Seeing Deshan’s potential, the old woman sent him to study with Master Longtan. When Deshan arrived he discussed the Diamond Sutra all night long with the master. They talked about the nature of mind, of impermanence, of being and non-being. And just as Deshan was getting ready to leave, he stepped outside and found it was dark. He went back in and said, “It’s dark outside.” Longtan lit a candle for him and said, “Here, take this.” Deshan took the candle and as he stepped out into the darkness, the master blew it out. At that moment, Deshan became enlightened. He prostrated himself before Longtan, thanking him profusely. The next day he burned all his notes and said he would never rely on words and ideas again. He then began a pilgrimage to various monasteries. He went across China from east to west, from north to south, saying nothing to no one. Much later, clarifying his understanding further, Deshan became a great teacher, and one of the characteristics of his teaching came to be known as “thirty blows of the stick.” No matter how a monastic responded to his question, Deshan would hit him with thirty blows. There was no way to avoid it. He was a terror.

 

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But in his eighties, the waning years of his life, Deshan underwent another transformation, best illustrated by his encounter with Xuefeng, who later became his successor. One evening Deshan went down to the dining hall from his quarters carrying his bowls. Xuefeng, who was the cook, said, “Where are you going, master? The bell hasn’t rung. It’s not time for the meal yet.” Deshan looked at him, turned around, and meekly walked back to his room. Xuefeng thought that he had defeated his teacher in this dharma encounter and started bragging to everybody about it. “Did you see what I did with the old man? I sent him back to his room.” Yantou, who was the head monk, heard about this and said to Xuefeng, “Great man that he is, Deshan hasn’t realized the last word of Zen yet.” Suddenly the whole monastery started buzzing about this—Deshan was an eighty-year-old master of great fame and yet his head monastic was saying he hadn’t heard the last word of Zen. Deshan, hearing about this, sent for Yantou and asked him, “Don’t you approve of me?” Yantou leaned over and whispered something in Deshan’s ear. The next day Deshan mounted the rostrum and gave a talk like nobody had ever heard before. It was fresh, and completely unlike anything he had done in his forty years of teaching. Everybody was astounded. When the talk was over, Yantou jumped up, clapped his hands and said, “Wonderful! Marvelous! At last the old man has realized the last word of Zen. No one can ever make light of him again.”

These incidents in Deshan’s life show his development as a practitioner and a teacher. And they illustrate a progression within the Five Ranks. The first—Deshan traveling south as the expert on the Diamond Sutra—is not even on the chart of the five ranks. It is minus-one level. He hadn’t even raised the bodhi mind yet. His mind was filled with expertise and fixed knowledge. There was no aspiration for enlightenment; there was no search. To enter the Way is to begin with the search. It means to become a student. Deshan wasn’t a student. He thought that he was a teacher, a teacher with the mission to correct others’ understanding. That’s a closed mind; it’s not a beginner’s mind. It wasn’t until the old woman selling tea cracked that mind for him that he was ready to hear the teaching and to realize himself with the blowing out of the candle.

Deshan was puffed up with all of his knowledge of the Diamond Sutra. Then he was humbled by the woman selling tea. Next he went to see Longtan and became enlightened. With his gained insight, he puffed himself up again. He burned the Diamond Sutra. Next he took his sack and went to visit monasteries, saying nothing. In other words, he was showing off his understanding of emptiness. But he was deeply stuck in emptiness. Yet the process continued. Through his practice, training, and teachings—his spiritual maturation, this dragon-fanged teacher of thirty blows turned into a mellow old guy who went hobbling down the stairs carrying his bowls. When the cook said, “The bell didn’t ring. Go back to your room,” he just turned around like a leaf blown by the wind and returned to his room. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this traceless enlightenment continues endlessly. Neither being nor nonbeing, absolute freedom of action and inaction.

“‘Mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.’ The meaning of these words is not that mountains are mountains, but that mountains are mountains. Therefore we should thoroughly study these mountains. When we thoroughly study the mountains, this is the mountain training. Such mountains and rivers themselves spontaneously become wise ones and sages.”

The capping verse:

When an ordinary person realizes it,
she is a sage.
When a sage realizes it,
he is an ordinary person.

When a sage realizes it, he becomes an ordinary person indistinguishable from the hundred million people that inhabit this great earth. And yet, “mountains are mountains” is not the same as the “mountains are mountains” that we began with. The zazen of the first stage practitioner is not the same as the zazen of the tenth stage practitioner, but the zazen of the tenth stage practitioner is identical to the zazen of the first stage practitioner.

When you really go deep into yourself, when you really engage zazen fully, that zazen becomes the zazen of all buddhas past, present, and future. It is the verification and actualization of the enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha and all of the subsequent buddhas that followed, as well as that of the buddhas that are to follow this time and place. It is also the practice and verification of these mountains and rivers themselves, and of your life and my life, the life of all beings


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.