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The Music of Our Lives

Commentary on Zhaozhou's Asses Cross, Horses Cr

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Oct 31, 1998
In topics: Koan Studies, Writing / Art / Creativity
What does old man Zhaozhou have to say about the way we approach our everyday lives? How can we learn to listen to the music of our lives?


Talk given at San Francisco Zen Center's City Center October 31, 1998

This talk is available in Spanish translation. See La Música De Nuestras Vidas

We are all many persons. Some of these people we know and others we don’t—only someone else knows them. Some of these people we like and some of them we don’t like. Some of them we long for, and others we want to run away from. All of this is music; it’s the music of our lives if we could only stop to listen. Music doesn’t have any meaning; you can’t explain it. Eating a meal doesn’t have any meaning either, but if there’s no eating there’s no life, and if we don’t hear the music we can’t dance. This is our practice—to eat our meals and clean up; to dance to the music of our lives, each one in our own way, and then die when it’s time.

To live this way is very simple and also very profound. Nothing flashy is necessary. This is like master Zhaozhou in Case 52 of the Blue Cliff Record. Since there’s no pointer to the case, this is my pointer. The case is called Zhaozhou’s “Asses Cross, Horses Cross.”

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “For a long time, I’ve heard of the stone bridge of Zhaozhou, but now that I’ve come here I only see a simple log bridge.” Zhaozhou said, “You just see the log bridge; you don’t see the stone bridge.” The monk said, “What is the stone bridge?” Zhaozhou replied, “Asses cross, horses cross.”

This is a case about master Zhaozhou, one of the most wonderful and beloved Zen teachers in the tradition; a personal favorite of mine. Throughout the Blue Cliff Record, the Mumonkan, the Shoyoroku, everywhere in the tradition we find stories of Zhaozhou. And I think why he is liked so much is that he is very simple and ordinary. He doesn’t send out firecrackers and wave flags; he doesn’t shout, doesn’t beat, doesn’t have beautiful words and phrases. He just goes about his everyday business, living his life, engaging with people as best he can, and yet there is a tremendous profundity in his teaching. Even though his words were never startling, they say of Zhaozhou that he had a light playing around his lips when he spoke.

Zhaozhou ordained as a boy at the local temple and when he was about 20 years old, time to take full ordination, he heard about master Nanquan and went to visit him. The initial meeting between the two of them is very well known. Nanquan was either taking a nap or was sick when Zhaozhou went to visit him, so he was lying down. Zhaozhou greeted him. Nanquan said, “Where did you come from?”—a question that they always asked; a question like many Zen questions which is very simple and ordinary and at the same time very profound. “Where do you come from?” “San Francisco.” “Where?” “I don’t know.” This was the kind of question the master would ask to try to ascertain something of the practice of a young novice like Zhaozhou. So Nanquan asked, “Where did you come from?” and Zhaozhou answered, “I came from the Holy Image Temple,” which was the name of the monastery where he had been. Nanquan said, “Did you see the holy image?” Zhaozhou said without any hesitation, “I didn’t see the holy image but now I see a reclining Buddha.” Nanquan was impressed with that answer and Zhaozhou’s spirit and said, “Well, do you have a master?” Are you coming seeking a teacher or are you coming sent by a teacher? Zhaozhou gave a very famous answer, something like, “Winter days are very bright, I hope your good health continues.” Maybe some of you recognize this line. This is the line that’s spoken by shusos, head students, in the head student entering ceremony.

Zhaozhou didn’t leave the monastery for 40 years, until Nanquan’s death. He was about 60 years old and felt it was time to test his practice, to go to the graduate school of Buddha-dharma as the monks of those days did, traveling, going to different temples, meeting different masters; a time-tested and important practice of Zen. And this is how you do it—you spend 40 years in one place and when you gradually get the hang of that, you go around to other places to try to understand more. When he embarked on this pilgrimage, Zhaozhou made the famous saying, which I admire very much, “In this pilgrimage if I meet an old person of 80 or 90 years, experienced in the Dharma, who needs to learn something from me, I will teach. And if I meet a young girl of seven years old who has something to teach me, I will sit at her feet and learn.” This is a good attitude for life in general.

He went 20 years pilgrimaging in that way and when he was about 80 years old he thought, well, I am not quite ready but I might as well start teaching. So I think 80 years old is a good time to start. According to legend he lived to 120 years, so he still had 40 years of teaching. Apparently, he taught not in a remote, large mountain monastery as many of the old Ch’an masters did but in a town called Zhaozhou. He was master of a Quanyin temple there. There was a famous bridge in the town called the Bridge of Zhaozhou, like the Golden Gate Bridge, a famous site that tourists would go to see. That’s the bridge that figures in our case today. Let me tell you a few little stories about Zhaozhou just to warm you up to him. I would like it if the result of my dharma talk would be that everybody would feel happy to have met Zhaozhou. That would be worthwhile.

Here is a very famous dialogue between Zhaozhou and Nanquan: Zhaozhou asked Nanquan, “What is the way?” Nanquan replied, “Ordinary mind is the way.” Ordinary mind is the way, not a special mind, not a special thing to do, just ordinary mind is the way, every moment of mind is the way. This is a problem, because if ordinary mind is already the way, how do you practice? If somebody says, the way is this special mind over here, then you say, oh good, I am going to go that way and practice. But if someone says ordinary mind is the way, it’s all there is, how do you get there? It’s so easy it’s impossible. So Zhaozhou said, “If ordinary mind is the way, how do you approach it then?” Nanquan replied, “If you intend to approach it you are on the wrong track.” Zhaozhou said, “If you can’t intend to go toward it then how will you realize it?” Nanquan said, “It’s not a matter of knowing or not knowing. To know is delusion, not to know is stupidity. If you really attain the way, your vision is like infinite space, free of all limits and obstacles.”

In zazen, in sesshin, our job is not to accomplish something, but rather to release ourselves to the music of our lives. To stop holding onto our lives and desires and intentions and just let ourselves fall into the vastness of the way, of the ordinary mind way. This way isn’t outside of ourselves, or beyond ourselves and our desires. It’s right in the mysterious middle of it. And to find that out we need to let go. I would like to emphasize posture and breathing, that you make a very strong commitment to sitting up straight and to breathing in your belly, in and out, to being with each and every breath as much as possible, using your posture and breathing as your anchor point and just being there, returning over and over again to that, abandoning everything else. Abandoning everything else doesn’t mean you don’t pay attention to it, doesn’t mean you suppress it or dislike or like it. You just let it go. We come back over and over again to the present moment of our posture and breathing. And in that way without intending anything, just by being present, we will discover our ordinary mind which is nothing flashy, nothing special, just vastness throughout.

A famous case that you all know of, I am sure, is the case of Nanquan’s cat. Apparently, in Nanquan’s monastery there was an East Hall and a West Hall. Maybe in the East Hall the monks were always in retreat and the West Hall housed the support monks, who did the monastery’s work. The monks of both halls had oftentimes different points of view and different interests, so now they were arguing. They were arguing about a cat. Probably the monks on the one side who were running the monastery thought that this cat was very good because it was killing the mice in the kitchen. On the other side, monks thought this cat was killing the mice and that’s against the precepts and besides, it’s peeing in the zendo. This cat had to go. So they were arguing back and forth like this. I have heard about things like this. Even lately, even nearby. Anyway, somehow it all came down to this cat. And Nanquan picked up the cat and said, “All right, somebody better say a true word of Zen or I’m going to cut this cat in half, right in front of you all.” Of course, no one ever does say a true word of Zen in these old stories, and no one did, so he cut the cat in half. That was the end of the argument. As it happened, Zhaozhou was not around at the time. He was in town buying supplies or something; maybe he was visiting a relative. When he came back and heard what had happened, he took off his traveling sandals and put them on his head and walked up and down. Nanquan said, “Oh, it’s too bad that you were not here at that time; you would have saved that poor cat.” So, that’s the story. Now, I think that the reason why he put his sandals on his head was because it was a custom in China to put sandals on your head as a sign of mourning. If Zhaozhou had been there he would have put his sandals on his head and he would have walked up and down expressing the fact that the cat was already dead, even before Nanquan cut the cat in two. Just like you and I are already dead. We think later we’ll be dead, but that’s baloney. Actually, right now in each breath we are alive and we are dead. We don’t know that and that’s why we are suffering. If the monks in the East Hall and the monks in the West Hall had known that, they wouldn’t have argued. Actually, every morning, every day we should be in mourning. Every moment we should be mourning.

Here’s another story about Zhaozhou. Once when the new students were all coming in one by one for their interview at the beginning of the practice period, Zhaozhou asked each one, “Have you been here before?” And one would say, “Yes.” Zhaozhou would say, “Oh, good, have a cup of tea.” The next one would come and Zhaozhou would say, “Have you been here before?” “No, no, I have never been here before, this is my first visit.” “Oh, have a cup of tea.” This went on, yes, have a cup of tea, no, have a cup of tea. The prior of the monastery was watching all this and getting very upset. He said, “Somebody comes in and says no I haven’t been here before and you say go have a cup of tea and somebody else comes and says yes I have been here before and you tell him go have a cup of tea. What is the meaning of this?” And Zhaozhou said, “Prior?” And he said, “Yes?” Zhaozhou said, “Have a cup of tea.”

Once a novice said to master Zhaozhou, “I am only newly admitted into this monastery. I beseech you, reverence, to please teach and guide me.” Zhaozhou said, “Have you had your breakfast yet?” The novice said, “Yes, I have.” Zhaozhou said, “Please wash your bowls.” A famous story of Zhaozhou.

There are many short answers of Zhaozhou’s that are very famous. Of course, the most famous of all is: Once a monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does the dog have Buddha nature?” Zhaozhou said, “No.” This is the famous “mu” koan. It’s less well known that another time pretty soon afterward a monk asked, “Does the dog have Buddha nature?” and Zhaozhou said, “Yes, of course.” Once someone asked, “What is the way?” and Zhaozhou replied, “The cypress tree in the courtyard.” Another monk asked, “Who is Buddha?” Zhaozhou shot back, “Who are you?” A monk asked, “What is the most important principle of Zen?” Zhaozhou said, “Excuse me, but I have to pee. Just imagine, even such a trivial thing as that I have to do in person.” A wonderful teacher, Zhaozhou. And if you think about all these stories, it’s very ordinary stuff. It’s not like master Yunmen saying, “Body exposed to the golden wind.” It’s not like master Rinzai with his shouts ringing in the ears of his student for days on end. It’s not like master Deshan with his staff, 30 blows every day. I think master Zhaozhou must have been very much like Suzuki Roshi. As with Suzuki Roshi, I think with Zhaozhou sometimes you didn’t know whether anything was going on or not. Whether there’s any Zen or not. When Rinzai shouted at you, you might or might not have understood, but you knew something was going on. When Deshan reared up and whacked you, you might not have understood, but you knew, this is definitely Zen. But when Zhaozhou says, “Have a cup of tea” or “Wash your bowls,” you don’t really know. Well, you might think, there is nothing going on, he is just telling me to wash my bowls. But I think that at the same time those who have the eyes to see and the heart to know felt in those simple words, as with Suzuki Roshi’s simple words, something is going on. The secret of this kind of practice is that Zhaozhou and Suzuki Roshi are not trying to do anything. For them, really and truly there is no such thing as Zen practice, or maybe Zen practice is just a convention, just a language. There is only one life, which means life and death. So there is no need to make a special point of something. But life moment after moment on every moment has an inexpressible depth. “I don’t know” every moment. Every moment, even the simplest, most ordinary moment of our life, is vast. All ordinary moments are extraordinary because all ordinary moments are unknowable, empty and radically impermanent, gone even before they come. Every moment is like that, if you look. And Zhaozhou’s and Suzuki Roshi’s practice was not to think about this or marvel at it, but simply to be fully aware of it in each activity of life, whether they were speaking to a student or going to the toilet or eating a meal. So Zhaozhou is not saying anything more than have a cup of tea. It’s just a cup of tea, but it’s just a cup of tea. Wash out your bowls is not saying anything special, there is no trick, is there? It’s just wash out your b owls, but it’s just wash out your bowls. Everything is included. It’s not conscious, it’s not intentional, it’s not Buddha-dharma or something like that. It’s just naturally living your life the way your life really is. So in sesshin we should live like that, this is the way to live, with no special intention, but simply paying attention to our lives, being there in our lives as they really are.

What prevents us from doing this? Our enormous habit of self concern. Every moment, how am I doing; is this good or bad; this is right or wrong; look at him, look at her, look at them, look at us; why is this that way; I want that this way; that was good then, what about now? We are full of self concern, we don’t want to adjust, we don’t want to enter the vastness of this moment. So we have to let go of our self-clinging mind, and see that. Zhaozhou is there, Suzuki Roshi is there. So you don’t have to do anything; you just have to undo something, come back moment after moment, as an anchor to the fundamental thought of your being embodied, of your being in the posture of your breathing.

Finally I get around to the case! The case says: A monk asked Zhaozhou, “For a long time I’ve heard of a stone bridge of Zhaozhou. But now that I’ve come here I just see a simple log bridge.” It was the famous stone bridge, of course. But also, when the monk is speaking of the stone bridge he is also speaking about Zhaozhou himself. I came all this way to see a famous master of Ch’an and I see you? This is how we know that Zhaozhou was not an impressive guy. If you are a monk walking 200 or 300 miles with your little straw sandals to get to see the storied master Zhaozhou, you are expecting something. And you arrive; here is this guy. Not much to him. This is how the Ch’an monks of old were. They were very present and forthright and they called a spade a spade. “You know you’re not too impressive. I came all this way and heard all this stuff about you; there’s not much here, is there?” Imagine, if you were Zhaozhou. How would you feel? What would you say? Zhaozhou said, “Oh, you see a log bridge”—just a log bridge, no important Zen master here. It was okay with him that he wasn’t much. But that’s only half of what he said. If that’s all he said then he would be clinging to being nothing special. He added, “—you don’t see a stone bridge.” This is true for us, too. There is not much to us, just a log bridge. But do you see the stone bridge in your own life? Zhaozhou said yes, you’re right, just a log bridge, but you don’t see a stone bridge. Too bad, not for me; too bad for you. I think the monk heard the master and he suddenly lost his arrogance and asked in all humility, “What is the stone bridge of Zhaozhou?” Zhaozhou said, “Horses cross, asses cross.” Our attachment, our stupidity, our enlightenment, our heroism, our cowardice, our confusion, clarity, compassion, selfishness, all of that goes across the famous stone bridge of Zen and arrives safely on the other side. It is a bridge; it is a crossing point. In and of itself it’s nowhere, just a bridge.

You are alive and then you’re not, and that’s it. It’s so easy to forget that this is the case. It’s very easy to forget. If you walk across the room in your house from one door knob to the next, and at one door knob you vow that between the time you walk from this door knob to the other you will stay with your practice, you will not be able to do it. By the time you get to that other door knob, you forgot already. This is the human mind. It’s unbelievable when you think about it. It’s an absolute marvel. And think of the centuries and generations that went into that stupidity. It’s truly a marvel. This is the mystery, this is the music of humanity, unbelievable.

We need to resort to drastic measures. It’s a shame. Just so that we can remember a little bit more often the simple fact that we are alive right now. It’s a total situation. And it’s never going to happen again. We should dance through sesshin with that spirit, trying to pay attention, that’s all, to each breath in and each breath out, paying attention to eating and serving, bowing, cleaning, resting, walking, sleeping, changing clothes, coming back over and over again to where you are. And letting go of everything. Don’t wish for anything, don’t intend anything, just dive into the ocean of Dharma. The most important thing is that the spirit, the feeling, with which you do all this is a feeling of kindness. It’s very important that you have a feeling of kindness and lightness in the doing of this. Because your tricky mind will try to make this into another form of self-clinging, and the antidote to that is simple kindness. Just being kind, to yourself, and to everyone practicing together with you, not only in the room, in the sesshin, but also in the surrounding sangha and everyone everywhere else.

Please do make your best effort to practice in the way that I am encouraging you to practice. Don’t try to do anything; be gentle and kind with yourselves and every moment let go. In the end this is the only way to find peace, to let go of suffering, and it’s the only way that we will ever truly be able to benefit others. Let’s help each other in that effort.