Photo by Bruce Tuffin


The monastic in this koan seems to have a question, so he begins with this poem, “The light serenely shines over the whole universe—” But before he can even finish or ask his question, Yunmen cuts him off. This is a key aspect to the koan. Why did Yunmen cut off the monastic? Why did he not wait to hear the question? Did he already know what the monastic was going to ask? Did he not care?

Yunmen knew where this monastic was dwelling. We don’t know from the koan what the relationship between this student and Yunmen was. We don’t know whether Yunmen knew the monastic personally, and was intimate with his practice and where he might be stuck. In terms of working on the koan, this is not really so important.

In that moment of asking, the student has it all under control. He probably thought about his question, prepared it, and then came forward to ask it. One moment he’s in control of the situation, and the next, the ground gets pulled out from under him. Yunmen cuts him off mid-sentence and says, “Isn’t that the poem of Zhangzhuo?” The monastic answers honestly, “Yes.” Yunmen says, “You’ve missed it!” What has the monastic missed? At that moment he was cast into doubt. “What did I miss? Why didn’t he let me ask my question? This isn’t fair! What’s going on?” If we think that the monastic failed or was being rebuked, we’re caught in the same pit with him. Be this monastic yourself, reciting Zhangzhuo’s poem. Yunmen cuts you off and says, “You’ve missed it!” At just that moment, what’s going on in your mind? Do you feel the doubt arising?

Years ago my music teacher told me that all western music is about tension and release, conflict and its resolution. As soon as you create tension, something inside of us demands resolution, and within that, there’s a tremendous power, a drive to move toward resolution. Yet the teacher can’t create that doubt in a student. If the student already possesses it within herself, then the teacher can help bring it to the surface.

That doubt is very uncomfortable and unsettling. We don’t like it. In the normal course of things, we do everything we can to dampen it or get rid of it, to ignore or disregard it. But sometimes it can’t be suppressed. It can’t be dampened. This is the point where we’re ready to break through the shell that constitutes the belief in an independent self, and see directly into our true nature.