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Panshan’s “Cut a Fine Piece”

Panshan’s “Cut a Fine Piece”

Once Zen master Panshan went to the marketplace and overheard a customer speaking to the butcher. The customer said to the butcher, “Cut a fine piece for me. The butcher threw down his knife, folded his hands, and said, “Sir, is there any piece that is not fine?” Upon hearing these words, Panshan had an awakening.

Student: “How could Panshan have an awakening upon hearing the butcher saying, ‘Sir, is there any piece that is not fine?’?”
Master: “He saw the fine piece.”
Student: “Why couldn’t the butcher and the customer have an awakening even though they saw the same thing?”
Master: “Everybody can see it, but few can recognise it.”
Student: “What is the fine piece?”
Master: “It can’t be cut.”

Commentary:
The fine piece is sometimes hard, sometimes soft, sometimes tough, sometimes tender, sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes long and sometimes short but it can’t be cut or broken.

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Rinzai 22

Rinzai 22

One asked, “When the lay brother was treading the mill stone in the grinding room, where was he when he forgot to move his feet?”
The master replied, “Drowned in a deep spring.”

Commentary:
‘The lay brother’ here means Master Sun-do, one of the ancient Chinese masters. When he taught his students, he once said, “When I as a layman was treading the mill stone in the grinding room, I forgot to move my feet.”

The monk asked master Rinzai what state Master Sun-do had been in when he had forgotten to move his feet. When Rinzai answered this question by saying, “Drowned in a deep spring”, he compared Emptiness to a deep spring where there is no mill stone, no grinding room, no feet, no movement, no layman and no master.

Student: “What is the deep spring like?”
Master: “Bottomless.”
Student: “How does it taste?”
Master: “Bitter.”
Student: “What happens to those who drink it?”
Master: “All die.”
Student: “Who can drink it?”
Master: “Thank you for bringing it.”

©Boo Ahm

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Q. What does ‘living in the present moment without living in the future or in the past’ mean? Is it the same as what Zen meditation pursues?

Q. What does ‘living in the present moment without living in the future or in the past’ mean? Is it the same as what Zen meditation pursues?

A. Don’t be deluded by a likely story. Who on earth can live in the past? If it were possible to live in the past, many old people would return to their past and enjoy their youth. If we could live in the future, many of us would visit the future and fix, or solve the problems that will happen in advance. If these things were possible, why wouldn’t we do them?

In fact, no one can do this. If you happen to try not to live in the future, or in the past, you are losing time making a futile effort. Even though you are suffering from the regret of your past, you are suffering in the present moment. Even if you spend time worrying about the future, it is in the present moment that you have a hard time worrying. No matter how hard you may struggle, you cannot escape the present moment.

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What they mean is that you should pay all your attention to what you are doing at the moment without wasting your attention regretting the mistakes, or errors of your past, because they can’t be undone whatever you may do. Similarly, you should not worry about the future that is yet to come. To make a long story short, it means that you should pay all your attention just to what you are doing when you are doing something.

What Zen meditation pursues is to realise that time is just imaginary lines, not real and that there is no past, no present and no future and that you are eternity itself.

©Boo Ahm

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Zhaozhou’s “Carry It with You”

Zhaozhou’s “Carry It with You”

Yanyang Shanxin asked Zhaozhou, “How is it when nothing comes up?”
Zhaozhou said, “Cast it off.”
Yanyang said, “When nothing comes up, how can you cast it off?”
Zhaozhou said, “Then carry it with you.”

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Student: “What should we cast off when nothing comes up?”
Master: “Nothing.”
Student: “How can we cast off nothing?”
Master: “Without nothing, how could you ask me about nothing?”

Commentary:
Thinking that nothing comes up is the other side of the illusion that something comes up.

©Boo Ahm

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Rinzai 21

Rinzai 21

When Rinzai was at the High Seat, a monk asked, “What about the edge of the sword?”
The master cried out, “Dangerous, dangerous!”
The monk hesitated.
The master hit him.

Commentary:
The question ‘What about the edge of the sword?’ asked by the monk is the same as ‘What is the true-Self like?’ since the sword symbolises true-Self, which is also called the sword of wisdom. To answer the monk’s question, the master showed the sword by crying out, “Dangerous, dangerous!” At the same time, by saying, “Dangerous, dangerous!” he implied that the sword can be dangerous when the monk doesn’t recognise it while holding it in his hands, as though a three-year-old child is playing with a sharp knife without realising what it is that he has in his hands. As expected, the monk hesitated and was at a loss for a response since he failed to see the sword Rinzai showed, or missed what the master meant. Then, master Rinzai had the kindness to give him another answer by hitting him. He was so compassionate that he not only showed him the sword but also hit him with it this time. You should know that if you didn’t see the sword, the true-Self, on hearing the master cry out, “Dangerous, dangerous”, you were already cut by the sword.

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Student: “What is the sword of wisdom like?”
Master: “Take a close look.”
Student: “I don’t know what you mean. What is it like?”
Master: “Dangerous, dangerous!”
Student: “Why do you say, ‘Dangerous, dangerous’?”
Master: “Because you are wielding the sword now.”

©Boo Ahm

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Q. Isn’t just calming down our minds by sitting silently in an upright posture a good practice?

Q. Isn’t just calming down our minds by sitting silently in an upright posture a good practice?

A. I want to ask you why you practise meditation. If the purpose of your practice is just taking a quiet rest for a while, it is okay, I think. The idea of sitting silently in a quiet place is not a bad idea. It can help to ease your stress that comes from troublesome reality and keep your life peaceful for a while.

However, what I want to point out is that you are not calming down your mind in a strict sense, even though you may think that you are trying to do so and may feel a short-lived peace that sitting silently can bring. Calming down your mind is quite different from just sitting silently in a quiet place. The former is a kind of practice, and the latter is a kind of a break, or a rest. The former aims for a permanent or eternal effect, but the latter only has a temporary effect.

I don’t want to discourage you from trying to calm down your mind but want to encourage you to do it in a more efficient way. In order to compose your mind, your top priority should be to realise what your mind is. How could you calm it down without knowing what it is? You should make every effort, above all, to realise what your mind is. Don’t just sit silently. Ask yourself what your mind is while sitting. Then, you can be said to be practising to calm your mind.

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What is your mind? Your mind, it is said, controls your body, which means your mind is not your body. Then ask yourself what it is that controls your body whenever you do something: eating, walking, speaking, working and so on. In other words, it is the same question as “What are you when your body is not you?” You don’t need any special place, such as a quiet area, to do this. Just keeping the question is a good practice regardless of wherever you are and whatever you do. As you become accustomed to practising it, you can feel your everyday life become more peaceful.

In fact, you don’t have to try to calm down your mind once you realise what it is because it is quietness itself. All the problems and troubles that we are faced with in our life are due to not knowing what our mind is. If you realise what your mind is, you will find that the whole universe is peace itself.

©Boo Ahm

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Zhaozhou Sees Through Two Hermits

Zhaozhou Sees Through Two Hermits

Zhaozhou called on a hermit and said, “Are you there? Are you there?”
The hermit held up his fist.
Zhaozhou said, “The water is too shallow here. It’s not a place to anchor a vessel.”
Then he went away.
Later Zhaozhou called on another hermit and said, “Are you there? Are you there?” The hermit held up his fist.
Zhaozhou said, “You have the power to give and take away, to kill and to give life.” He bowed and went away.

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Student: “Why did Zhaozhou give praise and pay homage to the latter hermit while talking down to the former even though both of them made the same response to his question?”
Master: “He just changed his clothes according to the weather.”

Commentary:
It looks long in a long thing and short in a short thing.

©Boo Ahm

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Rinzai 20

Rinzai 20

A monk stepped forward and said, “I can.”
The master took up his stick and handed it to him.
The monk hesitated to take hold of it.
Then the master hit him.

Commentary:
Then, a monk stepped forward and said, “I can.” However, as he couldn’t see through what Rinzai meant when he handed his stick to him, he, just hesitating to take hold of it, failed to make an appropriate response and revealed his fault. Seeing him hesitating, Rinzai hit him. What would you have done if you had been in the monk’s shoes when the master handed his stick to him? Why do you think the master hit the monk? If you think that the master hit him, you are also missing the target. The master gave him both a punishment and a teaching at the same time. You should know that the master threw the monk a rope to escape from the pit where he was struggling.

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Student: “How would you have responded if the sick had been handed to you?”
Master: “I’d have taken it and broken it into two pieces.”
Student: “What is the rope the master threw?”
Master: “Hold it.”

©Boo Ahm

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Q. How does Emptiness look and feel different from things?

Q. How does Emptiness look and feel different from things?

A. There is no difference at all. The Heart Sutra says that Emptiness is forms and forms are not different from Emptiness. Forms here means things. In short, both are never different from each other. So, to see things is to see Emptiness. In other words, to see your wife or husband is to see Emptiness and to behold the flowers in your garden and cars in the street is to behold Emptiness. All you see and hear is Emptiness. Things are to Emptiness as winds are to air. All winds are air and there is no wind that is not air. Trying to see Emptiness whilst forsaking things is trying to feel air while forsaking winds.

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Whether a thing is a form or Emptiness is determined by your view, just as whether a breeze is a wind or air is determined by how you see it. You are free to see a breeze as a wind, or as air. However, when you see the breeze as a wind, it has birth and death, or start and end. But, when you see a breeze as air, it has no start and no end because it was air before becoming a breeze and it will still be air after ceasing to be a breeze.

Likewise, when you see yourself as a man, you have birth and death, but when seeing yourself as Emptiness, you have no birth and no death. For that reason, enlightenment is said to be a way to escape the bondage of birth and death.

©Boo Ahm

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Zhaozhou’s “Losing the Mind in Confusion”

Zhaozhou’s “Losing the Mind in Confusion”

Zhaozhou said to the assembly, “‘If you have even a bit of discrimination, you lose your mind in confusion.’ Do you have anything to say about this?”
A monastic hit Zhaozhou’s attendant and said, “Why don’t you answer the master?”
Zhaozhou left and went back to the abbot’s room. Later the attendant asked Zhaozhou for guidance and said, “Did that monastic who struck me have understanding, or did he not?”
Zhaozhou said, “The one who sits sees the one who stands; the one who stands sees the one who sits.”

Student: “What did Zhaozhou mean by his answer to the attendant’s question?”
Master: “He meant that the one who is hit sees the one who hits; the one who hits sees the one who is hit.”
Student: “I am still lost.”
Master: “A questioner sees the answerer and the answerer sees the questioner.”
Student: “I am still lost.”
Master: “You still see me.”

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Commentary:
The answer Master shows has neither questioner nor answerer, but the student sees only the answerer.

©Boo Ahm

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway

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