The Teachings of Chao Chou

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Sunday Lecture: the stories of Chao Chou; Hsin Hsin Ming - koan("I alone am the World-Honored One"); mu - cutting through yes and no; not holding to preferences

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I bow unto Thee, such as are Thine in heaven and on earth. Today, I'd like to celebrate the life of great master Zhao Zhou, old Chinese Zen master, and talk about how he practiced with preferences and picking and choosing. If you were here last week, you heard the abbot tell the awakening story of Zhao Zhou


with his teacher, Nan Chuan, when he heard about ordinary mind is the way. I won't retell that story, but I'll tell you a little bit about Zhao Zhou's life. He, as far as we know, was born in Tang Dynasty, China, in the 8th century, which we call now the Golden Age of Zen, when many of the classic Chan or Zen teachers were living. He left home when he was 18, and soon thereafter met his teacher, Nan Chuan, and he practiced with Nan Chuan for 40 years. So this in itself is kind of amazing. So from when he was 18 or 20 till 60 or I think 62, he just stayed in this one temple practicing with Nan Chuan


and then when Nan Chuan died, he mourned for a few years the loss of his teacher and then he set off on pilgrimage, Ang Ya, foot traveling they called it, wandering around China looking for other teachers to practice with and clarify his understanding. So you might think after 40 years he wouldn't need to do that anymore, and also he was already over 60, but this was the kind of guy that Zhao Zhou was, almost like he was beginning his practice fresh in his 60s. And he made this vow to himself when he set out and said, if I meet a child of seven who understands more than me, I will learn from him, and if I meet a man of a hundred


who understands less than me, I'll teach him. So wonderful spirit of humility, being willing to learn from anyone, and also compassion, willing to teach anyone. And I can imagine he left with this spirit of going into the unknown, and he did this, and he just wandered around China for actually 20 years. He did this foot traveling pilgrimage for another 20 years till he was like 80, and then he finally decided he would go back to China settle down and move into a temple, and maybe he just couldn't walk anymore. So at age 80, he kind of started teaching Zen, and then he taught for another 40 years. So he supposedly


lived to be 120, and this was unusual even back then. So he was very seasoned during those years. So the record of his dialogues during his teaching years is you really get a sense for the personality of Zhao Zhou. He was quite a character. I'll tell you some of the stories. I think he was a pretty rough character, and he lived in a very rundown, simple, small temple, and he didn't have so many students, and his lineage actually died out after a few generations. It may be that people didn't want to live Zhao Zhou's way. It was a little too rough and rundown. One story just about the way Zhao Zhou was is an example. One time he ran into a monk


behind the Zendo, and he asked, where have all the monks gone, the ones who lived there? And this monk said, they've all gone off to work in the fields. And Zhao Zhou took a knife out of his sleeve, and he handed it to the monk and said, my task as abbot are many. I ask you, Reverend, please cut off my head for me. And he kind of stuck out his neck like that, and the monk ran away. So he was kind of just ready for whatever it seemed like. And there's several stories. There's many koan stories about Zhao Zhou. I think in the classic koan collections, there's maybe more about Zhao Zhou than any other teacher. And there's a kind of series in the Blue Cliff Record on this poem, an old Zen poem from


the third ancestor called The Verse on Trusting the Mind, Xin Xin Ming. And this was this kind of classic Zen poem, maybe the earliest Zen poem, teaching poem. And it's maybe sort of a classic in West now, wonderful, straightforward instruction. And so there was an interaction around this poem, so maybe I can just read you the beginning of the poem. It goes, the great way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. Sometimes it's translated as, for those who have no picking and choosing. The great way is not difficult, just don't pick and choose. Or the way is not difficult if there's no discrimination.


So these are different translations. I kind of like the one about having no preferences. When longing and aversion are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinion for or against. The struggle of likes and dislikes is the dis-ease of the mind. And it goes on that way for a page or so. So it seemed that people kind of knew this kind of classic poem in Zhao Zhou's time, and would refer to it. Maybe people were meditating on those instructions and trying to practice with that. So one time a monk came to Zhao Zhou and quoted this poem, the first line,


and said, the great way is without difficulty for those who have no preferences. What is having no preferences? And Zhao Zhou responded by quoting another saying of the Buddha when he was born, which if you come to Buddha's birthday celebration at Green Gulch in another month or so, you can see this enacted, this saying that the Buddha apparently, when he was born, took seven steps and said something like, in the heavens and on earth, I alone and the world honored one. And so this was also a kind of well-known saying. So the monk asks Zhao Zhou, the great way is without difficulty for those who have no preferences. What is having no preferences? And Zhao Zhou said, in the heavens and on earth, I alone and the


world honored one. And the monk said, that's having a preference. And Zhao Zhou said, stupid oaf, where's the preference? So the title of this poem is called Zhao Zhou's Stupid Oaf. And I think oaf was kind of a translation of some kind of Chinese colloquial expression that means something like silly, fool, or bumpkin. And so stupid oaf, where's the preference? And the monk was speechless. And that's the story. That's the koan. So what is no picking and choosing or no preference? And how is it that to say I alone and the world honored


one kind of sounds like picking and choosing on many levels. You could say what he's bringing up a Buddha saying as opposed to a non-Buddha saying. And he's saying, I alone and the world honored one and nobody else is. It could sound like that. But we could also think that anything we say is actually some kind of discrimination, picking and choosing in the world of words and language. And this monk seems to have been a sharp one. And I think he was ready for Zhao Zhou basically to say anything. And he would say, there's that still a preference? Almost like there was no escape for Zhao Zhou. But Zhao Zhou, he could have responded with anything. And I imagine he responded just immediately that saying came to mind. And in a way, it's just a kind of definitive statement. Zhao Zhou is also maybe most well known for


his story about a monk coming in asking, does a dog have Buddha nature? And Zhao Zhou says, no or nothing. In Japanese, mu. This is one of the main koans that people working with koans start off with. So this no, in that case, is said to be the no that's not the no. It's not in the realm of yes and no. It's not the no as opposed to yes. It's the no that cuts through yes and no. I could say the same thing about this, I alone am the world honored one. And I think when the Buddha said this also, it wasn't an arrogant statement that he alone is the world honored one and nobody else is. It's just he understood I


in a different way. You could say the big I that includes all beings and the plants and rocks and stars and even everything outside the universe. And I think that's what he that I alone, excluding nothing, is the world honored one, the great Buddha. So seeing it that way gives nothing to argue with. It's beyond discrimination. And yet at the same time, it's using words and it can be seen as discrimination. And so


the monk says, well, that's still discrimination. And so then Jayajiva says, where is the discrimination? So where is it? Even in a statement like, I prefer this over that, really ultimately where is the discrimination? Where is the picking and choosing? Choice or preference, maybe to take preference, seems to be not a problem in itself. This is something everyone has. I don't think this poem or the Jaojo or any of these old ancestors meant that we actually have no preferences at all. We would have to gouge out our brain


or something to have no preferences. These preferences are a natural, arisen condition and event for living beings. And it doesn't seem to be such a problem. If I prefer chocolate over vanilla, that's just my taste buds are conditioned that way. And it couldn't be any other way. For somebody else, they prefer vanilla over chocolate and it couldn't be any other way. And no problem. It seems that the problem comes in when somebody says, well, would you like the chocolate or the vanilla? I say, the chocolate, please. And they say, okay, well, here's the vanilla. I say, no. We have some feeling of, no, really, I'd actually


really rather have the chocolate, please. And this is where the problem comes in. If we can know and we prefer the chocolate and they hand us the vanilla and it's really like, oh, okay, so this is what's happening, then it doesn't seem to be much of a problem. So it's the holding to the preference and believing that it really is our preference and we have to maintain that preference and so on. Or another way to put it is that there's somebody behind the scenes who is in control of these preferences and that one needs to be maintained and supported somehow by acting on the preferences. So if we can see preferences as just conditioned


arisings given by all things in a kind of miraculous, wonderful way, the fact that we can have taste buds that prefer chocolate over vanilla is almost a miracle. How wonderful this can be. But then we think of ourselves as a person who prefers chocolate and then we want to keep that going. So we ask, well, where is the preference? When we look for it, we just find a bunch of conditions. Speaking more technically, maybe we could say preference is one of the five skandhas, the five aggregates that when we look for a person, we find. We


could say preferences is kind of like in the fourth skandha, sometimes called karmic formations. So the fact that we prefer chocolate over vanilla is kind of like a karmic formation that's just come to be from all things, from birth and from conditioning, from our parents and society and all of that. Inconceivably, everything has contributed to it. So part of the Buddha's teaching about these five aggregates as the makeup of a person is that there's nothing more than that. There's just form, feelings, perceptions, karmic formations and consciousness ever-changing. So karmic formations can kind of look like, well, there's somebody there in some fixed kind of way, but they're just changing formations, conditioned


things. If we can see them this way, maybe not such a problem without adding anything extra to them, like the controller behind the screens who is pulling the strings, pressing the preference buttons that are wired up to the taste buds, something like this. So yesterday I was driving north over Mount Tam on the winding mountain road and I was contemplating this story of Jaojo and I was a little bit late for where I was going and it was a Saturday morning, the beach-goers out looking at the scenery and driving very slowly and stuck


behind a slow car, a stream of slow cars, and I started noticing this preference arising for the cars to speed up or pull over. I mean, there's all those turnouts, right? That's what they're for. And thinking about the time and also preferring that I hadn't left quite as late and I remembered it was Saturday and then remembering, well, actually I'm often late for a lot of things and I kind of prefer that I wasn't the kind of person who was habitually late. And so all these things kind of mixed together, so much kind of picking and choosing of preference and discrimination. But looking at it as these conditioned events, I started to relax. Not completely. So I think there can still be this, maybe some tension or something


at the same time seeing, well, this is actually just the way it's all coming to be right now and it's completely fine. And it's completely fine if there's some anxiety about being late and that I can't go faster and that it's all, the whole situation is just this way. And almost it was like thinking that way, I started to notice the color of the sky at the windows more and that actually everything was coming to be according to conditions in this way and miraculously. Almost like they're not a problem even though there's still this feeling of being late and maybe even still like the wish to not be late or something like this. But seeing how it comes to be, seeing how this comes to be and that there's no other


way in that moment, in this moment. Okay. So one time I was in a hotel room and I was in a hotel room and one time another monk came to Daojo and said, the great way is without difficulty for those who have no preferences. Is this becoming like a cliche for our times? This poem, right? We can say, well maybe this is now too. If we start reciting this the great way is without difficulty for those who have no preferences, we can say that in


kind of a mindless way without really thinking about it. If we hear it over and over too much it's kind of like, well, yeah, yeah, right, I have no preferences. So he's quoted the line and said, is this becoming a cliche for people of our times? And Daojo said, once somebody else asked me this question and I really, I couldn't answer for five years. That's the story. That's the next koan in the collection. So again he leaves you not nothing to argue with. And you could say, well just to say that is kind of making a discrimination but it's just, as the commentary says, it's flavorless talk. It's very bland. There's nothing there to really get a hold of. It's just, he's just saying what is.


So to figure it out is like we say a mosquito biting an iron bull. You can't get a hold of it. It's so simple too and so straightforward. And is he making another cliche out of this by responding in that way? Is everything a cliche actually? And if everything is a cliche then if that's the way the universe is creating the situation according to conditions then is it a problem? Are cliches a problem? And then another time. A monk comes and says, the great way is without difficulty for those who have no preferences.


As soon as words are spoken there is preference and there is picking and choosing. How do you help people, teacher? And Jaojo says, well why don't you quote that saying fully? And the monk says, well I only remember it up to this point. And Jaojo says, it goes like this, the great way is without difficulty for those who have no preferences. Again, it's a, everything slips off it. And you could say, well maybe the monk wasn't really having a preference when he said, I only remember to this point. He was just expressing how it was. And then Jaojo just expressed back. We could also hear it as when Jaojo asked, well why don't you quote it fully? We could


say, well fully in the sense of with his full body and mind expressing that. And so when Jaojo repeated it back, he just repeated that line back fully. The great way is without difficulty for those who have no preferences. And are there those who have preferences? If someone has preferences, who would be the someone who has them? The great way is not difficult. Preferences arising and ceasing and changing are not difficult.


Is there something we can do about our preferences? Picking and choosing? We can discriminate and pick and choose various different ways to deal with them. But it's almost anything we do about them is more of the same. Anything we say about them is more of the same. But we can understand how they come to be. So you can understand how they come to be. Even choice, if we say picking and choosing, what we call choosing, is it really I who choose this or that? Or again, is it myriad conditions, seen and unseen, coming together in such a way that looks like I just chose something?


This type of investigation could be quite a joyful one, especially when faced with the burden of decision that I have to make. Zhao Zhou, as you can see, was kind of a rough character and kind of a bland character. And I don't think he wrote much poetry, but he seemed to write this one poem anyway, a sort


of poetic piece called The Song of the 24 Hours. And that was too many hours to read today, so I kind of edited it down a little bit. But see if you get a sense for thinking of Zhao Zhou as working, practicing, living in this realm of not being caught up in picking and choosing, discrimination, how he's relating to his life. Because I think it's kind of an unusual Zen poem, because he's kind of complaining a lot. You know, he has this kind of difficult, sparse kind of life, and in his poem, he's kind of like complaining about it. And at the same time, I have this sense that it's really all okay, and his complaining is kind of lighthearted. And he kind of goes back and forth even, between kind of feeling


the difficulty and sadness of life, and yet just going along. So he's not pretending to be completely equanimous with everything in the sense of the way we might think of equanimous, that like, actually, I have no preferences at all, anything that happens is completely equal. He doesn't seem to be that way. And yet, he seems to be going through his life in a kind of wonderful way. So I'll just finish with this poem, part of the song of 24 Hours. The rooster crows in the early morning, feeling down and out yet getting up. There are no


warm underclothes to wear, just some tattered pants and something that looks a little like a robe. Wishing to practice the way and help people, actually, this is just being a fool. First light of morning, a broken down temple in a deserted village. There's nothing worth saying about it. In the watery morning gruel, there's not a grain of rice. Only the chattering sparrows as friends, sitting alone. Now and then, I hear dry fallen leaves blow by. Who says that to leave home is to cut off likes and dislikes? If I think about it, before long, tears start to fall. Sunrise, doing anything with a goal in mind is to get buried in the dirt, yet the boundless domain has not yet been swept. Often the brows are furrowed, seldom is the heart content. It's hard to put up with the decrepit old men of the village.


Donations have never been brought here. An untethered donkey eats the weeds in front of the hall. Mid-morning, working to kindle a fire and gazing aimlessly at it. Cakes and cookies ran out last year. Thinking of them today, I swallow my saliva in vain. Those who come here just ask to have a cup of tea, and not getting any, they go off muttering in anger. Mid-day, in carrying the bowl to collect rice and tea, there are no special arrangements. House after house, I'm given only excuses. Some bitter salt, stale barley, a millet paste mixed with old chard. I hear the tensor laugh. Those who come here are the way-seeking mind of a monk must be solid. Mid-afternoon, turning things around, not


walking in the realm of light or dark. Today my body is just this, not studying Zen, not discussing principles, spreading out some torn reeds and sleeping in the sun. I can imagine Tushita heaven, but it's not as good as this sun toasting my back. Sunset. Except for the deserted wilderness here, what is there to protect? The way of a monk is to flow on without any special obligations, wandering freely for eternity. Words that go beyond fixed patterns do not come through the mouth. Late evening, sitting alone in the darkness of this one empty room. Forever unillumined by the flickering candlelight, the space in front of me is pitch black. Hearing no temple bell, only the sound of scurrying old rats.


What more is there than this? Every thought is going beyond. Bedtime, the clear moon in front of the gate. To whom is it not given freely? Going back inside, my only regret is that it's time to go to sleep. Besides the ragged clothes on my back, what covers are needed? It really doesn't matter if this old bag is empty. Who could understand such a thing?