Fingers and moons


I came across a 'Dharma discourse' by Roshi John Daido Loori on the famous koan of Dongshan (Tozan), which is case 172 in Dogen's '300 Koan (Chinese) Shobogenzo', case 12 in the Biyan lu ('Blue Cliff Records', known as the Hekiganroku in Japanese), and case 18 in the Mumonkan, or Wumenguan in Chinese ('The Gateless Pass', often absurdly rendered as 'The Gateless Gate', that apparent paradox thought by some to be the essence of Zen, rather than bad translation). The koan is very simple:

A monk asked Dongshan: 'What is Buddha?'

Dongshan replied: 'Three pounds of flax.'

The monk had a realisation and bowed.

I was reminded of the title of an article I once planned to write, half as a joke, but half seriously: 'Three pounds of flax: Deafness as a contributory factor in the enigmatic responses of elderly Zen masters in traditional stories used as koans.'

Personally I think Dongshan was hearing better that day a monk asked him 'What is Buddha?' and he answered with no messing around: 'The clear crystal truth.' But what answer has taxed the minds of Zen students for centuries? Well of course it had to be that time when there was a noisy hustle and bustle in the monastery while Dongshan was weighing flax. Let me tell you my version of the story. Some monk addressed him while he was absorbed in this routine task, asking a rather dull and unoriginal question on the Dharma: 'What is Buddha?' Dongshan, busy, his deaf ear to the monk and his good ear to the traffic, misheard him and thought he said 'What is that?' to which he naturally replied 'Three pounds of flax'. The monk was enlightened and students of Zen have been trying to guess what was so enlightening about Dongshan's answer ever since. (Not to mention those content to repeat the koan not even quite knowing what he was weighing anyway. The Chinese of the Wumenguan says 'hemp', he was probably weighing out hemp seed.)

Surprising as it may seem to those not imbued in the history and stories of Zen, I have yet to hear it suggested that it was simply a case of mishearing. Oh no, it's a big important answer going right to the heart of the truth of Buddhism, so much so we have the respected Roshi John Daido Loori discoursing thus:

From the outset, we should understand that 'three pounds of flax' is not just a reply to the question about buddhas. What is Dongshan responding to, answering this way? What is he addressing? He’s answering all of those questions that people keep bringing up about practice: 'Where am I going? What is the goal? What do I get?' Isn't that how we approach our undertakings? How much does it cost? How much do I get? Can you imagine doing this practice simply because of being called to it, without intent? And to be able to practice that calling with great excitement and great energy?

All very well, but what if he just misheard? Wouldn't that make you feel a little foolish not to have considered it? If you're so clever you tell me what the bamboo meant when it made that cracking sound as the pebble struck it while the monk was out hoeing and he was enlightened on hearing it.

When a person is ripe for enlightenment (kensho or satori), even the most casual chance remark or incident can precipitate it, just as a tiny piece of grit can act as a centre of crystallisation for a supersaturated solution to suddenly crystallise around. Or anything, absolutely anything, a fly, a ball bearing, your finger, anything solid dropped into a supersaturated solution will act as a 'seed crystal' and crystallise it. Yet still the Zen masters, who have supposedly seen through the intellect-defying irrationality of such enigmatic responses as Dongshan's and discourse upon it profusely, remain within the confines of the story as it has always been told and never consider a completely different and, to me, far more interesting interpretation that completely does away with the need to understand what he meant in the first place, since it was quite literal, 'Three pounds of flax', nothing more, nothing less. That's still Zen. Better Zen.