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“Enlightenment or Not”- Case 62 of the Book of Serenity

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 11/29/2009
Location: Headlands Institute
In Topics: Zen Koans

Norman speaks on the Koan Mi Hu’s “Enlightenment or Not” Case 62 in the “Book of Serenity” Thomas Cleary edition.

“Enlightenment or Not”- Case 62 of the Book of Serenity

By Norman Fisher | November 29, 2009

Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager

My subject for today is Book of Serenity, Case 62. Introduction to the case:

Bodhidharma’s highest truth, Emporer Wu’s confusion; Vimalakirti’s teaching of nonduality, Manjusri’s verbal excess. Is there anyone who has the ability to enter in actively?


Mi Hu had a monk ask Yangshan “Do people these days need enlightenment or not?”Yangshan said, “It’s not that there is no enlightenment, but what can be done about falling into the secondary?” The monk went back and reported this to Mi Hu. Hu deeply agreed with this.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Book of Serenity, it is a collection of one-hundred Zen stories. They all have little introductory remarks, and there is a poem at the end of each one. There is a fairly lengthy commentary to the main case and to the poem. The cases were selected and the poems were written by a monk named Hongzhi, who, I think, is from the 12th century, the height of the Song dynasty. The commentaries are all by another monk, Wansong.

In commenting on the stories that Hongzhi collects, Wansong often explains them by telling other stories. So here is another story that Wansong tells in his commentary. This happened before the events of the main case.

A monk had previously asked Mi Hu, “Do the eminent sages since antiquity arrive at the real truth?” Mi Hu said, “Yes.” The monk said, “If it’s the real truth, how can it be arrived at?” Mi Hu then gave a very interesting answer to this. “When Huo Guang sold a phony silver city and gave the receipt to the chief of a foreign tribe, whose doing was this?”

This cleared up the monk’s problem, because after he heard this answer, he was very appreciative. The problem that the monk was bringing to Mi Hu is something that we can all relate to, because we all read books about the great spiritual masters of the past and of the present. We find their stories and sayings very inspiring, but what do they really mean for us? What can we actually do with them? Are these masters and sages just exceptional people? Do we read their words as we would read the words of a great novelist or poet or philosopher? Is there some truth that is being conveyed that we can actually access? If there is, how do we hold that truth? How do we make use of it?

The monk asks, “Do the sages of antiquity arrive at a real truth that we can make use of to transform our lives?” Mi Hu says “Yes. Yes they do!” There is truth that we can really make use of. But how? What is that truth? How can the truth be something that can be conveyed in words?

That’s why when Mi Hu says there is a truth, the monk wonders: If there is a real truth, how could they arrive at it? How could it be something that they grasp and then somehow put into words? How do we understand the teachings that we receive, when we know that the truth cannot really be reduced to words or expressions? It can’t really be some external thing out there. It has to be something that activates our lives and turns them around. So how is that conveyed through the teachings?

Mi Hu’s reply, as we learned, was a question: “When Huo Guang sold the phony silver city and gave the receipt to a chief of a foreign tribe, whose doing was this?”

The Book of Serenity is full of obscure, Chinese legends and stories from different classics. I can usually rely on Wansong to explain these references in his commentaries, but in this case, Wansong doesn’t say a word about this story. So I don’t know where it comes from or what’s behind it, but the basic idea is clear enough. The real truth and the teachings based on that truth are like a fake city – a precious silver city to be sure – but phony. Not real. Not solid. This does not mean it is unreal in contrast to something else that is real – like you, me, the world, suffering. No, the city is unreal in exactly the same way that everything is unreal. Like a dream, a fantasy, a flash of lightening, a dew-drop, a bubble, a lantern, a light show.

There is nothing to hold on to. That is the truth, and that saves us. There is no one to accomplish this truth, and no one to possess it. It is just the way things are. So to this rhetorical question, “Who’s doing is this?” the answer is, “No one is ‘doing.'” And yet the Ancients did arrive at this truth.

Anyway, all that happened before the case. It is a background for the case. You can imagine that Mi Hu was really thinking about the monk’s question. I think he was turning it over in his mind, and he wanted to get another opinion, like a doctor who is thinking about a case, saying, “Let me call a colleague and get a second opinion.”

The great Yangshan was from the so-called golden age of Zen. He was very renowned, so Mi Hu sent this monk to Yangshan to ask him a similar question. It is very similar, except here it is much more immediate. It is not about the sages of old. It is about us. It is about people of today. “Do people these days need enlightenment or not?” Yangshan said, “It’s not that there is no enlightenment, but what can be done about falling into the secondary?”

So what is enlightenment, and what good is it? Is it real or is it fake? Does it come and go? Or is it some kind of permanent condition? Is it something decisive, or is it just a thrilling moment that passes away and becomes a memory? This is the question.

These days we have been doing practice a long time, so I think we have a realistic and down-to-earth view. So, would we say that we have gotten over our old, naí»ve ideas about enlightenment? Have we come to the place where we now see that practice is a tremendous comfort to us? That we can also improve our character and our psychological well-being?

I am sure that Master Mi Hu was also practicing a long time, and he had these questions. He wanted to know what Yangshan thought about this. So in the light of that, it is very interesting to consider Yangshan’s answer, in the exact way in which Yangshan speaks of it. He does not say, “Yes, there is enlightenment.” And he doesn’t say, “No, there is not enlightenment.” He isn’t even cagey about it, like Zen guys often are: “There both is and isn’t. There neither is nor isn’t.”

What does he say? He says, “It’s not that there is no enlightenment,” which means, yes, of course, there is real illumination. There is fundamental turning around. There is real transformation. There is real truth about our human life. It goes beyond whether we are doing well or not doing well. There is real truth here. But that’s not the issue. That’s not the problem. The problem for practice is, “What can be done about falling into the secondary?”

When you read that at first, you might assume that Yangshan means that there’s enlightenment, which is primary, which is fundamental, which is absolute. Then there is the secondary – the ordinary, messed-up, troublesome lives that we are all leading. And we are always in danger of falling into the secondary. How do we avoid that? How do we keep our enlightenment shiny and fresh?

But I don’t think he is saying that. Enlightenment, which is primary and fundamental, is already the secondary – the messy. Why is that? Because as soon as you experience something, identify something, define something, know something, it has fallen into the secondary. As soon as something appears in our life as an identifiable experience, as a phenomenon in this world, it has automatically fallen into the secondary. That is, our whole life is the secondary. Enlightenment constellates delusion. It is a way of understanding delusion and vice versa. So enlightenment as such is already trouble and suffering. Yangshan is not asking, How do we avoid falling into the secondary? He is asking, What do you do about falling into the secondary?

When we sit down on our cushions and sit together over the years – ten, twenty, thirty, forty years – it really feels like all we have to do is sit down, and right away we return to our true human heart. Sitting down connects us automatically with the primary. But then, of course, as we all know, we get up. As soon as we get up, the secondary rolls on. The truth is that any experience that we have, including our experiences on the cushion, including our moments of great awakening, is already the secondary. Really, we shouldn’t even call it the “secondary.” But Yangshan calls it the secondary for a reason, because if it is the secondary, if we understand that it is the secondary, it makes us profoundly humble. Not just humble, but profoundly humble.

To me, this is the beauty and the depth of this teaching. There is, fundamentally, no need to strive for something, because we can be just as we are, and we can admit all our troubled, wounded, human feeling. We don’t have to fix it, and we don’t have to correct it. We can take it in, and admit it, and we don’t have to contrast that with some other state. We can find our heart’s ease right there in the secondary – right there in whatever comes and goes inside us and outside us – if we are truly willing to be with it. Really and truly to investigate it.

Yangshan teaches, The secondary is the practice. Fully embracing what’s within us with our whole hearts and fully investigating it and fully seeing it as our treasure. That’s the practice.

To be humble is to accept this moment and all it brings. To see through all the discouragement, or the anger, or the judgment, or the hoping, or the wishing, and just profoundly embrace and accept the situation (and accept here doesn’t mean resign yourself to some bad situation). That’s awakening: you actually see the situation. You know the situation. You know that this is it. This is my life. It’s just like this. It’s not some other way. It’s this. Pain, suffering, joy, grace, clumsiness, skill, lack of skill – this is it. It’s just like this.

Another aspect to this wonderful story, I think, can be appreciated from reading the introduction.

Bodhidharma’s highest truth, Emperor Wu’s confusion; Vimalkirti’s teaching of nonduality, Manjusri’s verbal excess. Is there anyone who has the ability to enter in actively?

These first lines refer to famous Zen stories. I’m sure that many of you know that Bodhidharma goes to Emperor Wu, and the Emperor is totally clueless, which means that Bodhidharma is enlightened. They go together; Emperor W’s cluelessness and Emperor Wu’s enlightenment depend on each other. That’s the point. Vimalakirti is silent, after fifty-three brilliant monks give their point of view – the fifty third being Manjusri, who gives a disquisition on nonduality. So Vimilakirti’s thundering silence depends on Manjusri’s chattiness; they go together.

Enlightenment and delusion are the Bobsey twins, you know? They go together. You always have one with the other. The primary and the secondary must go together. We need to understand the secondary, and we can’t understand the secondary without the primary. We can’t understand delusion without enlightenment, and we have to go beyond both of them. We have to enter our lives actively – beyond the confusion of enlightenment or delusion, or “I’m going to be healed,” or “I’m not going to be healed,” or, “I’m going to be fixed,” or “I’m not fixed.” To enter actively, with our whole heart, our life just as it is.

So I will finish with Hongzhi’s poem on the case:

The secondary – distinguishing enlightenment, breaking up delusion:

Quickly you should free your hands and throw away net and trap.

Accomplishment, before it’s exhausted, is like an extra thumb:

Wisdom can hardly know, like you can’t bite your own navel.

The full moon’s icy disk weeps in the autumn dew:

The birds are cold in the jade tree, the dawn breeze is chill.

Brought forth, great Yang distinguishes real and false:

Completely without flaw, the white jade is esteemed.

The secondary is the suffering that comes from “I’m over here. I should be over there. I’m deluded. I should be enlightened.” Or, “I’m enlightened, and look at all those dummies over there who are deluded!” This is something that we all have to go through. There is no avoiding the suffering of delusion or the suffering of saying, “This or that. I like it. I don’t like it. I want it. I don’t want it.”

We have to go through this, and we do go through it. But as soon as we go through it, we should put away the nets and traps and quickly drop whatever accomplishment there has been. It’s just like an extra thumb, a deformity that gets in the way and makes it hard to pick something up. In other words, we struggle in our practice for a period of time, and there is no getting around it. The fruit of our struggle is some understanding, some change, and as soon as that comes, put it away, get rid of it. Don’t let it get in your way! Because you have to pick up the next thing. You have to go forward in your life. Don’t let your practice be like an extra thumb that makes it impossible to grab hold of what is important. Throw it away.

Wisdom only knows emptiness, and emptiness isn’t anything. So wisdom is a not-knowing. It’s liberation from knowing. The last lines of the poem beautifully express Hongzhi’s feeling of celebration for the cold, brisk beauty of this perfect practice that we call human life: “The full moon’s icy disk weeps in the autumn’s dew/ The birds are cold in the jade tree, the dawn breeze is chill.” It’s bracing. It’s not this reality of being human. It’s beautiful, and still there are tears. “Brought forth, great Yang distinguishes real and false/ Completely without flaw, the white jade is esteemed.” A perfect piece of jade is the image for the perfect beauty of a human life fully lived.

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