So, returning to this koan—as the Buddha was dying and about to enter parinirvana, the bodhisattva of wisdom Manjushri leaned over and asked him to give a last teaching. The footnote to this says, Even in his last moments, the iron yoke presses on his shoulders. The iron yoke is the yoke of the teacher, like an oxen pulling a load.

The World-honored One scolded him, saying, "I have not spoken even a single word for forty-nine years.” The footnote to that says, It seems that he has offended the old teacher with this request. Sometimes our misunderstanding becomes offensive, like when I misunderstood my own teacher. One birthday I gave him a small gift, and after opening it he said how grateful he was for having received it. Then he said he was sorry that he had nothing to give to me. I said, “Oh, Roshi, you’re always giving to me.” He turned and walked away.

I didn’t realize until much later that I was insulting him. I told him he’d given me something, which is the worst thing that a teacher can do, because we already have everything; there’s nothing lacking. To imply that a teacher gives you something is like putting another head on top of the one you already have. In other words, the teacher has failed. In all the years I studied with Roshi, he didn’t give me a single thing. That’s what made him an outstanding teacher.

Whatever you realize will come out of you yourself, not from the outside. That’s the point of the Buddha’s teachings—to have it arise out of ourselves, to have it discovered. The totality of Buddhist teaching is the upaya—skillful means—of getting us to realize that which we already have. They transcend affirmation and negation, being and nonbeing, they are a reality that’s neither dualistic nor monistic. Can you see it? Words and ideas are a description of reality, silence is a negation of reality. What is the reality itself?

What is real, what is reality, what is truth, what is life, what is death, who are you? To imitate the teachers doesn’t impart strength. To understand the teachings doesn’t do a blessed thing for your life. But to realize reality transforms your way of perceiving yourself and the universe—and it shows, it’s felt, it functions. So what is the reality itself?


moon in the trees


The capping verse says: Without falling into speech or silence, he completely brings up the true imperative. The true imperative is to really see what we already have, who we are, and to learn to live our lives out of that which is realized. The clear solstice moon settles its frosty disc among the distant pines. In Zen and Buddhism in general, the moon is always a symbol for enlightenment, particularly the full moon. That cold, that moon, that clarity, are all seen as metaphors for the realized mind, the absolute basis of reality. But it doesn’t exist alone as a thing separated from everything else—it ultimately makes its way across the sky. And that frosty disc disappears among the pines, among differentiation, among the whole catastrophe.

The truth is not to be found just among the myriad things; it’s not to be found just in unity. It’s that meeting place—that merging of all dualities—that’s the reality itself; that’s the reality that’s beyond speech and silence, affirmation and negation, being and nonbeing, neither dual nor non-dual.

We should see it. We should realize it. And we should actualize it in everything we do


1. Even in his last moments, the iron yoke presses on his shoulders.
2. It seems that he has offended the old teacher with his request.
3. It simply cannot be grasped.

True Dharma Eye: Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koans, is a complete, modern English translation of Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koan or Chinese Shobogenzo. This important collection of koans, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and John Daido Loori, is accompanied by John Daido Loori’s commentary, capping verse and footnotes (Shambhala Publications, 2005).

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.