This sword of questing will cut through each and every obstacle. See for yourself what happens when you search suddenly for the very form of your own past.

Through this cut you will Return, paradoxically, to the same clarity you found through the edge of waiting. Not gradually becoming clearer, though, but instantly with one decisive cut! Searching for the form of your past cuts through illusion, pierces the Rolling Mirror itself. Tune into your own energy. Learn the “when” of it. It's like night and day, when one edge just isn't there for you, the other will be.

from Maverick Sutras

Wielding the Sword,

Elana, Scribe for Daily Zen

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