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The Highest Meaning of the Holy Truths

Commentary on Blue Cliff Record Case 1

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Aug 01, 1997
Location: Green Gulch Farm
In topic: Koan Studies
Bodhidharma meets Emporer Wu in this famous case. Can we meet ourselves with the same integrity?



When you see smoke on the other side of the mountain, you already know there is a fire.
When you see horns on the other side of a fence, right away you know there is an ox there.
To understand three when one is raised; to judge precisely at a glance, this is the everyday food and drink of a patch-robed monk.
Getting to where she cuts off the myriad streams, she is free to arise in the east and sink in the west, to go against or to go with, in any and all directions, free to give or take away.
But say, at just such a time, whose actions are these?
Look into Xuedou’s trailing vines.

The Case

Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma, "What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?"
Bodhidharma said, "Empty, without holiness."
The Emperor said, "Who is facing me?"
Bodhidharma replied, "I don’t know."
The Emperor did not understand.
After this, Bodhidharma crossed the Yang Tse River and came to the kingdom of Wei.

Later, the Emperor brought this up to master Chih and asked him about it.
Master Chih said, "Does Your Majesty know who this man is?"
The Emperor said, "I don’t know."
Master Chih said, "He is Mahasattva Avalokitsvara, transmitting the Buddha mind to you."
The Emperor felt regretful, so he wanted to send an emissary to go get Bodhidharma to return.
Master Chih told him, "Your Majesty, don’t send someone to fetch him back. Even if everyone in the whole country went to go after him, he still wouldn’t return."

The Verse

The Holy Truths are empty.
How can you discern the point?
Who is facing me?
But henceforth, he secretly crossed the river.
How could he avoid the growth of a thicket of brambles?
Though everyone in the whole country goes after him, he will not return.
Wu goes on and on, continually reflecting that.
Give up recollections.
What limit is there to the pure wind, circling the earth?
Master Xuedou looked around, to the right and left and said, "Is there any ancestor here?"
He answered himself, "There is."
"Call them here to wash this old monk’s feet."


I would like to consider with you these cases from the Blue Cliff Record. The Blue Cliff Record is a collection of 100 stories of the old Zen masters, stories that originally came from real events, and real dialogs, and were polished up for hundreds of years by thousands of monks and nuns, until the stories actually have a sheen to them from being handled by so many people, intimately, who put their own blood and sweat and pain and joy into each and every one. Even though we get a sense in these stories of the individuality and the personality and the character of the great teachers of the past who are good examples for us – each one different from the others – each one quirky and unique, we also get, more importantly, the actual life blood of the many practitioners who through the years have honed these stories down.

And now it is our turn to pick them up in our hands and add the oil and the warmth of our skins to the polish and the shine.

There is a preface to the Blue Cliff Record. It tells the story of two kings who were going to make a trade. One king owned a priceless jewel. And he was going to trade it to the other king in exchange for 15 cities. The first king sent an emissary with the jewel to the second king. The second king looked at the jewel, and at the last minute got cold feet, and wouldn’t give up the 15 cities. The emissary threatened to take the jewel and smash it into a million bits, and finally the king relented and held up his end of the bargain. And then it says in the preface:

"Unless we are willing to give up our attachments, we cannot appreciate the priceless jewel of our true nature. Each case of the Blue Cliff Record shows us not only where to find the jewel, but also how to dig it out, and cut it, and polish it to bring out its inherent beauty and magnificence."

In meditation this means that we really have to be willing to let go of all of the contents of our minds. And thus, be content to return to our breath and our posture, to return the ineffable luminosity of the present moment.

It doesn’t mean that we should judge the contents of our mind, or hate the contents of our mind, or repress the contents of our mind. But it does mean that we can’t hold on. We really have to be willing to let it all go. And then the jewel of our true nature, which is not something that we can produce or control, can shine through. So we let the jewel do its work. Our work is simply getting out of the way.

The Blue Cliff Record was compiled, and capping verses added to the stories by the monk Xuedou (shway-do) Chongxian who lived from 980 to 1052 CE. He was three generations after the famous Yunmen (yewn-men). And Yunmen was five generations after Shitou (sheer-toe) Xiqian, who wrote the "Merging of Difference and Unity" that we frequently chant. Yunmen was a great Zen teacher and a lot of people think that Yunmen was one of the first important teachers to bring up the old stories and quote them, and play with them and teach them. So it is fitting that three generations later, Xuedou would come along and make a collection like this of a hundred stories. Of course, Shitou is in our lineage, too. Right after Shitou the streams branch, and Yunmen and Xuedou are not in our line of Zen teachers.

There are a couple of important legends about this book, the Blue Cliff Record. One is that Dagui (da-gooee), who is the famous monk following after Xuedou, saw that the Blue Cliff Record was becoming very popular and pernicious, so he destroyed it. He destroyed the printed book, and tried to get a hold of the woodblocks and burn them, too. But, somehow, a contraband copy survived, and the book still exists.

Another legend is that Dogen Zenji, the night before he was to leave for Japan from China after his study there, discovered this text, the Blue Cliff Record. He was so amazed by it that he stayed up all night and copied it out by hand and brought it home to Japan, which seems a little far-fetched since the book is so long. But that is the legend. They call that version, "One Night Blue Cliff Record".

So Xuedou collected the cases together and made a verse for each one. Another monk Yuanwu, who lived from 1065 – 1135 CE, commented on Xuedou’s cases and verses. And his commentaries were given in a series of lectures that he gave in his temple. The place he was living at the time was called the Blue Cliff Hermitage, and that is why the book is called the Blue Cliff Record. We can imagine that it was a nice little place there – the Blue Cliff.

It is fitting that the Blue Cliff Record’s hundred cases start with the case of Bodhidharma’s coming to China, because Bodhidharma is the legendary founder of the Zen stream of teaching. Really, of course, Shakyamuni Buddha is the founder of Zen. But, we credit Bodhidharma with developing Zen style and the Zen attitude and outlook. So, Bodhidharma’s story takes its place as the first case of the Blue Cliff Record.

The three great koan collections are the Blue Cliff Record, the Mumonkan or The Gateless Gate Barrier, and the Shoyoroku or The Book of Serenity.

The Mumonkan begins with Zhaozhou’s Mu. I always think of the Mumonkan as a very action-oriented book. Zhaozhou’s Mu is an action-oriented story, presenting a technique and a way of practice.

The Shoyuroku begins with the story of Buddha himself. Buddha ascends the seat and someone strikes the gavel and says, "Clearly observe the Dharma of the Dharma King. The Dharma of the Dharma King is thus." Then Buddha gets down from the Dharma seat without saying anything. That is case one of the Shoyuroku that emphasizes Suchness. Not action. Suchness.

The Blue Cliff Record, which begins with Bodhidharma’s story, emphasizes the essential general method of Zen practice.

In the Pointer to the Case, it says:

"When you see smoke on the other side of the mountain, you already know there is a fire."

A few years ago I was on a hike in the mountains when there was a giant fire in Yosemite, and from miles away we could see the smoke in the Valley. It wasn’t even smoke, just some strange haze in the air. And we knew something was going on.


"When you see smoke on the other side of the mountain, you already know there is a fire.

When you see horns on the other side of a fence, right away you know there is an ox there.

To understand three when one is raised; to judge precisely at a glance, this is the everyday food and drink of a patch-robed monk."

Bodhidharma is famous calling Zen "a special teaching outside the sutras", beyond words, pointing directly at the deepest heart of human beings. This pointer is saying the same thing. That to study Zen is to study Buddhadharma, which is not necessarily to extensively understand and study all about Buddhism. You don’t need to examine the fire when you see smoke. Seeing the smoke, you already know the first – you’ve got the point. That’s enough. Just to really let go and see on a single point. This is all we really need.

Not to say that Buddhism as a culture, as a psychology, as a philosophy, isn’t deeply profound and worth mastering. But to really study Zen practice, it is not necessary to know all about Buddhism. Just to penetrate a single essential point.

This is the way many Zen teachers emphasize – that our way is beyond Buddhism. So there is Zen archery, Zen painting, Zen Christianity, Zen Judaism, Zen Paganism, because any culture or understanding comes down to this basic, single point.

And Yuanwu writes in the Pointer:


"Getting to where he cuts off the myriad streams, he is free to arise in the east and sink in the west, to against or to go with, in any and all directions, free to give or take away."

He or she, becomes free -- can move, and respond in a variety of ways, according to the situation. Not bound by rules and philosophy. When she cuts off the myriad streams. This means letting go off all your concerns. And there is work involved. It is not necessarily too easy. But you just have to stay firm, on your cushion, with a courageous, heroic spirit.

Make up your mind that you will, no matter what, keep on coming back to the present. And you can use the sensations of the body, even unpleasant ones. Certainly you can use posture; and you can use breathing in the belly; and the sensation of breathing in the belly, as ways to bring you back firmly to the present. In the present something’s there, strong, beyond the winds of the concerns that arise. And take it from this old story of Bodhidharma and these words of Xuedou that you can have confidence that if you do that, even though it does not seem to make sense, you will find some space, some room to turn around, some freedom, some peace.

I am not an idealist. I know we all have lives and issues, and problems, and concerns, and decisions to make, and bills to pay. We have deep, troubling, and often contradictory and confused emotions. One can’t be a human being without all of this. And we can’t use Bodhidharma’s words as an excuse to get us out of dealing with our lives and with the world around us.

Bodhidharma’s message in this case is exactly to deal with our life – to deal with it with some accuracy and some depth, and some real strength – but especially with some freedom.

First it’s necessary to deeply clarify our mind and our heart by cutting off the myriad streams. You really have to do that. It is no joke. You have to be willing to let go of 15 cities. That story about the kings is very astute. Because you’ll see for yourself that just as you are to receive the jewel, you get cold feet and don’t want to give up things. Even if the cities are full of crime and corruption and bad government, poverty, faulty sewage systems. Still you don’t want to give up them up.

This is probably really true for all of us. We know that, to begin with.

Nevertheless, stay firm. Have confidence and return to your sitting. Return to the present moment. Return to the sensation of the body, the posture, the breath. Even though you keep holding on to those cities, time and time again, be patient with yourself. It won’t do any good to complain about yourself. Just have confidence and come back. Have confidence and come back. Have confidence and come back.

The other day, I was in Mount Tremper Zen Center watching the Zen Archery exhibition. It was truly impressive. Afterwards, we had a chance to ask questions of the archery instructors. Someone asked, "How do you know when to release the arrow?" The instructor recognized this as a very profound question. He said, "I don’t really know when to release the arrow."

The question perplexed him quite a bit. And then he responded at some length. He said, "I don’t really know when to release the arrow or even whether anyone does release the arrow. But I do know that it is necessary to do everything very, very carefully." Because, if you have ever seen Zen archery you that many, many actions, precise actions preceed the shooting of the arrow.

He said, "I don’t know who lets go of the arrow, but I do know that it is very important that we do all of the preliminary activities very, very carefully. And part of the preliminary activities consists of aligning yourself, making a strong relationship to the target."

It is very profound to see a Zen archer stand there, quietly, and then at one point, simply turn toward the target. And they look at the target, and they turn their head to the target. And you see how they align their body and all their actions with the target. And he said, "If you align yourself with the target, and do everything carefully, then the arrow will go when it is time. Then it will find the target." In Zen archery it actually doesn’t matter whether you strike a bulls eye. Just that the arrow finds the target, somewhere.

I think that this is very characteristic also of our Zen practice. I urge all of you to be very careful with your sitting. And your sitting includes not only sitting, but eating, and bowing, and walking. Sitting down with each period of zazen, very meticulously, aligning your posture, taking your time. There is no rush to sit down. Just sit down carefully. Sway from side to side. Stretch your back. Stretch your posture. Align your spine. Find your real self. Carefully align it up with your cushion. Every moment, carefully aligning ourselves with Dharma.

We say conventionally that this is the one-week sesshin. But truly, don’t think of it that way. If you think of it that way, it will be miserable. A miserable experience, if you think that it is a one-week sesshin. Give that up, please. This is a one-moment sesshin. In this moment, just align yourself with Dharma. And the next moment align yourself with Dharma. That is the way we do sesshin.

So now we are at the case:

"Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma, ‘What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?’ And Bodhidharma said, ‘Empty, without holiness.’

The Emperor said, ‘Who is this facing me?’

Bodhidharma replied, ‘I don’t know.’

The Emperor did not understand, and after this, Bodhidharma crossed the Yang Tse River and came to the kingdom of Wei."

Bodhidharma, who is someone who lived in the 6th century, was a Central Asian Buddhist monk. That is why the Chinese always refer to him as "the Barbarian", because everybody who doesn’t come from China is a "barbarian". So we are barbarians, Bodhidharma is also a barbarian.

At the time that Bodhidharma came, there was already a great deal of Buddhism in China. Bodhidharma wasn’t transmitting Buddhism to China. The 1st century of the millennium was a creative time for Buddhism and the Chinese gobbled it all up. And it got very complicated.

Bodhidharma was a severe fellow who came to simplify Buddhism, to cut through all the complication. Zen is really Buddhism simplified, to the essence. So Bodhidharma had this encounter with the Emperor, as mentioned here, and then after it, he went off to the kingdom of Wei, where he sat in a cave, facing the wall, for nine years. He didn’t establish a big temple. He had only a few disciples.

This teaching of cutting to the quick of Buddhism, of letting go of the complications was unpopular with the establishment. Bodhidharma was not appreciated by the religious establishment, and his life was under threats. Many attempts were made on his life but all of them were unsuccessful. And the story goes, that finally they poisoned him, and since he had completed his work, he said what the hell, and allowed himself to be poisoned and died.

After his death, he was seen wearing one sandal, so the legend goes, and riding on a reed across the sea, going back to Central Asia. And for some reason, I don’t know why, when I think of this legend of Bodhidharma, I always think of my friend, Phil Whalen. He reminds me of Bodhidharma. I see him in my mind’s eye gliding along, with one foot on a reed, skating off to Central Asia.

Bodhidharma is usually depicted with a shaggy beard, which supposedly was red, quite a red beard. That’s probably true. Once he got away from Central Asia, he let his hair grow out and he had a long beard. In Japan there is a popular Bodhidharma doll – I think it has a weight in the bottom of it. You knock it over and it bounces back. So that is good to remember.

Bodhidharma is also credited with starting the tradition of martial arts at Shao Lin Temple. Fetting even more far out, they say that Bodhidharma, in order not to fall asleep doing zazen, cut off his eyelids, and that from the eyelids sprang the first tea plants.

Anyway, the Emperor Wu was an enterprising fellow who strong-armed his way into becoming the Emperor of one or another of the splinter kingdoms in Eastern China. After becoming emperor, he was a great supporter of Buddhism. He built many, many temples, gave many donations, sponsored the ordination of thousands and thousands of monks and nuns. He studied Buddhism himself, and even, according to Yuanwu, our commentator, donned Buddhist robes and got up on the high seat to expound sutras. Flowers would rain down from the sky when he spoke, and the whole world would appear to be golden. So he was a very good Buddhist, and did lots of good for Dharma.

When he heard about this Central Asian monk coming to China, he summoned him to his court immediately. He was like a lot of people in these days, enthusiastic about Dharma, always looking for the next great teacher, or the next great teaching. Going to Los Angeles to sign up and attend lectures, taking notes, buying the tapes. He was a kind of early version of that. So he summoned Bodhidharma to see him right away.

He asked him, "I’ve been building temples, and building stupas, and have studied the sutras, ordained all these monks, can you tell me, how much merit did I acquire from doing all this?"

Bodhidharma said, "No merit."

Now, of course, in Buddhadharma, there is always merit in good deeds, good activities. Wholesome activities bring wholesome results. This is one of the most important teachings of Buddha. And we should definitely try our best to do wholesome activities, to produce wholesome results for ourselves and for others. And conversely avoid unwholesome activities that will produce unwholesome results, for sure.

So, the Emperor asked an obvious question. He already knew the answer he wanted to hear. Since he knew it, Bodhidharma didn’t waste time telling it to him. Instead, he brought up the other side – the deep and fundamental nature of merit, which is no merit. The nature of merit, the fundamental nature of merit, of karmic results, is non-karmic results.

What is merit? Merit, fundamentally, is non-merit. Deeply we have to understand merit and goodness in that way. We do meritorious and positive actions with that spirit -- so that there is no sense of accumulation or possession in our activity. No sense of arrogance about all the good that we are doing.

This dialog is the background to the question that appears in the Case itself, where the Emperor says, "What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?"

Usually the phrase "holy truths" refers to the Four Noble Truths. But Yuanwu says in his commentary that in this case, the "holy truths" refers to the Two Truths of the relative and the absolute, which is the subject matter of Shitou’s poem.

You can understand the Merging of Difference and Unity in these terms. You can understand difference as the relative, and unity as the absolute. So, the reason the Emperor is asking about that is because merit is the relative, and he’s interested in merit. No merit is the absolute. So in a sense, the Emperor here is asking a followup question. "What is the merit of my activity?"

"No merit."

"Oh, well, then, what is the highest meaning of the holy truths?" Relative and absolute, aren’t they the same? Aren’t relative and absolute one?

And of course Bodhidharma replies, "Empty, nothing holy."

Very severe. Very serious and foreboding. Not to mention, nervy! Because after all he’s talking to the Emperor. Maybe the Emperor had given up 12 or 13 cities in exchange for merit. Maybe he was even willing to entertain the idea of giving up some more cities. But still he was holding onto something, a shred of something, and Bodhidharma set a match to it and burned it down.

If the Emperor had felt the heat of the flames, maybe he would have awakened, but he was dumbfounded, and he said to Bodhidharma, "Who is facing me?"

If the Emperor had understood he would not have had to ask that question. Because there is never any need to ask "who is facing me? What is facing me?" Any time there is anything facing me, whether it is a thought, a sound, a visual object, a person, a situation, a decision, an emotion, whatever is facing me, it is always the same. Each and everything is just myself. Just my real self.

And who is that real self? Just drop everything. "I don’t know."

And the story goes on. Later the Emperor brought this up to Master Chih and asked him about it. And Master Chih said, "Does Your Majesty know who this man is?" And the Emperor said, "I don’t know."

Master Chih said, ""He is Mahasattva Avalokitsvara, transmitting the Buddha Mind Seal."

The Emperor felt regretful, so he wanted to send an emissary to go invite Bodhidharma to return. Master Chih said, "Your Majesty, don’t say that you are going to send someone to fetch him back. Even if everyone in the whole country were to go after him, he still wouldn’t come."

So Master Chih, I think, is Master Chih I, who is a real historical figure of his time in Chinese Buddhism. He is actually the greatest of all Chinese Buddhists in a way, the most famous. He practiced on Mount Shin, and founded the Shinto school, which was transmitted to Japan as the Tendai School, one of the most expansive and powerful and elaborate of all the Buddhist schools.

Yuanwu says in his commentary that Chih I died in the year 514 CE, and that Bodhidharma came to China in the year 520 CE. Modern scholars don’t really know, or are more dubious about the dates than Yuanwu was. Anyway, Yuan was telling us that historically this didn’t happen because Chih I was already dead. So this is a mythical story. But, it has a powerful point. (Other scholars identify the Master Chih here as another, far more obscure, Buddhist master.)

Chih I’s style of Buddhism is complexity. He tried to make sense and include in his Tendai School all the different schools and philosophies of Buddhism at the time. And the Tendai School is a maze of complicated philosophical comparisons, trying to fit all these myriad kinds of Buddhist doctrine into one unified approach. I was just reading – Tom Cleary recently translated a part of Chih I’s great work "Mo Ho Chih Kuan" "Stopping and Seeing". I was reading this thinking, what a worthy subject for sesshin lectures.

I read a little part of it in Chinese many years ago. Twenty, thirty years later I get to see a translation. Boy, is it elaborate and complicated! If I lectured on this, you would instantly fall asleep, even more than you are falling asleep now! And you would wonder, what does this have to do with anything?

So the point here is, Bodhidharma cuts through all this. Master Chih is not presented here like a fool, he appreciates Bodhidharma. And he has some understanding of who Bodhidharma is. Some understanding. He says, "Bodhidharma is the Mahasattva Avalokitesvara, coming to transmit the Buddha Mind Seal." Avalokitesvara is the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. What a surprise! This guy does not sound like Mr. Compassion, does he?

You would think he would say, "This is the Bodhisattva Manjusri, bringing transcendent wisdom to China." He doesn’t say that. This is the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, coming with compassionate, loving teachings. So I give Master Chih I credit for seeing around the surfaces, through the surfaces, to the real heart of Bodhidharma’s teaching. As we come closer to the jewel that is our real self, we begin to see the softness and the compassion that only can arise when we touch our self at that depth.

So we can’t fool around. Bodhidharma doesn’t let us fool around.

But, I don’t agree with Master Chih when he says, at the end of the case, "Even if you sent everyone in the whole country, still he wouldn’t return." Thus saying, Chih I shows his limitations. In the Blue Cliff Record, Xuedou has these little sayings that he appends to every line of the story, like footnotes.

The saying that Xuedou applies to the final line of this story is this:

"Again Master Chih deserves thirty blows. He doesn’t know that the great illumination shines forth from under his own feet."

So, it is not a question of sending out everybody and still he won’t come back. He is here already! He never left!


The Verse

"The holy truths are empty. How can you discern the point?"

"Who is facing me?"

Again, he said, "I don’t know."

"Henceforth he secretly crossed the river.

How could he avoid a thicket of brambles?"

He crossed the river and went into a cave to mind his own business and look deeply on all of this. Thus, there’s all these Zen people running around all over the world, a thicket of brambles….

"Though everyone in the whole country goes after him, he will not return.

Wu goes on and on, continually reflecting back.

Give up recollections.

What limit is there to the pure wind, circling the earth?

Master Xuedou looked around, to the right and left and said, ‘Is there any ancestor here?’

He answered himself, ‘There is.’

‘Call them here to wash this old monk’s feet.’"

So this line, "Give up recollections. What limit is there to the pure wind, circling the earth?" This is what I have been trying to say, in different ways, this morning. Let go of the contents of your mind. Just let it go. Come back and practice. Feel the wind, the limitless wind. The peaceful wind. Just being present. Beyond our concerns.

Yuanwu comments on this verse:

"When you get here, can you figure it out by means of emotive consciousness? This is why Yunmen said, ‘It is like flint struck sparks, like a flash of lightning.’ This little bit does not fall within the scope of intellectual activity, intellectual consciousness or emotional conceptions. If you wait until you open your mouth, what good will it do? As soon as judgment and comparison arise, the falcon has flown past your ear."

In other words, you are lost. You are out of the country.

So, again, during sesshin, our practice is like sparks from a flintstone. Like a flash of lightning in the sky. We really come back over and over again. We will see how the mind is unknowable and ungraspable. Just like a flash of lightning in the sky, a spark that illuminates, and then, goes. Nothing to grasp anywhere. No final solutions to any problems. Nothing to complain about. Nothing to congratulate ourselves about. Zazen really isn’t mental or intellectual or emotional activity. We have to let go of that whole swirl and just be here.

All of us in this room are somebodies. Each one of us is some particular and unique somebody, with a history, a point of view, a style of confusion, a hope, and a disappointment. So that is the whole point. That is understood. We don’t have to make any judgments or comparisons about it. It is just being human.

But at the same time, everyone in this room really possesses a great treasure that shines through at every point. And we will suffer ourselves, and we will be unable to alleviate the suffering of others, unless we open up and let go and find this jewel. Find this treasure.

What is this jewel like? What is its shape and color? Where does it come from? Where is it going? We don’t know.

Well, I have kept you here long enough.

This talk transcribed by Judith Gilbert, edited and proofed by Tim Burnett.

© 2001, Norman Fischer