The next line in the commentary says, If, however, you are unable to perceive it, then the worldly truth will prevail and everything will appear to be an impenetrable barrier. Actually, everyone is able to perceive the dragon song. We are all able-bodied buddhas. We’re born buddhas, and we’ll die buddhas, whether we realize it or not. But if you’re unwilling to perceive it, then the worldly truth will prevail, and everything will appear to be an impenetrable barrier.

Why do barriers exist? Because we separate ourselves from what is in front of us. Then we think there is something in our way, and we butt our heads against it. When we realize that the barrier is nothing but ourselves, then there’s only the barrier, and it fills the universe. That’s the same as saying there’s no barrier at all. So rather than turn and run away from the barrier, we need to realize what the barrier really is. It’s not out there somewhere.

You should understand that illumination and function are a single truth. Illumination is wisdom. Function is compassion. They’re one reality. These old masters know how to simultaneously roll out and gather in. That’s what they were doing. First they reached out, then they pulled back. The door shuts and you are on your own. When you get lost, they roll out—they’re supportive, nourishing, giving. Then, at the right time, they’ll pull the rug out or close the door, and you’re thrown squarely back on yourself again. Ultimately, the teachers can’t give you anything. Why? Because you already have it.

Letting go of the primary they open the gate of the secondary. Letting go of the secondary, they open the gate of the primary. It depends on where they find us. It depends on where we’re stuck. And we should constantly ask ourselves that question: Where am I sticking? What’s keeping me from being here, right now, in this moment, where my life is taking place?

When the great function manifests, it does not hold to any fixed standards. It always manifests according to time, place, conditions, and degree. There’s no cookbook Zen.

The last line says, Sometimes a blade of grass can be used as the sixteen-foot golden body of the Buddha; sometimes the sixteen-foot golden body of the Buddha can be used as a blade of grass. This is possible because all of it—the whole universe—is part of the same reality. It reaches everywhere, and it is nowhere else than sitting on your cushion.

All this notwithstanding, tell me, how do you understand the great function? Don’t tell me about it, do it. Show me. Be it. Show the world. Sing the dragon’s song.

The capping verse:

Letting out the hook,
just to fish out the dragons.
The mysterious devices outside of convention
are only for hose who wish to know the self.

The mysterious devices outside convention are the upaya or skillful means that a teacher uses to help students discover their true nature. The dharma takes place in a furnace—no question about that. It’s not easy. But no one ever said it was. No one promised a shortcut to realization. Our challenge is to truly inherit this profound dharma, and then to give voice to it by the way we live our lives and relate to others and this great earth. Let’s take up the challenge


Koans of the Way of Reality is a collection of koans complied at Zen Mountain Monasery over the last twenty-five years. It includes both koans that appear in the traditional collections as well as pieces taken from other sources and treated as koans because of their relevance for modern Western practitioners.

John Daido Loori, Roshi is the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery. A successor to Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, Roshi, Daido Roshi trained in rigorous koan Zen and in the subtle teachings of Master Dogen, and is a lineage holder in the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen.