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Yunmen’s “Sidetracked!”

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 03/18/2003
In Topics: Zen Koans

A Commentary on Mumonkan, case 39The Case:
Speaking to Yunmen, a monk began, "Radiant light silently floods the whole universe…" But Yunmen interrupted him and said, "Aren't you quoting Zhang Zhuo?" The monk replied, "Yes I am." Yunmen said, "Sidetracked!" Later Zen Master Sixin brought this up. "Tell me," he said to his own students. "Where did the monk get sidetracked?"

Mumon's comment:
If you can appreciate the cutting strictness of Yunmen's style, and see how the monk got sidetracked, you can be a teacher of people and gods. But if you still don't see it, then you can't even save yourself!

Mumon's poem:
A line is cast onto the swift flowing stream
Rising for the bait you're hooked
When the seam of your mouth opens even a little
You lose your natural life

The monk in this story is quoting a wonderful line, "Radiant light silently floods the whole universe." It's a line especially dear to our practice: Soto Zen meditation is sometimes called "silent illumination," simply sitting peacefully within the radiance of what is, appreciating that being itself, what we most truly are, is already magnificent, peaceful, all encompassing, and that there is nothing we need to do to improve it. We need only allow ourselves to remember and enjoy it. This is the teaching of Buddha Nature, a source Mahayana Buddhist doctrine for all the Zen schools, that says that the very nature of existence itself, understood as it actually is, is awakening, Nirvana, Complete Perfect Enlightenment. Early Buddhism didn't express it like that. At the outset of his teaching career, the Buddha seemed to be strong on countering the idea that there is anything at all that can be defined or held onto. All things are impermanent, he taught, all things are empty of any essential nature. The source of our suffering is our holding onto something as solid, as real, as permanent. Let go! That's Nirvana. Without contradicting any of this, later Mahayana teaching felt the need to bring up the positive side, showing that another way of expressing non-self, impermanence, and emptiness was as joy, radiance, endlessness. So was developed the concept of Buddha Nature, sometimes called in Zen True Self or Original Self or Essential Nature- the recognition that seeing the empty non conceptual nature of reality was not as negative or as reductive an experience as the earlier teachings might have implied. In fact, the world itself – far from being corrupt, unsatisfactory, to be avoided and denied – was itself Buddha Nature; Samsara was Nirvana, and when we purified ourselves of our confusion we could understand and live this. Applying the teaching of Buddha Nature psychologically, to our selves and our experience, Keizan says in his Denkoroku, "There is no wasted time or effort twenty four hours a day, no appearance of countless births and deaths in vain. Therefore seeing has no limit, hearing has no limit either; our seeing and hearing is beyond even a Buddha's capacity to comprehend…, Thus everything, every particle, is boundless reality, and does not come within the scope of number and measure at all. This is the ocean of Buddha Nature" (quoted, with my own additions and changes, in Cleary, "Transmission of Light"p 58). All of this is wonderful, inspiring, stuff.

So what's wrong with what the monk is presenting here? Why does Yunmen so rudely object?

I think the answer is fairly obvious: the actual realization and appreciation of of Buddha Nature is one thing, and the doctrine of Buddha Nature is something else. When "Buddha Nature" becomes an article of belief, an identity tag, a sentimental feeling, then it is no longer Buddha Nature; it is, at worst, a poison, and at best a distraction.

To make this point the story uses two devices, quotation, and interruption. The monk is quoting a well known poem about Buddha nature, and, it seems, Yunmen is criticizing him for that. And yet, as we've seen, the Zen masters are constantly quoting! If you eliminated quotation from their sayings- as well as from the sermons and books of other religious teachers the world over- there'd be practically nothing left! In fact, all creative work, religious or not, is full of quotation, full of imitation. The German critic Walter Benjamin, whose works and ideas have been enormously influential on post modern artists and writers, loved quotation and saw it as a primary procedure, especially for our time. His ideal literary work was one in which there was nothing but quotation, each quotation illuminating the others, and each, simply by virtue of being a quotation, made more original and profound by its echoing the past in the midst of present conditions. Poets are constantly quoting the lines of others poets, painters quote painters, composers quote composers. Quotation in itself is not the problem. Maybe – to carry what I'm saying to its logical and true conclusion- there is nothing but quotation. Hasn't every word, every line, every musical note, every idea and emotion, already been used by another? Too much naive emphasis on originality is foolish. To be original may be to be superficial. Originality may only consist in skillful use of quotation.

So quotation is not the question. The question is, how do you quote, with what attitude, what mind? Do you quote like a greedy fish rising up to take the bait, looking for some objective truth outside yourself that is going to make you look good, complete you, satisfy something in you that longs for validation? Or do you quote without quoting- knowing that the words of another are actually your own words, when you have truly understood them in your own way. I know this feeling. I am often incorporating whole lines from other poets into my own poems, or writing lines in my poems against the lines of other poets. When I do that, I feel both that I have made another's lines my own, and, at the same time, that I am communicating with that other poet (and sometimes I quote myself!) The point is not originality but authenticity. Seriousness, not cleverness. Clearly the monk in question was parroting, not speaking the lines in his own voice. How did Yunmen know this, even in the midst of the monk's opening phrase? Perhaps the monk was someone he knew. But not necessarily. The truth is, when someone is talking from his head or rear end, rather then from his heart or gut, this is apparent, even from the first word.

The second issue in our story is interruption. The strictness of Yunmen's response is not so much what he says but the way in which he says it, interposing his words even before the student gets to finish what he has to say. No one likes to be interrupted. I know I don't. But it happens to me a lot, especially when I am with my wife. I might be sitting at the table reading a book, or checking my email on the computer, and she will say, "look at that bird!" and then in another minute she might something about her day or some plan that we might want to make together for another day, or there might be something she would like me to do other than what I am doing at the moment. Yesterday while I was checking my phone messages, of which there were a great many, she was reading to me from a book by the cartoonist Gary Larsen called "There's a Hair in my Dirt." My wife teaches seventh grade biology, and is now on the unit on worms. The Larsen book is about a family of earthworms. I tried to be polite but really I was annoyed at being interrupted.

This however is my problem. It is actually quite good to be interrupted. I keep telling myself this even though so far I am still not good at tolerating interruption. Think about it: reality being what it is, interruption is normal. In fact, interruption may be the most essential characteristic of reality. Every moment there's discontinuity- everything is lost and we have to start all over again. The illusion that there's continuity is only that, an illusion. Actually everything's new each moment. We always have to be ready to be interrupted and to start fresh. If we're holding onto the last moment, we're not ready for this moment. And, to be less metaphysical about it, the fact is that interruption is also a normal factor in our ordinary lives. The phone is constantly ringing when you are in the middle of something. Disasters small and large are constantly happening that require your attention, making it impossible for you to go on with what you were in the middle of. You spill or break or misplace something. You lose your job. You get divorced, sick, pregnant. Your organized plans are constantly being derailed. Your wife points out a bird in the tree outside or wants you to hear the words of a very funny book. How enlightened is it to be so preoccupied that you don't notice the bird or appreciate the joke? I am sure that Yunmen heard in the monk's voice, as he began quoting the lovely and profound poem of Zhang Zhuo, a sweet attachment to his own voice and to the cherished brilliance of the words he was mouthing. Interruption was probably just what he needed.

Yunmen didn't always interrupt his students. But he was always rather sharp, rather crisp. Along with my favorite, Zhaozho, Yunmen is one of the quintessential teachers of the Golden Age of Zen. But Yunmen is one of those who gives Zen such a bad name for rudeness and strictness. Where Zhaozhou was sweet and simple, rather deadpan in his expression, Yunmen was usually quite fierce and cutting. Studying the sayings and doings of both of them you get a sense of the range possible- and necessary- in Zen teaching and action. There is no "Zen attitude." Every person comes forth from his or her own conditioning and expresses the truth in his or her own way. That this is so goes to the heart of our tradition, which celebrates, rather than tries to deface, the miracle of human personality.

You can understand the character of Zen teachers when you study their training. Zhaozhou met his teacher when he was nineteen years old, fell in love with him right away, and remained with him for forty years until the teacher's death. Yunmen, by contrast, studied briefly with a teacher who at first refused even to see him. When Yunmen finally forced his leg into the teacher's door, the teacher slammed it, breaking Yunmen's leg – at least this is the story, which probably reflects the actual spirit, if not the fact, of the encounter. And why did Zhaozhou have the experience he had and Yunmen have the experience he had? Because Zhaozhou was already the sort of person who would find and embrace a kind teacher, and Yunmen was already the sort of person who would be attracted to a tough, sharp teacher. It takes all kinds. The world is full of all kinds of conditioning. The point is not to eliminate conditioning but to turn it toward the good, to use it for enlightening purposes- which both Zhaozhou and Yunmen did.

Mumon's poem suggest another angle to this story that seems crucially important:

A line is cast in the swift flowing stream Rising for the bait you're hooked When the seam of your mouth opens even a little You lose your natural life This poem is not just about a monk who is self satisfied with his own ability to quote a great Zen poem and can't stand to be interrupted. It is about you and I and the way our minds work. Buddha Nature may pervade the whole universe with radiance, even here where we are standing, but the truth is we don't know this is so, or act as if it were. Life is a swiftly flowing stream, and every moment there are phenomena arising, thoughts, feeling, perceptions, desires, choices that cry out for our attention. As long as we are alive this will be so. And as long as we are alive we will be like the fish who rises to the bait and is caught. There's no way not to open our mouths! We must eat, and we must speak. As soon as we eat we will harm life somehow. As soon as we speak we will get sidetracked. For all our words and deeds- at least from our limited human point of view- are partial.

I think often- more often than I would like- of the tragedy of human action. How persistent is the our capacity for hatred, jealousy, confusion, violence. It seems almost to be an indelible part of our nature. This is so on a personal individual level, and even more so on a collective political level. When I was a boy there was some bright hope that in our time, after all the tragedy the world had experienced, perhaps now finally we were ready to really begin to do better. Maybe it's true. I still believe it. But at the same time, I am always aware of the essential tragedy of human action, that is embedded in the very acts of perception and thought. The poem of Zhang Zhuo the monk quotes has a line that goes "When no thought rises, the whole is revealed/ if the six sense organs move even a little, it is obscured by clouds." (Aitken p 236). Do we need to remain unconscious and inert in order to be in accord with the "radiant light?" Buddha nature does pervade the universe, not excepting our hearts and minds. We can realize this and live it. Practice, awakening, are really possible, and they will transform our lives, as most people who practice fully for some time come to know. And yet, we must always respect the other side. There's no joy without sorrow. I have always felt that the most promising way to alleviate the pain that is caused by human limitation is to completely accept and appreciate that very limitation. The antidote to tragedy is tears. Here's a poem about this I wrote today:

Opened his mouth no sound
For words were forked
Stabbing their ideas
That fell to his feet like straw
Rage against the things that are defined
And so opposed-
Hammer blows
Break the innocent shells, tears
Cover the ships so slick
They will not sail
Like a stone that grunts
Against the tabs and cords
That press: till between the arrangements
Winds arise
Lifting me to song

® 2003, Norman Fischer