Skip to main content

The Music of Our Lives

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 10/31/1998
In Topics: Writing / Art / Creativity, Zen Koans

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

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

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.