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Cypress Tree 1 – Enlightenment – Third Talk Loon Lake Sesshin 2010

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 11/09/2010
Location: Loon Lake
In Topics: Zen Koans

Norman gives the third talk to the Loon Lake 2010 Sesshin on The Cypress Tree Koan – Enlightenment. This is the first of two talks on the Cypress Tree koan

Cypress Tree 1 – Enlightenment – Third Talk Loon Lake Sesshin 2010

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | November 9, 2010

Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum

Now I would like to talk a little bit about enlightenment, which is a kind of unpleasant and confusing topic; but it is on my mind, because I have been reading a book about Song dynasty Zen. At that time, there was a very famous controversy about enlightenment. This controversy, I think, began somewhere around the eleventh century. It went on for centuries and is probably still going on.

I am a little out of touch, so I don't know, but my impression is that contemporary Buddhists don't worry much about enlightenment. I think that people these days are concerned with the seriousness of their practice. They are concerned about the depth of their practice. They are concerned about the transformative potential of practice. It's not as if we don't have some kind of awakening to real truth. It's not as if we don't completely change our lives. I think we do. But I think that the idea of enlightenment as a framework for all of this seems a little dated.

Maybe a lot of people worry about this or think about it, but it's not been something that I have thought about that much, because I am too much a student of Dogen. I keep coming back and studying Dogen, and my point of view is very much conditioned by my studying Dogen, who always talked about going beyond enlightenment. Going beyond Buddha and entering human life fully as a human being. That was Dogen's idea. So for Dogen, at least as far as I understand Dogen, the idea of enlightenment is way too limited for what we are trying to do and what we need to do in our practice.

So, this was the controversy in Song dynasty Zen. There was a very famous monk at that time named Dahui. He is credited with inventing the style of koan practice that eventually became the Rinzai style in Japan, and he is the root person who developed the style that we use today. Before Dahui, Zen stories were used and contemplated for practice. Monks sat with them in meditation and thought about them and discussed them. They used them as a way of going deeper with their practice and deeper with their understanding – bringing them up, speaking about them, and encouraging people to investigate them for themselves.

That is the way that koan literature and Zen stories were used before Dahui. Usually scholars credit Dahui with the invention of the punch line – creating a punch line to the story and then meditating just on the punch line. Dahui really liked the koan "Mu." You just meditate on the word "Mu," and do that in a particularly pressurized way, so that you would have a sudden breakthrough experience, which he called enlightenment.

So he is the one who invented that style, and I think that he came by this honestly. Maybe his teachers were approaching it, but he may have been thinking of the example of Buddha, who – according to the story that we have from the Pali Canon – had a sudden breakthrough to enlightenment when he saw the morning star. Also, if you read the Pali Canon, during the Buddha's time there were lots of other people who broke through to enlightenment and became arhats. So Buddha was not the only person in his time – according to those early teachings – who managed to produce this experience through their meditation practice. They had entered nirvana, and had gone beyond attachment to passions and views, and were completely free of birth and death.

Then along came Mahayana Buddhism, an outpouring of religious enthusiasm and vision. In Mahayana Buddhism, the scope of practice cut really, really wide, and Buddha became a universal principle of being, not just a conventional person. Enlightenment became the illumination of all being. It was suffused with love and compassion. It was no longer just viewed as a psychological experience that a person would have in a relative moment of space and time. The Mahayana proposed cosmic space and time – endlessness and vastness. Buddhas arose and disappeared constantly throughout space and time. In the Avatamsaka Sutra we read about myriad buddhas arising and disappearing, becoming enlightened, and teaching, and entering nirvana on every millisecond, on every atom in space.

When Dahui emphasized a person becoming enlightened through a profound psychological experience in a relative moment of time and space, he was returning to something simple and concrete and doable. You could be enlightened or not. You could have this powerful experience as certified by someone else who had it, or not. As far as I know, Dahui was never clear or explicit about what happened after you had an enlightenment experience. Would you then be somehow a perfect, untouchable human being, whom nobody could ever get to and would be beyond everything? Or would you still be a human being, with various kinds of problems?

In contemporary Rinzai Zen that follows Dahui's method, enlightenment is considered entering the path. It is considered the beginning. It is considered very important, and there is plenty of mystique about it; but the idea is that once you begin the path, then you must continue. You must work on your character and soften your heart and for many, many years refine the insight that you developed in the beginning. Becoming enlightened gives you powerful incentive to continue your practice, because it gives you faith.

So that is Dahui. The controversy at his time was that there were other monks, Soto monks, who did not emphasize meditation on a koan punch line. They didn't emphasize breakthrough to enlightenment. Maybe the most famous of these Soto monks was Hongzhi. He was in the same dharma family as Rujing, who was Dogen's teacher a few generations earlier. Dogen often spoke of Hongzhi with great admiration. Hongzhi is actually the person who collected and wrote poems on the one hundred cases of The Book of Serenity, so it is clear that Hongzhi and other monks in his tradition studied these stories. But rather than emphasizing a sudden breakthrough, he emphasized just sitting and just living. He emphasized ongoing practice as the illumination of enlightenment, rather than enlightenment as a desired experience that we are looking for in a moment of time.

Hongzhi's way is very close to Dogen's way, Suzuki Roshi's way, and our way. In our way, we do experience breakthrough moments, I think, in our zazen practice. Probably not just once, but many times in a lifetime of practice. But because the whole way of doing things in our style of practice is not privileging such experiences or looking for them, I would say that they probably occur far less frequently. And when they do occur, they are probably less spectacular than they are in other traditions in which they are privileged and the situation is set up to produce them.

Maybe the philosophical question here is whether it is possible for the unconditioned to appear in the conditioned world. That is really the question. Dahui would say, "Yes. Enlightenment is an experience of the unconditioned, which we seek and finally have in the relative world." But I would say, following Dogen, yes and no. Yes in the sense that the unconditioned is not closed to us. We do touch it with our body and mind. That is actually what I have been talking about the last couple of days, when I was talking about the teaching of the insentient – how we can touch the unconditioned with our body and mind. So, yes. And no, because I don't think we can have it as an experience in the usual sense. It cannot be contained in any experience that we could narrate and date and take a photo of. It is too big for that, even though we can touch it with our body and mind.

Here is another story:

A monk asks Zhauzhou, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the west?" Zhauzhou says, "The cypress tree in the courtyard." The monk says, "Please, teacher, don't use an object to guide me." Zhauzhou says, "I am not using an object." The monk said, "Then what is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the west?" Zhauzhou says, "The cypress tree in the courtyard."

This story of the cypress tree in the courtyard appears in all three Song dynasty koan collections – the famous ones that have been translated into English: The Blue Cliff Record, The Book of Serenity, and the Gateless Barrier. I believe that in all of them the story is abbreviated, so the story only goes: "A monk asked Zhauzhou, ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the west?' Zhauzhou says, ‘The cypress tree in the courtyard.'" And that is the end of the story in those collections.

That is the influence of Dahui's style on literature. It is the same with Zhauzhou's "Mu." The monk says, "Does a dog have buddha-nature?" and Zhauzhou says, "Mu." Actually the story goes on quite a bit after that, but all the editions abbreviate it to that one word. I think if you contemplate the whole story, there is more dimension to it. So that is the influence of "punch-line-Zen" on this literature.

Dogen says about it:

The cypress tree is not an object. Bodhidharma's coming from the west is not an object, and the cypress tree is not the self.

Although one has to be careful when reading Dogen, because it is very possible that "not the self" might be a way of saying, "is the self." In other words, not the self of you and me (our limited sense of self), but the larger self, that is not-self, the self that cannot be named or objectified.

Then Dogen says:

Thus, there is just "Teacher, do not use an object to guide me," and there is just "I am not using an object."

In other words, I think he is saying that – apart from objects and trees and whatever we might think of them, and all philosophy aside – there are just these words to contemplate, to meditate on.

So you could do that. You could meditate on these words. The word "object." What is an object? What is anything? What are you? Are you an object? If you are somehow dissatisfied with yourself or your life, what exactly is it that you are dissatisfied with? What is, is. What is not, is not. And time is passing. This is the simple and profound truth, and everything beyond this is something extra. It's conceptual and, therefore, it is a matter of conditioning and a matter of choice. Every moment something occurs, a total situation arises. This is a transformation of consciousness, an ongoing flow of coming and going from the beginingless past. My mind, your mind – our mind, our senses – are limited. We can only see the object in front of our eyes. We can only have the thought that our history and culture will allow in this moment. Once we get entangled in the object, once we get entangled in the thought – well, we are entangled, we are caught. We are tied up in knots. And the world becomes a sticky web.

Now don't get me wrong. That is not a sin. It's not something that we should be ashamed of. It's just human. It is perfectly all right. But as long as we are stuck in this sticky world, how are we going to help anybody? How are we going to be a light for other people? We will just be in the same confusion as everybody else, crashing around, hurting one another.

There is another possibility. We could embrace our limited experience fully and intensely, with our whole heart. That means without trying to figure it out, and without trying to get anything out of it. Hearing: just hearing. Thinking: just thinking. Feeling: just feeling. Nothing ulterior. Nothing sequential.

The meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the west – the meaning of Buddhism, maybe the meaning of being human – is just that: to live the life we are given, with our whole heart, with generosity and with kindness. To be able to live that way means being able to love. It also means, fortunately or unfortunately, to be able to die, because time is passing.

This is the great pleasure of sesshin [meditation retreat]. I hope you – at least from time to time – get to experience the great pleasure of sesshin. In sesshin we have the best possible chance of realizing the importance of Zhauzhou's words. It's not a big deal, and it doesn't have to be some big breakthrough experience. It can be very plain and very quiet. Simply to let go and step backwards into your life in this moment. To see that everything you ever needed or wanted is there. And you can let it completely go. So the unique possibility of sesshin is to be able to truly embrace these teachings in this stark and deep way. But that's not really enough. We are not here to do some rarefied contemplation of Medieval Chinese ideas! I think life is too complicated for that. This is about our lives, not only when we are sitting here quietly together, but when we get up from here, and when we go forth.

So we have deep insights and appreciations of these teachings in sesshin, but then we get up from our cushions, and we continue to train with these insights. We begin to see the implications of this for our daily conduct, and we take it into our daily lives every single day. Day by day by day, we begin to soften the grip we have had on our conceptual frameworks, without realizing that that is what we have been doing. Our grip on self and other – mine and yours, pain and pleasure, life and death – these conceptual frameworks bind us to a limited world. We begin – little by little, through training in these insights of sesshin – to soften them, and then our lives get a little easier. There is more joy in living when we are not so fixated on our ideas that drive our emotions.

Then, when life is easier, we can look around and say, "Oh my God! There are other people here too! I never noticed before. Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could do something that would make them happy?" And this becomes a real possibility.

Again, Dogen says about this, beautifully:

It's receiving voidness and sending back an echo.

So this is what our lives actually are, and this is what we could realize throughout our lives – that they are an echo of voidness. He also says,

Because vast spirit has no contradiction, there is the cypress tree in the courtyard.


So let us continue in this way and see what happens next.


Thank you very much.


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